March 29, 2023

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China-brokered Iran-Saudi deal raises red flags for US

An agreement struck by Iran and Saudi Arabia on Friday to re-establish relations has shifted concerns back to the state of the U.S. role in the Middle East — especially since the deal was brokered by Washington’s main adversary, China.

The diplomatic agreement, reached after four days of talks with senior security officials in Beijing, eases tensions between the Middle East powers after seven years of hostilities.

Both Iran and Saudi Arabia announced they will resume diplomatic relations and open up embassies once again in their respective nations within two months, according to a joint statement.

Alex Vatanka, the director of the Iran Program at the Middle East Institute, said the Iran-Saudi Arabia deal was an important agreement for the region but questioned whether it would put an end to any violence, including in war-torn Yemen.

“It remains to be seen if they can have a meaningful dialogue. Opening up embassies is not the same as having a meaningful dialogue,” Vatanka said. “There will be a steep journey ahead.”

Saudi Arabia, a dominant Sunni Muslim country, cut ties with Iran in 2016 after protesters stormed the nation’s embassy in Iran after the execution of a Shiite Muslim cleric along with the execution of other prisoners.

Both nations have also been on opposing sides of the deadly civil war in Yemen, with Saudi Arabia supporting Yemen’s government and Iran backing the opposition Houthis.

The news on Friday was a diplomatic and political success for Beijing, which also recently published a peace plan to end the war in Ukraine.

China’s top diplomat Wang Yi quickly hailed the agreement as a “victory” on Friday and said his country would continue to address global issues, according to statements carried by several Chinese newspapers.

But the agreement undercuts the posture of the U.S. in the region. The U.S. has downsized in Syria after withdrawing forces in 2021 from Afghanistan.

The deal also comes as Saudi Arabia is demanding certain security guarantees, a steady flow of arms shipments and assistance with its civilian nuclear program in order to normalize relations with Israel, a major U.S. ally, the White House confirmed on Friday.

Speaking to reporters, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said the U.S. was “informed” about the Saudi Arabia-Iran talks but played no role in them.

Kirby welcomed the normalization of relations between the two countries should it ease violence in the Middle East.

“To the degree that it could deescalate tensions, all that’s to the good side of the ledger,” Kirby said, adding the U.S. is not stepping back from its role in the Middle East.

Vatanka, from the Middle East Institute, said both Iran and Saudi Arabia have been seeking to ease tensions for the past couple of years.

While he was surprised by China’s role as a mediator, Vatanka said the deal does not constitute “a major loss” for Washington in the long-term.

“It symbolically makes the United States look like it’s not able to be a key player,” he said. “But it’s not going to be a Chinese-dominated Middle East.”

China is a large buyer of Saudi oil and maintains close relations with Iran.

Conversely, the U.S. has had strained relations with Iran for decades and a similar normalization agreement would have been next to impossible for Washington to mediate.

Some experts have cautioned that China is beginning a new era of diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, where it before mostly had economic ties.

Jonathan Panikoff, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative in the Middle East Programs for The Atlantic Council, warned of an “emergence of China’s political role in the region.”

“It should be a warning to U.S. policymakers: Leave the Middle East and abandon ties with sometimes frustrating, even barbarous, but long-standing allies, and you’ll simply be leaving a vacuum for China to fill,” Panikoff wrote in a Friday analysis.

Middle East politics has become more strained for the U.S. as Israel clashes with Palestinians seeking a free state in Israeli-occupied Gaza and the West Bank. The ongoing civil war in Syria, violence in Yemen, heightened tensions over Iranian support for Russia and a scrapped nuclear deal with Tehran have added to complications.

President Biden also traveled to Saudi Arabia last summer amid high gas prices in the U.S. and was seen fist-bumping Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has been criticized for overseeing human rights abuses and for the killing of the U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. A few months after the visit, the White House was angered when the Saudi-led oil alliance OPEC+ slashed oil production output.

Still, during comments on Friday on the economy, Biden appeared welcoming of the diplomatic agreement. “Better relations between Israel and their Arab neighbors are better for everybody,” the president said.

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