Pool via REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque; REUTERS/Andrej Isakovic
- Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to restore diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by China.
- A former US diplomat says the move is a “middle finger to Biden.”
- China and Iran are top US adversaries. The deal signals Beijing’s rising influence in the region.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have restored ties with the help of China, agreeing to reopen embassies in their respective capitals, in a move that appears to signal the US’s waning influence in the region.
Tehran and Riyadh are historic rivals, and both have fueled a devastating eight-year war in Yemen as they’ve vied for greater influence in the Middle East. The Saudi and Iranian governments reestablishing diplomatic ties lowers the temperature in the region and raises hopes that their proxy war in Yemen will come to an end.
At the same time, the deal amounts to a slap in the face to the Biden administration. It’s a sign that the Saudi government, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, is willing to increase ties with US adversaries, and could have major implications for the future of the region.
“Stunning at a time when US-Chinese ties are at an all time low and US-Iranian tensions rising that MBS does a deal that boosts Beijing and legitimizes Tehran. It’s a middle finger to Biden and a practical calculation of Saudi interests,” Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat who advised multiple secretaries of state on the Middle East, said in a tweet.
The move is also indicative of China’s growing influence in the Middle East after decades of US dominance in the region largely catalyzed by the war on terror.
“The fact that China brokered the deal is significant,” Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, said on Twitter. “It shows the role that China could play in fostering a Middle East defined more by cooperation and trade and less by conflict and weapons sales, as has been the norm under US dominance.”
—Foreign Ministry 🇸🇦 (@KSAmofaEN) March 10, 2023
The US and Saudi Arabia have a close relationship and have been security partners for years. But relations between the two countries have soured since the brutal 2018 murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, which led many in Washington to call for a reassessment of US-Saudi relations.
President Joe Biden on the campaign trail pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” over Khashoggi’s killing, and in 2021 his administration released a declassified intelligence report that explicitly implicated the crown prince — often referred to as MBS — in the murder.
But Biden faced criticism last year when he visited Saudi Arabia and met with MBS at a time when his administration was pushing Riyadh to increase oil production amid shortages linked to the war in Ukraine that drove gas prices higher for American consumers. Saudi Arabia ultimately moved to cut oil production instead, which was viewed as a diplomatic embarrassment for the Biden administration and sparked outrage in Congress.
US President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The deal also comes as the US contends with historic tensions with both Iran and China. Biden entered office vowing to restore the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, but the landmark pact is effectively defunct and Tehran’s nuclear ambitions continue to raise concerns in Washington and beyond. Meanwhile, relations between China and the US have hit their lowest point in decades, with Beijing and Washington butting heads on a wide array of major issues — with Taiwan at the top of the list.
The agreement also has the potential to throw a wrench in efforts to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, given the latter and Iran are longtime enemies. Israel has appeared to suggest it could take military action against Iran over its accelerating nuclear program, particularly after UN experts recently said Tehran has enriched uranium to 84% — close to weapons-grade levels of 90%. Iran last month blamed Israel for a drone attack on one of its military facilities, and warned that it could respond “wherever and whenever deemed necessary.”