After decades of insults, threats, and proxy conflicts around the Middle East, Iran and Saudi Arabia announced an agreement on March 10 to restore diplomatic relations. The announcement was surprising, not least because the agreement was brokered by China—and with no involvement from the United States, the pre-eminent power in the region since the Cold War. Saudi Arabia and Iran themselves have been enemies since 1979, when Iran’s Islamic Revolution toppled the shah—a staunch U.S. ally—and the Revolution’s supporters started chanting Death to America and threatening Washington’s partners in the region, including the Saudis. Meanwhile, China has been developing its ties in the Middle East for years now. But openly mediating a new diplomatic pact between two of the region’s biggest powers—a pact that will see them reopen embassies, revive a security agreement, and reestablish economic and cultural ties—would seem a major turning point. What’s going on here?
Steven Cook is a senior fellow for Middle East and Africa Studies based in Washington with the Council on Foreign Relations. To Cook, the new agreement isn’t as surprising, or shocking to the constellation of power in the Middle East, as it might seem. Behind all their conflict, the Iranians and the Saudis have been finding gradually more and stronger incentives to put their differences aside; they needed help settling them; and China was at hand and happy to give it. The development shows how radically the position of the United States in the Middle East has changed over the past 30 years—but, Cook says, the Chinese aren’t simply replacing the Americans in the region; something altogether new is taking shape.
Sean Nangle: What’s just happened in the Middle East?
Steven Cook: The global perception of what’s happened is interesting to start with. There’s been a tendency to see the Iranian-Saudi deal as the mark of a sudden and dramatic shift in the region. After all, Washington has been highly focused on the global challenge from China; the media—U.S. and international—has been highly focused on Washington being highly focused on the global challenge from China; and then, all of a sudden, it comes out that China has brokered a grand bargain between, of all countries, Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Yet if you look at the substance of the deal, it’s an agreement to reestablish diplomatic relations between Tehran and Riyadh. The substance isn’t unprecedented. In the current environment, it may have been a little too easy for commentators in the media to lose sight of the fact that Iran and Saudi Arabia have maintained diplomatic relations before—through some very frosty and tension-filled years, at that.
Okay, not in the last six years, so something important has happened here. And okay, the deal was brokered by the Chinese. That’s new—and undoubtedly something important too, because it shows that Beijing is now a real factor in the Middle East. But we have to remember, if anyone was going to broker this deal, it wasn’t going to be the United States—because the United States doesn’t talk to Iran.
So I’m not sure we can say any of this reflects a sudden change in the Middle East. What it does reflect, though, is a striking moment in an ongoing evolution of the region’s geopolitics. Which is to say, in a waning of the time when America was truly predominant, when it had no real peer competitor—no near-peer competitor—in more or less the 20-years between 1991 and 2011. What the new deal reflects is that this time is well over. And now there are options for countries in the region looking for diplomatic brokers other than Washington.
Nangle: Iran and Saudi Arabia have had, as you say, a frosty and tension-filled relationship, going back more than 40 years—to Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Iran has since staked a lot of its regional and international reputation on resistance to the U.S. and its allies, with the Saudis being one of the most prominent among them. Why would Iran want to reestablish diplomatic relations now?
Cook: In the days after the deal, the Iranian media was very chirpy about the whole thing—making a lot of the meetings that would now take place on the road to reestablishing diplomatic relations, the Iranian delegations that would now be going to the United Arab Emirates, and so on.
The Iranians know there were already divisions between the Saudis and the Americans, but you can see in the Iranian response a view that the deal could help them exploit these divisions—in ways that will redound to Iran’s benefit.
It was clear to me, listening, that this wasn’t just propaganda or posturing. You could see an emerging sense that establishing diplomatic relations with the Saudis now is a powerful way to drive a wedge between them and the Americans—Saudi Arabia being the big dog in the Gulf; being such close allies with the U.S. over the years; and now being closer than ever to Israel, as Israel continues to normalize relations with its Arab neighbors all around. Of course, the Iranians know there were already divisions between the Saudis and the Americans, but you can see in the Iranian response a view that the deal could help them exploit these divisions—in ways that will redound to Iran’s benefit.
At the same time, the Iranians have been long on the ropes economically and with their population domestically—and the potential for Saudi and Emirati investment is very alluring. It also creates the opportunity to explore new deals with the Chinese, who’ve been bailing the Iranians out with investment, supporting China’s further prominence in the region—to the further disadvantage of the United States.
Nangle: Meanwhile, the Saudis have long depended on the U.S. for their regional security. And they’re not under any of the economic pressures that the Iranian regime is. What’s in it for the Saudis here?
Cook: More than anything, the Saudis really, really want to get themselves out of the civil war in Yemen, where they and the Iranians have been supporting opposing sides as proxies since 2014. If relations with the Iranians improve, and there’s dialogue, it raises the chances of being able to withdraw. The Saudis know now what a mistake it was to get involved in Yemen; they know the Iranians and the Houthis—the ethnic group leading one side of the civil war, backed by the Iranians—have shared an interest in keeping them pinned down there; and they know the United States hasn’t been able to extricate them. The Saudis don’t know, yet, if the Iranians are going to cooperate on account of the new deal. But they do know the odds have now gone up.
Nangle: So the deal makes mutual sense for Iran and Saudi Arabia in this range of ways. But a lot of the feeling of surprise about the deal has been about China’s role in mediating it. What’s it say about Beijing’s power and position now in the Middle East that it was able to do this?
The Saudis know now what a mistake it was to get involved in Yemen; they know the Iranians and the Houthis have shared an interest in keeping them pinned down there; and they know the United States hasn’t been able to extricate them.
Cook: The Chinese certainly weren’t the only conceivable channel. The U.S. couldn’t do it, but the Iranians did explore a possible diplomatic route through Iraq, and that didn’t really work. Meanwhile, the Chinese buy a lot of oil from both the Saudis and the Iranians. And the Chinese have supported Iran, in particular, by investing $25 billion in the country to help stabilize the regime here. So the Chinese were in a good position to negotiate the agreement, and the Iranians went to their patrons and said, You have strong connections with the Saudis—let’s see if we can figure something out.
And then, the Chinese have their own incentives. What’s really in it for them is that they’re very serious about their neutrality in the Middle East, and they very much want the region to be stable, so they can pursue their mercantilist policies—meaning state support for Chinese firms, Chinese exports, and China’s currency. They don’t want two of their biggest oil suppliers to be at odds, undermining the stability of the region, and potentially disrupting the flow of oil to China.
If all of this comes at the expense of the United States, that may be an added benefit for Beijing. But they’re much more interested in ensuring that the region remains stable and that they continue to get oil they want from it.
And as a bonus, they can more easily maintain their neutrality while selling weapons in the region, particularly to the Saudis, who have gobs of money—and who’d like to buy things the United States doesn’t want to sell them.
Nangle: You emphasize economic interests. To what extent do you think China might be making a geopolitical move here also—specifically, one that might strengthen alliances among autocratic states that want to resist international pressure to improve political rights, civil rights, human rights, and so on?
Cook: Well, I should start by recalling that the United States, a long-standing democracy, has a long-standing history of very close relations with autocracies.
But I’m not sure the Chinese are looking at the situation in terms of autocratic alliances—or really, in any ideological terms at all. They’re thinking much more transactionally about what they most want to get out of the Middle East—and what will be the best way of getting it. If Iran were a shining beacon of democracy in the world, I think the Chinese would still be interested in it, because they’re interested in its oil.
The Chinese have their own incentives. What’s really in it for them is that they’re very serious about their neutrality in the Middle East, and they very much want the region to be stable, so they can pursue their mercantilist policies.
At the same time, Beijing understands that the hugely ambitious kinds of things Washington has tried to do in the Middle East geopolitically over the last three decades have been strategic blunders and failures. More than that, they’ve been strategic blunders and failures that have helped undermine America’s relations in the region—to the benefit of the Chinese. The Chinese don’t want to make the same kinds of mistakes.
Nangle: So the United States has undermined its position in the Middle East over the last three decades, and the new deal illustrates that the Americans are no longer without a peer competitor in the region. What else do you see China’s mediation of the Iran-Saudi deal saying about U.S. power in the Middle East now?
Cook: Certainly, the United States remains the most potent military power in the region. That’s not changed. Otherwise, yes, China is becoming an increasingly influential competitor—but I don’t see it as interested in supplanting the U.S. in the region, as such. As I say, Beijing doesn’t want to take on so many of the burdens it believes have sapped Washington of its regional power. And the Chinese will also be mindful of the fact that the more resources the United States keeps focused in the Middle East, the fewer it’ll have to focus on Asia. They don’t mind that.
Nangle: Looking ahead, what might be some of the less-obvious potential effects you can see this agreement having in the region
Cook: Up until now, the Chinese have been there in the Middle East, and it’s been obvious that the Chinese have been there. But I can see this agreement representing a big step in the normalization of Chinese diplomacy in the region. I can see countries there looking to the Chinese to be more active players—and to be more of a counterbalance to the United States.
But it may be easy, also, to overestimate the potential effects. Sure, the Saudis worked closely with the Chinese to make this deal with the Iranians. But then the next day, the Saudis turned around and bought a hundred Boeing 787s from the Americans—something U.S. President Joe Biden was deeply involved with.
So it seems to me, the picture taking shape here isn’t going to be so much about the ups and downs of the United States and the Chinese. It’s going to be about how the partners of the U.S. and the Chinese in the region are becoming more adept at playing both sides. I’ve heard representatives of Middle Eastern countries say as much in the region, myself: This isn’t our grandfather’s Middle East. We have agency. We’re going to order this region on our own. And we’re going to pursue our interests as we see fit; we’re not going to let outsiders do it for us.
The new deal was brokered by China, but it doesn’t represent a simple shift in dependency away from the U.S. and toward China; it represents a new potential for countries in the region to be more independent and opportunistic in pursuing their interests with these powers. Everyone in the region will be thinking about that new potential.