China scored an unexpected diplomatic coup with the March 10 announcement that it had brokered an agreement between archrivals Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations, which had been ruptured for seven years.
How did it happen? Beijing exploited a vacuum of power created by multiple miscues by the Biden administration. Biden’s bumbling, disastrous 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan considerably lowered America’s stock in the region. The Administration made a bad situation worse by making vain efforts to appease Iran with another illusory nuclear agreement and a misguided push to castigate Saudi Arabia as a pariah, despite its importance as a longtime partner for the U.S. on regional security issues.
The Chinese-brokered agreement pushed Washington even further into the diplomatic sidelines of Middle East influence. It set back U.S. national interests by undermining American efforts to isolate Iran’s rogue regime, build an Arab-Israeli framework for containing Iranian threats, and expand the Abraham peace accords between Israel and Arab states by including Saudi Arabia.
Prior to the March 10 agreement, China had not played a significant role in Middle East diplomacy. At a time when the United States is perceived by many regional allies to be withdrawing from the Middle East, the accord confirmed China’s role as a new power player in the region and a rising global force.
Iran’s threats to Saudi Security
Iran and Saudi Arabia have endured a hostile relationship since the 1979 Iranian revolution, which added deep ideological tensions between Iran’s revolutionary regime and the Saudi kingdom to pre-existing tensions over nationalist and sectarian religious disputes. Iran’s Shia revolutionaries have sought to displace the Sunni fundamentalist Saudis as the most influential leaders of the Muslim world.
Diplomatic ties between the two Islamic powers were broken in 2016, after Iranians attacked and ransacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran following Saudi Arabia’s execution of a Saudi Shia cleric perceived to be pro-Iranian. In addition to the fierce sectarian rivalry, the two countries have fought bloody proxy battles, supporting clashing militias and terrorist groups in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.
Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Yemen have attacked Saudi oil facilities and civilian infrastructure with Iranian-made drones and ballistic missiles. Iran also launched a drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019 that temporarily shut down roughly 5 percent of global oil production.
Saudi Arabia’s tentative détente with Iran, brokered by China, exposes a dangerous shift in perceptions about the Middle East balance of power. It is not surprising that Iran would look to China for diplomatic mediation, given their increasingly close alignment following their 2021 Comprehensive Strategic Partnership agreement. But it is disturbing that Saudi Arabia, with its long-term ties to the U.S., sought Chinese diplomatic backing.
A critical factor in the deterioration of Saudi-American relations has been the ham-handed policies of the Biden administration, which has neglected important security issues and focused on virtue signaling about Saudi human rights abuses.
President Biden came into office pledging to turn Saudi Arabia into a “pariah” for the 2018 assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident journalist. The Biden administration went out of its way to publicly chastise Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of the kingdom, for that killing, while turning a blind eye to Iran’s far worse human rights record.
The Saudis chafed at the criticism. Moreover, they were alarmed that the Administration failed to adequately respond to mounting threats to their security posed by Iran and its proxies. The Biden administration froze arms sales to Saudi Arabia, cut off support for the Saudi-backed war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, withdrew some of the U.S. missile defense systems deployed to Saudi Arabia, and prioritized the revival of the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, which the Trump administration withdrew from in 2018.
The Saudis regarded Biden’s drive to resurrect the flawed Iran nuclear deal as a major threat to their own security, fearing that another weak nuclear deal would allow Tehran to pocket billions of dollars of sanctions relief that would be used to finance Iran’s escalating military and terrorist threats against its neighbors.
The Saudi government values many aspects of its ties to the United States, particularly in the economic and technological spheres, as demonstrated by its purchase earlier this month of 78 Boeing 787 Dreamliner commercial aircraft, in a deal worth almost $37 billion.
But the Biden administration’s cold shoulder and its complacent down-sizing of the U.S. military presence in the region prompted the Saudis to seek additional security insurance against aggression by Iran, which enjoyed steady support from China and Russia. Saudi Arabia has now hedged its security bets by bolstering relations with Russia, China, and even Iran.
The Bottom Line
The Biden administration, which claims to be “pivoting” to the Indo-Pacific, left a diplomatic and security vacuum in the Middle East. China is now working to fill that void, pivoting to the Middle East at America’s expense.
President Biden’s threat to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” not only pushed Riyadh into China’s arms, but weakened regional efforts to contain Iran, and set back hopes of expanding the Abraham peace accords between Israel and Arab states to include Saudi Arabia.
The Administration’s misguided aggravation of Saudi-American tensions created an opportunity that Beijing was happy to exploit. It now enjoys better relations with Riyadh than Washington does.
In addition to China, Iran is a major beneficiary of the agreement, which helps it escape diplomatic isolation and buy more time for advancing its nuclear program. Moreover, Saudi Arabia is now less likely to join Arab-Israeli efforts to contain Iran.
The Biden administration needs to recalibrate its Middle East policy to give a higher priority to security issues and the need to deter and defend against multiple Iranian threats to regional security.
Perhaps then long-term partners in the Middle East, who now harbor increasing doubts about U.S. security guarantees, would stop looking to China to augment their security.
About the Author
James Phillips, a Visiting Fellow for Middle Eastern affairs at The Heritage Foundation, has written extensively on regional issues and international terrorism since 1978. His prime research interests as part of Heritage’s Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy include Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Persian Gulf security issues and Middle Eastern terrorism. Phillips also writes many articles on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Islamic radicalism, Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, and Turkey. He has testified numerous times before congressional committees on these issues. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, Phillips has written extensively on the global war against terrorism and its implications for U.S. policy in the Middle East.