Does China’s role in the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement represent a new order?


A man in Tehran holds a local newspaper front-page reporting the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore relations, signed in Beijing the day before, March 11, 2023.

Atta Kenare | AFP | Getty Images

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates – When arch-rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they were restoring diplomatic relations, much of the world was stunned – not just by the breakthrough after years of mutual animosity, alleged attacks and espionage between the two countries, but because of who brokered the deal: China.

Assuming a specific role that the United States could not have fulfilled, it was Beijing’s first foray into mediation in the Middle East, an area which for the past few decades has been largely occupied by Washington. .

As tensions simmer between the world’s two largest economies and U.S. policymakers sound the alarm over competition and security concerns with China, what does Beijing’s rise in the region mean for the Middle East? East – and for American interests?

“Many breathe a sigh of relief [with] official Iran-Saudi agreement today,” Bader al-Saif, assistant professor of history at Khalifa University Abu Dhabi, wrote on Twitter after the news broke. “The 3 parties agreement can claim victory, but the Saudis are arguably the big winners,” he said.

From the Saudi perspective, normalization with Iran – a country that has long been considered by the Saudi monarchy to be one of its greatest security threats – is removing obstacles in its path of reform and economic transformation, according to Joseph Westphal, former American ambassador to the kingdom.

“I think the leaders there think this is a very important moment for Saudi Arabia as it emerges … as a true leader in the world on many issues,” Westphal told Dan Murphy on Tuesday. from CNBC. “A constant struggle with Iran is delaying this and hindering the progress they have 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 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 biggest trading partner.

“So I think that’s a very good thing all around.”

Hopes for de-escalation in areas like Yemen, where Saudi Arabia has been waging a brutal war against Iran-backed Houthi rebels since 2015, are now more realistic than before, analysts say. Risks to maritime transport and oil supply in the region could be reduced, and trade and investment between countries could contribute to growth.

Reduced risk of direct military confrontation

At the very least, better communication will reduce the risk of confrontation, said Torbjorn Soltvedt, senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft, who called the deal “a much-needed pressure valve in a context of heightened regional tensions”.

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

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

In recent years, the region has seen numerous attacks, particularly against Saudi and Emirati ships and energy infrastructure, which Riyadh and Washington have blamed on Iran. Tehran denies the charges.

Saudi-Iranian agreement: the Saudis demonstrate that they

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

Iran is also enriching uranium to its highest level ever, and it is thought to be just months away from nuclear bomb-making capability. The rapprochement between Riyadh and Tehran may mean little if the latter’s nuclear program is not addressed.

Was Washington snubbed?

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

“We support any effort to defuse tensions in the region. We believe it is in our interest,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday, adding that the Biden administration had made similar efforts in this direction.

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

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

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

US Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. (C, behind), Commander of US Central Command (CENTCOM) and Lt. Gen. Fahd bin Turki bin Abdulaziz al-Saud (front), Commander of Coalition Forces led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, shows Iranian weapons seized by Saudi forces from Houthi rebels in Yemen, during his visit to a military base in al-Kharj, central Saudi Arabia, on July 18, 2019 .

Do Nureldine | AFP | Getty Images

Yet there seems to be a consensus that in terms of military might and security alliances in the region, US influence is not in jeopardy.

“No Chinese mediation – or diplomatic involvement – will threaten the primacy of the United States in the region. All states, including Iran, know this,” said Al-Saif of Khalifa University. The security partnership between the United States and Saudi Arabia spans nearly three-quarters of a century, and the Saudi military arsenal is overwhelmingly supplied and maintained by United States and American military personnel.

Neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran will change overnight.

Bader Al-Saif

Assistant Professor of History, Khalifa University

In any case, China’s gain does not necessarily mean a loss for the United States, many think.

“It shouldn’t be a zero-sum game for the United States. It can serve US interests: the Iran nuclear deal, Yemen and Lebanon to begin with can benefit from the deal,” Al-Saif said.

“Quick action should follow on these files [because] the deal may not last long,” he added. “Might as well reap the benefits while it lasts.

Will the case hold?

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

Many regional observers are skeptical.

“Iran’s choice for engagement here should not be misconstrued as de-escalation,” Behnam bin Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CNBC. “Tehran is capitalizing on deeper Chinese entanglement in the Persian Gulf trade as well as increased Saudi coverage of the pro-US order in the region.”

This year,

“There has been no political cost to the Islamic Republic in this deal, while the sheer optics and politics of it, not to mention the substance, are in favor of Iran,” he said. he said, stressing that he doubted Iran would stop interfering in regional and other conflicts. country through proxies and activism.

Ben Taleblu also argued that Iran’s enmity with Israel played a role in his calculations, as “Tehran is trying to show that it has beaten Jerusalem against Riyadh, and is trying to push back and come out of isolation diplomatic he felt because of the Abraham agreements”. when the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel.

For al-Saif, there is “certainly hope that the agreement will endure” and lead to the prosperity that the peoples of both countries deserve. “But,” he said, “neither Saudi Arabia nor Iran will change overnight.”

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