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- In March, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced they had normalized relations in a deal brokered by China.
- For the US, the deal is both a wakeup call and a chance to address urgent priorities with diplomacy.
- Hassan El-Tayyab is legislative director for Middle East policy at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
For decades, the United States has been viewed as the indispensable nation in the Middle East. However, the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, brokered with the help of Chinese mediation, challenges long-standing assumptions about the US role there and signifies an entirely new shift in China’s approach to the region.
By mediating the Saudi-Iran deal, China has demonstrated its ability to play a constructive role in resolving conflicts impartially, rather than relying on arms sales to keep nations in America’s corner in geopolitical disputes. In contrast, the US has for years taken sides and militarily intervened in almost every regional conflict, including in Yemen, Syria, Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq and is far and away the region’s largest weapons dealer.
Predictably, some US officials and commentators have declared China’s breakthrough as an urgent threat to American interests, arguing that the Biden administration’s strategic misfires have opened the door to greater Chinese influence. But this deal need not be the catastrophe these critics make it out to be. A more stable region with reduced Saudi-Iran hostilities benefits everyone, including the US.
China is presenting a different vision for the region and it is incumbent upon the US to respond. But the way to compete in this new arena is through robust diplomatic engagement. This agreement is both a wakeup call and an opportunity to address urgent priorities, including ending the Yemen war and curbing Iran’s nuclear program — both of which can only be resolved through diplomacy.
Forensic experts at a the site of a funeral that was struck Saudi-led warplanes in Sanaa, Yemen in October 2016.
The Saudis and their backers in the US have made no secret that extending blanket concessions, including formal American security guarantees, is the only way to bring the Kingdom firmly back into the Western fold and advance Israel’s formal integration in the region.
But we shouldn’t take the bait, especially when the Kingdom continually subverts US interests by manipulating the global energy market and when the prospects for peaceful resolutions to long standing conflicts are growing.
Gifting the Saudis with more military support risks backsliding on the Yemen peace talks and seriously impeding the negotiated solution that is imperative to ending the war. And it’s critical to US interests that this war ends. The conflict has created a massive humanitarian crisis and regional instability, has put at risk the lives of tens of thousands of US troops and civilians in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, led to a rise in recruitment by extremist groups like Al Qaeda Arabian Peninsula, and badly damaged America’s international reputation.
There have been some positive signs for diplomacy in Yemen since the Saudi-Iran deal was announced. These include the opening of Hodeidah port to commercial cargo, a prisoner swap agreement between the warring parties, reports of Iran stopping weapons shipments to the Houthis, and no new cross-border airstrikes or drone attacks. Continued US diplomatic engagement is needed to keep these fragile negotiations on track.
Proponents of the traditional American approach in the region are also in a frenzy about the potential breakdown of the counter-Iran coalition, but isolating Iran has been a strategic failure by all accounts.
President Joe Biden with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in July 2022.
Former President Donald Trump’s move away from engagement through his catastrophic withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and “maximum pressure” campaign have accelerated volatility in the Middle East and unleashed Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, which is inching dangerously close to weapons-grade.
The new Iran-Saudi agreement, however, creates new openings for diplomacy alongside regional stakeholders to put Iran’s nuclear program back in the box peacefully. It may also pave the way for resolutions to other areas of dispute. Congress and the Biden administration should now take immediate steps along this path and adopt a more neutral posture across the Middle East if it wants to stay relevant in this new moment.
Policymakers can start by ending military support and weapons for the Saudi-led war in Yemen and pushing for a diplomatic end to the conflict and humanitarian crisis. The administration can also push for new trust-building measures such as prisoner swaps with Iran and some safeguards agreements for more limits and oversight on Iran’s nuclear facilities in exchange for targeted sanctions relief, as it seeks to fully restore the nuclear deal.
The Saudi-Iran normalization deal is an end of one era of US-primacy in the Middle East and the start of a new multi-polar reality. Policymakers in the United States have two choices: get on the diplomacy train or watch it leave the station without them.
If Washington rejects regional power-sharing and obstructs a world in which other nations have a vested interest in peace, it risks jeopardizing America’s own economic and security interests and its international reputation. Now is the time to prioritize and reap the benefits of diplomacy, not reject those who advocate for it.