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China Brokers Diplomacy Between Iran and Saudi Arabia: Implications for the US Role in the Middle East

| Mar. 23, 2023

For over a decade, American officials have been touting the wisdom of a strategic “pivot” away from the Middle East in order to face the threat of a rising China. During that same period, Beijing has identified the Middle East as a primary arena for great power competition with the United States. The strategic dissonance between these two great power approaches to the region came to a head with the surprise announcement that Beijing had successfully brokered a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The game of regional power politics continues, even when America decides not to play.

Perhaps the outstanding irony of the Chinese-brokered deal, as underlined by an unnamed US National Security Council official who commented on the deal to Al Arabiya, was that the strategic goal of Saudi-Iranian rapprochement was born in Washington, not in Beijing. The fact that one of the chief goals of US Middle East policy is being implemented by China is a sign that while Chinese regional goals are well-aligned with America’s own goals, the result of this convergence has been to increase China’s clout, while America looks for the exit.

The surprise Saudi-Iranian deal therefore has less to do with any warming of bilateral relations between the two countries than it does with China’s ambition to fill the power vacuum left by America’s departure. While the decade-long American effort to romance Iran by guaranteeing its nuclear program has diminished America’s influence with both Tehran and Riyadh, China has become Iran's largest trading partner -- in part by flouting US sanctions. At the same time, China has also been establishing important economic relations with Saudi Arabia. In the new Middle East, it seems that only China possesses the will and the leverage required to guarantee a deal between the region’s two most powerful competitors.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Alyahya, Mohammed.“China Brokers Diplomacy Between Iran and Saudi Arabia: Implications for the US Role in the Middle East.” Hoover Institution Press, March 23, 2023.