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China’s interference in the Middle East is empowering Iran

In this photo released by Nournews, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, right, China’s most senior diplomat Wang Yi, center, and Saudi Arabia’s National Security Adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban looks on during an agreement signing ceremony between Iran and Saudi Arabia to reestablish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after seven years of tensions between the Mideast rivals, in Beijing, China, March 10, 2023. (Nournews via AP)

There is no other way to put it: The China-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a body blow to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to isolate Iran.

Netanyahu’s foreign policy goals have also been stymied by Israel’s multiple domestic crises, from unexpectedly strong left-wing opposition to his party’s court reform plans to a spate of shockingly violent attacks across Israel.

Netanyahu has long led international efforts to stop Iran’s efforts to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. His motive is not mysterious. Iran, in its state-run broadcasts, has repeatedly called for the end of the Jewish state and backed its words with actions, including funding proxy militias to kill Israelis, including Hezbollah and Hamas. Iran has also armed tribes in Yemen to attack Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi.

Uniting Iran’s enemies against it has long been Netanyahu’s strategy. He has striven to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia, hoping to make it the centerpiece of a security-based alliance of Sunni Arab countries and Israel. Now, that looks less likely.

To be sure, Israel will continue to coordinate with the Gulf countries on intelligence and air defense. The United Arab Emirates and other gulf states see an alliance with Israel as an additional security guarantee, now that America’s strength is questioned in U.S. troops withdrawn from Afghanistan, a chaotic end to America’s longest war. 

Nor will the freer movement of diplomats between Saudi Arabia and Iran automatically ease the tensions that have divided Riyadh and Tehran for decades. Each nation sees the other as a rival for regional dominance; sometimes that contest of wills mutates into armed conflict, as in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Iran remains an authoritarian threat to its own people and its neighbors. It is a regime that, just a few months ago, killed hundreds of Iranian women who sought to uncover their faces in public places.

The China-brokered Iran deal will only survive if Teheran abandons its hegemonic strategy, which is the main cause of the underlying tensions. Iran’s regime’s internal legitimacy depends on a notion of Shiite regional supremacy, something that Sunni Arabs can never accept. Thus, the deal will not last.

To find a path forward, we must return to the spirit of the Abraham Accords. From shared prosperity to peace, that was the spirit of the agreements. Unfortunately, we have moved away from it every day.

Returning to the accords, animating the idea of shared prosperity would unify Arab countries, breaking down the resistance of those who were skeptical of the agreements with Israel, while fomenting favorable Arab public opinion. It’s the key to all peace.

The accords included a massive $50 billion economic growth plan for the Near East. Some $28 billion was earmarked for the Palestinian economy, plus another $9 billion for Egypt, $7.5 billion for Jordan and $6 billion for Lebanon. These funds will build schools, roads, hospitals, port facilities and water pipelines. This infrastructure will create construction and maintenance jobs directly, indirectly fueling the small-business boom. Much of this requires Israeli support, to trim taxes, cut red tape and fund projects.

Here Netanyahu should see his opportunity to propose a courageous peace plan with the Palestinians, which was already sketched out in the accords. Focusing on economic growth will help all Israelis and their Palestinian neighbors. New jobs and renewed hope would invigorate younger Palestinians, who want to start or support new families. And it is the outlook of younger generations, who are prepared to put aside the prejudices of the past, that offers the best path to peace.

U.S. policymakers should not ignore the role China played in brokering the deal. The Middle Kingdom has interests in the Middle East and intends to protect them. Its extensive trade ties have led to political engagement and docking rights for its growing navy. Intelligence and security cooperation may not be far behind.

We are witnessing the emergence of China’s political role in the region. This is a warning: Abandon ties with sometimes frustrating, but long-standing Arab allies, and you are simply presenting China with a void to fill.

Make no mistake: A China-dominated Middle East would threaten U.S. trade and national security. A China-dominated Middle East might also send waves of destabilizing refugees into Europe and guarantee a market for Russian arms, oil, grains and consumer goods-strengthening Putin’s hand in Ukraine and globally.

America’s security interests aren’t about oil for itself. China is a big customer of Saudi and Iranian oil while America receives no oil from Iran and relatively little from Saudi Arabia. However, the nature of global oil markets means that the U.S. economy is still swayed by price shifts. Equally important, the energy security of its allies, from NATO to Japan, depends on the free flow of oil from non-sanctioned countries. Therefore, the U.S. still has substantial interests in the Middle East.

It is time for the Biden administration to ask hard questions about America’s Middle East policies, starting with: Should we return to the Abraham Accords as the foundation for a peace process in the Middle East because it is in America’s interest to deepen the scope of cooperation among the countries of the region? Or should we let China and Russia write the future of the region?

Ahmed Charai is a publisher. He sets on the Board of the Atlantic Council and the International Crisis Group in Washington. 

Tags Abraham Accords Benjamin Netanyahu China-US tensions Iran–United States relations Joe Biden Middle East peace plan Politics of the United States

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