March 10, 2023 • 12:05 pm ET
Experts react: Iran and Saudi Arabia just agreed to restore relations, with help from China. Here’s what that means for the Middle East and the world.
Can the bitter gulf across the Gulf finally be bridged? On Friday, long-standing regional adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia made a big announcement: They will reestablish diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by China.
Below, Atlantic Council experts share their insights on the breaking news and its significance for one of the Middle East’s most consequential rivalries, for the region, and for the wider world. We’ll update this post as more contributions roll in.
Click to jump to an expert reaction:
William F. Wechsler: There are two big caveats to this apparent de-escalation
Jonathan Panikoff: China’s role is a warning to the US to not abandon the Middle East
Thomas S. Warrick: This is neither the end of an era nor the start of one
Jonathan Fulton: China has made its first major foray into Middle East diplomacy
Ahmed Aboudouh: China just left the US with a bloody nose in the Gulf
Holly Dagres: What role did an Iranian diaspora TV station play in the deal?
Ali Bakir: Saudi Arabia is taking bold positions relative to the United States
Mark N. Katz: The biggest loser in all this may be Russia
There are two big caveats to this apparent de-escalation
US interests in the Gulf are more secure if the nations that surround it are actively working to de-escalate mutual tensions. That was the case when a 2001 security agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran helped prevent active conflict for ten years despite deep mutual mistrust, and it remains the case today. So we should welcome the news of the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between these two nations, following the agreement last year between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran to exchange ambassadors once again.
However, this time the deal comes with two caveats, each of which raises important strategic questions for the United States. The first, most obviously, is that it was China that brought the sides together, with an announcement timed to coincide with the start of President Xi Jinping’s third term. After many years of proclamations from Beijing that it merely wanted to build economic relations in the Middle East and didn’t seek any political influence, we can see plainly that such declarations are false. Indeed, China has been steadily increasing its regional political influence for two decades, highlighted most recently by a visit by Xi to Riyadh in December and a visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing last month. Yesterday, China promised its interests in the region were only economic and it did not want to be a major political player; today China will promise that it only wants diplomatic influence, not a regional military presence. The world should have never believed yesterday’s promises and it certainly shouldn’t believe today’s.
Second, this announcement comes as the United States and Israel have been coordinating closely on potential responses to Iran’s ongoing nuclear program, with joint military exercises and the Israeli national security advisor visiting the White House this week in advance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Europe on the subject. While the White House may welcome the de-escalation, the Israeli government will not, as it will interpret the move as one calculated to diminish the threat of military action against Iran. It would not be surprising if the next announcement would be a renewal of US-Iranian discussions on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), once again brokered by China. While I remain skeptical of whether such a deal is likely (or even advisable) in current circumstances, such an announcement would be welcome in Washington yet seen in Jerusalem as diminishing the US-Israeli deterrence against Iran.
—William F. Wechsler is the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council and a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism.
China’s role is a warning to the US not to abandon the Middle East
The decision by Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume diplomatic ties and exchange ambassadors builds upon quiet engagement that’s been ongoing for years and significant growth in trade between the two countries in 2022. More than anything, however, it reflects Saudi Arabia’s desire to lower the temperature with Iran. Despite all of the reporting about growing security and commercial ties, and possible normalization, between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Riyadh’s fundamental and sole strategic focus is the diversification of the country’s economy away from hydrocarbons. To accomplish that, Riyadh views its security as paramount to ensure that oil drilling, transport, and sales aren’t disrupted and that the country is seen as a secure place for long-term foreign direct investment. Both of those could easily be undermined by Iranian or Iranian proxy attacks—a likelihood reduced by this agreement.
At the same time, this rapprochement arrives at a time when the situation with Iran is heating up for the United States and Israel. Iran’s enrichment of uranium particles to 83.7 percent—just shy of weapons-grade purity of 90 percent—is causing extensive concern among Israeli and US policymakers. By making this deal with Saudi Arabia now, Tehran probably views it as an opportunity to slow growing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Riyadh is likely to continue security and intelligence cooperation with Jerusalem, but Tehran is probably betting that their Saudi counterparts will be less inclined to enable Israeli and/or US military action against Iran.
The most interesting part of this development, however, may be the role China played in helping to broker the deal. The broad contention in the Middle East, and by many in the United States, is that China only has a passive economic interest in the region and is content to simply be a free rider on US security guarantees. Having just yesterday concluded a conference on China-MENA ties in Doha, I can vouch that this theme was abundant as part of the experts’ views here. But economic and commercial ties often give way to political engagement, which eventually can lead to intelligence and security cooperation. We may now be seeing the emergence of China’s political role in the region and it should be a warning to US policymakers: Leave the Middle East and abandon ties with sometimes frustrating, even barbarous, but long-standing allies, and you’ll simply be leaving a vacuum for China to fill. And make no mistake, a China-dominated Middle East would fundamentally undermine US commercial, energy, and national security.
—Jonathan Panikoff is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative in the Middle East Programs He is a former deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East at the US National Intelligence Council. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Community, or any other US government agency.
This is neither the end of an era nor the start of one
Washington should neither overreact nor underreact to today’s announcement that China played a role in the resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Other countries friendlier to the United States, notably Iraq, had brokered exchanges between Iranian and Saudi diplomats and security officials. China’s public role in today’s announcement shows its interest in doing something that few other countries could have done: gaining the confidence of both sides.
Resumption of diplomatic ties between Tehran and Riyadh is not likely to lead to a major change in the Gulf’s security situation. In general, the world should applaud a reduction in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia—tensions that have led to continued violence and instability in Yemen and the waters surrounding the Arabian peninsula. For reasons that are more geopolitical than religious, Iran and Saudi Arabia will always look at each other with a wary eye. So Washington does not need to see today’s announcement as either the end of an era or the start of one.
However, this should get both Congress and the Biden administration to check to see if Washington’s approach to the security picture in the Gulf is working for the United States’ long-term security interests. These are different from what they were forty or even twenty years ago. China is a major customer of Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s oil. The United States gets no oil from Iran and relatively little from Saudi Arabia. The nature of the global oil markets, however, means the United States still has an economic and security interest in ensuring the free flow of oil from non-sanctioned countries to world markets.
The report that Saudi Arabia has offered Washington terms for the normalization of relations with Israel is something that should be the focus of US diplomacy right now. It may be that Riyadh’s terms are not something that Washington will be able to meet, but the announcement of China’s involvement in restoring Saudi-Iranian diplomatic ties shows that Middle East diplomacy is alive and well—and does not always go through Washington.
—Thomas S. Warrick is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
China has made its first major foray into Middle East diplomacy
There’s long been an assumption that China’s straddling both sides of the Gulf was untenable for the long term, that eventually Beijing would have to behave like other countries and pick a side. That misses the foundations of its strategic-partnership diplomacy, which is interest-based and focused on developing bilateral relationships rather than balancing against a third party. Beijing has been able to intensify relations on both sides of the Gulf, all the while building diplomatic capital in a way that other extra-regional powers cannot. The obvious contrast is the United States, which has no positive leverage in Tehran; China’s got a stick but it uses the economic and development-focused carrots, while the United States just brings the stick.
This engagement between Saudi Arabia and Iran may lead to something positive, and it may fizzle. It’s too early to proclaim it anything other than a good first step. It is, however, significant as China’s first major foray into regional diplomacy. Beijing has been signaling since at least last January that it is willing to promote a non-US centered vision of the Middle East, and this is a sign of things to come.
—Jonathan Fulton is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.
China just left the US with a bloody nose in the Gulf
Chinese ambitions to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not new. Chinese five-point plans, flaunted by senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi two years ago, set out a Chinese vision for regional security and revealed a glimpse into Beijing’s objective to become a regional actor.
For China, the agreement solidifies its legitimacy as a heavyweight diplomatic mediator able to resolve the most antagonistic geostrategic competition in the region. It could create the first conditions for a shift in the strategic balance in the context of rivalry with the United States in the Gulf. China’s ambitions to position itself as a credible peacemaker have a broader scope covering conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, especially after this agreement. This could be problematic in Washington. The United States’ hesitance to spend more political capital on mediating conflicts is increasingly seen in the Middle East as evidence of the United States’ declining power and its focus on competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. The agreement could also provide the Chinese leadership with more strategic options since de-escalating tensions between Riyadh and Tehran creates a thin layer of security and stability necessary for oil exports bound to China, trade sea lines of communication, and Chinese Belt and Road investments.
For Saudi Arabia and Iran, China’s ostensible commitment to the “non-interference” principle and its “non-alignment” regional policy attached great credibility to its position as a broker. To be clear, both countries seem united in their grievances towards the Biden administration, albeit at different levels. Nonetheless, despite Iraq’s hosting the talks for the most part, China’s desire to take the lead has met Riyadh and Tehran’s willingness to hand it a diplomatic win—a stark indication of China’s growing influence over the two biggest powers in the Gulf.
It remains to be seen whether the Chinese mediation will hold in the future and, indeed, cover other regional conflicts. Nevertheless, China has just left the United States with a bleeding nose in the Gulf.
—Ahmed Aboudouh is a nonresident fellow with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.
What role did an Iranian diaspora TV station play in the deal?
On the heels of Raisi’s three-day visit to Beijing in February—a first for an Iranian president in twenty years—comes an unexpected turn of events: the resumption of bilateral ties between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran after seven years. Relations between the Persian Gulf neighbors were severed after protesters stormed the Saudi missions in Tehran and Mashhad in response to the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric and Saudi critic, in January 2016.
Since April 2021, talks have been brokered by Baghdad in an attempt to resume bilateral ties between the two regional players. The sixth talks were aimed to resume just as mass anti-government protests kicked off in Iran prompted by the murder of Mahsa Jina Amini in September 2022. The talks were reportedly halted due to Iranian diaspora satellite channel Iran International’s coverage of the protests, which the clerical establishment believes is Saudi-funded and responsible for fomenting unrest across the country for the past five months. TheGuardian reported in 2018 that the outlet—nicknamed by some Iranians as “Saudi International”—is funded by a company owned by a Saudi businessman with close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, according to the Associated Press, the owner of the channel, Voltant Media, is no longer owned by a Saudi national.
Some Iranians are wondering how the resumption of bilateral ties will impact Iran International. Since October 2022, the Persian language outlet, along with BBC Persian, has been sanctioned by Tehran over baseless accusations of “support of terrorism” and “incitement of riots” for its rolling coverage of the protests, and even the Iranian intelligence minister referred to the channel as a “terrorist organization” that would be dealt with.
One Iran-based journalist, without providing any evidence (and whose tweet was shared on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Telegram channel), tweeted that Riyadh committed to not fomenting tensions via the Persian-language satellite channel. This could well have been one of Iran’s conditions to resume relations.
At the end of February, the United Kingdom–based channel had to suspend its London operations and relocate to Washington after numerous threats against its journalists by the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic and an incident that prompted the arrest of an Austrian national by its headquarters on charges of “collecting information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”
—Holly Dagres is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.
Saudi Arabia is taking bold positions relative to the United States
This development resuming diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not shocking in itself given that Riyadh and Tehran have been working back and forth on this issue for some time with a clear message from the Iranians that they would like to see this happening. The fact that this round of talks took only four days confirms this idea.
Having said this, one should not expect that the chronic problems in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will completely end any time soon, given the complex nature of this relationship as well as its high-level of securitization. Of course, we will likely witness a further de-escalation, but the overall outcome will highly depend on how the two players would like to proceed from this point on and whether they would like to build on the announcement.
The two regional heavyweights obviously need some time to focus on other internal and regional challenges and priorities.
This development also highlights the diversification strategy of Saudi Arabia in which Riyadh has been taking bold positions vis-a-vis the United States on critical issues recently and opening up more to Russia and China despite knowing very well the potential consequences of its actions.
The most striking aspect of the deal, however, is the presence of China. Although it might make sense, China’s footprint in this diplomatic breakthrough promotes the perception that China’s role in the Gulf and the region is significantly increasing in a way that would leave implications beyond typical trade and business relations. It also highlights the absence of the United States as a major player in the region, diplomatically, economically, and militarily.
Bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran one step closer to each other is not necessarily a bad thing for the United States given Washington’s focus on the Russian war on Ukraine and the rising regional tensions resulting from Iran gearing up its nuclear enrichment levels close to 90 percent military grade. However, this development should open Washington eyes on two things:
First, the United States should not downplay this initiative and should give more attention to such developments given its future repercussions on its interests and the region.
Second, the agreement will give China a soft boost in the region. Until now, China won the region economically. If it boosts its diplomatic and political presence, this means it is one step closer to being a rising player in the security realm in the region in the future.
—Ali Bakir is a nonresident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.
The biggest loser in all this may be Russia
China’s helping to bring about the resumption of diplomatic relations is a dramatic move. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, though, is a far cry from either a peace agreement or settling any of the many differences between them. It is not even clear that China’s involvement was necessary for the restoration of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations to occur. Still, the optics of it raise the possibility of China playing a more effective role than the United States is resolving differences between these Middle Eastern adversaries. At the very least, China will be seen as an alternative to the United States as a Middle East mediator.
One immediate impact of China’s role in normalizing Saudi-Iranian relations may be to complicate America’s hopes for another “Abraham Accord” that normalizes Saudi-Israeli relations. This will only further the image of declining US influence in the Middle East. Still, the United States may actually benefit by the restoration of Saudi-Iranian ties (whatever China’s role in bringing them about) if this improves the chances for resolving or at least ameliorating Saudi-Iranian differences in Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere. Israel may even benefit if Saudi Arabia is now in a better position to serve as an intermediary between Tehran and Jerusalem.
Whether this occurs or not, the biggest loser in all this may actually be Russia. Moscow has long advertised as the alternative to Washington as an effective Middle East mediator since Russia works effectively with Iran while the U.S. does not. But China, obviously, can too.
—Mark N. Katz is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.