What Saudi Arabia and Iran’s Détente Really Means
Though Saudi Arabia and Iran’s restored diplomatic ties highlight China’s growing influence in the region, the United States retains an indispensable role.
The announcement that Saudi Arabia and Iran have restored diplomatic ties after seven years of tensions could result in significant changes in the Middle East. It not only stands to reset one of the region’s most violent rivalries but also exemplifies how China has become an influential player in regional affairs. Indeed, the joint statement issued from Beijing on March 10 committed both countries to respect each other’s sovereignty and to not interfere in each other’s internal affairs, to reopen their embassies in Tehran and Riyadh within two months, to revive a bilateral security pact, and to resume trade, investment, and cultural exchanges.
Occurring during a time of heightened fears of open conflict between Israel and a soon-to-be nuclear Iran, and after years of militant competition between Tehran and Riyadh across the region, this nascent rapprochement is undoubtedly positive. Yet the reactions in the United States and Israel suggest that the outcome—and perceptions of it—are more complicated. To its credit, the Biden administration welcomed the détente and stated that Riyadh had kept Washington informed of the talks’ progress. Yet the fact that it was Beijing that brought the Saudis and Iranians together—merely three months after Chinese president Xi Jinping was lavishly received in Riyadh in sharp contrast to U.S. president Joe Biden’s frosty reception six months earlier—has evidently smarted Washington.
Still, fears of American decline are overblown. China cannot (and is, in fact, not interested in) replacing the United States in the Middle East. The United States remains the region’s apex security provider, not only in terms of selling the most weapons to the region but also in terms of its on-the-ground military presence. But while Washington has squandered its time and resources toppling governments in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan and sanctioning Syria and Iran to ruin, China has forged ahead by investing in infrastructure and relationships. The Middle East is large enough for both China and the United States, and rather than panicking about every Chinese action, Washington would be better served by actually trying to compete with Beijing beyond the military sphere.
Moreover, despite Beijing’s growing importance to the Middle East, it is not China, but the United States, that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are asking to defend them. In this light, Israel’s anxiety that a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will work against its interests is misplaced. Far from being “a fatal blow to the effort to build a regional coalition against Iran,” as former Israeli prime minister Naftali Bennet tweeted, a reduction in regional tensions is good for Israel. Having the Saudis (and Chinese) press Iran on taking actions that enhance regional peace and stability can only help Israel, as Iranian intransigence will result in its international isolation. Moreover, this reconciliation—regardless of how meaningful it ultimately will be—has not duped Riyadh into believing that its many years of problems with Iran are behind it.
A decade ago, the late Saudi king Abdullah urged the United States to “cut off the head of the [Iranian] snake,” and that was before Iran had developed the sophisticated nuclear weapons capabilities that it has today. And it was only in September 2019 that Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps plotted and then executed a targeted drone attack on Saudi oil facilities that halved the kingdom’s oil production. In 2022, ballistic missiles and drones launched by the Iranian-backed Houthis in Yemen were raining down on Saudi and Emirati cities with increasing regularity.
Just yesterday, one day before Saudi Arabia and Iran decided to allegedly bury the hatchet, Riyadh offered to normalize its relations with Israel in exchange for the United States guaranteeing Saudi security and aiding the Saudi nuclear program. One cannot help but ask why the U.S. military should commit to defending Saudi Arabia in exchange for something the Saudis are already doing and have a strong national interest in continuing. Yet it is also evident that “American weakness” is not what is pushing the Saudis to reduce tensions with Iran. The Saudis live in a dangerous region—occasionally made more dangerous by their own hands—and they will continue to diversify their relationships and seek security where they can.
In fact, even a U.S. security guarantee would not pull the Saudis decisively back into the U.S. camp, solve all the problems afflicting the Saudi-U.S. relationship, or end Riyadh’s efforts to reach a new security architecture with Iran. Instead, it will only codify the United States’ responsibility to defend Saudi Arabia, tying America’s soldiers to Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s high tolerance for risk, and additionally comprise the United States by further involving it in the kingdom’s human rights abuses at home and abroad. It would also further stack the deck against Iran by formally throwing the weight of one of the world’s two superpowers behind Tehran’s foremost Islamic rival, thereby increasing the impetus for the Iranians to develop nuclear arms. If the United States is truly interested in supporting stability and competing with China in the Middle East, it needs to carefully extract itself from the region’s morass, not dive deeper in.
Adam Lammon is a former executive editor at The National Interest and an analyst of Middle Eastern affairs based in Washington, DC. The opinions expressed in this article are his own. Follow him on Twitter @AdamLammon
Image: Claudio Divizia/Shutterstock.