Saudi Arabia’s Rapprochement with Iran Was a Long Time Coming

Saudi Arabia’s Rapprochement with Iran Was a Long Time Coming

Washington’s efforts to “pivot to Asia” have finally come back to bite it in the Middle East.

In yet another display of diplomatic prowess in the greater Middle East, China recently brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, two states that have regarded each other as primary regional adversaries since 1979. The two countries agreed to restore diplomatic relations and reopen their embassies within two months, and also plan to revive an old security pact as well as another agreement to cooperate on trade and technology.

Though the deal has understandably elicited surprise and controversy among commentators, Beijing’s successful mediation between Tehran and Riyadh falls well into the pattern of Chinese diplomacy in the Middle East over the past several decades.

Since its industrial output grew in the late 1990s, Beijing became increasingly reliant on Middle Eastern energy sources to support its rapidly expanding economy, and steadily ramped up its engagement with the region. Additionally, China actively promoted trade and investment with key players in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), especially after Chinese president Xi Jinping’s announcement of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013. The centrality of the Middle East to the success of the global BRI led Beijing to become the region’s largest foreign investor and the main bilateral trading partner for several Arab states.

Nonetheless, as recent events demonstrate, China’s goals in the region were far from being solely commercial as many observers have alleged. Beijing’s growing economic stakes in the Middle East compelled it to take on wider political, diplomatic, and military roles to safeguard these interests. As China expert Dawn Murphy discusses in her book China’s Rise in the Global South, Beijing has also sought to gradually craft alternative spheres of influence and challenge the U.S-led order in the region. For instance, China has exploited its leverage over BRI partners to advance its territorial claims in the South and East China Seas and suppress criticism over crackdowns in Xinjiang.

Another key pillar of China’s regional strategy has been mediating disputes, which has increased its influence over U.S. adversaries and allies alike. Beijing’s self-portrayal as a “responsible actor” and adherence to a doctrine of “non-interference” in the domestic affairs of partner countries has won Xi considerable support among leaders disillusioned with the West’s lectures on human rights. Chinese officials have also criticized Washington’s “military adventurism” in an attempt to gradually pull countries away from the American orbit.

Many claimed that Beijing’s “balancing act” and simultaneous relationships with regional adversaries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran would preclude it from becoming the Middle Eastern hegemon, as only the United States would allegedly be able to provide Israel and the Gulf states the full protection they seek from Tehran’s aggression. But Xi’s skillful diplomacy, partners’ perceptions of American retrenchment, and Beijing’s successful infiltration of the Middle East’s drone market enabled China to increase its leverage over both Riyadh and Tehran as Washington’s sway steadily declined. Rather than turning to the United States for pushback against Iran, the recent agreement could encourage Arab states to de-escalate tensions with the Islamic Republic with Beijing’s help, in exchange for greater trade and investment with China.

U.S. analysts have also traditionally taken comfort in the overwhelming American security presence in the Persian Gulf. But this too could eventually be jeopardized as China takes advantage of newfound opportunities to strengthen its economic and political foothold in the MENA. If the past is precedent, Beijing will likely use the diffusion of Chinese physical and digital infrastructure to advance its military presence in the region, namely through “dual-use” civilian ports and technology that could serve the People’s Liberation Army’s intelligence-gathering capabilities, in addition to augmenting its conventional power projection through joint military and naval exercises and arms sales.

So far, the White House has tried to frame the China-brokered deal as a win for U.S. interests and downplay its significance. Indeed, though Beijing is unsurprisingly touting the agreement as a major diplomatic breakthrough, its long-term implications for the geopolitical landscape in the MENA are still difficult to gauge. As stated by Jonathan Lord, the director of the Center for New American Security’s Middle East Program, both Riyadh and Tehran have held dozens of rounds of talks in recent years, and others have also expressed doubts that the resumption of diplomatic relations would do much to temper underlying hostilities between the two regional powerhouses. Indeed, as the Cold War demonstrates, “détentes” between geopolitical rivals are not guaranteed to last.

For the Saudis, reaching out to Tehran could have been an attempt to shield themselves (or at least buy themselves some time) from the potential consequences of Iran’s prospective possession of a nuclear weapon, as suggested by some of Riyadh’s recent demands that the United States support Saudi nuclear capabilities in exchange for the kingdom recognizing Israel. The kingdom may also have been hoping to temper Iran’s other troublesome behavior, particularly its support for regional proxy groups such as Hezbollah and the Yemeni Houthi rebels. Meanwhile, in light of criticism from the international community over Iran’s crackdowns on domestic protests, support for Russia’s war against Ukraine, and fears of an Arab-Israeli coalition against it, Tehran sought much-needed legitimacy in the MENA and the Arab World. The deal with Saudi Arabia could be an economic and diplomatic lifeline for the Iranian regime, a potential gateway to agreements with other Arab nations, and a boon to Iran’s interests by gradually dislodging America as the predominant external power in the Gulf. 

But even if the agreement proves to be a temporary marriage of convenience between Riyadh and Tehran, it could nonetheless pose some extraordinary challenges for Washington’s Middle East policy. Firstly, America’s absence from such a critical agreement is a blow to its prestige both in the region and on the international stage. In contrast to just a few years earlier, when it mediated the Abraham Accords, the United States was entirely left on the sidelines from the recent negotiations—a signal to allies and adversaries alike that American influence over shifting developments and credibility in the MENA have notably declined from their zenith at the end of the Cold War.

The rapprochement could also lead to other countries easing diplomatic and economic pressure on the Islamic Republic, albeit cautiously. Saudi Arabia exercises considerable sway in the Sunni Islamic and Arab Worlds, particularly among the Gulf States, and its neighbors and allies could interpret Riyadh’s moves as a green light to pursue better relations with Iran. For instance, Bahrain is reportedly looking to normalize ties with Iran, and Tehran also expressed a desire to mend relations with the kingdom’s other allies, such as Egypt.

While some have claimed that improved relations between Iran and Arab nations could potentially deescalate other regional conflicts, such as those in Yemen, Syria, and Lebanon, there is good reason to be skeptical of this argument. Though foreign support is an important element of these ongoing disputes, they are also heavily enmeshed in local grievances and internal dynamics. Moreover, groups like the Houthi rebels and Hezbollah are ideologically rooted in anti-Americanism and politically committed to upending the status quo in the greater Middle East. Even if Iran gradually tempers its support (at least overtly) for its regional proxies, the fundamentally revisionist nature of these organizations is unlikely to change.

There could also be troubling implications in terms of Tehran’s other mischief, both in terms of its domestic oppression and its conduct abroad. At a time in which Washington should be attempting to isolate Iran on the global stage for attempting to assassinate American officials, providing weapons to Russia, cracking down on protestors, and dragging its feet throughout the nuclear negotiations, the Islamic Republic may have instead gotten a major lifeline and the regional legitimacy it was seeking. Moreover, Washington may no longer have the option of exploiting the Sino-Iranian partnership to roll back China’s influence among the Gulf states.

Additionally, China’s ability to pull off such an agreement between two of the region’s most significant players is testimony to its considerable clout in the MENA and a sign of its future ambitions for the region and beyond. Given the importance of the greater Middle East to the BRI, Europe and Asia’s continued dependence on hydrocarbons and clean energy sources from the region, and the implications of Beijing’s ties with Tehran on conflicts in Eurasia and South Asia, China’s steadily increasing presence in the Persian Gulf will appreciably serve the country’s geostrategic interests in other crucial theaters. It could also give the Chinese Communist Party an edge in its broader, global rivalry against the United States.

But most concerning about the Biden administration’s nonchalant response to the China-mediated Saudi-Iranian reconciliation is its failure to acknowledge the role of years of misguided U.S. policies in contributing to these developments. While Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and other regional leaders ultimately have their own calculations behind their foreign policy decisionmaking, including their attempts to hedge their bets with China and Russia, these trends were no doubt exacerbated by Washington’s neglect of its allies’ security needs, counterproductive “pariah” rhetoric, and unwillingness to address Iran’s malevolent behavior and progress toward developing a nuclear weapon. This widespread (and warranted) concern over American retrenchment in light of calls by Western policymakers to disengage from the Middle East in favor of rebalancing to Asia, despite President Joe Biden’s recent attempt to reverse these perceptions, compelled Riyadh and other U.S. partners to diversity their relationships and desperately mend relations with Tehran, rather than relying on America’s fickle commitments to defend them.