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 at the Washington-based 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.

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