The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Let’s not overreact to the Chinese brokered Saudi-Iranian deal

Nournews via AP
In this photo released by Nournews, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, right, shakes hands with China’s most senior diplomat Wang Yi, as 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, on March 10, 2023.

Foreign policy pundits breathlessly declared the near end of American power in the Middle East with the recently announced Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iranian deal. One Quincy Institute commentator quipped, the U.S. is no longer the indispensable peacemaker in the region. As to the decline of American power, Mark Twain may have said it best, “the reports of [its] death are greatly exaggerated.”

During my visit to Yemen’s southern port city of Aden last week, most observers I met regarded the Saudi-Iranian detente with deep skepticism. In their view, China may have simply — and only — garnered a photo opportunity of Saudi and Iranian envoys shaking hands to seal a potential thawing of bilateral relations.

What the Chinese actually secured is the cold reality of unrealized great power expectations in the Middle East.

Take Yemen, for example. Iran agreed to stop arming the Houthi rebels as part of the pact with Saudi Arabia. Yet within days of the accord, the Houthis launched a fresh offensive against Yemeni pro-government forces in the oil-rich Marib province. The Houthis remain in uncontested control of northern Yemen, including the capital Sanaa. Southern Transitional Council (STC) forces are firmly ensconced in the south and east of Yemen and host the internationally recognized government in Aden. In the southern capital, there is no appetite for a peace deal which extends the de facto Houthi control over STC forces. In Sanaa, it is inconceivable that the Houthis will relinquish political, economic, or social control over the populous north. No one in Yemen believes the Saudi-Iranian deal will drive Yemen’s multi-party conflict to the negotiating table; in fact, this latest Yemen war, which began in 2014, remains effectively frozen along the 1990 North and South Yemen border.

The Israelis also understand that the Chinese-brokered deal does little to mitigate the risk of a nuclear Iran. If the Israelis face an existential threat from Iran, they will attack without regard to a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement. The Saudis may have looked to China, given its friction with the Biden administration over Yemen and the Jamal Khashoggi murder, but both they and the Israelis believe there is now an opening to extend the Abraham Accords. In fact, the Saudi Crown Prince seeks a civilian nuclear program and U.S. security assurances from President Biden as the price for normalization with Israel. Still, stability in the Middle East may depend less on Riyadh, Tehran, Beijing, and Washington and more on whether massive pro-democratic demonstrators in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem can reign in Netanyahu’s escalating threats to Israel’s independent judiciary and Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

Lebanon is a state on the brink as it grapples with a presidential vacuum and an unparalleled economic crisis. Last Thursday, the International Monetary Fund warned that Lebanon was at a ‘very dangerous moment’ given the slow pace of economic reforms. The Saudi-Iranian deal does nothing to facilitate economic reform for the increasingly impoverished Lebanese people and has little traction within its sectarian and political blocs. As Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah noted, “we have complete confidence that this [deal] will not come at our expense,” suggesting, of course, that there will be no cost to Hezbollah’s continued stranglehold over much of the nation. Tellingly, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan emphasized that Lebanon requires internal unity, rather than reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

Together, Yemen, Israel, and Lebanon highlight the limits of the Saudi-Iranian deal; nevertheless, China can — and will — try to wield economic power for political gain in the Middle East. They will likely fall well short of their expectations — primarily because the Chinese have very limited influential power in the region. How do we know? Just ask Middle Eastern parents.

They want their children to study English, not Chinese; attend university in Cambridge or Palo Alto, not Beijing or Shanghai; and open a business in the United States, not China.

Given America’s influential power in the region, a senior Jordanian diplomat said to me last week that it would be wise for America not to overreact to China. He then played American country music as we drove through the streets of Amman that rainy night.

R. David Harden is CEO of Q2 Impact and former Assistant Administrator at USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict, and Humanitarian Assistance, where he oversaw U.S. assistance to all global crises. He was one of the longest-serving American diplomats in Israel, leading the USAID mission to the West Bank and Gaza for more than a decade. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Harden

Tags Abraham Accords China Houthi rebels Houthis Houthi–Saudi Arabian conflict Iran Iran nuclear program Israel Joe Biden Khashoggi murder Lebanon Middle East Middle East peace Saudi Arabia Saudi-Iran agreement Yemen Yemeni Civil War

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More International News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video