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With Saudi-Iran diplomacy, is China pushing the US aside in the Middle East?

Luo Xiaoguang/Xinhua via AP
In this photo released by Xinhua News Agency, Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat, center, presides over a closed meeting between Iran, led by Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, at right, and Saudi Arabia, led by Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, at left, in Beijing on March 11, 2023. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after seven years of tensions. The major diplomatic breakthrough negotiated with China lowers the chance of armed conflict between the Mideast rivals, both directly and in proxy conflicts around the region.

News, particularly the international variety, is usually just either good or bad. But on March 10, at around 8 a.m. Washington, D.C. time, news emerged that arguably qualified for the description of “jaw-dropping”: After seven years without diplomatic relations, it was announced that Saudi Arabia and Iran were to “normalize” relations. And China is the Cupid that brought the two sides together.

I happened to have two meetings that morning with people with whom I often chat about Iran. Neither had heard the news until I told them, and both initially thought I might be kidding them. I could see each trying to process the information, working out what it may mean.

That exercise about the implications of the development will probably keep a sizable portion of Washington’s foreign policy community busy this coming week. That is not to say that some theories have not been expounded already, either in newspapers or on the internet. The nation’s capital is blessed with fast thinkers (some of whom probably want to spin the information in their favor).

The prevailing analysis seems to be that Riyadh has decided to work with Tehran because of the antipathy and lack of support Saudi Arabia receives from the Biden administration and Democrats in Congress. The latest grievance is apparently Washington’s lackadaisical response to the news that Iran is enriching uranium to a level just short of 84 percent, a level very close to bomb grade. What, then, has happened to White House promises that Iran will not be allowed to make a nuclear bomb?

Until last week, the expected Saudi response would be that the kingdom would quickly follow suit if Iran showed it has or could make a nuclear bomb — the oft-quoted comment that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the effective ruler, gave once to CBS News. Now, apparently the Saudi view has flipped, showing a willingness to withdraw from confronting Iran and perhaps even move toward “sharing” the Gulf with it — previously just a throwaway, much-ridiculed idea in an interview that then-President Obama gave to The Atlantic magazine in 2016.

A more cautious interpretation of the meaning of the normalization, scheduled to take place in the next two months, is that it is part of a carefully choreographed peace deal in Yemen, where Iranian-supported Houthi rebels occupy the capital Sana, despite Saudi Arabia’s determined, and expensive (both financially and in terms of humanitarian costs), efforts to evict them.

The incredulity that greeted the news extends to China’s role. Hitherto, apart from a mercenary attitude to the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when it supplied ammunition to both sides, Beijing had emphasized its commercial rather than diplomatic role in the area. The latest twist to emerge over the weekend is that China wants to organize a summit of all the Gulf countries. One can imagine most of, if not all, the regional states signing up for trade reasons — but what would be the reaction if Beijing said the price for its new role would be discounted oil?

These fascinating developments, and possibly more to come, also need to include analytically the other case of “normalization,” which had been absorbing Washington’s attention: the question of if and when Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel. That is now possibly off the menu. It depends much on whether Riyadh really wants a workable, if not good, relationship with Tehran. For Israel, though, the issue of a possible Iranian nuclear weapon still looms large.

Much will become clearer in the next two months, if this show can keep on the road until then.

Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Bernstein Program on Gulf and Energy Policy at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Follow him on Twitter @shendersongulf.

Tags China diplomacy Middle East Mohammed bin Salman Obama Saudi Arabia-Iran relations Saudi Arabia-Israel relations US-Saudi relations

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