Iran and Saudi Arabia have resumed diplomatic relations after a seven-year suspension, thanks to mediation by China. Some experts fear this bodes an acceleration of the decline of U.S. influence in the Middle East, in China’s ascension as a global power, and in Israel’s isolation. But in fact, Beijing’s move is, for the most part, a good thing.
There are at least four reasons.
First, the tension between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has sparked proxy wars, terrorist attacks, and other provocations, is the biggest source of possible war in the region. Calming that tension is in U.S. security interests, as well as the interests of all the parties, including Israel.
Second, Washington currently has no leverage to haul the foreign ministers from Riyadh and Tehran into the same room, much less preside over a subsequent handshake and reopening of each other’s embassies. If the Chinese—who get along with both countries, owing to a largely mercantile foreign policy—can get it done, good for them. Yes, the U.S. and China are rivals in many ways, but we are not in a zero-sum relationship, where one side’s gain is the other side’s loss. We actually do have a number of common or converging interests; stability in the Middle East is one of them.
Third, this step, as significant as it is, does not remotely resemble a Saudi-Iranian peace pact. The schism between Sunnis and Shiites will remain the predominant source of conflict in the region. Saudi Arabia—along with Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates—will continue to have tense, often hostile relations with Iran. Israel has carved out good relations with those Sunni nations mainly from their common enmity toward Iran. The restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia does not change that. Israel will not be isolated from its Sunni quasi-allies.
Finally, if China wants to step up and take responsibility for sorting out the biblical tangles of Middle East politics, welcome to our nightmare. The United States should welcome, not lament, President Xi Jinping’s dive into the dark side of being a “great power.”
Another, lesser-noted part of the agreement—the continuation, and possible deepening, of a fragile cease-fire in Yemen, where Iraqi- and Saudi-backed militias have been waging a deadly civil war—is an unequivocally positive step. If it holds, it may also reduce Saudi pressure on demanding more arms from Washington as a condition for their continued friendship with us or as a condition of their establishing formal relations with Israel. An unalloyed good thing, all around.
Nothing in this new development will result in the U.S. getting “kicked out” of the Middle East. We still have the 5th Fleet in Bahrain, an aircraft carrier and escort ships in the Mediterranean, and some degree of military presence in nearly all the other Sunni states and surrounding areas. Most of those countries also rely on the U.S. for weapons and trade. None of them want us out altogether. And while the Chinese are certainly looking to nudge out U.S. influence in the region, they know they lack the military, economic, or diplomatic strength to supplant us.
But if China proves itself a successful mediator in Middle East conflicts, what’s wrong with that? If we’re stuck with less of the blame for everything that goes wrong in the region—and less of the burden for feeling forced to solve it—then two cheers for Xi Jinping.