Until it happened, it was unthinkable. The United States has for decades guarded its role as the sole negotiator in the Middle East. It has insisted on being the chief arbiter of agreements and the architect and decider of partnerships. But on March 10, China emerged as the broker of a transformative agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia while Washington was sidelined and left out of the room. The most important recent realignment of the Middle East was shaped by Beijing.
The story is so critical that it is too big to be contained in one story. It is two stories: the shifting of regional alignments and the shifting of global alignments.
Iran and Saudi Arabia have been exploring improving relations for the past few years. The feelers began with talks in 2020 and grew into several meetings in Iraq and Oman. In 2021, the two announced that Iran had resumed exports to Saudi Arabia, and Iran broached the idea of reopening consulates in each other’s countries and re-establishing diplomatic ties.
Both the Iranian and Saudi statements following their new agreement acknowledged those talks and thanked Iraq and Oman for their efforts and for hosting them. But it was China that brought them to the table, enabled the breakthrough and accomplished the agreement. “The two sides,” the Saudi statement said, “expressed their appreciation and gratitude to the leadership and government of the People’s Republic of China for hosting and sponsoring the talks, and the efforts it placed towards its success.” Iran’s statement expressed similar gratitude.
The talks in China followed a visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to China and a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to Saudi Arabia. Then from March 6 to March 10, delegations from Iran and Saudi Arabia held talks in Beijing. The talks resulted in the signing of “an agreement to resume diplomatic relations between them and re-open their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months.” Iran and Saudi Arabia also agreed on the “respect for sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of each other.” Saudi Arabia and Iran further “agreed to implement the Security Cooperation Agreement between them” that was originally signed on April 17, 2001.
The two countries also agreed to “implement…the General Agreement for Cooperation in the Fields of Economy, Trade, Investment, Technology, Science, Culture, Sports, and Youth” that was signed on May 27, 1998. This aspect of the agreement more than hints at the widening of the trail the Saudis explored blazing in 2021 to break with U.S. sanctions of Iran.
The Chinese-brokered agreement represents a seismic realignment in the Middle East. At the core of much of the conflict and strife in the Middle East has been the enmity and rivalry between Sunni and Shiite camps. And at the head of those camps are Saudi Arabia and Iran. A peace agreement between them could have massive implications for peace, trade and realignments in the region.
The United States should have no complaint with that. Stability in the region is good for everyone, and China’s role in supporting the international order and being a force for stability is precisely what the U.S. has been demanding of them. But the U.S. is unhappy for two reasons. The first is that it was China that emerged as the effective power in the region and brokered the agreement and reshaped the region. The second is that American foreign policy does not favour peace and stability in the region.
While Chinese foreign policy demands the fostering of stability in the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy demands a schism and hostility. A major feature of U.S. foreign policy in the region is the establishment and maintenance of a coalition against Iran. At the heart of that coalition is Saudi Arabia firmly in the U.S.-led anti-Iran camp. The Chinese brokered Saudi-Iran agreement dissolves that coalition and heals the schism. The United States, and not China, is revealed as the power promoting rivalry and hostility over stability.
Though deservedly overshadowed by the Saudi-Iran agreement, it cannot be ignored that, simultaneous with the announcement of the agreement, Saudi Arabia announced what it would ask of the United States if it were to normalize relations with Israel. As the U.S. prioritizes maintaining the anti-Iran coalition and the schism in the region, “[s]triking a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia,” The Wall Street Journal reports, “has become a priority for President Biden.”
But to get that deal, the U.S. will have to give Saudi Arabia “security guarantees and help to develop its civilian nuclear program.” Those security guarantees could include naming Saudi Arabia a major non-NATO ally. But the Saudi terms are, in the words of The Wall Street Journal, “daunting obstacles to a deal.” The U.S. worries that “support to enrich uranium and develop its own fuel production system…would allow Saudi Arabia to develop a nuclear weapon and accelerate an arms race with Iran.” And the U.S. has been wary of providing Saudi Arabia security guarantees.
Annelle Sheline, Research Fellow for the Middle East program at the Quincy Institute, told me that the agreement with Iran may also be part of “a Saudi effort to extract maximum concessions from the U.S.” She says that “Riyadh’s decision to normalize with Tehran, under the auspices of Beijing, may be primarily aimed at Washington.” The agreement could be, in part, a signal to Washington that if they are unwilling to provide Saudi Arabia what it requires to stay firmly in the U.S.-led anti-Iran camp, then they are willing to transfer to the China-led camp that ends the anti-Iran coalition and the conflict.
Whatever the complex motives may be, the Saudi signing of a peace agreement with Iran is a significant realignment of the region that could have significant consequences for peace and stability. That it was China who brokered the agreement is a significant shuffling of major power roles that could have significant consequences globally.
To open the door and find China in the room and the United States left outside is a major change in influence in the Middle East. It highlights China’s emergence as an international power and reveals its rapidly expanding economic, diplomatic and political influence in the Middle East. It also reveals a new U.S. vulnerability to being left out of the shaping of events: a concern that may also be being felt as China asserts itself as a participant in possible future resolutions of the war in Ukraine.
The agreement is a vivid demonstration of the strengthening of China’s vision of a multipolar world in which agreements can be struck without interfering in, dictating or restructuring other countries’ domestic policy.
The emergence of that multipolar world, in which the U.S. may not have the only word or the final word in alignments and policies and in which there may not be blocs, is a threat to the U.S.-led unipolar world. Washington responded to the Chinese-brokered agreement tepidly, saying they “welcome” the agreement if it can bring peace to Yemen, while cautioning, in the blind comical style that has become a hallmark of the Biden administration, that “We’ll see. It really does remain to be seen whether the Iranians are going to honor their side of the deal. This is not a regime that typically does honor its word.” While downplaying the agreement’s possible transformative possibility, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby conveniently forgot that it was the United States who failed “to honor their side of the deal” when they illegally pulled out of the JCPOA nuclear agreement with Iran who did “honor its word.”
But, despite U.S. blindness, the emergence of the multipolar world exemplified by China’s emergence as a counterweight and as an international power has not been confined to this most recent example of the dissolving of blocs. It has also been exemplified by recent agreements between Saudi Arabia and China and by recent membership moves in international organizations like BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
On December 9, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia where the two countries promised “to firmly support each other’s core interests” and signed what their joint declaration called a “comprehensive strategic partnership…between the kingdom and China.” They signed an alignment plan for “synergy” between China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, further linking the two countries.
Rejecting Biden’s insistence on choosing sides in a unipolar world, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud insisted that they could have a relationship with both. “We do not believe in polarization or in choosing between sides,” he said.
This change has been most significantly revealed in movements of membership in BRICS and the SCO, two massive international organizations that aim not only to rebalance US hegemony in a new multipolar world but to resolve problems in a way that transcends blocs. BRICS partners rivals India and China and the SCO partners India and Pakistan.
Both Iran and Saudi Arabia have recently initiated membership moves in both organizations, moving closer to each other and to China. The SCO is the world’s second largest international organization, after the UN, and includes Russia, China and India. In September 2022, Iran took steps toward full membership in the SCO. At the annual summit, the Secretary General of the SCO signed a Memorandum of Obligations of the Islamic Republic of Iran in order for Iran to become a full member. At a meeting in April 2023, full membership will be finalized.
BRICS is made up of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa. Iran and Saudi Arabia are both seeking membership in BRICS.
And in September 2021, Saudi Arabia was admitted as a dialogue partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, again joining both Iran and China.
All of these moves, climaxed by the Chinese-brokered peace agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, demonstrate the emergence of China as a major power that is increasingly balancing the United States in a newly emerging multipolar world. The Chinese vision of a multipolar world emphasizes partnering with rivals instead of confronting them in blocs. That vision led to the peace agreement between long time bitter rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia, a peace agreement that could have effects in the region that are as consequential as the effects globally of China, and not the U.S., being the one who brokered it.