What does the Iran-Saudi Arabia truce mean for Washington’s position on the world stage?

As some world leaders hailed the restoration of ties between longtime foes Iran and Saudi Arabia, Washington grew concerned that the deal could help end US preeminence in the world. region and beyond.

China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, called it a “victory for dialogue” and UN Secretary-General António Guterres celebrated the announcement, expressing his gratitude to China for brokering the deal. The United States, meanwhile, said through a spokesperson for the National Security Council that China’s successful deal appeared to reflect the failure of negotiations the White House pursued with the two country in 2021.

Aaron David Miller, who served as the State Department’s Middle East policy adviser for 25 years, said it was “truly amazing” that the Saudis made a deal with the Chinese and Iranians.

“I think this demonstrates that the influence and credibility of the United States in this region has diminished and that there is a new kind of international regional alignment underway, which has both strengthened and given Russia and China regained influence and status,” said Miller, who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Tehran faces international criticism for supplying arms to Russia to help it invade Ukraine, for continuing efforts to enrich uranium that could enable it to develop a nuclear weapon, punishing its people for participating in anti-government protests and for escalating tensions with Israel. These are all things that the United States has raised on the world stage as an indictment of the Iranian government.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman greets President Joe Biden at Al-Salam Palace in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022.Bandar Aljaloud / Saudi Royal Palace via AP File

The deal was announced months after President Joe Biden visited Saudi Arabia, just weeks before the US midterm elections, to ask that he help keep gas prices low. Instead, Riyadh struck a separate deal with Russia and other oil-producing states to cut production. The Biden administration saw it as a stab in the back and promised the Saudis would suffer “consequences”.

But it looks like the Saudis are feeling vulnerable, Miller said. “When you depend on a great power, you seek to align yourself with another to make deals with your opponents,” he noted.

China’s “victory lap”

While some political analysts and former officials said the China-brokered deal seemed to indicate an ever-shrinking role for the United States on the world stage, others said Washington never had the possibility of negotiating such an agreement because he had no means of dialogue with Iran. The United States has no relationship with Tehran, excluding it from negotiations and talks.

China will undoubtedly take a “victory lap,” much to the chagrin of the United States, said Jonathan Lord, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for New American Security, despite the fact that the Saudis and the Iranians have wanted to do a deal for a while.

“China will clearly trumpet its role on the international stage as an arbiter and negotiator between nations,” he said, “but it was very clear that there was both the intention and the efforts of the Iranians and the Saudis for years to achieve this”. place.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping casts his vote during the closing session of the 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Beijing on October 22, 2022. Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

That China made the deal isn’t necessarily a threat to the United States, 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 with Riyadh and Tehran, it would make sense that they could get along with both nations.

“What concerns me is that in the current climate in Washington, anything China does will be seen as a sign of treacherous intent and a demonstration that China is seeking world domination,” Countryman said. “The fact is that only someone like China could have brokered this rapprochement.”

While it certainly enjoys international esteem, Beijing also serves its national interests.

China will likely take advantage of this opportunity to strengthen its energy security through an enhanced relationship with the two oil-producing countries. Beijing depends on Iran and Saudi Arabia for oil, while the United States and Europe have decided to find energy insurance elsewhere, said Brian Katulis, vice president of policy at the Middle East Institute. .

“It’s not just symbolism,” he said. “It is very important for (China) to have access to these energy resources.”

A peace to build defense

Iran and Saudi Arabia also have a lot to gain. The two longtime rivals in the Middle East have fought a proxy war in Yemen through the Iran-linked Houthi rebels and the Saudi-aligned government which has also received backing from the US government. The proxies of the two countries are at odds elsewhere in the region, notably in Lebanon and Iraq.

Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran could experience less tension thanks to the deal, experts said. Many hoped this would reduce violence in Yemen and lead to less quarrels between the two countries.

Undoubtedly, the Saudis see the deal as a way to try to reduce Iran’s ability to threaten it, or “at least to limit some of the Iranian incitement to create trouble,” said Dennis Ross, a former envoy to the Middle East who worked for both Republicans. and democratic administrations.

Ross said he doesn’t think the deal changes anything in terms of the fundamental relationship between the two countries. A restoration of diplomatic relations between the two nations “reflects a mutual interest, but it is in a relationship of deep distrust”, he said.

Although there will likely be fewer conflicts, both countries should also use the de-escalation of tensions to bolster their own defenses. Lord said Saudi Arabia has worked diligently to build up its military capacity to defend against the kinds of attacks that Iran is capable of. In its ongoing dialogue with the United States on normalizing relations with Israel and other issues, Riyadh has even raised expectations to boost its nuclear capabilities to mirror those of Iran.

But having a deal with Iran could perhaps give Riyadh cover to continue US efforts to normalize Saudi-Israeli relations without incurring “a physical response” from Iran.

“I think that maybe reduces the risk a little bit, and gives them a bit more leeway to explore, quietly, greater opportunities with Israel (the United States and other regional partners),” Lord said. .

While he may be helpful to the Saudi position, Israel is unlikely to be very happy. Iran has long been seen as a particularly staunch enemy of Israel and has worked hard to normalize relations with the Gulf Arab kingdoms, including through the 2020 Abraham Accords.

Then-Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs a weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on June 19, 2022.Abir Sultan/Pool via AFP – Getty Images File

Naftali Bennett, former Israeli Prime Minister, criticized the Saudi-Iranian agreement and blamed it on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 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 efforts to build a regional coalition against Iran,” he said.

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