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Renewed Iran-Saudi ties as a result of Chinese mediation is a lose, lose, lose for American interest

Focus on Middle East

G Iuvinale

Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to restore diplomatic relations on Friday and reopen their respective embassies within two months in a deal brokered by China. Tehran and Riyadh severed diplomatic relations in 2016, when the kingdom cut ties after protestors invaded Saudi diplomatic posts in Iran. The deal comes despite ongoing threats of Iranian missile, drone, and terror proxy attacks against Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure.

As announced by China on March 10, 2023, Saudi Arabia and Iran, the latter two have reached a deal which includes the agreement to resume diplomatic relations and reopen embassies and missions within two months. Photo: Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Global Times)

According to Iranian media, the agreement emerged after a weeklong meeting in Beijing between Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, and Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat.

On Friday, Wang Yi, director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee held the meeting between the Iran delegation headed by Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and the Saudi Arabia delegation headed by Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aliban, Minister of State, Member of the Council of Ministers, and National Security Advisor of Saudi Arabia. The joint statement was released after the meeting.

Wang also stressed that the Middle East belongs to local people and the region's destiny should be held fast in the hands of peoples in the region's countries. They can build a more stable, peaceful and prosperous Middle East by strengthening coordination.

Expert Analysis

“Renewed Iran-Saudi ties as a result of Chinese mediation is a lose, lose, lose for American interests. 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 it establishes China as the majordomo of Middle Eastern power politics.” Mark Dubowitz, FDD CEO
“This is the ultimate hedge for Riyadh as a direct result of U.S. policy. Hedge against a lifting of sanctions and a return to a nuclear deal. Hedge against a U.S. pullback from the region by entering a new China-brokered Middle East architecture.” Richard Goldberg, FDD Senior Advisor

The agreement comes as Gulf Arab states perceive the United States to be withdrawing slowly from the Middle East, leaving a power vacuum to be filled by China — a major customer of oil and petroleum products from Gulf Cooperation Council states and Iran.

The Biden administration’s policy in the Middle East has been led by its attempts to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran and pausing the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” sanctions policies. In 2021, the State Department removed the terrorist organization designation from the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen and pressured Riyadh to end the war in Yemen.

Beijing works with both states. In February, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and a large delegation visited Beijing, where they signed 20 cooperation agreements on trade, agriculture, and renewable energy. They also jointly called for the lifting of sanctions on Iran. This meeting followed Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia in December.

Hours before announcing its agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia revealed its terms for normalization with Israel. The proposal asks for security guarantees from the United States, assistance in developing a civilian nuclear program, and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales.

With its offer to the United States, Riyadh appears to be leaving the door open for a stronger U.S.-Saudi relationship but is making clear by pursuing a hedge with China that they will not be waiting around.

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