Washington D.C.- The US has described the China-brokered normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a ‘good thing’, despite the message it could send about declining US influence in the region .
The pact between Riyadh and Tehran, announced last week in Beijing, only cements the reality of China’s growing role as an important trading – and now diplomatic – partner in the Gulf, analysts say.
They add that Washington, with its confrontational approach to Tehran, was unable to negotiate rapprochement, but can still benefit from it despite the alarm that some American hawks have sounded.
“The fact that Tehran and Riyadh have somehow decided to bury the hatchet is good for everyone,” said Jorge Heine, a professor at Boston University.
“It’s good for the United States. It’s good for China. It’s good for the Middle East.
Heine, who previously served as Chile’s ambassador to China, said the pact between the two Middle Eastern rivals was China’s “breakthrough in the big leagues of diplomacy”, but that doesn’t mean it’s a setback for the United States.
He told Al Jazeera, however, the deal should cause Washington to rethink its confrontational policies toward other countries.
The Tehran-Riyadh rapprochement follows years of tensions that have spilled over into the Middle East, notably in Yemen, where the conflict between the Saudi-backed government and Iran-allied Houthi rebels has sparked immense humanitarian crisis.
The exact details of the agreement have not been made public, but a March 10 joint statement said the pact affirms “respect for state sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of states.”
The two countries also agreed to resume diplomatic relations suspended since 2016 and revive decades-old security and cultural pacts.
Iran and Saudi Arabia had previously held rounds of talks in Iraq and Oman. Last week’s pact, however, was struck in China, with Beijing’s top diplomat Wang Yi present to shake hands with Iranian Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Shamkhani and Saudi national security adviser Musaad bin Mohammed. Al Aiban.
The joint statement credited Chinese President Xi Jinping for the “noble initiative” in bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran closer together.
Xi visited Saudi Arabia in December last year and in February met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in China.
Analysts say China’s role in securing the deal should not worry policymakers in Washington, which has made competition with Beijing a absolute political priority.
Dina Esfandiary, senior adviser for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group think tank, said detente will “potentially increase regional stability”, which is also a political goal for Washington.
She added that the United States remains by far the preferred security partner of the Gulf Arab states.
China is a leader Gulf oil importer, both from Iran and Saudi Arabia. The United States, meanwhile, has largely moved away from energy imports from the Middle East by increasing its domestic production capacity.
“Due to China’s economic weight in the region, its importance is inevitably increasing,” Esfandiary told Al Jazeera.
She added that a long-term worry for the United States is that China’s growing influence could eventually weaken Washington’s grip on its Gulf allies.
‘A good thing’
For now, U.S. officials aren’t panicking about the prospect — at least not publicly.
“Regarding the agreement reached between Saudi Arabia and Iran with the involvement of China, from our point of view, anything that can help reduce tensions, avoid conflicts and curb any way Iran’s dangerous or destabilizing actions are a good thing,” the US secretary of state said. Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday.
Gerald Feierstein, senior fellow on US diplomacy at the Middle East Institute think tank, said Chinese involvement in the deal may have been exaggerated, citing talks that have already taken place in Iraq and Oman.
The deal “is consistent with what the United States sees as the right way forward, which is to reduce tensions and try to bring Iran back into the international community in some way,” he said. Feierstein.
He added that the absence of the United States from the three-way handshake in Beijing does not mean much because Washington does not have relations with Tehran.
“The simple fact is that the United States could not have played that role,” Feierstein, a former US diplomat who served as ambassador to Yemen, told Al Jazeera.
He said the détente is not a Saudi insult to the United States. Rather, Feierstein sees it as a reaffirmation of the kingdom’s strategic approach of not taking sides in great power competition.
He noted that around the same time as its normalization pact with Iran, Saudi Arabia also provided aid to Ukraine and struck a $37 billion deal with US airline Boeing – a decision hailed by the White House last week.
The nuclear file
Where the détente may complicate matters for Washington is in its efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program. US President Joe Biden has repeatedly promised that he would not allow Tehran to obtain a nuclear weapon, which Iran denies seeking.
But several rounds of indirect talks between Washington and Tehran since 2021 have failed to restore the 2015 deal that saw Iran slash its nuclear program in exchange for lifting sanctions on its economy.
The Biden administration now says a return to the nuclear pact, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is “no longer on the agenda” because it keep piling up the penalties on Iran.
The rapprochement could help Tehran break its economic isolation, with Saudi officials already talking of starting investments in Iran once the agreement is implemented.
Despite stalled efforts to reinstate the JCPOA, US officials say diplomacy is the best way to deal with Iran’s nuclear program. Yet Washington has not ruled out a military option against Iranian nuclear facilities.
“We have been very clear that we will ensure, by any means necessary, that Iran never acquires a nuclear weapon,” the State Department said earlier this month.
Feierstein said the Iran-Saudi agreement makes a hypothetical US or Israeli military attack against Iran more difficult. Without Saudi Arabia being “part of this effort”, whether by authorizing the use of its territory for military operations or by allowing the passage of planes, an attack on Iran would be “much more complicated “, explained Feierstein.
Annelle Sheline, a researcher at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a US think tank that opposes military interventions, agrees with this assessment. But she said the complications could be a good deterrent for Washington.
“It would certainly not be in the interests of the United States to get drawn into a war between Israel and Iran, as things seem to have been going on in recent weeks and months,” Sheline told Al Jazeera.
She added that the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement makes such a confrontation less likely because the Israelis are now “less confident in some sort of Arab coalition coming behind them” as support.