China-brokered Saudi-Iran deal has big implications for the Middle East – and the US

  • The China-brokered Saudi-Iran rapprochement is a major diplomatic success after years of mutual hostility, suspicious attacks and espionage between the two countries.
  • It represents Beijing’s first foray into Middle East mediation, an area that has been largely occupied by Washington for the past few decades.
  • Analysts told CNBC the deal is “a much-needed pressure valve amid heightened regional tensions” – but significant changes are far from guaranteed.

A man in Tehran carries on its front page a local newspaper reporting a China-brokered deal to restore ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia that was signed in Beijing the previous day, March 11, 2023 .

atta canare | AFP | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – When arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they were restoring diplomatic ties, much of the world was stunned – not just at the end of years of mutual animosity, suspected attacks and espionage between the two countries. Because of the latter’s success, but also because of who brokered the deal: China.

Playing a niche role that the US could not fulfill, it was Beijing’s first foray into mediating the Middle East, a region that had been largely occupied by Washington for the past few decades.

As tensions rise between the world’s two biggest economies and US policymakers are sounding the alarm over competition with China and security concerns, what Beijing’s rise in the region means for the Middle East – and US interests For?

“Many are heaving a sigh of relief [with] Today’s official Iran-Saudi agreement,” Badr Al-Saif, assistant professor of history at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, wrote on Twitter after the news was announced. The biggest winner,” he protested.

From the Saudi perspective, normalization with Iran – a country long viewed by the Saudi monarchy as one of its biggest security threats – removes obstacles in its reform and economic transformation journey, the former US state of affairs official said. According to Ambassador Joseph Westphal.

Westphal told CNBC’s Dan Murphy on Tuesday, “I think the leadership there believes this is a very important moment for Saudi Arabia to emerge as a real leader in the world on a number of issues.” Used to be.” “A continued conflict with Iran delays and hinders their progress.”

The ambassador said, “Obviously, the United States could not have made this deal possible because we do not have relations with Iran.” “I think China was a good partner to do this. I think they are the right people,” he said, noting that China invests heavily in Saudi Arabia and is its top trading partner.

“So I think that’s a great thing.”

Analysts say hopes of de-escalation in regions such as Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has waged a brutal war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015, are now more realistic than before. The region could reduce risks to shipping and oil supplies, and increase trade and investment development between countries.

At the very least, better communication would reduce the risks of confrontation, said Torbjorn Soldvat, principal Middle East and North Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, who called the deal “a much-needed pressure valve amid heightened regional tensions.”

Nevertheless, it is a mistake to assume that everything is resolved.

“Due to the ongoing shadow war between Iran and Israel – and sporadic Iran-backed attacks against shipping and energy infrastructure across the region – the risk of escalation due to miscalculation is still uncomfortably high,” he said.

Over the past few years, the region has seen several attacks, particularly on Saudi and Emirati ships and energy infrastructure, for which Riyadh and Washington blame Iran. Tehran rejects the allegations.

“Riyadh and Tehran will remain adversaries with competing approaches to the region,” Solvat stressed. “But better channels for communication have the potential to reduce the risk of direct military confrontation between the two states.”

Iran is also now enriching uranium to its highest level, and is believed to be only months away from being able to build a nuclear bomb. The rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran will be meaningless if Iran’s nuclear program is not addressed.

It was hard not to notice the White House’s reluctance to praise China.

National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said of the news on Friday, “We support any effort to reduce tensions in the region. We think it’s in our best interest.”

But when asked about Beijing’s role, Kirby replied: “It’s not about China and whatever role China has, I’m not going to explain that here.”

Chinese President, Xi Jinping (L) is received by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (R) at the Palace of Yamamah in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 8, 2022.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

The news indicated China’s growing influence in the Arab region. And not just economically, as it already exports vast amounts of goods to the Middle East and is the biggest importer of Saudi oil – but politically. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have made concerted efforts to diversify their foreign relations and move away from excessive dependence on the US, as successive US administrations treat the Middle East as a low priority.

“I think it shows that America’s influence and credibility in that region has waned and a new kind of international regional alignment is happening, which has given both Russia and China new influence and status,” Aaron David Miller, a senior Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow and former State Department Middle East policy adviser, told NBC News.

He called the fact that China brokered the deal “stunning”.

US Marine Corps General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. (C, rear), commander of US Central Command (CentCom), and Lt. Gen. Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (front), commander of the Saudi-led coalition forces in Yemen, on July 18, 2019. Iranian weapons allegedly seized by Saudi forces from Yemen’s Houthi rebels are shown during a visit to a military base in Kharj.

Faiz Nureldin | AFP | Getty Images

Nevertheless, there seems to be a general consensus that in terms of military power and security alliances in the region, there is no threat to US influence.

Khalifa University’s Al-Saif said, “No Chinese mediation – or any diplomatic involvement – ​​will threaten US primacy in the region. All states know that, including Iran.” The US–Saudi Arabia security partnership spans nearly three-quarters of a century, and the bulk of Saudi Arabia’s military arsenal is supplied and maintained by Americans and US military personnel.

Neither KSA nor Iran will change overnight.

badr al-sayf

Assistant Professor of History, Khalifa University

Many believe that in any case, China’s gain does not mean America’s loss.

“It should not be a zero-sum game for the US. It can serve US interests: Iran nuclear deal, Yemen, Lebanon can benefit from the deal for a start,” Al-Saif said.

“A quick action should be taken on these files [because] The settlement cannot last long,” he said. “As long as it lasts, the benefits can be found.”

It remains to be seen whether the settlement between the two Middle Eastern powers – and the mutual goodwill expressed in its wake – will last.

Many regional observers are skeptical.

“Iran’s option to engage here should not be misunderstood as de-escalation,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CNBC. “Tehran is fueling deeper Chinese intrusions into Persian Gulf trade as well as Saudi hedging of the pro-American order in the region.”

“The deal had zero political cost to the Islamic Republic, while the mere optics and politics of it, not the substance alone, are in Iran’s favor,” he said, adding that Iran would stop interfering in regional conflicts and others. country through proxies and militant activity.

Ben Talebu also argued that Iran’s animosity with Israel played a part in its calculation because “Tehran is trying to show that it lost Jerusalem to Riyadh, and the diplomatic isolation it felt because of the Abraham Accords”. trying to push back and drive out” when the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel.

For Al-Saif, there is “certainly hope for the agreement to live” and lead to prosperity for the people of both countries. “But,” he added, “neither the KSA nor Iran will change overnight.”

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