The détente China brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia is spurring breathless talk in some corners of a regional paradigm shift and even the rise of a Beijing-centric world order.
The Biden administration’s reaction, however, amounts to: Nothing to see here, folks.
U.S. officials have issued brief public statements that downplay the initiative. Asked for details in interviews, they argued that, among other things: It’s a one-off case; it was in China’s economic interest to broker the deal; it doesn’t translate into long-term alliances; and anything that helps calm the region is in America’s interest.
That display of nonchalance also suggests that the administration is eager to stave off concerns that China is eroding America’s global influence at a time when the Biden administration seeks solidarity with partners and allies to counter what Secretary of State Antony Blinken calls Beijing’s threat to the “rules-based international order.”
“Ultimately, this is a good thing,” a U.S. official said of Friday’s announcement that Beijing had brokered a deal for Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic relations. “We want de-escalation in the Middle East and have been working in that direction. People are not too worked up about the fact that it was the Chinese who were able to pull this off.” Four others made similar comments minimizing the importance of the deal, all of them granted anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic topic.
The other tack: U.S. officials are stressing that America remains very engaged in the Middle East, pointing to recent military exercises, visits by U.S. diplomats and President Joe Biden’s call with the sultan of Oman earlier this month.
Given the growing rhetoric about a U.S.-China Cold War, it makes sense for U.S. officials to avoid perceptions of panic — which could suggest weakness. Besides, both Washington and Beijing have an interest in a stable Middle East, not least due to the region’s centrality in global energy needs. The U.S. has more of a security interest, while China has more of an economic interest.
“If the administration was all up in arms, what could they do about it?” asked Ryan Hass, a former China hand on the National Security Council during the Obama administration. He added: “At the 60,000-foot level, we’re not in fundamental tension with each other” in the Middle East.
Such assessments, however, run head on with Biden’s assertions that, on a global level, the United States and China are in competition — economically and otherwise. While Biden insists he’s not looking for a conflict, he and his team are pushing European and Asian allies to lessen their dependencies on Beijing.
While Beijing said the Saudi-Iran deal reflects “no selfish interest whatsoever,” it’s building on the deal’s momentum. China plans to convene a meeting of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council and Iran later this year, the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.
And Chinese leader Xi Jinping is reportedly planning to speak with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy next week following a meeting in Moscow with Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s expected that he’ll push the recently announced Chinese proposal on a path to end the war. The meetings come amid U.S. warnings that China may send weapons to Russia to aid its war on Ukraine.
The agreement will see Saudi Arabia and Iran restore diplomatic relations cut seven years ago and reopen embassies on each other’s soil within two months. It also includes pledges to cooperate on security, with the goal being to reduce direct and indirect attacks on each other’s interests throughout the region. U.S. officials in particular hope that it will further ease misery in Yemen, where the Saudis and Iranians are in a proxy war but where a truce is holding.
Michael Singh, former senior director for Middle East affairs at the National Security Council, predicted that the Beijing initiative will likely expose splits within the Biden administration.
“One camp will say … ‘De-escalation is good for the United States, yes, the Chinese are having their PR moment, but that’s a temporary thing,’” Singh said. “Others in the administration will respond by concluding that ‘It’s futile to go chasing after these Gulf states, they’re moving away from us, and even if they’re not aligning themselves with the Chinese … it’s not worth pursuing them with security deals.’”
Still, Singh stressed, “we should not be panicking — the mere fact of Saudi–Iranian de-escalation is actually in the U.S. national interest.”
The deal was arguably a watershed moment for China as it seeks more global influence. Xi has rolled out a signature Global Security Initiative, which Beijing is marketing as an alternative to a U.S.-dominated international system wracked by instability.
To make a move in the Middle East was a special poke in Washington’s eye. But China also had some advantages in this particular circumstance.
Unlike the United States, Beijing has diplomatic relations with Iran — so it has Tehran’s ear. U.S. relations with Riyadh also are in poor shape given differences over human rights, energy production and more. Meanwhile, the Saudis had been seeking to calm tensions with Iran for several years — a process the U.S. has supported — and China became the closer in a process already underway.
Some observers say U.S. officials may be playing a longer game, especially given their lack of trust in Iranian promises and lingering global concerns about Iran’s nuclear plans.
“When Iran inevitably violates its commitments, it will expose China as having no answers to Saudi security needs. That will reinforce the logic of Saudi Arabia’s security partnership with the United States,” said Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.
Washington is pivotal to another, arguably more groundbreaking peace initiative in the region: Expanding the Abraham Accords, which saw Israel establish diplomatic relations with Arab countries, to include Saudi Arabia. Israelis, who see Tehran as a major threat, appeared surprised by China’s role in the Saudi-Iran effort. But they have long known that Riyadh and Tehran have been moving toward restoring ties.
Some U.S. officials argue that the Saudis aren’t sending the message Riyadh wants to Tehran, Beijing or, for that matter, Moscow, with their recent moves.
The Saudis accelerated efforts to patch things up with Iran after an alleged Iranian strike on Saudi oil facilities in 2019. That suggests they are willing to submit to Iranian coercive pressure. To let Beijing midwife the final talks even as it is mulls arming Russia is to align the Saudis further with what some fear is a growing autocratic bloc that threatens U.S.-led Western democracies.
“The risk is that it associates them with a malign axis and serves no tangible benefit,” a Biden administration official said. “The signal it risks sending to Iran is that if it increases coercive pressure and threatens and intimidates enough, Arab governments will seek accommodation.”
Saudi and other Arab officials have complained in recent years that the United States is unreliable. They point to then-President Donald Trump’s seeming reticence to come to their aid militarily and former President Barack Obama’s nuclear talks with Iran.
U.S. officials said Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states are rarely satisfied with their level of American support. “Our Mideast partners are always going to want more from us — stronger security guarantees, more sophisticated weapons delivered more quickly with fewer strings attached,” a senior Biden administration official said. “They will want more and will complain if we fall short.”
But it’s not as if the Chinese or the Russians can make up for the security side, the official added. Gulf Arab states’ military infrastructure is geared toward the American model and China and Russia don’t offer the same level of weaponry.
Criticism in the U.S. of Beijing’s role in brokering the Iran-Saudi deal — despite the agreement’s very real benefits to the region — may give China cause to point to what it routinely refers to as a U.S. “Cold War mentality.”
“Anytime our adversary makes a gain in any way in any part of the world, it’s automatically a loss for the United States — very zero-sum game thinking,” said Robert S. Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.
China’s ability to prod Tehran and Riyadh into reducing tensions “is not like the Gulf states are going to kick the Americans out. Far from it. The Saudis, the Emiratis, the Qataris are still very much anxious to maintain military relationships with the United States,” Ford said.
But there’s probably a need for some U.S. diplomatic maintenance — and a greater presence, former officials said. “For example,” said Robert Jordan, a former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, “we haven’t had an ambassador in Saudi Arabia the entire time of the Biden administration.”
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