China negotiates Iran-Saudi detente, raising eyebrows in Washington


China’s successful negotiation of a detente between Iran and Saudi Arabia on Friday has forced the United States into the awkward position of applauding a major Middle East deal secured by its main geopolitical rival.

“We support any effort to defuse tensions there,” White House spokesman John Kirby said of the deal, which restores diplomatic ties between the sworn enemies for the first time in seven years and reopened their respective embassies.

The deal is the result of talks that began Monday as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s initiative to “develop good neighborly relations” between Tehran and Riyadh, the three countries said in a joint statement. But signing the deal in Beijing — which the Biden administration sees as its No. 1 geostrategic threat — represents Xi’s latest effort to establish a larger political presence in the Middle East, where the United States has been the main external power broker. agreements since the end of the Cold War, waging wars and exerting influence in an oil-rich region vital to global energy security.

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Last month, China hosted Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi as the two nations cemented a “strategic cooperation” pact. In December, Xi traveled to Saudi Arabia for a state visit.

Saudi Arabia, whose longstanding partnership with Washington has soured since the 2018 killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by associates of the kingdom’s crown prince, applauded Beijing’s involvement in a press event opened with a three-way handshake between China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi; Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani; and Saudi Arabia’s national security adviser, Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban.

America’s Arab allies in Saudi Arabia and the wider Persian Gulf often lament the criticism they receive from Washington over human rights abuses and the lack of political freedoms and elections – complaints that they don’t get from Beijing. Some observers saw China’s inclusion in the deal as an overt snub.

“What is of course remarkable is the decision to hand the Chinese a huge public relations victory – a photo shoot intended to demonstrate China’s new stature in the region,” said Suzanne Maloney, vice-president. president and director of foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. thinking group. “In that sense, it would seem like another Saudi slap in the face to the Biden administration.”

Biden has vowed to punish the Saudis for the oil cut. This is no longer the plan.

On the face of it, the deal achieves priorities the United States has long sought, as tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have threatened regional stability and fueled catastrophic conflicts from Syria to Yemen.

“We think it’s in our own interests,” Kirby said, noting 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 self-made planes. American, against the Iranian of the country. supported Houthi militants.

For years, the United Nations has called the conflict the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, but the country has enjoyed a rare reprieve from fighting since April, when a United Nations-sponsored truce took effect. Although the truce expired in October, peace has largely held and behind-the-scenes talks between the Houthis and the Saudis have resumed.

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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, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive discussions, said the United States had been kept informed of the negotiations from the start, adding that the Saudis had made it clear to US 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 the Iranians’ firm assurances 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, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

US officials still do not know if the Iranians, ultimately, will honor that commitment, which means the whole deal could fall apart. By design, the agreement does not immediately restore diplomatic relations, but rather stipulates that the countries will do so in two months, with several elements still to be worked out.

Oman also played a big role in the breakthrough, the senior administration official said, which 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. U.S. Central Command, which has thousands of U.S. troops in 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 agreement will not stand in the way of that.”

Although some in Washington have expressed concern over Beijing’s involvement in the deal, it’s unclear whether the Biden administration would have been able to broker it even if it wanted to. Tehran and Washington are barely on good terms following the Trump administration’s decisions to withdraw from 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’s also a potentially encouraging sign that countries in the region can pursue such initiatives without demanding a lot of freebies and guarantees from the United States.”

While weakening China’s influence in the Middle East and other parts of the world remains a priority for the Biden administration, it has “two opinions” on the latest deal, said researcher Jon Alterman. 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 operate independently and undermine American security strategies.”

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