China, America and the Saudi-Iranian normalisation

May 8, 2023
China flag with Saudi Arabia flag and Iran flag on cloudy sky.

The Saudi-Iranian normalisation deal brokered by China has sent shockwaves throughout the region. Regional actors had not expected China to suddenly desire a political role in the Persian Gulf. Others were skeptical of Beijing’s diplomatic capacity and skills. Few, however, were as surprised as foreign policy hands in Washington – even though it is the United States’ actions and missteps that inadvertently created both the opportunity for Beijing to mediate and the environment that compelled regional actors to sue for peace.

More – not less – than meets the eye

Despite skepticism in the West of the depth and durability of the normalisation deal, Tehran and Riyadh appear to have moved at an impressive pace to implement the agreement signed in Beijing earlier in March. On April 12, only a month after the signing of the deal, the Iranian embassy in Saudi Arabia reopened its gates for the first time in seven years as an Iranian delegation arrived to inspect the premises. Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, has invited Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to visit Riyadh. It would be the first visit of an Iranian President to Saudi in 24 years. Raisi has reportedly accepted.

Moreover, fruits of the normalisation are starting to emerge throughout the region, again, faster than many expected. (The only regional state explicitly opposed to the agreement is Israel.) The war in Yemen is now on the verge of a permanent truce with the Saudis and Houthis engaged in intense peace talks. A major prisoner exchange has already taken place with roughly 900 prisoners released. Talks are underway to release up to 15,000 prisoners. Fabrizio Carboni, the Red Cross’ regional director, said the release “gives a sense of momentum” for efforts to end the war.

This does not necessarily mean that the Yemeni conflict will be fully resolved, as the Yemenis must still come to an agreement amongst themselves on a political solution. But Saudi Arabia’s exit from the war and the lifting of the blockade are critical steps towards an intra-Yemeni political dialogue.

Washington’s irritation

Commentators in Washington have sought to downplay China’s role and the importance of the agreement by either shifting credit to Oman and Iraq – two countries that played an important role in laying the groundwork for the agreement – or by asserting that resolving the Saudi-Iranian dispute was a low hanging diplomatic fruit.

Neither criticisms are fully valid. Though Iraq and Oman both played important roles in setting the stage for the normalisation, Beijing’s role was instrumental in bringing the deal across the finishing line. By acting as the guarantor of the deal, China helped overcome Tehran and Riyadh’s mutual mistrust. Neither of them can afford tensions with Beijing, which gave both of them confidence that the other party would abide by the agreement.

Still, Washington’s annoyance is understandable. At a time when the United States seeks to portray China’s rise as a threat to the Global Order, Beijing found a way to demonstrate its stabilising capacity and its knack for peacemaking. Moreover, the agreement frustrates the Biden administration’s Middle East policies in two important ways.

First, it throws cold water on the Abraham Accords – the decoupling of Israeli-Arab normalisation agreements from progress on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Expanding the Accords has been the Biden administration’s top priority – far exceeding the desire to revive the Iran Nuclear Deal, for instance. Much of the Biden administration’s embarrassing deference to the Saudi Crown Prince has been rooted in the hope Riyadh would join the Accords under Biden’s watch. Instead, MBS normalised relations with Iran.

Saudi Arabia may still normalise relations with Israel down the road, but there will be no major Middle Eastern powers opening embassies in Israel any time soon.

Secondly, as Biden has failed to revive the JCPOA (a failure that Iran also bears significant responsibility for), the United States’ de facto Plan B is an intensification of Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” strategy – a policy that the Biden team itself has deemed unworkable. Intensifying Iran’s economic and political isolation will be much harder if Iran is improving relations with key neighbours such as Saudi Arabia.

America deserves inadvertent credit

Yet, America’s own policies have inadvertently helped bring out the breakthrough between Iran and Saudi Arabia. On the immediate level, the timing of the normalisation between the two Persian Gulf powers reflects their mutual realisation that continued hostility served neither side.

Iran’s support to the Houthis had inflicted major pain on the Saudis, but the marginal utility of continuing the seven-year-long conflict was fast diminishing. On the other hand, the recent protests in Iran, which the Saudis had – at least in the minds of Iranian decision-makers – helped fuel through the Saudi-funded and managed Iran International TV station, had created the most significant legitimacy crisis the Iranian theocracy has faced to date.

Still, the clerical regime was not faced with an existential threat, and that realisation rendered the marginal utility of Riyadh stoking further unrest questionable. Indeed, had MBS been under the impression that the regime in Tehran was about to fall, he surely would not have struck a deal, let alone one that entailed significant Saudi concessions.

But at a structural level, the realisation that though the United States might not be leaving the region militarily, it no longer has the will to fight in or for the region, has spurred a flurry of intra-regional diplomacy – from Turkish-Egyptian talks to the burying of the hatchet between Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, and Doha, to Saudi-Iranian talks.

Once US partners realised that they no longer could hide behind American military power, diplomacy with their regional foes became vastly more attractive. But as long as the US’s military presence tilted the balance of power in their direction, sustaining the conflicts and avoiding diplomacy was the optimal policy. Indeed, Riyadh only agreed to dialogue with Tehran after Donald Trump refused to go to war against Iran in retaliation for Tehran’s role in the drone attack against Saudi oil fields in 2019.

Intended or not, America’s military domination has served as an obstacle to regional conflict resolution.

As my colleague Annelle Sheline pointed out to me shortly after the normalisation deal was announced: MBS has only seven years left to realise his Vision 2030. For that, he needs to extract Saudi Arabia from its many conflicts. He could go with the American option of continuing to buy American weaponry while hoping that Iran would be deterred by the fear that America might still come to Riyadh’s defences. Or he could go with the Chinese option of attaining deeper security by suing for real peace with Iran. He chose the latter.

The Middle East will indeed enter a new era if this becomes the new normal: A China that offers more reliable security through peace than America can offer through deterrence.

At a minimum, Washington must by now recognise that more and more countries are welcoming a transition toward a multipolar world where China is a major stakeholder. Seeking to reverse this geopolitical trend will only further weaken America and destabilise the world. America’s best option is to adjust to this reality and explore ways to collaborate with China in order to create a more stable planet where our focus increasingly can shift from inter-state conflicts to shared challenges such as Climate Chaos. In that process, the Saudi-Iranian normalisation can be turned into a stepping stone toward multilateral stabilising efforts from Afghanistan to even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


Republished from the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore 2023

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