The agreement was the result of talks that began Monday as part of an initiative by Chinese President Xi Jinping aimed at “developing good neighborly relations” between Tehran and Riyadh, the three countries said in a joint statement. But the signing of the accord in Beijing — which the Biden administration considers its No. 1 geostrategic threat — represents the latest effort by Xi to stake out a larger political presence in the Middle East, where the United States has been the dominant outside power brokering agreements since the end of the Cold War, waging wars and exerting influence in an oil-rich region vital to the world’s energy security.
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Last month, China hosted Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, as the two nations cemented a “strategic cooperation” pact. In December, Xi traveled to Saudi Arabia for a state visit.
Saudi Arabia, whose longtime partnership with Washington has soured since the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by associates of the kingdom’s crown prince, applauded Beijing’s involvement in an open press event featuring a three-way handshake between China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi; Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary, Ali Shamkhani; and the national security adviser of Saudi Arabia, Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban.
America’s Arab allies in Saudi Arabia and the broader Persian Gulf often lament the criticisms they receive from Washington over human rights abuses and a lack of political freedoms and elections — complaints they do not receive from Beijing. Some observers saw China’s inclusion in the accord as a overt snub.
“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,” said Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution think tank. “In that sense, it would appear to be yet another Saudi slap in the face to the Biden administration.”
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On its face, the agreement achieves priorities that the United States has long sought, as tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have threatened the stability of the region and fueled catastrophic conflicts from Syria to Yemen.
“We think it’s in our own interests,” Kirby said, noting his hope that it would lead to an end to the war in Yemen, which has pitted a Saudi-led coalition, backed by American-made jets, against the country’s Iranian-backed Houthi militants.
For years, the United Nations called the conflict there the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, but the country has enjoyed a rare reprieve from fighting since April when a truce sponsored by the United Nations went into effect. Though the truce expired in October, the peace has largely held, and back-channel talks between the Houthis and the Saudis have resumed.
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Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016 after the Saudi Embassy in Tehran was attacked and burned by Iranian protesters angered by the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. The cleric had emerged as a leading figure in protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, a Shiite-majority region in the Sunni-majority nation.
A senior administration official briefed on the talks between Tehran and Riyadh, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive discussions, said the United States has been kept up to date on the negotiations from the beginning, adding that the Saudis made clear to U.S. officials that they were interested in restoring diplomatic ties with Iran.
But the Saudis made clear, too, that they were unwilling to strike such a deal without strong assurance from the Iranians that attacks against them would stop and that they would curtail military support to the Houthis, the official said.
“Riyadh is attempting to buy down the risk of Iran,” said Jonathan Lord, a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.
U.S. officials remain uncertain whether the Iranians, ultimately, will honor that commitment, meaning the whole agreement could fall through. By design, the deal does not immediately reestablish diplomatic relations, but rather stipulates the countries will do so in two months with several elements still to be worked out.
Oman also played a significant role in the breakthrough, the senior administration official said, which in part prompted President Biden to call Oman’s sultan this week.
The United States is a major defense provider to Saudi Arabia, including Patriot missile defense batteries. But Lord said allowing China to broker the diplomatic deal would not threaten that relationship. U.S. Central Command, which has thousands of U.S. troops to the kingdom and elsewhere in the Middle East, “will continue to work closely with its regional partners to advance a regional security architecture,” he said. “This agreement won’t come in the way of that.”
Though some in Washington expressed alarm at Beijing’s involvement in the deal, it’s unclear if the Biden administration would have been able to broker it even if it wanted to. Tehran and Washington are barely on speaking terms following the Trump administration’s decisions to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and assassinate the country’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani.
“Anything that lowers the temperature between Iran and Saudi Arabia and lessens the possibility of conflict is a good thing,” said Matt Duss, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “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.”
Though blunting China’s influence in the Middle East and other parts of the world remains a priority for the Biden administration, it is of “two minds” about the latest agreement, said Jon Alterman, a Middle East scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It wants the Saudis to take increasing responsibility for their own security,” he said, “but it does not want Saudi Arabia freelancing and undermining U.S. security strategies.”