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The Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran peace deal has generated a lot of news about China’s serious diplomatic efforts in the Middle East. Has China achieved a diplomatic breakthrough? Due to growing Chinese influence, some see this as a sign of America’s vulnerability or a threat to American interests. However, the agreement fails to offer much to Iran, Saudi Arabia, or China.
The Saudi-Iran peace deal primarily serves American interests in the Middle East, again highlighting China’s regional limitations. Likewise, the agreement has caused significant distress in Israel, which raises important questions about the deal’s underlying motivations and potential impact on the nations involved. It is essential to analyse each side’s perspectives, capabilities, and political circumstances to gain a comprehensive understanding since appearances can be deceiving in politics.
China and the war in Ukraine
From China’s Perspective, ever since the onset of the conflict in Ukraine, the Chinese have exhibited discomfort and a marked reluctance to adopt a definitive stance. To date, Chinese officials have refrained from issuing statements that indicate their position on the Ukraine-Russian war. And this is understandable since the Americans have not only been able to humiliate Russia militarily via their staunch support to Ukraine but also politically have isolated Russia from the rest. Moreover, America has also been able to push the Europeans under its umbrella and has been able to change their behaviour and commitments towards NATO. For China, this is a problem because the war in Ukraine, coincidentally, has allowed America to accumulate much power from all dimensions. Furthermore, contrary to popular belief, it has isolated Russia and China from one another.
Concerns have been raised about the possibility of a Sino-Russo alliance harming the balance of power in Eurasia and American interests. But the likelihood of such an alliance forming is relatively low. The historical animosity between Russia and China runs too deep, and whether they will come together beyond purely economic interests in the foreseeable future remains to be determined. And now, the relations between the two have become more fragile due to the current global climate. China purchasing Russian energy or conducting recent military drills is not an appropriate measure to assess the strength of the Sino-Russo relationship. According to a CNN investigation, a Chinese defence contractor owned by the state was providing Russia with helicopter components and air-to-ground communication equipment in 2022. However, this does not seem to equate to the supply of ‘lethal weaponry’.
Is China operating within the world liberal order?
During last year’s Arab summit, President Xi delivered a series of remarks that included criticism of Iran’s nuclear program, regional destabilisation efforts, support for terrorist and sectarian groups, the backing of illegal armed organisations, a failure to prevent the proliferation of ballistic missiles and drones, a failure to ensure the safety of international navigation and oil installations, and a failure to adhere to UN resolutions and international legitimacy. President Xi also expressed support for the UAE in its dispute with Iran. He also emphasised the importance of upholding international law and state sovereignty. This indicates that China is not opposed to America’s liberal order but is operating within the order’s framework due to its inability to alter it.
While China has refrained from denouncing Russia’s actions and avoided labelling it as an invasion out of respect for Moscow, it has consistently emphasised the importance of respecting all nations’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. Such a statement goes against Moscow’s interest, especially from China. Last month, Anthony Blinken told NBC, ‘Publicly, they present themselves as a country striving for peace in Ukraine, but privately, as I said, we’ve seen already over these past months the provision of non-lethal assistance that does go directly to aiding and abetting Russia’s war effort’.
Inconsistency – a sign of Chinese weakness?
As a result of its inconsistent stance on various issues, China is displaying a sense of weakness. While it indirectly supports the American perspective on some issues, it also goes against it on others. Thus, China’s efforts in the Middle East aim to project an image of peace and counter allegations by the United States of malicious intentions. It is important to note that China’s presence in the region is not indicative of its political or military dominance but rather a strategy to mitigate American criticism in the international arena.
The United States objections and pressure on China could worsen China’s image and hinder its semiconductor and AI ambitions. Through its alliance system, the United States has already created several obstacles that impede China’s ascent as a tech power. Instead of succumbing to American pressure, China is employing a strategy of peaceful diplomacy on the global stage to mitigate the US policy maneuverers. Additionally, China is striving to prevent the United States from escalating the Taiwan issue, which could have severe repercussions for China. So far, the Chinese approach has proven to be futile and ineffective to an extent.
Giving some space for Saudi Arabia’s internal reforms
From the perspective of Saudi Arabia, the Saudi-Iran peace deal is advantageous as it eases tensions between the kingdom and Iran to some extent. The two nations have been long-standing regional rivals, engaged in a constant power struggle for influence. However, Saudi Arabia’s primary focus is on internal affairs, such as achieving its 2030 vision and overall modernisation of the Saudi nation. While the agreement temporarily removes the external threat Iran poses towards Saudi Arabia, it does not directly contribute to Saudi Arabia’s primary goal of pursuing significant domestic reforms, which is its primary focus. Furthermore, having China broker the deal would only further benefit Riyadh from a commercial perspective by opening newer opportunities for trade and investments between the two.
Does America still reign supreme?
However, Riyadh’s strong political affiliations with Washington have not altered in any shape or form and will remain as such in the foreseeable future. The petrodollar agreement, immense military agreements, and significant foreign policy cooperation by Saudi under the American umbrella will continue to be upheld. As a result, American supremacy in the Middle East will remain unchallenged, given that Saudi Arabia has been a vital component of American dominance. Even if Saudi Arabia were to sell oil to China in yuan, it would not make a significant impact since most of its customers still have to purchase Saudi energy in US dollars. Moreover, the unrivalled size and depth of the US dollar’s capital markets alongside the liberal order’s economic institutions are what maintain dollar supremacy.
Thus, in terms of foreign policy, the benefits of this deal are skewed in favour of America rather than Saudi Arabia. John Kirby stated that Saudi Arabia kept the US informed throughout the Chinese-brokered peace process between Saudi and Iran. He said, ‘The Saudis did keep us informed about these talks that they were having……We support any efforts to de-escalate tensions there and in the region. We think it’s in our interests, and it’s something that we worked on through our effective combination of deterrence and diplomacy.’ America consented to the Chinese-brokered peace deal.
Newspapers in Tehran on March 10 feature the China-brokered deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore ties. Photo: Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
A useful diversion for Iran
From Iran’s perspective, the regime views this deal as a way to divert the nation’s attention from the ongoing internal protests it is facing. With increasing pressure on the regime over the past six months, it must show its citizens and the world that it can pursue peace and stabilise the region. More importantly, the revival of the JCPOA remains dead, and Iran sees the current peace as an opportunity to improve relations with Saudi Arabia to increase its chances of reviving the deal. The regime also hopes that the recent peace deal can convince the current US administration to accelerate the revival of the nuclear deal.
Has Biden’s approach finally worked?
From the viewpoint of the United States, everything is going according to plan. Primarily, the US has prioritised and directed its attention towards Russia and China. Consequently, stabilising the Middle East aligns with American interests. America can’t be present everywhere and address multiple issues concurrently. Therefore, employing Saudi Arabia to pursue the Chinese-brokered Saudi-Iran peace deal benefits the United States.
Additionally, it assists the Biden administration in persuading opposition in Washington that a resumption of the JCPOA in the foreseeable future is worthwhile. Because the Republican opposition, ever since Obama’s era till now, has simply increased in their criticism and distaste of the Iranian nuclear deal. But now that the peace between the two regional rivals has occurred, the current administration could utilise such circumstances to justify their approach towards Iran.
There have been three foreign policy approaches in Washington towards Iran the grand bargain, regime change and the piecemeal approach. Democrats have historically favoured the piecemeal, diplomatic approach towards Iran, characterised by a slow and steady peace process involving the signing of incremental deals between the two nations. The comprehensive grand bargain remains unrealistic for both the Republicans and Democrats.
And as for the Republicans, they choose to advocate for regime and behavioural change through an approach that involves constant aggression and pressure from the Republican party to effect a change in Iran’s regime and behaviour. However, such an approach resulted in the region purchasing more weapons from the US to defend itself from Iran and becoming more divided, which has benefited multiple Republican benefactors. Therefore, the current American administration benefits from the Saudi-Iran peace deal in that they have been able to keep tabs on all the details indirectly, thanks to their ally Saudi Arabia. By doing so, the US could also avoid direct involvement with Iran internationally.
Is the deal an opportunity or a threat to Israel?
Lastly, this deal also helps America put pressure on Israel. It is no secret that the Israeli democratic party is closer to the US Democrats. President Biden called for a ceasefire during the 2021 war between Israel and Hamas, undermining Netanyahu’s authority. Additionally, several Democrats pressured Biden to take a tough and critical stance towards Israel’s policy actions. Therefore, a critical atmosphere in Washington towards Netanyahu’s government allowed Neftali Bennett to come to power, leading to Netanyahu’s removal from office. During the Obama era, Netanyahu travelled from Israel to the US to present his opposition to the JCPOA. However, Obama disregarded Netanyahu’s concerns and even criticised his speech in the US Congress.
Now that Netanyahu is back and causing severe internal strife and divide, it has again allowed the US to undermine its authority and support base. Thus, the recent Saudi-Iran peace deal reminds Israel that it depends on America and that reckless actions will not be tolerated. Since the agreement, Israel has been more alarmed than any other nation. Having two major regional powers, one of which is a fierce adversary, join forces undermines and threatens Israel’s security and existence.
The role of the UAE
A few weeks ago, Netanyahu carried out attacks against Palestinian villages, striking targets in Syria and even playing with Iran through calculated strikes in desperate attempts to divert the people’s attention from internal issues and unite them towards a clear threat. However, now those efforts have been severely undone by the peace deal. Surprisingly, even the UAE has begun to isolate Israel by delivering three million dollars to Palestinian villagers who were victims of Israeli attacks. Because if the UAE were genuinely concerned about the Palestinian cause, they would not have signed the Abraham accords with Israel. The fact that the UAE is providing aid to those Palestinian villages attacked by Israel shows that UAE is turning the tables for its own interests. The momentum is changing after the Saudi-Iran peace deal.
Channel 12 quoted UAE leader Al Nahyan as saying: ‘until we can ascertain that Prime Minister Netanyahu has a government that he can control, we can’t work together’. The Prime Minister’s Office issued a strong denial, calling the report ‘baseless’ and saying that Israel and the UAE relations are ‘strong’. Despite their political authority being undermined left and right, Israeli officials have denied any weakening of their relations with the UAE, stating that they remain strong and would have to as they have no alternative.
Furthermore, recent reports show that the Iranians also intend to visit the UAE to use the Saudi peace deal to thaw their relations – another alarm bell for Israel.
To summarise, the US aims to maintain its importance within Eurasia by weakening Russia and simultaneously pursuing its objectives towards China, whatever they may be. The US seeks to stabilise the region by neutralising any obstacles that may interfere with its broader plans towards China and Russia. In this context, the US capitalised on China’s attempts to showcase that they are a peaceful nation to protect its own interests. This was accomplished by maintaining firm contact with Saudi Arabia during China’s involvement in brokering the peace deal with Iran and the kingdom. In doing so, America was able to maintain an influence which resulted in stabilising the region, increasing chances for the JCPOA revival, creating a sense of security amongst the Arab states and pressuring Israel – specifically the Netanyahu government.
Additionally, portraying China as a game-changer helps Washington maintain the narrative that China is a significant player with autocratic intentions and designs on the world stage, which would be advantageous for the US as it would allow the US to implement additional containment policies, such as technological and military restrictive and boosting measures, in the Asia-Pacific region.