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China Plays Mideast Statesman, Reduces Tensions Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

Apr 04, 2023

Over the last two decades there has been no more important, and destructive, power in the Middle East than the United States. In contrast, the People’s Republic of China has maintained a minimal presence. However, Beijing’s mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia demonstrates that the PRC is staking out a new, positive role in the region. 

The U.S. emerged from World War II the dominant force in the Mideast. President Jimmy Carter turned what had largely been economic influence into a military commitment, guaranteeing the security of the region’s major oil producers. 

Washington feared Soviet aggression in the Persian Gulf after the Soviet Army invaded Afghanistan. However, the overthrow of Iran’s oppressive Shah shifted the attention of succeeding U.S. administrations to the newly created Islamic Republic of Iran. Washington largely turned its Mideast policy over to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Israel, fanning the flames of sectarian conflict between the leading majority Shia nation and its neighbors. 

Washington backed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its aggressive war against Iran, which ran nearly a decade and cost a million lives. A U.S. naval vessel shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988, for which the George H.W. Bush administration paid damages but refused to apologize. Neoconservatives urged President George W. Bush to target Tehran after invading Iraq. 

Even after that conflict ended, an unofficial war party in Washington continued to advocate attacking Iran. The Islamic Republic returned Washington’s unremitting hostility and waged a proxy war against the KSA and the other Middle Eastern powers. 

Although the Obama administration changed course to negotiate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and freeze Tehran’s nuclear program, President Donald Trump abandoned the JCPOA, imposed debilitating sanctions on Tehran, and assassinated a top Iranian official on a visit to Iraq. The Islamic regime responded not by surrendering, as the Trump administration apparently expected, but by restarting its nuclear activities and striking out violently with both regular and proxy forces. 

Reports of plans for preventive war by both America and Israel have begun to circulate. Such strikes would likely fail as a nonproliferation tactic, instead increasing Tehran’s incentive to develop weapons, and also could ignite conflict not just between Iran and Israel, but also involving other Gulf states. 

With no relations or even dialogue with Tehran today, the U.S. has no diplomatic tools to defuse the burgeoning crisis. Beijing stepped into the breach. Countries in the Middle East as well as the American government should be pleased with the result. 

The key step is resumption of diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh, which were ruptured in 2016. The details are to be worked out in the coming weeks. Iran is expected to halt proxy attacks on the KSA. After launching unprovoked aggression against Yemen, the KSA wants out and Tehran might encourage efforts to reach a political settlement. In return, Riyadh is unlikely to cooperate with an Israeli bombing mission against Iran, which would require the Kingdom’s permission to use its airspace. 

The Biden administration praised the agreement, though it also expressed skepticism. Understandably, Iran enjoys little trust. Yet it was Washington that went back on its word and abandoned the nuclear deal. Moreover, for Tehran to ostentatiously break its promises would greatly embarrass Beijing. Iran can ill afford to risk its relationship with the PRC, with the promise of oil sales and economic investments.

More notable in Washington, however, are critics of any rapprochement between Tehran and Riyadh. For instance, Rep. Michael Turner, Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, found the agreement to be “very unexpected and certainly very troubling and disappointing that [the Saudis] would turn to Iran.” His criticism illustrates the arrogant myopia that envelops U.S. foreign policy. 

First, he evidently prefers a Middle East with a simmering sectarian conflict and Iran and Saudi Arabia at each other’s throats. However, Riyadh has no desire to be Washington’s catspaw. Moreover, the U.S., too, would benefit from reaching a modus vivendi with Iran, rather than threatening war with the Islamic Republic. One wonders whose interest Turner believes is advanced by opposing efforts to reduce tensions in the always unstable region. 

Indeed, the imminent restoration of Iran-Saudi diplomatic ties offers another benefit for Washington. The “Abrahamic Accords” have been no bargain for the U.S., which has been expected to pay other nations to regularize relations with Israel. But establishing normal ties is to their benefit and the costs should be borne by them. A better relationship with Iran will reduce the KSA’s demands for outsize concessions from Washington

Second, Turner is bothered by China’s participation. Despite his paranoid reaction, Beijing has not supplanted Washington in the Mideast. Indeed, it was inevitable that the PRC, a rising power with a growing economy and expanding trade, was going to be ever more involved in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. China’s efforts to reduce hostilities are to America’s advantage. Both the U.S. and PRC would benefit from a Middle East free from sectarian conflict and interstate war. 

Instead of complaining, Washington policymakers should learn a painful lesson: unnecessarily demonizing countries undermines American interests. The U.S. and revolutionary Iran were never going to have an easy relationship, but one characterized by isolation, sanctions, threats, and conflict has served no one’s interest. Jealous Washington policymakers should start talking with their adversaries. If the U.S. won’t play a responsible international role, it shouldn’t complain when other nations, including China, do so.

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