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Chinese-brokered deal upends Middle East diplomacy, challenges U.S.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, shakes hands with Saudi Arabian Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the G20 Summit on Sept. 4, 2016, in Hangzhou, China.  (Lintao Zhang)
By Peter Baker New York Times

WASHINGTON – Finally, there is a peace deal of sorts in the Middle East. Not between Israel and the Arabs, but between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been at each other’s throats for decades. And brokered not by the United States but by China.

This is among the topsiest and turviest of developments anyone could have imagined, a shift that left heads spinning in capitals around the globe. Alliances and rivalries that have governed diplomacy for generations have, for the moment at least, been upended.

The Americans, who have been the central actors in the Middle East for the past three-quarters of a century, almost always the ones in the room where it happened, now find themselves on the sidelines during a moment of significant change. The Chinese, who for years played only a secondary role in the region, have suddenly transformed themselves into the new power player. And the Israelis, who have been courting the Saudis against their mutual adversaries in Iran, now wonder where it leaves them.

“There is no way around it – this is a big deal,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington. “Yes, the United States could not have brokered such a deal right now with Iran specifically, since we have no relations. But in a larger sense, China’s prestigious accomplishment vaults it into a new league diplomatically and outshines anything the U.S. has been able to achieve in the region since Biden came to office.”

President Joe Biden’s White House has publicly welcomed the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and expressed no overt concern about Beijing’s part in bringing the two back together. Privately, Biden’s aides suggested too much was being made of the breakthrough, scoffing at suggestions that it indicated any erosion in U.S. influence in the region.

And it remained unclear, independent analysts said, how far the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran would actually go. After decades of sometimes violent competition for leadership in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world, the decision to reopen embassies that were closed in 2016 represents only a first step. It does not mean that the Sunnis of Saudi Arabia and the Shiites of Iran have put aside all of their deep and visceral differences. Indeed, it is conceivable that this new agreement to exchange ambassadors may not even be carried out in the end, given that it was put on a cautious two-month timetable to work out details.

The key to the agreement, according to what the Saudis told the Americans, was a commitment by Iran to stop further attacks on Saudi Arabia and curtail support for militant groups that have targeted the kingdom. Iran and Saudi Arabia have effectively fought a devastating proxy war in Yemen where Houthi rebels aligned with Tehran battled Saudi forces for eight years. A truce negotiated with the support of the United Nations and the Biden administration last year largely halted hostilities.

The U.N. estimated early last year that more than 377,000 people had died during the war from violence, starvation or disease. At the same time, the Houthis have fired hundreds of missiles and armed drones at Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia had sought a suspension of hostilities with Iran for years, first through talks held in Baghdad that eventually went nowhere. Biden administration officials said the Saudis briefed them about the discussions in Beijing, but the Americans expressed skepticism that Iran will live up to its new commitments.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia who had strong ties with President Donald Trump and has helped secure $2 billion in financing for the investment firm set up by Jared Kushner, the former president’s son-in-law, has been playing an intricate diplomatic game since Biden came to office.

Biden once vowed to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state for orchestrating the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi columnist for the Washington Post living in the United States. But he reluctantly agreed to visit the kingdom last year as he was seeking to lower gas prices that had been elevated in part by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

In trying to smooth over relations with the Saudis, Biden endured blistering criticism for a much-publicized fist bump with the crown prince, who was determined by the CIA to be responsible for Khashoggi’s murder and dismemberment.

But Biden and his team were infuriated when, in their view, the Saudis later breached the unannounced agreement reached during that visit and curbed oil production last fall to keep the price of gas elevated. In that instance, the U.S. officials believed Crown Prince Mohammed was siding with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Biden threatened unspecified “consequences,” only to back off without imposing any.

Now the crown prince is turning to the Chinese. “Some folks in the Gulf clearly see this as the Chinese century,” said Steven A. Cook, a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “The Saudis have expressed interest in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and a good deal of their oil goes to China.”

Cook compared the gambit by Crown Prince Mohammed, known by his initials MBS, with the approach of President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt, who during the Cold War tried to play the United States and Soviet Union off each other. “It actually did not work out as well as Nasser hoped,” Cook said. “It could backfire on MBS.”

Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel and Egypt now at Princeton University, said the shifting dynamics represented by the Chinese-brokered pact still pose a challenge to the Biden administration when it would prefer to focus elsewhere.

“It’s a sign of Chinese agility to take advantage of some anger directed at the United States by Saudi Arabia and a little bit of a vacuum there,” he said. “And it’s a reflection of the fact that the Saudis and Iranians have been talking for some time. And it’s an unfortunate indictment of U.S. policy.”

China brought Saudi Arabia together with Iran at a time when Israel has hoped that the United States would bring it together with Saudi Arabia. Having established diplomatic relations with other Gulf States, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain during the latter days of the Trump administration in what were called the Abraham Accords, Israel anxiously wants to do so with Saudi Arabia as well. Such a move would mark a fundamental change in Israel’s status in its long-hostile neighborhood, effectively the end of generations of isolation by the Arab world.

But the Saudis have requested more than Washington is ready to give. In exchange for opening formal ties with Israel, the Saudis have asked the United States for security guarantees, help developing a civilian nuclear program and fewer restrictions on U.S. arms sales.

Administration officials consider the requests excessive but see them as an opening bid that could down the road lead to normalization. In the meantime, the Biden team has helped make progress between the two nations, such as opening Saudi airspace to all Israeli civilian airplanes.

While its diplomatic efforts helped calm hostilities in Yemen, the Biden administration has failed to revive a nuclear agreement with Iran negotiated in 2015 by President Barack Obama and later abandoned by Trump. Two years of diplomacy have stalled, and the U.N. watchdog agency says Iran now has enough highly enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons if it chooses to, although it has not perfected a warhead yet.

Hampered by U.S. sanctions, Iran has moved to deepen its relations with Russia and now China. Tehran has provided badly needed drones for Russia to use in its war in Ukraine, making it a more critical partner for Putin’s Moscow than ever before.

In turning to Beijing to mediate with the Saudis, Iran is elevating China in the region and seeking to escape the isolation imposed by Washington. And Israel finds its hopes for an anti-Iranian coalition with Saudi Arabia evidently dashed.

Biden administration officials say Iran is under real pressure and suffering from deep economic distress because of U.S. sanctions. But that does not mean China, one of the signatories to the original nuclear deal, wants Iran to have a nuclear weapon, either. If Beijing has new sway in Tehran, U.S. officials hope perhaps it could use it to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Nonetheless, it is disconcerting for many veteran U.S. policymakers to see China playing such an outsize role in a region after years of making inroads.

“This is the latest reminder that the competition is on a global stage,” said Mara Rudman, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress and a former Middle East envoy under Obama. “It is by no means limited to the Indo-Pacific, just as it is not limited to solely to economics, or security, or diplomatic engagement.”

The United States still holds key cards in the Middle East, with extensive trade, military and intelligence ties to most of the critical players in the region. After the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, America was essentially the only important outside actor in the area. But Russia returned in force in 2015 when it sent military units to rescue the embattled regime of President Bashar Assad in Syria’s civil war.

China has been seeking military bases of its own in the region as it pursues energy resources and influence beyond Asia. The decision to involve itself in the Saudi-Iranian rift makes clear that there is another player to be reckoned with.

“I think it reflects the way U.S. partners have leaned into their growing ties with China,” Kurtzer said. “Is it a direct threat to the United States? That is debatable. But the regional order is changing.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.