The fact China helped to broker the deal is significant too. The question is, how will the US react?
Iran and Saudi Arabia concluded a deal Friday to restore normal diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies within two months. The agreement came at the end of a week of Chinese-brokered negotiations in Beijing, which brought an end to the rift between the two governments that has existed ever since Saudi Arabia broke off relations in 2016.
If the agreement holds, it will be an important step forward in regional diplomacy, and it may help in facilitating progress towards a more lasting truce in Yemen. The resumption of normal relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is the result of their recognizing that the earlier intense animosity between these countries was mutually undesirable. Restoring diplomatic ties is not a panacea for all regional tensions, but it should have a stabilizing effect that is very much needed as U.S.-Iranian tensions are on the rise.
China’s mediation is an example of the constructive role that other major powers can sometimes have in the Middle East. It also shows how much more effective diplomacy can be when a major power has not ensnared itself in the region’s rivalries. China enjoys reasonably good relations with both governments, and that put it in a position to broker a deal that the U.S. likely could never have managed to get. As the Quincy Institute’s Trita Parsi observed, “By not taking sides, China has emerged as a player that can resolve disputes rather than merely sell weapons.”
To our detriment, U.S.-Iranian ties have been nonexistent for almost half a century. The lack of normal U.S.-Iranian relations has been a disadvantage for the U.S. in all its regional dealings. Washington’s excessively close ties to one bloc of regional states means that it will never be seen as a credible mediator in any of the region’s disputes. Washington’s deep involvement in regional conflicts undermines the effectiveness of its diplomacy and constrains its influence.
There will probably be a panicked overreaction in some parts of Washington to China’s involvement in this process, as there seems to be a panicked overreaction to everything related to China these days, but the U.S. should welcome China’s diplomatic efforts when they lead to positive and stabilizing results. No doubt the Chinese government has its own interests in mind when it facilitates a Saudi-Iranian agreement, but that does not have to be taken as a challenge or a threat to the limited interests that the U.S. has in the region. Both the U.S. and China stand to benefit from a more stable Middle East, so instead of worrying about loss of influence policymakers in Washington should avoid taking further destabilizing actions.
The Saudi-Iranian agreement has been described as a “huge win” for China, but that does not have to mean that it comes at anyone else’s expense. It is good news for all concerned if a toxic regional rivalry has become slightly less so. In this case, a win for China should be seen as a win for all interested parties, including the United States. This is exactly the sort of responsible international behavior that Washington is always saying that it wants to see from the Chinese government, so the Biden administration should acknowledge China’s positive role in this case.
Considering how much Saudi-Iranian relations deteriorated in the last decade, the restoration of normal relations is a remarkable turnaround. It was just a few years ago in 2018 that Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was likening the Iranian government to Nazi Germany and threatening to “take the fight” into Iran. The repeated failures of Saudi policies in the years since then and Iran’s proven ability to strike at Saudi oil facilities forced the Saudi government to adopt a more accommodating approach.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been working on a possible rapprochement for several years, but diplomatic progress was slow and occasionally interrupted by events. It was only last fall that we were hearing false alarms about an “imminent” Iranian attack on Saudi territory, but the attack never happened and now the two governments are repairing their frayed ties.
If Saudi Arabia and Iran can bury the hatchet like this, that suggests that the current Iranian government may be more flexible and open to compromise than many in Washington assume. That should make the Biden administration recommit itself to finding a diplomatic solution to the nuclear issue. It should underscore that a policy based on coercion and threats will be less successful than one that seeks a mutually beneficial settlement. The Chinese role in brokering this agreement also shows how China can assist in securing Iranian cooperation, and that could prove useful in salvaging the nuclear negotiations as well. Unfortunately, given how strained the current U.S.-Chinese relationship is, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to take full advantage of the connection between China and Iran.
The last several years of Saudi-Iranian rivalry should remind us how fruitless these rivalries can be. Neither country was made more secure by cutting off ties, and neither was more successful in advancing its own interests than it had been before. To the extent that the rivalry led to the Saudi-led coalition intervention in Yemen and Iran’s increasing role in that conflict, it has been a disaster for regional stability and for the people of Yemen and it has made Saudi Arabia less secure than it was before it intervened. That should be a warning to the U.S. about the folly and futility of its own rivalries, whether it is the antagonistic relationship with Iran for the last 44 years or the more recent “competition” with China.
If the U.S. wants to be in a position where it can be a trusted mediator, it has to move away from its one-sided embrace of its Middle Eastern clients and it should seek to cultivate better relations with their rivals. To that end, the U.S. should rule out providing any security guarantees to its clients, and it should not be further fueling a regional arms race with more weapons sales. The U.S. should have an overall more balanced approach to the region, and that will require our government to refuse taking sides in quarrels that have nothing to do with U.S. security.
The restoration of normal relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran should also remind us that sustained diplomatic engagement is not a reward or a concession to the other side but a normal and necessary part of international affairs. Refusing to have diplomatic ties with another state is a bizarre and self-defeating approach that leaves both countries worse off. Normalization does not fix all problems in a given relationship, but it does provide both governments with the means of resolving many disputes at a much lower cost. If the Saudis and Iranians can do this despite their mutual mistrust, why can’t the U.S. and Iran do the same?
In the meantime, the U.S. should applaud Saudi-Iranian rapprochement, and it should get back on the diplomatic path to resolve the nuclear issue.