foreign interests

Saudi Arabia and Iran’s China-Brokered Détente Doesn’t Upend Mideast Politics

And it doesn’t mark some changing of the guard from the U.S. to China.

A man in Tehran holds a local newspaper reporting, under the headline “A Pan-Asian Agreement,” the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore their diplomatic ties. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
A man in Tehran holds a local newspaper reporting, under the headline “A Pan-Asian Agreement,” the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore their diplomatic ties. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images

When Iran and Saudi Arabia announced on Friday that they would restore diplomatic ties, ending a seven-year freeze, the real news seemed to be that this apparent breakthrough had been negotiated by China. Most coverage of the deal has highlighted Beijing’s role, adding nearly unanimous expert analysis describing the event as a sign of China’s rising clout in the Middle East, the waning influence of the U.S., and a diplomatic shake-up of historic proportions.

This reaction contains some truth, but it’s both overblown and premature. For one thing, the deal is a transactional agreement, not a wholesale reset. At best, it’s a small first step toward resolving the deep, long-standing tensions between Riyadh and Tehran. The rivals have agreed to reopen embassies and reactivate a lapsed security agreement, which could pave the way to ending their yearslong proxy war in Yemen. The China-brokered talks followed two years of efforts with Iraq and Oman serving as earlier intermediaries, so a lot of work had already been done before Beijing could claim credit for sealing the deal.

In terms of improving stability and security in the Middle East, the deal is good news, regardless of how it came about, especially for countries beset by Saudi-Iranian proxy conflicts in recent years (Yemen, most notably, but also Iraq and Lebanon). The U.S. reaction to the news has been cognizant of that fact. “This is not about China. We support any effort to de-escalate tensions in the region. We think that’s in our interests,” explained National Security Council spokesman John Kirby. Obviously, it is at least a little bit about China, but equally obviously, the U.S. welcomes the potential for a de-escalation in the Yemeni civil war, which has cost hundreds of thousands of lives, displaced millions, and become what the United Nations describes as the world’s worst humanitarian disaster.

That said, the conflict in Yemen is primarily among Yemenis, and the withdrawal of Saudi and Iranian involvement won’t necessarily bring it to a close. Saudi Arabia has been pushing for a deal with Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who are supported and armed by Iran, and what happened last week could be a prelude to Iran pressuring its Yemeni clients to take that deal. As The Economist has noted, Saudi Arabia might now have the opportunity for a “face-saving exit” from the conflict.

Iran could be looking for an off-ramp as well. The Islamic Republic faces more than enough domestic problems right now and may welcome an excuse to stop pouring resources into a foreign proxy war. On top of the unprecedented civil unrest sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of Iran’s morality police, the isolated regime has had to contend with an unrelenting currency crisis that continues to batter the country’s already fragile economy, driving up costs of living and fueling further instability. Then there’s the latest crisis: an ongoing apparent terrorism campaign targeting girls’ schools with suspected poison attacks.

At the moment, Iran has limited options for finding international friends, and it needs all the support and leverage it can get. The war in Ukraine opened an opportunity for the regime to further its economic and military ties to Russia through arms sales, reinforcing a significant link in the emerging anti-Western bloc of middle-income countries with conservative, authoritarian governments. Iran’s defusing hostilities with Saudi Arabia and cementing ties with China, its top trade partner, may help to stabilize the regime amid these compounding crises.

From Saudi Arabia’s perspective, détente with Iran offers several benefits, starting with the chance to quit the war in Yemen, which has been expensive and damaging to its reputation. Saudi leadership hopes to put an end to Iran’s attacks on Saudi oil facilities and threats to blockade the Strait of Hormuz along with other low-scale acts of economic warfare. Saudi Arabia doesn’t want Iran to become more powerful, but neither does it want to see its rival collapse — just to be less of a thorn in its side. The less attention and money Saudi Arabia needs to devote to countering Iran, the more it can focus on Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s massive internal social and economic reform projects. The optics of conducting foreign policy independently of U.S. interests and irritating Washington by cozying up to China are just gravy.

For the U.S., a Saudi-Iranian détente won’t fundamentally undermine its role in the Middle East, but it may complicate it to some degree. While President Biden’s main foreign-policy priorities lie elsewhere, his administration’s approach to the region remains focused on hindering Iran’s development of nuclear weapons and encouraging normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab states. The previous administration made that first goal much harder when it abandoned the Obama-era nuclear deal, leaving substantial deficits of both leverage and trust in the already frosty U.S.-Iran relationship.

On the other hand, though Donald Trump may believe that the personal letters he received from Kim Jong-un were his crowning foreign-policy achievement, the 2020 Abraham Accords — in which Israel opened relations with Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and Sudan — were his administration’s greatest diplomatic feat. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has hoped to add Saudi Arabia to that list, but while the two countries have taken some steps toward normalization, an Israeli embassy is unlikely to open in Riyadh anytime soon.

The main barrier to Israeli-Saudi diplomacy at the moment is the fact that Israel’s new government, headed by Netanyahu, is a rogue’s gallery of ultranationalist, right-wing wackos who despise Arabs and aspire to annex the West Bank and snuff out any possibility of Palestinian statehood. That is the opposite of the kind of change Saudi Arabia would need to see to make normalization politically tenable.

Netanyahu (along with the Trump administration) had hoped that the two countries’ mutual enmity toward Iran could help bridge the gap, but Saudi Arabia is much less keen on igniting a full-on war with Iran than Israel is, and many Arab countries are loath to embrace a strategy for containing Iran led by Israel and the U.S. The shadow war Israel has been waging against Iranian military capabilities in Syria, Iraq, and increasingly within Iran itself may have the tacit approval of Washington, but it’s not winning friends in Riyadh or Abu Dhabi.

Last week’s agreement simply underlines the fact that the kingdom is less willing to isolate and antagonize Iran than Israel is, and it’s no wonder the news was met with dismay in Jerusalem. An anonymous Israeli official was quoted as saying that it wouldn’t affect the bid for normalization with the Saudis, but again, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other, as that effort was already going nowhere fast. It will likely remain dormant as long as Netanyahu remains dependent on a radical right-wing coalition — let alone busy fomenting his own domestic political crisis by trying to disempower the judiciary.

As far as China is concerned, its foreign ministry has denied any hidden motives in brokering the agreement, pushing back on the notion that it was asserting any kind of new role in the Mideast or taking advantage of a U.S.-influence vacuum. But Beijing not so subtly sought to call attention to the contrast between its approach to the region and that of the U.S.: “​​We respect the stature of Middle East countries as the masters of this region and oppose geopolitical competition in the Middle East,” the statement said. “China has no intention to and will not seek to fill a so-called vacuum or put up exclusive blocs.” China’s senior-most diplomat, Wang Yi, added that “this world has more than just the Ukraine question, and there are still many issues affecting peace and people’s lives.” It’s easy to interpret Wang’s reference to Ukraine as snark at the U.S. — as if to say, “You may be all-in on Russia and Ukraine right now, but we’re not.”

This messaging is consistent with how China has been recently marketing itself as a superpower ally to countries wary of being influenced by the U.S. With the exception of the Trump administration, which attempted a more ideologically neutral foreign policy, the benefits of being in the U.S.’s sphere of influence these days come with pressure to at least feign interest in human rights and liberal democracy. China’s sales pitch is that it can offer countries access to a market nearly as huge as the U.S. without all of that pesky scrutiny of human-rights records and authoritarianism.

In this framework, Iran and Saudi Arabia are both natural friends of China’s. Indeed, both countries are pursuing membership in the China-dominated BRICS association of emerging economies, which includes Brazil, Russia, India, and South Africa. Through its expanding network of junior partners and client states, China is increasingly assertive in positioning itself as a global political player, whereas until recently, it preferred to focus almost exclusively on economic dominance and access to markets.

The big question remains as to whether Beijing is willing or able to back up its global ambitions with guns and ammo. China still appears reluctant to get tangled up in multilateral security partnerships like the U.S. has in the Middle East, Europe, and the Pacific. While China has become a more prominent arms dealer in the Middle East in the past few years, it still isn’t interested in making military commitments there or trying to take on more responsibility for its security. China has, thus far, held off on sending Russia weapons to use in Ukraine and denies plans to do so — despite growing concerns among U.S. and European leaders. The day may come when China assumes a more active role in securing the Middle East, but it’s doubtful that China’s leaders will seek one comparable to that of the U.S.

Hopefully, this nascent thaw between Saudi Arabia and Iran will endure and prompt further steps toward de-escalation — if for no other reason than the possibility that it will make the war in Yemen a little less awful. But their new agreement neither cements Chinese ascendency nor proves the U.S.’s decline. It is, rather, a small indicator of how COVID, Ukraine, and other international crises are edging the global order from the unipolar model of U.S. hegemony toward a more complex, possibly more chaotic, multipolar world.

China’s Saudi-Iranian Détente Doesn’t Upend Mideast Politics