A warning sign of the decline of Washington’s influence and strength in the Middle East is the utter absence of the Biden administration from the negotiations that culminated in the diplomatic agreement obtained by China between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
On March 11, Iran and Saudi Arabia inked an agreement mediated by China to re-establish diplomatic relations and open embassies and representative offices within two months.
The agreement concluded with a meeting in Beijing on March 10 between Saudi Foreign Minister and National Security Advisor Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban and Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council. Wang Yi, a member of the Politburo and director of the CCP Central Committee’s Foreign Relations Office, presided over the meeting.
Wang Yi welcomed the Iran-Saudi agreement as a “success for discussion” and a “win for peace,” calling it “important good news” in a world rife with violence and uncertainty.
The agreement is the product of years of intensive, behind-the-scenes negotiations between Iranian and Saudi diplomats. These negotiations included the late IRGC Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani, who was killed in a missile strike by the U.S. in Baghdad in January 2020 while he was engaged in indirect talks with Saudi officials that were being brokered by Iraq.
The secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, stated that China is providing security guarantees for the accord, which is scheduled to go into force in two months.
For China, the stakes are high. The country gets forty per cent of the crude oil it consumes from the region, and its much-publicized “Maritime Silk Road Initiative” involves using ports in both the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, as well as on the eastern coast of Africa, all of which are frequently beset by regional turbulence.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been regional foes for decades, with tensions escalating following the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which brought to power an Islamic Republican government, initiating a heated rivalry for Islamic World leadership. Tensions have been heightened by Riyadh’s traditional tight connections with the U.S., which Tehran formally calls the “Great Satan.” In 2016, the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia completely broke their diplomatic ties following the beheading of a Shia Saudi cleric Nimr Baqir al-Nimr by Saudis and subsequent attacks on Saudi diplomatic posts inside Iran. Friday’s accord intends to end years of bad blood based on religious disagreements and geopolitics.
A challenge for Israel
According to Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid, the restart of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh failed the Israeli government’s foreign policy since it deprived Israel of its regional defence barrier against the supposed Iranian threat.
In February, the new Israeli administration increased talks with Saudi Arabia to bolster military and intelligence ties, citing an alleged Iranian threat.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in particular, stated that normalizing relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia would start a historical change in Israel’s stance in the Middle East while tying this goal to preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. He also asserted that the Arab world acknowledges the significance of the Iranian menace, implying that several Arab countries have moved closer to Israel.
U.S. may end up marginalised
Regardless of who sits at the table, if this agreement can be sustained, the conflict in Yemen can be brought to an end. John Kirby, the spokesperson for the National Security Council, stated at a press briefing on Friday that Saudi Arabia does not need to continually defend itself against attacks by the Houthis, who are sponsored and funded by Iran.
Kirby stated that it remained to be seen whether the Iranians would uphold their half of the bargain, adding that the United States was employing an “effective combination of deterrence and diplomacy” against Iran.
But, this is one of the most unexpected happenings anyone could possibly fathom, a shift that has jolted governments in capitals all over the world, especially with China serving as the mediator rather than the U.S.
The U.S., which throughout the course of the previous three-quarters of a century has played the role of non-peripheral actors in the Middle East, has nearly always been involved in the developments that have taken place in this region. They are now on the outside looking in during a period of significant transition. The Chinese, who for many years had merely played a supporting role in the region, unexpectedly rose to the position of a major power actor.
The U.S. has effectively cut itself off from Iran and Saudi Arabia as a result of its unilateral sanctions on Iran and President Joe Biden’s pledge to turn Saudi Arabia into a “rogue state.”
Nonetheless, the region remains an open game because the U.S. has military, scientific, economic, and diplomatic influence while China is still in the early stages of developing its own.