Game Changer: How China’s Iran-Saudi Deal Transforms Geopolitics

Just a year ago, the US was in the ascendant when it came to Middle East politics, working to isolate Iran by helping to normalize relationships between Israel and the Mideast Gulf states. The reality just changed — literally overnight — after China successfully brokered a reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran which, if consummated, will radically transform regional and global geopolitics.

When Wang Yi, China’s most senior diplomat, stepped out in front of the cameras in Beijing, China, on Mar. 10, accompanied by Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, and Saudi National Security Adviser Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban, the world changed forever. On the surface, the deal that China mediated — with Iran and Saudi Arabia agreeing to resume formal diplomatic ties and affirming their respect for “the noninterference in internal affairs of states” — was a remarkable enough diplomatic accomplishment. In practical terms, this simply reset the clock to pre-2016, when the two nations severed relations in the aftermath of the execution by Saudi Arabia of a prominent Shiite cleric, which in turn prompted attacks on the Saudi embassy in Tehran. But the agreement to resume diplomatic relations was accompanied by a series of other commitments by the two nations to respect each other’s sovereignty, and to engage in economic, cultural and sports cooperation. The timeline for implementation is two months from the date of the agreement.

The successful negotiation of a new détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a remarkable achievement for China, although even senior Chinese diplomats, with extensive experience in the Middle East, note that this needs to be assessed in a realistic manner. This is not going to open the door to an age of Chinese meddling in the complicated affairs of the Middle East, noted Wu Sike, a former Chinese special envoy for Middle East affairs. Issues such as an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement are most likely beyond the remit of current Chinese diplomacy in the region. And China’s diplomatic intervention also came on the heels of recent Iraq-mediated talks between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Significantly, the deal also ushers in a potential new era of Chinese economic involvement with the two most important Mideast Gulf nations. If the deal is implemented, China’s Belt and Road Initiative could become an even more integral part of the social and economic futures of both Saudi Arabia and Iran. If anything defines a regional pivot away from the West and toward the East, this is it.

End of the ‘Crescent of Chaos’

Back in 2004, King Abdullah II of Jordan coined the phrase “Shiite crescent.” At the time, concern about Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, combined with Iran’s established presence in Lebanon and Afghanistan, saw the US and its Arab allies define this level of Iranian regional engagement as malign in character. Later, the “Shiite crescent” would expand as Iran became involved in Syria in 2011 and Yemen in 2015. As Saudi Arabia pushed back in a bid to contain Iranian influence, either directly or via funding its own proxy groups, the “Shiite crescent” became a “crescent of chaos.”

In the two decades since the term was coined, the “Shiite crescent” became the scene of numerous instances of regional violence, including ongoing US-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Syrian civil war, the Hezbollah-Israeli conflict, and the Saudi/United Arab Emirates (UAE)-led war against the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen. These conflicts emerged in the context of deteriorating relations between the US and Iran.

The 2016 diplomatic rupture between Saudi Arabia and Iran came amid already-heightened tensions between the two regional rivals. The previous year, Saudi Arabia had unleashed a war on its neighbor, Yemen, which then-Saudi Defense Minister Mohammed bin Salman (now crown prince and prime minister) hoped would establish his bona fides as a wartime commander and, by extension, future king. Russia had also formally entered the Syrian civil war in 2015, aligning itself with Iran in backing the Assad regime. The US was primarily pouring military resources into quashing Sunni extremist groups like Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.

The Chinese-brokered deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran promises to transform this “crescent of chaos” into a “crescent of stability.” If successfully implemented, this could usher in a new era where economic growth outweighs military power in defining the Middle East. If all goes well, Saudi-funded political and economic elites in Lebanon could now be empowered to broker national reconciliation with Iran-backed Hezbollah. Saudi money may now go toward the reconstruction of Syria, with which the UAE has already normalized ties. In Yemen, Saudi and Iranian pressure could be brought on all parties to bring a halt to the fighting.

In 2020, the US threw another factor into the mix, negotiating the Abraham Accords, which sought to normalize relations between Israel and the Gulf states and, by extension, strengthen and expand an anti-Iran alliance in the region. Although negotiated by the administration of former US President Donald Trump, the Abraham Accords — which normalized ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco — have remained a staple of US Middle East policy under the administration of US President Joe Biden, including as a means to help contain Iran.

But where once there was furtive hope that Saudi Arabia would also normalize relations with Israel to help further isolate and neutralize Iran, Israel now finds itself more isolated from the Gulf states — a victim of its own right-wing politics targeting the Palestinian people and, more recently, deft Chinese diplomacy.

Brics and Beyond

What makes the Chinese-brokered détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran even more of a tectonic shift is the overall trajectory of global geopolitics. Whereas in 2016, the tide was pushing against Iran, today it is pushing more against the US and the West, which seeks the maintenance of the “rules-based international order,” and toward alternative alignments such as Brics.

China is the “C” in the Brics group, the new global economic forum whose GDP, when adjusted for purchasing power parity, now surpasses that of the US-dominated G7 economic bloc. Iran has already has submitted an application to join China and the other Brics nations (Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa), and Saudi Arabia has indicated that it will do the same soon. Other nations, such as Argentina and Egypt, are lining up as well.

With China providing infrastructure-generating investment capital through its Belt and Road Initiative, the new Iran-Saudi détente could evolve into a regional economic relationship that supplants the US-led defense relationships that have defined Middle East politics for decades. And if Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi follows through on a reported invitation from Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to visit the kingdom, it will be the US and Israel who are left on the outside, watching a region they once controlled slip from their grasp.

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