The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Mordechai Chaziza – senior lecturer in Political Science at Ashkelon Academic College and research fellow at the Asian Studies Department, University of Haifa, specializing in Chinese foreign and strategic relations, and author of “China’s Middle East Diplomacy: The Belt and Road Strategic Partnership” (2020) – is the 360th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”
Examine China’s strategic calculus in brokering Iran-Saudi Arabia détente.
In recent years, mediation diplomacy has emerged as one of the central pillars of China’s foreign policy objectives and practice, with Beijing deliberately positioning itself as a peacemaker in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region. However, China’s mediation role in the region was part of its carefully devised strategy that suits the country’s non-interference policy framework. Therefore, China’s mediation efforts in MENA conflicts were mainly aimed at constructive conflict management rather than conflict resolution.
The Iran-Saudi Arabia détente signals a sharp increase in China’s influence in the Gulf region, where the U.S. has long been the dominant power broker. The détente could complicate efforts by Washington and Israel to strengthen a regional alliance to confront Iran as Tehran expands its nuclear program. This was the first time China had intervened so directly in the Gulf’s political rivalries. For Beijing, it is about deepening China’s engagement in the region and becoming a more significant player in Gulf security affairs, another sign of the United States’ waning influence. However, the ultimate valuation of the Chinese mediation will depend on the degree to which it contributes to sustainable conflict management, if not conflict resolution.
Analyze the strategic calculus of Tehran and Riyadh in resuming bilateral relations.
The agreement is not the breakthrough it has been made out to be. Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter adversaries with a century-long history of enmity and distrust. It is extremely unlikely that they will suddenly become friendly neighbors.
China in recent years has built closer economic ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia, both of which are important suppliers of oil to the world’s second-largest economy. But this mediation diplomacy is the first time Beijing has intervened so directly in the Mideast’s political rivalries. For Iran, it is about escaping diplomatic isolation – formally breaking the anti-Iran maximum pressure coalition, offering Tehran less isolation – with the potential for economic engagement.
For Saudi Arabia, the rapprochement with Iran pact comes when relations between Washington and Riyadh, which has long aligned with the U.S., have grown strained over America’s diminishing security guarantees and the kingdom’s decision to cut oil production to keep crude prices high during Russia’s war in Ukraine. For Saudi Arabia, it gives Riyadh more leverage in seeking new security guarantees from the Biden administration. Saudi Arabia expects that by maneuvering the great powers against each other, Riyadh will be able to increase the pressure on the U.S. in the kingdom’s attempt to obtain security guarantees and a green light to develop a civilian nuclear program.
What is the impact of the China-brokered Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement on Israel?
One day before Saudi Arabia and Iran decided to restore diplomatic ties, Riyadh offered to normalize its relations with Israel in exchange for the United States guaranteeing Saudi security and aiding the Saudi nuclear program. For Israel, it could complicate efforts by the U.S. to strengthen a regional alliance to confront Tehran as Riyadh expands its nuclear program. It comes as the U.S. has been trying to broker a peace deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which would add to the growing ties between Israel and the Arab world.
However, Israel’s anxiety, especially of the opposition parties, that a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will work against Israel’s interests is misplaced. Rapprochement could cause the Saudis (and Chinese) to press Iran on taking actions that enhance regional peace and stability, which can only help Israel, as Iranian intransigence will result in international isolation. Moreover, the reestablishment of relations between Riyadh and Tehran doesn’t take the Saudi suggestion off the table. A U.S. defense commitment could reduce that fear and embolden Israel at a moment when reestablished Saudi relations with Iran could change the dynamics of the two countries’ rivalry. Thus, the reactions in Israel suggest that the outcome – and perceptions of it – are more complicated.
And on Middle East regional dynamics?
The new Chinese-brokered restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran is hardly sufficient to overcome those two countries’ longstanding hostilities. Far from representing a regional realignment, it is ultimately more likely to demonstrate the limits of China’s influence.
Some analysts see that the agreement will lead to significant changes in the geopolitics of the Middle East, if realized. Since the two countries cut ties, the Iran-Saudi rift has represented the often-violent schism between Shiite and Sunni Muslims that has dominated the Middle East for decades. The Saudis and Iranians have backed opposite sides in conflicts via proxy wars, ranging from Syria to Yemen for nearly a decade. In 2019, they were on the brink of war when Iran was blamed for missile and drone attacks on a Saudi oil field. The current rapprochement follows signs that the proxy wars waged by Riyadh and Tehran were cooling. Nevertheless, re-establishing diplomatic relations will likely take longer to lessen the longstanding security and sectarian tensions that have divided Saudi Arabia and Iran for decades and fueled their competition for regional dominance. Therefore, it is not certain that an agreement is feasible and there are also no guarantees or incentives from China to encourage the parties to carry out the agreement.
Assess the implications of this agreement on U.S. leaderships and interests in the Middle East and in China-U.S. strategic competition.
While the deal may have temporarily damaged some of the U.S. leaderships and interests in the Middle East, the upside could significantly outweigh the downside, in both the short and the long terms. On the negative side, U.S. leadership and interests are not served by deeper cooperation between three autocracies – China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia – with Russia, fully supportive in the background.
Second, the Iran-Saudi Arabia pact boost China’s image as a promoter of peace and stability in the Middle East. Since the Biden administration has framed U.S.-Chinese relations as competitive, a win for Beijing in the Middle East is seen as a loss for Washington.
Third, China has bolstered its role as the leader of global authoritarianism – a signal to the rest of the world that liberal democracy is fading, while illiberal dictatorship is the future. The accord also strengthens Iran’s autocratic regime, which hurts U.S. national interests, weakens Iran’s democratic movement, and allows a more stable Iran to assist Russia in its war in Ukraine. Finally, if implemented, the accord might dampen the possibilities of further Arab-Israeli rapprochement.
On the positive side, first and most importantly, the resumption of Saudi-Iranian relations will help solidify the truce in Yemen, a horrific proxy war in which the two rivals have been involved. Washington wants a stable Middle East, and the new accord is a positive step toward this goal. Of course, no one should have any illusions that the resumption of diplomatic relations will end all conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Still, more and better communication between Iran and Saudi Arabia might avoid greater conflict, and that is also in U.S. national interest.
Second, it remains to be seen whether the deal’s benefits for Iran will translate into long-term economic or strategic gains. Third, Washington need not and should not try to contain Chinese power on every issue everywhere in the world. The U.S. no longer has the resources to pursue total global containment, instead, Washington must selectively contain China.
More importantly, China’s attempts to expand its influence in the Middle East invariably invite risks and dangers. The Iran-Saudi Arabia pact allows China to take some of the burdens of keeping the peace in the Middle East. This is not an easy assignment, as Americans have learned bitterly over the decades. The agreement could easily fail. For example, the joint statement does not clarify how the signing parties or China will respond to violations. Will China be able to enforce its diplomatic breakthrough without getting pulled more deeply into the region’s complex politics? This will expose China’s limitations as a superpower in the Middle East.
Fourth, the Saudis will continue to rely on Washington for security and weapons systems in the following decades. The Saudis are deeply intertwined with the U.S. economy; just recently the kingdom signed one of the biggest-ever aircraft orders with Boeing, which is worth about $37 billion.
In the end, in a new era of great power competition, the Biden administration must choose its fights with China carefully. Maintaining the peace between Iran-Saudi Arabia should not be a top priority. Washington has more important interests to pursue and defend, especially in Asia.