The détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran—with China playing a facilitating role—is not as momentous as Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, Anwar Sadat’s trip to Jerusalem in 1977, or the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Even so, if the agreement sticks, it’s a pretty big deal. Most importantly, it is a wake-up call for the Biden administration and the rest of the United States’ foreign-policy establishment, because it exposes the self-imposed handicaps that have long crippled U.S. Middle East policy. It also highlights how China is attempting to present itself as a force for peace in the world, a mantle that the United States has largely abandoned in recent years.
How did China pull this off? Efforts to lower the temperature between Riyadh and Tehran had been underway for some time, but China could step in and help the two parties reach agreement because its dramatic economic rise has given it a growing role in the Middle East. More importantly, China could mediate between Iran and Saudi Arabia because it has cordial, business-like ties with a majority of countries in the region. China has diplomatic relations and does business with all sides: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Gulf States, even Bashar al-Assad in Syria. That’s how a great power maximizes its leverage: You make it clear that you’re willing to work with others if they are willing to work with you, and your ties with others remind them that you have other options, too.
The United States, by contrast, has “special relationships” with some countries in the Middle East and no relationship at all with others, most notably Iran. The result is that client states such as Egypt, Israel, or Saudi Arabia take U.S. support for granted and treat its concerns with ill-disguised contempt, whether the issue is human rights in Egypt, the Saudi war in Yemen, or Israel’s long and brutal campaign to colonize the West Bank. At the same time, our mostly futile efforts to isolate and topple the Islamic Republic have left Washington with essentially zero capacity to shape Iran’s perceptions, actions, or diplomatic trajectory. This policy—a product of the assiduous efforts of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, etc., and well-funded Arab government lobbying efforts—may be the clearest example of an own goal in contemporary U.S. diplomacy. By demonstrating that Washington can’t do much to advance peace or justice in the region, it has left the field wide open for Beijing.
The Saudi-Iranian deal also highlights an important dimension of the emerging Sino-American rivalry: Will Washington or Beijing be seen by others as the best guide to a future world order?
Read the full piece in Foreign Policy.