China’s Growing Gulf Influence
Agreement brokered between Iran and Saudi Arabia mirrors US’s loss of sway
The story of China’s stunning diplomatic coup in achieving a measure of détente between Iran and Saudi Arabia has to be seen in the light of a history that began 25 years ago, when then-Iranian President Mohamed Khatami began a dialogue with Saudi Arabia which saw him visit the kingdom the following year.
Though the liberal Khatami, now age 79, is now silenced as the conservative forces of the 83-year-old Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei continue to use unrestrained violence to maintain their grip on a restive society, China seems to have at least partially succeeded in convincing the Iranians that such a deal would do more damage to US interests in the region than continuing proxy wars with the Saudis in Yemen and Syria.
Meanwhile, the Saudis themselves, irritated by President Biden’s emphasis on human rights and criticism of its oil policies, may be tired of the cost in money and reputation of the proxy wars, in Yemen in particular. A sanctioned Iran has been further impoverished by its proxy wars. As for the Saudis, they have a Shiite minority in the east which seems to resent the seemingly endless tension with Iran and a de facto ruler, Prince Mohammed bin Salman, still only 37 years old, who wants to make his mark in many ways – also a contrast to Ali Khamenei.
Significantly, the Iranian signatory to the China-sponsored agreement to restore diplomatic relations was Ali Shamkhani, now head of the National Security Council, who had been Minister of Defense at the time of Khatami’s dialogue with the Saudis.
But given Shamkhani’s close relations with the Khamenei faction and with a conservative Ebrahim Raisi as President, it can be assumed that the deal has the blessing of Khamenei, who hitherto has resisted almost all attempts by more moderate figures to engage in real dialogue.
Whether the deal to do more than re-open embassies will stick is questionable given the number of issues, religious, cultural, historical, which divide them. Sunni/Shia rivalry has roots in the Persian/Arab divide as well as theology. That is not to mention the various immediate strategic ones, the Iran nuclear program, relations – or rift – with the US, and attitude to Israel. But one thing can be said for sure: it shows up the failure of US policies in the region, predicated on relations with the Saudis and, in practice, unconditional support for Israeli expansion and military supremacy in the region.
Washington has officially welcomed the China-sponsored deal, but in the background, one can hear the gnashing of teeth. The US had thought it had brokered a major step forward in normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world. The 2020 so-called Abraham Accords saw the establishment of formal links between Israel and Bahrein and the United Arab Emirates, and there was a strong hope in Washington that Saudi Arabia, which mostly has close relations with the UAE, would follow suit.
However, interests diverged. The re-election of an ever more nationalist government in Israel, further Jewish occupation of Palestinian land, Prince Salman’s irritation with US criticisms of his human rights record and, in particular, the murder of dissident Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, soured relations and increased the danger for Salman of a deal with Israel.
Whatever happens next, the role of China now underlines the failure, now going back years, to come to any kind of rapprochement with the clerical-led government in Tehran. There have been occasions when one looked possible, particularly during the time of Khatami who had gone to Saudi Arabia despite its support of Iraq’s 1980 invasion. That invasion was at times given some tacit support by the US but as the 1985 Reagan arms-for-hostages deal showed, quite inconsistent. Khatami had also instituted liberal economic reforms but a conservative reaction and weak western response to the opportunity saw a reversal of policy by his successor.
In the many years since 1980US resentment has lingered over the humiliation of the hostage crisis of 1979/80.US congressional knee-jerk support for a nuclear Israel, regardless of its land seizures and treatment by 6.8 million Jews of the 5.9 million Arabs of Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, has been another factor. So has Iran’s nuclear program- though Israel and Pakistan have long been nuclear. Other difficult issues include Iran’ssupport for some radical Islamists (but not in Afghanistan) and anti-western interests in Syria and elsewhere.
US toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003 might have created a bridge but while Iran and Iraq now have reasonably cordial relations, the US has none and its one-time fantasy of re-making the region is just a nightmare of wasted lives and money. The hard-line clerics led by Ali Khamenei also must share blame for the standoff. They are on the defensive at home so forever parroting anti-US propaganda and making empty threats against an Israel which at times seems to thirst for conflict with Tehran and has kept Washington on a leash.
For Americans, Iran remains in the popular mind part of the “Axis of Evil” including Iraq and North Korea pronounced by George W. Bush in 2002 as a prelude to his invasion of Iraq the following year. That is probably not reciprocated in Iran but nonetheless, official US hostility to what many anti-clerical Iranians see as the rights of an ancient nation provides some nationalistic gloss for the regime to offset its many failures, not least economic.
The questions now are whether Iran and the Saudis build on this fragile agreement, and how the US will respond. Can the two somehow disengage from Syria and Yemen, or at least have truce? That in turn may depend on the role of others, especially Turkey whose interests encompass Iran, Europe, Russia, all Black Sea states, North Africa, the Mediterranean and much of the Arab world, not least its immediate neighbor Syria. In turn, there is the question of Syria. whether President Assad can build on the morsel of foreign respectability that he has gained simply by staying in power.
The other issue is Israel. Will Saudis and Iran team up for more verbal and diplomatic support for Palestinian rights while Iran agrees to shut down its most vociferous rhetoric and support for its radical friends in Lebanon and elsewhere? Will Iran now prove more accommodating on nuclear issues as way of acknowledging China’s role and interests?
By keeping its mouth largely closed on issues such as Palestine, China has a pragmatic relationship with Israel, as it does with Iran and the Saudis on trade – the largest partner of both. China’s pragmatism has opened its way to present itself as peacemaker, a task made easier by Russia’s loss of influence and Turkey’s concerns following the Ukraine invasion about Russian goals, given that the Tsar’s troops were at the gates of Istanbul (Constantinople) in1878 and on the verge of having an outlet on the Mediterranean. They were only restrained by the combined efforts of otherwise rival major European powers from making “Tsarigrad” again an Orthodox Christian city with a Romanov Tsar on the throne of the city of the Caesars.
Now Russia’s neighbors may see China as a restraint on both aChina-dependent Russia and on Khamenei and his Revolutionary Guard. Xi’s friendship with Russia’s Putin despite the Ukraine invasion makes more sense in this context.
However, the list of challenges for any lasting rapprochement between the two major Middle East powers is huge and includes such issues as their relations with Pakistan and dealing with a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. The response of India, which has maintained good relations with Tehran, and is concerned that close Iran-Beijing relations will draw China further into what it regards as its region, the Indian Ocean.
But whatever the future, the photo of China’s Wang Yi, Iran’s Ali Shamkhani and Saudi Arabia’s Musaad bin Mohammed al Alban together in Beijing marks a turning point of some sort. What sort remains to be seen.