In an unprecedented diplomatic initiative, China on March 10, brokered a deal to restore relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia, seven years after Riyadh and Tehran severed their ties.
President Biden’s Gulf strategy, which is a continuation of former President Obama’s Iran-oriented doctrine, has benefited both China and Iran.
In addition to allowing Iran to keep its nuclear capabilities, this doctrine, which culminated in the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), requires Saudi Arabia to “share” the region with Iran and allows Iran to expand its influence in the Arabian Gulf region and beyond. The pursuit of an Iran-friendly strategy has led to the decline of US influence and the growing erosion of its deterrence in the Arabian Gulf. Here are four likely consequences of the Iran-Saudi deal for the region:
1. Further US retrenchment from the Gulf region
The Iran-Saudi deal would expedite America’s retreat from the region. The China-mediated Iran- Saudi deal is a lose-lose game for America and at the same time, would empower China and Iran.
Even if they claim otherwise, the Obama and Biden administrations’ withdrawal strategy rests on accommodating Iran and allowing the establishment of a pro-Iran regional order in the Arabian Gulf to fill the ensuing power vacuum. The United States has been retreating from the Middle East region since 2009 and China is the biggest beneficiary of Team Biden-Obama’s Iran-centric retrenchment strategy. It’s a strategy that has pushed America’s Arab allies in the Gulf towards Beijing as Arab states seek to diversify their strategic ties to address their security concerns, including their fear of Iran’s drone and missile strikes on targets in the Gulf and the broader Middle East region.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to mend its relationship with Iran is directly related to the Obama doctrine, which seeks to help establish an Iran-dominated order in the Middle East region. The doctrine falsely assumes that Iran is a rational actor and that Iran’s hegemonic demands must be met positively in order to achieve peace and stability in this restive region.
2. An acceleration in the Sino-centric world order
From a geopolitical perspective, this Beijing-mediated rapprochement is a major diplomatic and geopolitical victory for China and equally a serious blow to US leadership and its influence in the region. China seeks to replace America in diplomatic, military, and economic battlefields. As part of this geopolitical game, Beijing is eager to secure its access to the Middle East’s hydrocarbon resources in case of escalation with the US over its likely invasion of Taiwan. Saudi Arabia’s priority is protecting its petrochemical facilities and securing oil flow from Iranian missiles and drones and China has such leverage to stop Iran’s proxy attacks.
Other Gulf states, including the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, have welcomed restored Saudi-Iranian ties and in the absence of US leadership and security guarantees, they are expected to follow suit and race for the improvement of their ties with Iran, establish closer relations with China and keep a low profile concerning their ties with Israel.
3. A blow to the Abraham accords
With President Biden in office, pursuing the Abraham accords is not a US Middle East policy priority, anymore. Yet, Iran and Saudi Arabia occupy a unique place in Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s foreign policy. During his election campaign in 2022, Netanyahu made blocking Iran’s access to nuclear bombs and establishing formal diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia his two top priorities.
Netanyahu has repeatedly stated that establishing diplomatic ties with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – a key Muslim state and the heartland of Islam – would be a diplomatic “quantum leap” and would end the Israeli-Arab conflict, irrespective of the Palestinian issue. With Iran- Saudi rapprochement underway, Netanyahu’s hope for achieving peace with Saudi Arabia may become harder, if not impossible, and the expansion of the Israeli-Arab peace initiative, better known as the “Abraham Accords”, could come to a standstill.
The Abraham Accords is one of the greatest US foreign policy achievements in recent decades and this key diplomatic success needs to be reproduced with US diplomatic leadership. Otherwise, China is going to dominate the region’s diplomatic arena.
4. An interim de-escalation in media and proxy wars
As part of restoring their ties, Iran and Saudi Arabia are expected to soften their language in their media. Saudi Arabia has reportedly agreed to tone down coverage of Iran by Iran International, a Saudi-funded Farsi-language satellite news channel that Tehran has accused of instigating a monthslong protest movement in Iran. Iran, in the past, had called for the designation of “Iran International” as a “terrorist group”.
Iran pursues its foreign policy by creating chaos and instability. Thus, the Saudi-Iran deal is expected to only temporarily mitigate the proxy conflicts across the region between the two Middle Eastern archrivals, not to resolve the 4-decades-old underlying problems.
The clerical regime has reportedly agreed to stop encouraging Iranian-backed Yemeni Houthi rebel attacks on Saudi Arabia. Conversely, in a move to appease Iran to stop its destabilizing behaviors, Saudi Arabia’s finance minister recently stated that his country could invest in Iran “very quickly” following an agreement to restore diplomatic ties.
A potential détente is a welcome development, but only if it is not at the expense of driving US allies into a corner by bullying Iran and weakening US diplomacy in the region by warrior China.
US diplomacy in the face of China’s ‘wolf warrior’ diplomacy
Biden’s America has a long way to go to right the strategic wrongs and to regain the trust of its Arab allies, but first and foremost, it must get rid of the Iran-focused Obama doctrine, once and for all.
Washington has unmatched economic, military, and diplomatic capabilities. The United States can keep Iran at bay including by maintaining a credible deterrence and strictly sticking to the Maximum Pressure campaign. In addition, America can reverse China’s ascent in the Arabian Gulf by pursuing proactive diplomacy and expanding peace in the region.
China’s coercive foreign policy, known as “wolf warrior diplomacy,” and Beijing-brokered talks may establish interim détente in Saudi-Iranian relations but cannot bring peace to the Arabian Gulf and the broader Middle East, only the expansion of the Abraham Accords can. American policymakers must continue efforts to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the heartland of Islam and the most important Arab state, by including the latter in the Abraham Accords and expanding much-needed peace, stability, and economic integration in the restive region.