Chinese mediation in relaxation between Iran and Saudi Arabia forced the United States to applaud a major Middle East deal struck by its main geopolitical rival. “We support any effort to defuse tensions,” White House spokesman John Kirby said of the deal, which restores diplomatic ties between sworn enemies for the first time in seven years and reopen their respective embassies.
The agreement is the result of talks that began on Monday as part of an initiative by the Chinese president. Xi Jinping aimed at “developing good neighborly relations” between Tehran and Riyadhthe three countries said in a joint statement. But signing the deal in Beijing — which the Biden administration sees as its main geostrategic threat — represents the latest effort by Xi on expanding his political presence in the Middle Eastwhere the United States has been the primary foreign broker since the end of the Cold War, waging wars and exerting influence in an oil-rich region vital to global energy security.
Last month, China hosted the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, on the occasion of the signing of a “strategic cooperation” pact between the two nations. In December, Xi traveled to Saudi Arabia for a state visit.
Saudi Arabia, whose long association with Washington has soured since the 2018 assassination of the journalist from the Washington Post jamal khashoggi at the hands of associates of the kingdom’s crown prince, applauded Beijing’s participation in an event open to the press which included a three-way handshake between Senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani and Saudi National Security Advisor Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban.
America’s Arab allies in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf generally lament criticism they receive from Washington over human rights abuses and lack of political and electoral freedoms, complaints they do not receive. from Beijing.. Some observers viewed China’s inclusion in the deal as a blatant affront.
“What’s remarkable, of course, is the decision to offer the Chinese a big public relations win, a photo op meant to demonstrate China’s new stature in the region,” said Suzanne Maloney, vice president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution think tank. “In that sense, this seems like another Saudi slap in the face of the Biden administration.”
At first glance, the agreement responds to the priorities that the United States has long sought, because it Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have threatened regional stability and fueled catastrophic conflicts from Syria to Yemen.
“We believe it is in our own interests,” Kirby said, signaling his hope that it would lead to an end to the war in Yemen, which has been fought by a Saudi-led coalition backed by American-made planes. to Houthi militants in the country supported by Iran.
For years, the United Nations has called the conflict the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, but the country has enjoyed a rare truce since April, when a UN-brokered truce took effect. Although the truce expired in October, peace has largely held and talks between the Houthis and the Saudis have resumed.
Saudi Arabia severed diplomatic ties with Iran in 2016, after the Saudi embassy in Tehran was attacked and burned down by Iranian protesters angered by the kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shia cleric sheikh. Nimr Baqr al-Nimr. The cleric had become a leading figure in protests in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province, a Shia-majority region of the Sunni-majority nation.
A senior administration official briefed on the talks between Tehran and Riyadh He said the United States knew about the negotiations from the start, adding that the Saudis had made it clear to American officials that they were interested in restoring diplomatic relations with Iran.
But the Saudis have also made clear they are unwilling to enter into such a deal without a firm guarantee from the Iranians that attacks against them will cease and that they will reduce military support for the Houthis, the official said.
“Riyadh is trying to reduce the risk from Iran,” said Jonathan Lord, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security.
American officials still do not know whether the Iranians will ultimately honor this commitment., which means that the whole deal could fail. By design, The agreement does not immediately restore diplomatic relations, but rather stipulates that the countries will do so within two months, with several elements still to be finalized.
Oman also played a big role in the breakthrough, according to the senior administration official, who in part prompted President Biden to call the Sultan of Oman this week.
The United States is a major defense supplier to Saudi Arabia, including Patriot missile defense batteries. But Lord said allowing China to broker the diplomatic deal would not threaten that relationship. US Central Command, which sends thousands of US troops to the kingdom and elsewhere in the Middle East, “will continue to work closely with regional partners to advance a regional security architecture,” he said. “This deal won’t stay that way.”
Although some in Washington have expressed their is alarmed at Beijing’s involvement in the deal, it’s unclear if the Biden government could have negotiated it even if it wanted to. Tehran and Washington are barely on good terms after the Trump administration’s decisions to pull out of the Iran nuclear deal and assassinate the country’s top military commander, Qasem Soleimani.
“Anything that lowers the temperature between Iran and Saudi Arabia and lessens the possibility of conflict is a good thing,” said Matt Duss, visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It is also a potentially encouraging sign that countries in the region can undertake initiatives of this type without the United States needing to offer them numerous advantages and guarantees.”
While reducing China’s influence in the Middle East and other parts of the world remains a priority for the Biden administration, it has “two perspectives” on the latest deal, Jon Alterman said, researcher on the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. .
“He wants the Saudis to increasingly take responsibility for their own security,” he said, “but he doesn’t want Saudi Arabia to go it alone and undermine American security strategies.”
(c) 2023, The Washington Post – By John Hudson, Yasmeen Abutaleb, Dan Lamothe