Washington, D.C. – The United States has described the China-brokered normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a “good thing” despite the message it may send about diminishing US influence in the region.
The pact between Riyadh and Tehran, announced in Beijing last week, only confirms the reality of China’s growing role as a major trade and now diplomatic partner in the Gulf, analysts say.
They add that Washington, with its confrontational approach to Tehran, was unable to pull off the rapprochement, but may still benefit from it despite the alarm some American hawks have sounded.
“The fact that Tehran and Riyadh have more or less decided to bury the hatchet is good for everyone,” said Jorge Heine, a professor at Boston University.
“It is good for the United States. It’s good for China. It’s good for the Middle East.”
Heine, who previously served as Chile’s ambassador to China, said the pact between the two rivals in the Middle East was China’s “breakthrough in the major diplomatic divisions,” but that doesn’t mean it’s a setback for the US.
However, he told Al Jazeera that the agreement should lead Washington to reconsider its confrontation policy towards other countries.
The rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh follows years of tensions that have spread across the Middle East, particularly in Yemen, where the conflict between the Saudi Arabian-backed government and Iran-affiliated Houthi rebels has created an immense humanitarian crisis. causes.
The exact details of the agreement have not been made public, but a March 10 joint statement said the pact reaffirms “respect for the sovereignty of states and non-interference in internal affairs of states.”
The two countries also agreed to resume diplomatic relations that had been suspended since 2016 and to revive security and cultural treaties that date back decades.
Iran and Saudi Arabia had held previous rounds of talks in Iraq and Oman. However, last week’s pact was made in China, where Beijing’s top diplomat Wang Yi was on hand to shake hands with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani and Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban.
The joint statement credited Chinese President Xi Jinping for the “noble initiative” of bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran together.
Xi visited Saudi Arabia in December last year and met with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in China in February.
Analysts say China’s role in securing the deal should not worry policymakers in Washington, as competition with Beijing has become a top priority.
Dina Esfandiary, senior Middle East and North Africa adviser at the International Crisis Group think tank, said the detente “has the potential to increase regional stability,” which is another Washington policy goal.
She added that the US remains by far the preferred security partner for the Gulf Arab states.
China is a leading importer of Gulf oil, both from Iran and Saudi Arabia. The US, meanwhile, has largely moved away from importing energy from the Middle East, as it has increased its production capacity domestically.
“Because of China’s economic influence in the region, its importance inevitably increases,” Esfandiary told Al Jazeera.
She added that a long-standing concern for the US is that growing Chinese influence could eventually reduce Washington’s power over its Gulf allies.
‘a good thing’
For now, U.S. officials aren’t panicking about that prospect — at least not publicly.
“Regarding the agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and Iran with China’s involvement, from our perspective, anything is good that can help defuse tensions, avoid conflict, and curb in any way dangerous or destabilizing actions by Iran said the US Secretary of State. Antony Blinken told reporters that on Wednesday.
Gerald Feierstein, a senior fellow on US diplomacy at the Middle East Institute think tank, said China’s involvement in the deal may have been overstated, citing talks already taking place in Iraq and Oman.
The deal “aligns with what the US sees as the right way forward, which is to ease tensions and try to somehow bring Iran back into the international community,” Feierstein said.
He added that the absence of the US from the triple handshake in Beijing does not mean much because Washington has no relations with Tehran.
“The simple fact is that the US could not have played this role,” Feierstein, a former US diplomat who served as ambassador to Yemen, told Al Jazeera.
He said the detente is not Saudi contempt for the US. Rather, Feierstein sees it as a reaffirmation of the kingdom’s strategic approach of not taking sides in the great competition for power.
He noted that around the same time as its normalization pact with Iran, Saudi Arabia also provided aid to Ukraine and struck a $37 billion deal with US aircraft company Boeing — a move the White House praised last week.
The nuclear file
Where the detente can complicate things for Washington is in its attempts to contain Iran’s nuclear program. US President Joe Biden has repeatedly promised that he would not allow Tehran to acquire a nuclear weapon, something Iran denies seeking.
But multiple rounds of indirect talks between Washington and Tehran since 2021 have failed to restore the 2015 deal that saw Iran scale back its nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions on its economy.
The Biden administration now says a return to the nuclear pact known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is “no longer on the agenda” as it continues to pile Iran on sanctions.
The rapprochement could help Tehran break its economic isolation, which Saudi officials are already talking about investments in Iran once the deal is executed.
Despite stalled efforts to reinstate the JCPOA, US officials say diplomacy is the best way to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Still, Washington has not ruled out a military option against Iran’s nuclear facilities.
“We have been very clear that we will use all possible means to ensure that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon,” the State Department said earlier this month.
Feierstein said the Iran-Saudi deal makes a hypothetical US or Israeli military strike against Iran more difficult. Without Saudi Arabia being “part of that effort”, either by allowing its territory to be used for military operations or by flying planes overhead, an attack on Iran would be “much more complicated”, explains Feierstein.
Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a US think tank that opposes military intervention, agreed with that assessment. But she said the complications could be a good deterrent for Washington.
“It certainly wouldn’t be in the interest of the US to get dragged into a war between Israel and Iran, as things seem to be going in recent weeks and months,” Sheline told Al Jazeera.
She added that the rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia makes such a confrontation less likely, as Israelis now have “less confidence in some sort of Arab coalition backing them.”