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Why China Is Looking for a Bigger Role in the Middle East

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China Power | Diplomacy | East Asia

Why China Is Looking for a Bigger Role in the Middle East

China’s brokering of the Iran-Saudi Arabia agreement advances several diplomatic priorities for Beijing.

Why China Is Looking for a Bigger Role in the Middle East

In this photo released by Nournews, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, right, China’s most senior diplomat Wang Yi, center, and Saudi Arabia’s National Security Adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban during an agreement signing ceremony between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Beijing, China, Mar. 10, 2023.

Credit: Nournews via AP

Last week, China’s annual “Two Sessions” were eclipsed by the announcement that Iran and Saudi Arabia had reached an agreement to restore diplomatic relations – a deal mediated by China and signed in Beijing.

In brokering a breakthrough in Iran and Saudi relations, the Chinese government has two purposes. First, to reflect the role of China as a great power and a responsible country, as well as notching a signature achievement for Xi Jinping’s plan of “a community with a shared future of mankind.” Second, to put on display China’s ability for the United States and show that the U.S. has no way to curb China’s development.

From China’s perspective, Middle East diplomacy is moving in an increasingly positive direction. Xi tried to mediate peace talks between Palestine and Israel at least five years ago. He proposed a four-point position paper on the Palestinian-Israel issue. Beijing also held seminars on at least four occasions with some Israeli and Palestinian politicians and scholars.

Contacts between China and the Arab world and Iran have also been frequent recently. Last year, Xi invited the GCC countries to hold a meeting in China. After that, Xi visited Saudi Arabia and held the first China-Arab states summit.

Since then, Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua visited Iran, and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Beijing in mid-February. It is said that during Raisi’s trip, officials consulted him on China’s mediation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and he agreed. It can be seen China has a great influence on Iran.

Therefore, viewed from a broader perspective, Xi has been gradually becoming more deeply involved in the Middle East issue. This is a clear process. At the same time, it also shows that China is an eligible and suitable broker on the Middle East issue, because Beijing is friendly with all parties.

Of course, the diplomatic breakthrough was built on several meetings held in Iraq and Oman to settle many basic problems between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But the fundamental reason why China could finish off the job of meditating between Saudi Arabia and Iran is that China has a bigger impact on Iran than other countries.

For example, China mentioned the three disputed islands in the Gulf during exchanges with the United Arab Emirates, which aroused Iranian anger. But the Iranian president still arranged a trip to China as soon as possible. It shows Iran can’t neglect Chinese influence, even after a perceived slight.

With that in mind, China is likely to play an important role in reviving the Iran nuclear agreement in the future, but this will be more difficult than brokering between Iran and Saudi Arabia. The core of the Iranian nuclear issue is the contradiction between the United States and Iran. The current relationship between China and the U.S. is not good, so it will be difficult for Beijing to become a bridge to convey messages between the United States and Iran. If China is willing to take the initiative on this issue, however, it may be meaningful to improve Sino-U.S. relations.

Clearly, China plays a very important role in the Middle East issue, mainly through its influence on Iran. Even then, it’s not certain whether Iran will act according to China’s vision. It depends on many factors: Iran’s ability; the relationship between the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); Iran’s recognition of the rewards being offered from China; the development of the internal situation in Iran; the attitude of the United States and Israel, etc. Many of these factors are difficult for China to control.

In that regard, I am not particularly optimistic about the future of the Saudi-Iran agreement. How long this agreement can last depends on Iran’s attitude. For the diplomatic breakthrough to really last, Iran would have to: not provoke Saudi Arabia with its nuclear program, not support attacks from Houthis and Iraqi Shiite militants, not accuse Saudi Arabia of interfering in its internal affairs, not discriminate against domestic Arabs, and not condemn Saudi Arabia’s cooperation with the United States and Israel. Only then can the relationship between the two sides indeed make progress.

Are the Iranians, especially the IRGC, eager to truly reconcile? After all, Iran and Saudi Arabia have cut diplomatic relations three times in the past, and the problem basically comes from religious contradictions and strategic confrontation. This is not a problem that can be solved by mediation in a few months.

It’s likely that the Chinese government will put some pressure on Iran and Saudi Arabia to achieve peace, but there may be more pressure on Iran. If there is trouble in the agreement in the future, which will cause Tehran and Riyadh to blame each other, it will also expose the relationship between China and Iran to risks.

For China, it is necessary to play a more active role as broker in the Middle East and the international community to be seen as a major country. If China can contribute to peace in the Middle East, it will definitely gain more global recognition. Since China could exert influence on Iran, it will be an even greater diplomatic achievement if Iran can abandon its hostile policy toward Israel.

Of course, there is another factor in these diplomatic developments: the United States. This agreement could be quickly reached because the three countries involved have a common goal: to agitate the United States, or at least catch Washington’s attention.

That said, the United States should look at China’s role in the world with an objective attitude, rather than just surprise, worry, and doubt. Yes, there is a conflict of interest between China and the United States in the Middle East, but there is also the possibility of cooperation.

For example, on the Iranian nuclear issue, the two sides have common interests. In the future, it is possible for China and the United States to jointly encourage Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and other parties involved in the security of the Middle East to form a broader security agreement. That means the triangular deal among China, Iran, and Saudi Arabia will enlarge.

If the United States ignores that opportunity and instead continues to try to contain China in the Middle East, the diplomatic process will still continue. But the Americans will be left out. Therefore, officials in Washington should turn their worries about China into a driving force for cooperation: better to work with China than to be left behind.

According to my experience, as long as the United States extends its olive branch, China will definitely catch it. Similarly, if China extends its olive branch, the U.S. does not need to doubt it.

There will be many new spaces for cooperation between the two sides on many international issues. Taking those opportunities to work together will also promote the establishment of mutual trust between the two countries and the resolution of contradictions in bilateral relations.