Iran-Saudi Rapprochement: Signs of Waning Influence of USA in the Region

Iran And Saudi Arabia To Restore Ties

The Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement has wide reactions.

An NBC report — What does the Iran-Saudi Arabia truce mean for Washington’s standing on the global stage? (March 11, 2023, — said:

As some world leaders hailed the restoration of ties between long-standing enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia, there were growing fears in Washington that the deal could help spell the end of the United States’ pre-eminence in the region and beyond.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres celebrated the announcement, expressing his appreciation to China for brokering the deal.

The U.S. said through a National Security Council spokesperson that China’s successful agreement appeared to mirror the failed negotiations the White House pursued with both countries in 2021.

Aaron David Miller, who served as a Middle East policy adviser at the State Department for 25 years, said it was “really stunning” that the Saudis had cut a deal with the Chinese and the Iranians.

“I think it demonstrates that U.S.’s influence and credibility in that region has diminished and that there is a new sort of international regional alignment taking place, which has empowered and given both Russia and China newfound influence and status,” said Miller, who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The report said:

The agreement was announced months after President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia, just weeks before the U.S. midterm elections, to appeal that it help keep gas prices down. Instead, Riyadh came to terms on a separate deal with Russia and other oil-producing states to lower production. The Biden administration saw it as a stab in the back and promised that the Saudis would face “consequences.”

But it appears the Saudis felt vulnerable, Miller said. “When you are dependent on one great power, you seek to align with another to cut deals with your adversaries,” he noted.

While some policy analysts and former officials said the China-brokered deal appeared to indicate a shrinking role for the U.S. on the world stage, others said that Washington never had a chance to mediate such an agreement because it has no means of dialogue with Iran. The U.S. has no relationships with Tehran, sidelining it from negotiations and talks.

China will undoubtedly take a “victory lap,” much to the chagrin of the U.S., said Jonathan Lord, the director of the Center for New American Security’s Middle East Security Program, in spite of the fact that Saudis and Iranians have wanted to make a deal for some time.

“China is clearly going to trumpet their role on the international stage as an arbiter and negotiator between nations,” he said, “but it was very clear that there was both intention and effort by both the Iranians and Saudis for years to get to this place.”

That China hammered out this agreement is not necessarily a threat to the U.S., said Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation during the Obama administration. Because China has economic and diplomatic ties to Riyadh and Tehran, it would make sense they could come to terms with the two nations.

“The thing that concerns me is that in the current climate in Washington, anything China does will be seen as a sign of perfidious intent and a demonstration that China is seeking to dominate the world,” Countryman said. “The fact is it was only somebody like China who could have brokered this rapprochement.”

It said:

China will likely use this opportunity to bolster its energy security through a strengthened relationship with the two oil-producing countries. Beijing is dependent on Iran and Saudi Arabia for oil, while the U.S. and Europe have moved to find energy assurances elsewhere, said Brian Katulis, the vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute.

“It is not just symbolism,” he said. “It matters to (China) quite a lot to have access to those energy resources.”

The NBC report said:

Iran and Saudi Arabia also have much to gain. The two longtime rivals in the Middle East have fought a proxy war in Yemen through the Iranian-tied Houthi rebels, and the Saudi Arabian-aligned government that has also received support from the U.S. government. The two countries’ proxies are at odds elsewhere in the region, including in Lebanon and Iraq.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran may see fewer tensions because of the accord, experts said. Many hoped that it would decrease violence in Yemen and lead to fewer spats between the two countries.

Undoubtedly, the Saudis see the deal as a means to try and reduce Iran’s ability to threaten it, or “at least limit some of the Iranian trouble-making incentives,” said Dennis Ross, a former Middle East envoy who has worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations.

Ross said he did not think the deal changed anything in terms of the two countries’ fundamental relationship. A restoration of diplomatic ties between the two nations “reflects a mutual interest, but it is within a relationship of profound distrust,” he said.

While there will likely be less conflict, the two countries are also expected to use the de-escalating tensions to build up their own defenses. Lord said that Saudi Arabia had worked assiduously to build their military capacity to defend itself against the types of attacks Iran is capable of. In its ongoing dialogue with the U.S. about normalizing relations with Israel and other issues, Riyadh even raised expectations to build up its nuclear capabilities to mirror Iran’s.

But having an agreement with Iran could perhaps give Riyadh cover to pursue the U.S.’s efforts of normalizing ties between the Saudis and Israel without incurring “a physical response” from Iran.

“I think perhaps this buys down the risk, potentially a bit, and gives them a little bit more latitude to explore, quietly, greater opportunities with Israel, (the U.S. and other regional partners),” Lord said.

While helpful to the Saudis’ position, perhaps, Israel is unlikely to be very happy. Iran has long been considered a particularly staunch nemesis of Israel, and has worked hard to normalize relations with Arab Gulf kingdoms — notably through the 2020 Abraham Accords.

Naftali Bennett, Israel’s former prime minister, criticized the Saudi-Iranian deal and placed the blame for it on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. He said it was a “dangerous development” for Israel, as the country seeks to build a bulwark against Iran.

“This is a fatal blow to the effort to build a regional coalition against Iran,” he said.

A Business Insider report — Saudi Arabia making peace with Iran in a deal brokered by China is a ‘middle finger to Biden’, (March 11, 2023) — said:

The Saudi and Iranian governments reestablishing diplomatic ties lowers the temperature in the region and raises hopes that their proxy war in Yemen will come to an end.

At the same time, the deal amounts to a slap in the face to the Biden administration. It is a sign that the Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is willing to increase ties with U.S. adversaries, and could have major implications for the future of the region.

“Stunning at a time when U.S.-Chinese ties are at an all time low and U.S.-Iranian tensions rising that MBS does a deal that boosts Beijing and legitimizes Tehran. It is a middle finger to Biden and a practical calculation of Saudi interests,” Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. diplomat who advised multiple secretaries of state on the Middle East, said in a tweet.

The move is also indicative of China’s growing influence in the Middle East after decades of U.S. dominance in the region largely catalyzed by the war on terror.

“The fact that China brokered the deal is significant,” Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said on Twitter. “It shows the role that China could play in fostering a Middle East defined more by cooperation and trade and less by conflict and weapons sales, as has been the norm under U.S. dominance.”

The agreement also has the potential to throw a wrench in efforts to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, given the latter and Iran are longtime enemies. Israel has appeared to suggest it could take military action against Iran over its accelerating nuclear program, particularly after UN experts recently said Tehran has enriched uranium to 84% — close to weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran last month blamed Israel for a drone attack on one of its military facilities, and warned that it could respond “wherever and whenever deemed necessary.”

An AFP report — Made in China: Saudi-Iran deal goes beyond Middle East, say analysts (March 10, 2023) — said:

A surprise deal to restore ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran will reverberate across and beyond the Middle East, analysts said Friday, touching everything from Yemen’s war to China’s regional engagement.

The report said:

It ends the rupture that emerged in 2016 after protesters in Shiite-majority Iran attacked the diplomatic missions of mainly Sunni Saudi Arabia following the Saudi execution of revered Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr.

Well before that incident, the regional heavyweights had been on opposing sides of a number of bloody disputes, and recent bilateral talks had not appeared to yield much progress.

That made Friday’s announcement all the more unexpected, said Dina Esfandiary of the International Crisis Group.

“The general feeling was that the Saudis were particularly frustrated and felt that restoring diplomatic ties was their trump card, so it seemed like it was something that they did not want to budge on,” she said.

“It is very welcome that they have.”

Analyst Hussein Ibish agreed, calling it “a major development in Middle East diplomacy”.

The deal’s implications may be felt most immediately in Yemen, where a Saudi-led military coalition has been fighting Iran-backed Huthi rebels since 2015.

A truce announced nearly a year ago expired last October, but Saudi-Huthi talks in recent weeks have fuelled speculation about a deal that could allow Riyadh to partly disengage from the fighting, according to diplomats following the process.

Multiple analysts said Friday the Saudis would not have agreed to improved ties with Iran without concessions on the Islamic republic’s involvement in Yemen.

“It is very likely that Tehran had to commit to pressuring its allies in Yemen to be more forthcoming on ending the conflict in that country, but we do not know yet what behind-the-scenes understandings have been reached,” said Ibish, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington (AGSIW).

By mending ties with Iran — and potentially stepping back from Yemen — Saudi Arabia can continue a wide-ranging diplomatic push that has also involved recent rapprochements with Qatar and Turkey.

It makes even more sense given the lack of movement towards reviving a nuclear deal between Tehran and Washington, said Torbjorn Soltvedt of the risk intelligence firm Verisk Maplecroft.

“Without a broader easing of tensions between the U.S. and Iran, Saudi Arabia knows that it will need to play a more proactive role in managing relations with Iran,” he said.

The charm offensive could even extend to the regional reintegration of Syria, which Saudi Arabia has opposed partly because of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s close ties to Iran, said Aron Lund of the Century International think tank.

“It is not obvious that these things are linked, at this point, but less Saudi-Iranian hostility could lower the threshold for Saudi-Syrian rapprochement,” he said.

Beyond its intra-regional consequences, several analysts said, Friday’s breakthrough is significant for how it came about: with talks brokered by China.

Despite its escalating engagement with the region — including a high-profile visit by Xi Jinping to Riyadh in December — Beijing has long been seen as reluctant to delve into its thornier diplomatic quagmires.

Saudi analysts on Friday said China’s role makes it more likely that the deal with Iran will endure.

“China is now the godfather of this agreement and that holds great weight,” said Ali Shihabi, a commentator who is close to the government.

“Getting China, with its influence on Iran, to godfather the agreement gave the kingdom the comfort to give Iran the benefit of the doubt.”

The deal indicates China is prepared to take on a larger role in the region, said Jonathan Fulton, senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“This may be a sign of its growing confidence in its regional presence, it may be a sign that it thinks there is space to challenge U.S. preponderance in the Middle East,” Fulton said.

“In any case, it looks like a diplomatic win for China and a significant departure from its regional approach up to this point.”

That will no doubt make Washington, which has a complicated decades-old partnership with Riyadh, “uneasy”, said the AGSIW’s Ibish.

At the same time, U.S. President Joe Biden’s team will likely see the value of the deal in terms of regional stability, he added.

“The Biden administration has been leading the way in emphasizing the urgent need to promote diplomacy rather than conflict and confrontation in the Middle East and especially the Gulf region,” he said.

“It is likely to view any reduction in tensions between Iran and Gulf Arab countries as generally positive.”

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