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China gets credit for improving Iran-Saudi Arabia ties; U.S. benefits

Smoke rises as Iranian protesters set fire to the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Jan. 3, 2016. Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after years of tensions. The two countries released a joint communique about the deal on March 10 with China, which apparently brokered the agreement. Associated Press file photo

There was a time, only a few short years ago, when Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman thought Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was worse than Adolf Hitler. “I believe that the Iranian supreme leader makes Hitler look good,” Prince Mohammed told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in a 2018 interview. Hitler may have tried to conquer Europe, he said, but Iran is “trying to conquer the world.”

Contrast those alarmist words with a diplomatic event that occurred last week, when Saudi and Iranian officials agreed to normalize relations after a seven-year hiatus. According to public reports, Tehran and Riyadh will reopen their embassies in one another’s capitals and exchange ambassadors again. The Iranians promised to stop using their proxies in the Middle East to harass the kingdom, and the Saudis supposedly agreed to clamp down on an overseas television network, Iran International, that has been covering the monthslong anti-government protests with ferocity.

Middle East specialists and other commentators greeted the deal with a sense of relief, as if Iran and Saudi Arabia finally decided to let bygones be bygones after decades in which they were at each other’s throats. Others focused less on the agreement itself and more on who brokered it — China.

“The not-so-subtle message that China is sending is that while the United States is the preponderant military power in the Gulf, China is a powerful and rising diplomatic presence,” commented Jon Alterman with the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

“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,” Atlantic Council nonresident fellow Ahmed Aboudouh said. “This could be problematic in Washington.”

Is the Middle East moving into a golden era of peace and tranquility, as so many seem to suggest? And is China about to displace the United States as the region’s most important foreign power?

Let’s consider the facts.

First and foremost, we still don’t know the full extent of what Riyadh and Tehran agreed to. The joint news release issued by Saudi Arabia, Iran and China on Friday was undeniably vague. There were a few generalities about improving bilateral relations but no specifics about how the two regional adversaries plan to live with one another or manage their stark differences over the long term. The fact that embassies won’t be reopened immediately is a subtle indicator that the process could be full of frustrating technicalities and surprises.

Second, implementation is just as important as the agreement itself. Indeed, agreements are worthless if the parties who sign them don’t follow through. And don’t make any mistake about it: There are a lot of reasons why the deal could be cut to pieces before it even begins. The Saudis and Iranians not only distrust one another but also are on the opposite ends of the Middle East’s geopolitical fault line.

The examples are near endless; Iran is a major supporter of Syrian President Bashar Assad, while Saudi Arabia is attempting to convince the Syrian strongman (and war criminal) to distance himself from Iranian influence. In Yemen, Iran continues to feed military equipment, including precision missile components, small arms and drones, to the Houthis, whom the Saudis have fought to a standstill over the past eight years. In Iraq, the Saudis and Iranians are jostling for political influence with the government in Baghdad. Plenty can go wrong between now and when the embassies become fully operational.

Then there’s China. Much has been written recently about Beijing’s ability to broker a deal between two regional foes. Some have even compared China’s mediation to then-President Jimmy Carter’s shepherding of the Camp David peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. In short: Chinese President Xi Jinping is proving himself to be a statesman, to the detriment of U.S. influence and prestige.

But this, too, deserves scrutiny. The Chinese are getting the lion’s share of the credit for pushing the Saudis and Iranians toward an accommodation. Yet at least some of the credit should be given to Iraq, which got the entire diplomatic process started two years ago.

The discussions culminating in last week’s announcement began in April 2021, when the Iraqi government, under a different prime minister, brought Iran and Saudi Arabia into the same room to lessen tensions between two of Baghdad’s most powerful neighbors. That process proved to be mind-numbingly slow as one might expect — it paused for several months when Iraq was going through one of its periodic, torturous political crises over government formation. But the dialogue never died completely. Xi didn’t create something out of whole cloth; he deftly hijacked the process to serve his own ends.

As far as China undermining U.S. influence in the Middle East, that would be true if it Washington didn’t support a rapprochement of sorts between Iran and Saudi Arabia. But the U.S. did. One doesn’t need to be a genius to figure out why: The worse off Iran-Saudi relations are, the more likely the tens of thousands of U.S. troops stationed across a constellation of bases in the Persian Gulf, Syria and Iraq would be affected by it. The U.S. directly benefits from de-escalation in the form of a more stable energy market and, one hopes, a thinner U.S. force presence. It’s silly to fret about an accord that is actually in the U.S. security interest just because China happened to be in the middle of it.

Are Prince Mohammed and Khamenei on the cusp of making history? It’s far too early to tell. Hold the Champagne.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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