The agreement announced last week between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations, under a deal facilitated by China, is a major blow to U.S. prestige in the Middle East, and another sign of strained relations between the Biden administration and the de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (also known as MBS).
The deal, when implemented, could be a major step in de-escalating the tensions and hostilities between two of the Persian Gulf’s largest and most powerful countries, and could lead to the formal end of the bloody proxy war in Yemen between them. In addition to being one of the most striking shifts in Middle Eastern diplomacy in recent years, the deal highlights China’s growing influence in the region.
China has now stepped in to fill the diplomatic and power vacuums created by the Biden administration’s efforts to disengage from its traditional allies in the region and redirect its military resources to counter the growing threat from China to U.S. allies in the Asian-Pacific, including Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.
China has also been strengthening its ties with Iran. It hosted a visit last month from Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, cementing a “strategic cooperation” pact between the two countries. In December, China’s President Xi traveled to Saudi Arabia’s capital city of Riyadh for a state visit.
Until now, China’s main interests in the Middle East have been economic. China is currently the largest importer of energy from the region and it is believed that both Saudi Arabia and Iran would like to be able to secure long-term access for their products in the Chinese market.
CHINA CHALLENGING THE U.S. ROLE IN THE MIDDLE EAST
But by taking on the role of peacemaker between two of the Middle East’s most powerful adversaries, China is now openly challenging the traditional status of the United States as the dominant superpower in the region, at the same time that Saudi Arabia has begun charting a much more independent diplomatic course.
In a statement on the Chinese Foreign Ministry website, China’s most senior foreign policy official, Wang Yi, who personally mediated the deal, called the agreement between Iran and the Saudis, “a victory for the dialogue, a victory for peace, and is major positive news for the world which is currently so turbulent and restive, and it sends a clear signal.”
The brokering of the Iran-Saudi deal is part of a larger Chinese diplomatic initiative including the release of a political settlement plan for the war in Ukraine and new initiatives in China’s Global Security Initiative, whose goal is to challenge the dominant U.S. role in global diplomacy.
Both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal recognized the Iran-Saudi deal as a significant Chinese accomplishment. The New York Times said that China’s role in the negotiations displayed President Xi Jinping’s “ambition of offering an alternative to a U.S.-led world order.” The Wall Street Journal said, “[The] accord marks a diplomatic victory for Beijing in a region where the U.S. has long dominated geopolitics.”
An editorial in the Journal blamed the Biden administration for prompting the Saudis to seek a deal with Iran and for the refusal of Saudi Arabia to join the Abraham Accords. It called Saudi demands for additional U.S. security guarantees “worth considering since the U.S. would probably defend the Kingdom if it were attacked without formal guarantees.” The editorial also said that. “Assurances that the Iran nuclear deal is dead and that the U.S. won’t let Tehran acquire a nuclear weapon would also help.”
ANOTHER BIDEN BLUNDER
On the other hand, the Journal editorial had harsh criticism for the president’s policies, noting that, “Mr. Biden prides himself on his ability to build alliances, but he muffed it with the Saudis and our adversaries are taking advantage.”
Mark Dubowitz, head of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Wall Street Journal that he sees the Iran-Saudi deal as a loss for America on three fronts. “It demonstrates that the Saudis don’t trust Washington to have their back, that Iran sees an opportunity to peel away American allies to end its international isolation, and that China is becoming the major-domo of Middle Eastern power politics,” he said.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece, Karen Elliott House, who has written a book on Saudi Arabia, says that “What is most striking is the cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia, both of which fear a Mideast war could damage their grand ambitions. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to transform Saudi Arabia into a major world power by 2030, and President Xi Jinping seeks to displace the U.S. as the global superpower but can’t do it without Middle Eastern oil.”
SAUDIS PLAYING THEIR DIPLOMATIC HAND WELL
Driven by the conclusion that President Biden will not carry out its pledge to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, one Saudi official said that his government has “decided to trade confrontation for alignment. ‘We have to accept reality and figure a way to live with a nuclear Iran,” [the] official says. ‘So, we will go from hostile relations to better relations.’”
According to House, normalization of Saudi relations with Israel “remains a Saudi goal but not as part of the Abraham Accords. Instead, Saudi-Israel normalization would be a new initiative by Riyadh to pave the way for major Islamic nations like Indonesia and Malaysia to establish relations with the Jewish state.”
House credits the Crown Prince for having “played a complicated hand exceedingly well. He has exploited China-U.S. competition for global influence and used his relations with both big powers to seek advantage in a messy Middle East.”
She also says that “The Saudi crown prince has increasingly made clear he intends to be no one’s client but rather an independent power on the world stage balancing others to secure benefits for the kingdom.”
Jonathan Fulton, a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council, told the New York Times, “Beijing has adopted a smart approach using its strategic partnership diplomacy, building diplomatic capital on both sides of the [Persian] Gulf. Unlike the United States, which balances one side against the other, and is therefore limited in its diplomatic capacity.”
The Saudis cut off diplomatic relations with Iran in 2016, after its embassy in Tehran was set on fire in response to the Saudi execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr, who was a leading figure in Shiite protests in Saudi Arabia’s Shiite-majority Eastern Province.
Saudi Arabia has accused Iran of stirring up strife in its Shiite communities, which have long complained of discrimination by Saudi rulers who have close ties to the country’s fundamentalist Wahhabi Sunni Islamic clerics. A month after Nimr’s execution, the Saudi government put 32 people on trial on charges of spying for Iran, including 30 Saudi Shiites. Fifteen were ultimately given death sentences.
IRANIAN THREAT LED TO THE ABRAHAM ACCORDS
In the years since then, the Saudis have been battling Iran’s attempts to dominate the region by subverting and destabilizing the Sunni-ruled states in the area, by supporting the Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon, and Shiite militias in Iraq in addition to arming the Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Saudis have led a coalition of other Persian Gulf oil states in a bloody, prolonged battle against the Houthi rebels, and in support of the Western-backed government in Yemen, Saudi Arabia’s southern neighbor on the Arabian peninsula.
Tensions between the Saudis and Iran reached new heights in 2019 after a wave of Houthi drone attacks on the massive Saudi oil facility at Abqaiq, knocked out half of the kingdom’s oil output and caused a brief spike in crude oil prices. At the time, U.S. officials said they believed that the drones were launched from Iranian territory, while Iran denied the accusation.
The shooting conflict between the Saudi-led coalition and the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen was one of the factors which encouraged the Saudis and their Persian Gulf allies to join a de facto alliance with Israel to confront the security threat from Iran and facilitated the signing of the Abraham Accords, which the Trump administration and then-prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu promoted as the framework for a regionwide Israeli-Arab peace agreement to substitute for the failed U.S.-led efforts to promote an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution. The accords, brokered by President Donald Trump, enabled Israel to develop diplomatic, commercial, and security ties with two of Saudi Arabia’s neighbors, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain, with growing expectations that Saudi Arabia itself would formally join the Abraham Accords, at the next opportune moment.
However, when Biden took office in early 2021, he dismayed the Saudis by immediately attempting to revive the failed 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Biden administration has also been highly critical of Saudi Arabia’s human rights policies. President Biden also said that he intended to make MBS into a “pariah” for personally ordering the 2018 kidnapping and murder, by Saudi agents, of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
SAUDIS NOW LOOKING FOR OTHER ALLIES
In light of these moves, the Saudis and their allies realized that they could no longer rely on the U.S. security umbrella to protect them against the Iranian threat, prompting the Saudis to immediately begin exploring other strategies to deter Iranian aggression, including closer informal ties with Israel and the re-opening of the normal channels of diplomatic communication with the government in Tehran.
With the failure of its effort to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, and the mutual hostility standing in the way of resuming Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the near future, the Biden administration has been forced to fall back upon the expansion of the Abraham Accords as the most promising currently available means of stabilizing the region and making progress toward the eventual resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. However, in response to an American request for the Saudis to join the Abraham Accords, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly demanded further American security guarantees, a loosening of restrictions on U.S. arms sales, and help in developing a civilian Saudi nuclear energy program, none of which has yet been forthcoming.
The hostility which has marked the Saudi-American relationship since the start of the Biden administration led to the start of a series of off-and-on reconciliation talks in Baghdad, Iraq, and in Oman between diplomats from Iran and Saudi Arabia. The talks went public in April 2022, in what Iranian state media said at the time was a “positive atmosphere.” But the talks stalled in December after Iran accused the Saudis of using satellite TV channels to support the anti-government street protests against Iran’s Islamic regime. Nevertheless, the previous negotiations set the stage for the four days of secret talks held in Beijing last week, which finalized the mutual diplomatic recognition agreement between the two countries.
The deal to restore relations includes commitments to reopen embassies in each country within two months. It was signed in China by the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani and Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser, Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban.
An Iranian state news agency quoted Shamkhani as saying that the agreement will assist in “Clearing up misunderstandings” and “will certainly [improve] regional security and increase cooperation between Persian Gulf countries.” He also described the talks between Iran and the Saudis as “unequivocal, transparent, comprehensive and constructive.”
In a later interview, Shamkhani told reporters that the diplomatic agreement with Saudi Arabia “will definitely be a serious obstacle to the presence and interference of extra-regional countries and the Zionist regime in the region.”
According to a joint statement signed by all three countries, the agreement was part of an initiative by Chinese President Xi Jinping aimed at “developing good neighborly relations” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In signing the agreement, Iran and the Saudis also promised mutual “respect for the sovereignty of states and noninterference in their internal affairs.”
However, the agreement did not address any of the many outstanding issues, including deep Islamic religious issues, which remain between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It merely opened a direct diplomatic channel between the two countries which may lead to further agreements.
SAUDIS WANT IRAN TO HELP END THE WAR IN YEMEN
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan said last week that the top priority in re-establishing relations with Iran was to “find a way to have a permanent cease-fire in Yemen,” enabling Saudi Arabia to withdraw its forces from the war there without losing face.
There has been a cease-fire in Yemen since last April, when a truce sponsored by the United Nations went into effect. Though the truce expired in October, the peace has largely held, and direct back-channel talks have resumed between the Saudis and the leaders of the Houthi rebels.
Anna Jacobs, a senior Persian Gulf analyst with the International Crisis Group, told the Associated Press that she believed that the diplomatic deal must have included some guarantees of a de-escalation in Yemen.
“It is difficult to imagine a Saudi-Iran agreement to resume diplomatic relations and re-open embassies within a two-month period without some assurances from Iran to more seriously support conflict resolution efforts in Yemen,” she said.
A statement issued by the Washington Embassy of the pro-Western Yemeni government expressed its skepticism that the Saudi-Iran deal could lead to the end of the war. It noted that “The rogue Iranian regime is still sending lethal weapons to the terrorist Houthi militia in Yemen, and the Yemeni embassy in Tehran is still occupied.”
However the statement issued by the Houthi rebels seemed to be more hopeful that the deal might lead to a durable peace. “The region needs the restoration of normal relations between its countries so that the Islamic nation can recover its security lost as a result of foreign interventions,” Houthi spokesman Mohamed Abdel Salam tweeted.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian also issued an encouraging statement on the deal, tweeting, “The return of normal relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia places large capacities at the disposal of the two countries, the region, and the Islamic world.”
U.S. WAS NOT INVOLVED IN THE TALKS
John Kirby a spokesman for the National Security Council (NSC) at the Biden White House admitted that the U.S. had not been involved in the negotiations, but added that, “We support any effort there to de-escalate tensions in the region.”
He also said that “I would stridently push back on this idea that we are stepping back in the Middle East.”
According to Kirby, the U.S. believes that internal pressures within Iran and Saudi Arabia’s deterrence measures were the impetus that led to the secret negotiations in Beijing, “not just an invitation by the Chinese to talk and to negotiate.”
“We think it’s in our own interests. . . To the degree that this arrangement can lead to an end to the war in Yemen, to the degree that it can help prevent Saudi Arabia from having to defend itself against attacks, to the degree that could de-escalate tensions — all that’s to the good side of the ledger,” Kirby told reporters.
U.S. MORE CONCERNED WITH IRAN’S ALLIANCE WITH RUSSIA
According to Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf, speaking before a conference sponsored by the Washington-based Al-Monitor publication last week, the U.S. is now much more concerned with Iran’s growing arms-supplier relationship with Russia for the war in Ukraine than it is with the diplomatic deal with the Saudis. Leaf told the Al-Monitor audience that “Iran has entered the European battle space in a highly destructive way,” by selling drones to Russia. She also called Russia and Iran “two pariahs joining together to wreak havoc.”
Meanwhile, according to the Iranian state news media, Russia is reciprocating by agreeing to sell Iran some long-range SU-35 fighter planes to replace the obsolete American-made F-14 aircraft that Iran has been flying for the past 40 years.
A senior Biden administration official told a Washington Post reporter that the Saudis had kept the United States fully informed on its negotiations with Iran from the beginning, adding that the Saudis had also made it clear that they were unwilling to strike a deal with Iran without strong assurance from them that their attacks against the Saudis would stop and that they would curtail their military support for the Houthis.
U.S. officials also said that they are not convinced that the Iranians will honor their commitments under the agreement. They noted that, by design, the deal does not immediately reestablish diplomatic relations, but calls for a two-month delay during which the two sides will have to work out several remaining differences.
At his press conference, NSC spokesman Kirby also said that it is too early to tell if the terms of the deal will be implemented in good faith, especially by Iran. “It really does remain to be seen whether the Iranians are going to honor their side. This is not a regime that typically does honor its word. So we hope that they do. We’d like to see this war in Yemen end,” Kirby added.
Saudi columnist Hamoud Abu Taleb wrote in Okaz, a Saudi daily, “The two-month period… is the first test of Iran’s credibility and proof of good intentions as we must see the start of real change in the regional landscape and a real correction in its dealings with the [Saudi] Kingdom.”
Another Saudi newspaper columnist, Tariq al-Homayed, wrote, “It is natural [for Saudi Arabia] to have diplomatic ties even if at a low level because Iran’s expansionist approach has created many touch points with Saudi Arabia… (But) we have to keep our eyes open.
“China is the guarantor for this agreement. This will be important if Iran does not comply,” the columnist added.
SAUDIS BUYING DOWN THE RISK FROM IRAN
Jonathan Lord, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, explained that because of their lack of confidence in the current security guarantees from the Biden administration, the Saudis were hedging their bets, and signed the agreement with Tehran in an “attempt to buy down the risk of Iran.”
Lord also predicted that the Chinese-brokered diplomatic deal with Iran will not disrupt the long-standing security relationship between the U.S. and the Saudis. He believes that the U.S. Central Command, which has thousands of U.S. troops in the region to protect the Saudis and other U.S. allies in the Middle East, “will continue to work closely with its regional partners to advance a regional security architecture. This agreement won’t come in the way of that.”
Some analysts looked at the easing of tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia as a positive development. “Anything that lowers the temperature between Iran and Saudi Arabia and lessens the possibility of conflict is a good thing,” Matt Duss, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told the Washington Post. “It’s also a potentially encouraging sign that countries in the region can pursue such initiatives without requiring lots of goodies and guarantees from the U.S.”
On the other hand, Jon Alterman, a Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that the Biden administration is of “two minds” about the Saudi-Iran agreement, because, “it wants the Saudis to take increasing responsibility for their own security, but it does not want Saudi Arabia freelancing and undermining U.S. security strategies.”
FORTUNATE TIMING FOR IRAN
According to Ali Alfoneh, a senior fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington, the deal with Iran came at an ideal time for the Islamic regime in Tehran, which has been suffering from a deepening of international isolation, as well as mounting unrest at home expressed by months of anti-government protests. “Facing a dead end in nuclear negotiations with the United States, and shunned by the European Union because of its arms exports to Russia . . . Iran has scored a major diplomatic victory,” Alfoneh said
In Israel, news of the deal between Iran and the Saudis, who were believed to be moving towards joining the Abraham Accords, was greeted with deep disappointment, along with some partisan political finger-pointing.
During his recent Knesset campaigns, Netanyahu has portrayed himself as the only Israeli politician capable of protecting Israel from the threat of Iran’s nuclear program with diplomatic, as well as military means, even as Israel and Iran have engaged in a low-level regional shadow war, involving Iranian drone strikes on Israeli-linked ships ferrying goods in the Persian Gulf, and ongoing Israeli air attacks on Iranian military facilities and weapons transfers to Hezbollah in Syrian territory.
NETANYAHU WAS HINTING AT A DEAL WITH THE SAUDIS
A deal with Saudi Arabia to normalize diplomatic relations with Israel would be the fulfillment of Netanyahu’s top goal, integrating Israel into the region as a full partner of the Saudis and the other Sunni Arab states which used to be Israel’s enemies. Even as the unofficial relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia have grown stronger in recent years, the Saudis have insisted that they would not officially recognize Israel before there is some kind of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But since returning as prime minister a few months ago, Netanyahu has been hinting that a deal with the Saudis to “expand the circle of peace” created by the Abraham Accords may soon be within reach. For example, he told a group of American Jewish leaders last month that such a peace agreement is “a goal that we are working on in parallel with the goal of stopping Iran.”
However, the Saudi-Iran deal announced last week has now left Israel largely alone in the region as it continues to call for the further diplomatic isolation of Iran as it comes ever closer to reaching its goal of building its own nuclear weapons. In the most recent development, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has found evidence that at one of its nuclear facilities, Iran has been enriching uranium up to 83.7% purity, just under the weapons-grade level of 90% used to fuel an atomic bomb. Nevertheless, IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi visited Iran two weeks ago in an effort to get its leaders to agree to the resumption of his agency’s nuclear “verification and monitoring activities,” even though Iran is now clearly at the threshold of becoming a nuclear-armed power.
IRAN-SAUDI DEAL A BLOW TO ISRAEL’S REGIONAL PEACE STRATEGY
Yoel Guzansky, an expert on the Persian Gulf at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank, said that the Chinese-brokered diplomatic deal must be seen as “a blow to Israel’s notion and efforts in recent years to try to form an anti-Iran bloc in the region. If you see the Middle East as a zero-sum game, which Israel and Iran do, a diplomatic win for Iran is very bad news for Israel.”
Even Netanyahu ally Danny Danon, who recently predicted a peace agreement with Saudi Arabia in 2023, seemed disconcerted by news of the mutual recognition deal between Iran and the Saudis. “This is not supporting our efforts,” Dannon told a reporter for the Associated Press.
Meanwhile, members of the Knesset opposition to Netanyahu’s government seized upon the Iran-Saudi agreement as another opportunity to criticize Netanyahu for pursuing his legislative agenda, and, in particular, his drive to reform Israel’s judiciary, while failing to safeguard Israel’s most vital international interests.
ISRAELI LEADERS BLAMING EACH OTHER
Yair Lapid, the head of Israel’s opposition, described the agreement between Iran and the Saudis as the “collapse of the regional defense wall that we started building against Iran, [and] a complete and dangerous failure of the Israeli government’s foreign policy. This is what happens when you deal with legal madness all day instead of doing the job with Iran and strengthening relations with the U.S.,” Lapid wrote on Twitter.
Even Yuli Edelstein, one of Netanyahu’s fellow Likud party members, said that the agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was “bad for Israel and the entire free world.” He blamed Israel’s current internal “power struggles and head-butting” for distracting the country from dealing with its more pressing external threats.
However, Eitan Ben-David, a former Netanyahu deputy national security adviser, said in an interview with Kan public radio that Israel is concentrating on building up its capacity to take unilateral military action if necessary, with the U.S. partnership and possible Gulf Arab alliances being a secondary priority.
A senior Israeli government official who was traveling with Netanyahu during his visit to Italy last week to meet with its prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, told reporters that the Saudis would not have sought to re-open diplomatic relations with Iran if it had not been for the perception of weakening resistance to Iran’s nuclear ambitions by the Biden administration and the previous Israeli government, under the leadership of Lapid and Naftali Bennett. They also noted that the Saudi-Iranian negotiations began in April, 2021, a month after the Knesset election which resulted in Bennett becoming the prime minister of Israel.
Bennett, called the news of the Iran-Saudi agreement a “serious and dangerous development for Israel” and a “political victory for Iran. This delivers a fatal blow to [Israel’s] efforts to build a regional coalition against Iran,” said Bennett.
He also said that it represented a “resounding failure of the Netanyahu government and stems from a combination of political neglect with the country’s general weakness and internal conflict.”
“Countries in the world and the region are watching Israel in turmoil over the dysfunctional government that is engaged in systematic self-destruction,” Bennett said, and added that, “we need a broad national emergency government, which will work to repair the damage.”
An unnamed senior Israeli political official told Maariv with regard to the Iran-Saudi deal, “We need to understand why it happened and when. It started about a year ago. . . largely as a result of Saudi Arabia feeling that the West’s position towards Iran was weak. . .
“The West’s position has changed since then, but not enough,” the politician added. “The Saudis felt very exposed and asked for a balance. The stronger the Western position is towards Iran, the less significant the formal relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will be.”
PALESTINIAN LEADERS WELCOME THE IRAN-SAUDI DEAL
Various Palestinian officials praised the agreement by Iran and the Saudis to resume diplomatic relations as a welcome development and “a step in the right direction.” Bassam al-Salhi, secretary-general of the Palestinian People’s Party (formerly known as the Palestinian Communist Party) and a member of the PLO Executive Committee, called on the Palestinian leadership to “devise a joint strategy with China and Russia to face these tremendous changes.” He also urged the Palestinian leadership to stop relying on the U.S. as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The main consolation for Israel is that the deal to re-open Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations should not directly affect the mutual defense arrangements which Israel has already reached with the Saudis and their Persian Gulf allies. The deal with Iran should be viewed as a prudent effort by the Saudis to keep all of their diplomatic options in view of the ongoing tensions in their relations with the Biden White House.
Under the leadership of MBS, the Saudis have been exploring the potential advantages of developing closer relations with all of their potential strategic partners, including China, Russia, and Israel, as well as the possibility, however slight, of reaching a negotiated settlement with its main regional enemy, Iran.
ANOTHER SAUDI SLAP IN THE FACE FOR BIDEN
At the same time, the Saudi deal with Iran is also a tacit admission by the Saudis that its previous strategy for dealing with Iran has failed. “This is a huge game-changer and an acknowledgment that the policy of isolation and containment of Iran has not worked in Riyadh’s interest,” said Sanam Vakil, deputy head of the Middle East and North Africa program at the London-based think tank known as Chatham House.
Suzanne Maloney, the vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution think tank adds, “What is notable of course is the decision to hand the Chinese a huge public relations victory — a photo op that is intended to demonstrate China’s newfound stature in the region. In that sense, it would appear to be yet another Saudi slap in the face to the Biden administration,” Maloney added, referring to Biden’s visit to Riyadh last year where he humiliated himself before the rest of the world by exchanging a fist bump with MBS, the Saudi Crown Prince whom he had previously reviled as a “pariah.”