A man in Tehran holds a local newspaper whose front page reports the agreement to restore relations that Iran and Saudi Arabia signed the previous day (March 11, 2023) brokered by China.
Ata Kenare | AFP | Getty Images
Dubai, United Arab Emirates – the main rival of Saudi Arabia and Iran announced the restoration of diplomatic relationsMuch of the world was shocked — not only by the breakthrough after years of mutual hatred, suspected attacks and espionage between the two countries, but also by who brokered the deal: China.
Taking on a specific role that the United States cannot fulfill is Beijing’s first foray into mediation in the Middle East, an area dominated by Washington for decades.
With tensions rising between the world’s two largest economies and U.S. policymakers sounding the alarm over competition with China and security concerns, what does Beijing’s rise in the region mean for the Middle East and U.S. interests?
“Many breathed a sigh of relief [with] After the announcement, Badr Saif, an assistant professor of history at Khalifa University in Abu Dhabi, wrote on Twitter: “Official Iran-Saudi deal today. Big winner,” he argued.
From the Saudi perspective, normalization with Iran — a country long considered by the Saudi monarchy to be one of its greatest security threats — said former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia Joseph Westphal. — Removed obstacles in its reform and economic transformation process.
“I think the leadership there thinks this is a very important moment for Saudi Arabia because it’s emerging … as a real leader on many issues in the world,” Westphal said on Tuesday. Tell CNBC’s Dan Murphy. “The ongoing struggle with Iran has delayed that and hindered the progress they’ve made.”
“Obviously, the United States could not have made this deal possible because we have no relationship with Iran,” the ambassador added. “I think China is a good partner to do this. I think they are the right people,” he said, noting that China has invested heavily in Saudi Arabia and is its largest trading partner.
“So I think it’s a really good thing.”
Hopes for a 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, analysts say. Risks to shipping and oil supplies in the region are likely to be lowered, and trade and investment between countries could boost growth.
Reduce the risk of direct military confrontation
At the very least, improved communication would reduce the risk of confrontation, said Torbjorn Soltvedt, chief Middle East and North Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, who called the deal a “much-needed pressure valve amid rising tensions in the region”.
Still, it would be a mistake to assume that everything has been resolved.
“With the ongoing shadow war between Iran and Israel — and sporadic Iranian-backed attacks on shipping and energy infrastructure across the region — the risk of escalation due to miscalculation remains disturbingly high,” he said.
Riyadh and Washington have blamed Iran for several attacks in the region over the past few years, notably targeting Saudi and Emirati ships and energy infrastructure. Tehran denies the allegations.
“Riyadh and Tehran will remain rivals, with competing visions for the region,” Soltvedt stressed. “But improving communication channels has the potential to reduce the risk of direct military confrontation between the two countries.”
Iran is also currently enriching uranium at its highest ever level and is believed to be months away from being able to build a nuclear bomb. A rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran may mean little if the latter’s nuclear program is not resolved.
Was Washington snubbed?
It’s hard not to notice the White House’s seeming reluctance to praise China.
“We support any effort to reduce tension in the region. We think it’s in our interest,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said of the news on Friday, adding that the Biden administration had moved toward Similar efforts have been made in this direction.
But when asked about Beijing’s role, Kirby replied: “This has nothing to do with China, and I’m not going to describe China’s role here.”
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) is welcomed by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud (R) at the Yamama Palace in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Dec. 8, 2022.
Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
The news is a sign of China’s growing influence in the Arab region. Not just economically, as it already exports a lot of goods to the Middle East and is the largest importer of Saudi oil — but also politically. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have worked together to diversify their diplomatic ties and move away from an overreliance on the United States, which has seen Middle East issues as a secondary concern by successive U.S. administrations.
“I think it’s a sign that U.S. influence and credibility in the region has diminished, and that a new kind of international regional alliance is taking place that gives Russia and China new influence and status,” said senior fellow Aaron David Miller explain. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Fellow and former State Department Middle East Policy Advisor, Tell NBC News.
He called the fact that China facilitated the deal “shocking”.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), center back, and Fahd bin Turki bin Abu, commander of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen Lieutenant General Dulaziz Al Saud (former), as Saudi forces reportedly seize Iranian weapons from Houthi rebels in Yemen during a visit to a military base in al-Kharj, central Saudi Arabia, July 18, 2019.
Fayez Nureldin | AFP | Getty Images
Still, there seems to be a consensus that U.S. influence is not at risk when it comes to military power and security alliances in the region.
“China’s mediation — or any diplomatic involvement — will not threaten US dominance in the region. All countries, including Iran, know this,” Khalifa University’s Seif said. The U.S. security partnership with Saudi Arabia spans nearly three-quarters of a century, and the vast majority of Saudi Arabia’s military arsenal is supplied and maintained by the United States and U.S. military personnel.
Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran will change overnight.
Assistant Professor, Department of History, Khalifa University
In any event, many argue, China’s gain does not necessarily mean America’s loss.
“For the United States, this should not be a zero-sum game. It can serve the interests of the United States: the Iran nuclear deal, Yemen, Lebanon, first of all, can benefit from the agreement,” Al-Saif said.
“Swift action should be taken on these documents [because] The deal probably won’t last long,” he added. “It might as well reap the benefits while it lasts.
Will this deal stand?
Whether the agreement between the two Middle Eastern powers — and the mutual goodwill that has come with it — will last remains to be seen.
Many regional observers are skeptical.
“Iran’s choice to engage here should not be misinterpreted as de-escalation,” Behnam ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, told CNBC. “Tehran is using China to engage more deeply in Persia. Gulf trade, and the Saudi hedge against a pro-American order in the region.”
“The deal has zero political cost to the Islamic Republic, and is good for Iran only from a cosmetic and political standpoint, let alone substance,” he said, emphasizing his skepticism that Iran will stop interfering in regional conflicts and other Problems state through proxies and militant activities.
Bin Talebrou also argued that Iran-Israel animosity played a role in its calculations because “Tehran is trying to show that it beat Jerusalem to Riyadh and trying to push back and break what it feels over the Abraham Accords.” Diplomatic isolation” as the UAE and Bahrain normalize relations with Israel.
For Saif, “there is certainly hope that the agreement will survive” and bring about the prosperity both peoples deserve. “But,” he said, “neither the KSA nor Iran will change overnight.”