China’s role in Saudi Arabia presents Iran with a tricky test for the US

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON: The surprise deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic ties offers much interest for the United States, including a possible route to contain Tehran’s nuclear program and a chance to solidify a ceasefire in Yemen.

It also contains an element that is sure to deeply trouble Washington officials — China’s role as a peace broker in a region where the US has long wielded influence.

The deal was announced in Beijing after four days of previously undisclosed talks between the Middle East rivals. White House spokesman John Kirby said Friday that while Washington was not directly involved, Saudi Arabia has kept US officials updated on the talks with Iran.

US-China relations have become extremely contentious on issues from trade to espionage, and the two powers are increasingly competing for influence in parts of the world far removed from their own borders.

Kirby appeared to downplay China’s involvement in the development on Friday, saying the White House believes internal and external pressures, including an effective Saudi deterrent to attacks from Iran or its proxies, ultimately brought Tehran to the table.

However, former senior US and UN official Jeffrey Feltman said China’s role is the most important aspect of the deal, rather than reopening embassies after six years.

“This is being interpreted — probably rightly so — as a blow to the Biden administration and proof that China is the rising power,” said Feltman, a Brookings Institution staffer.

nuclear talks

The deal comes as Iran accelerates its nuclear program after the US failed for two years to revive a 2015 deal aimed at preventing Tehran from making a nuclear bomb.

Those efforts have been complicated by a crackdown by Iranian authorities on protests and harsh US sanctions against Tehran over allegations of human rights abuses.

Brian Katulis of the Middle East Institute said the deal offers a “new possible avenue” for the US and Israel to revive stalled talks on the Iranian nuclear issue with a potential partner in Riyadh.

“Saudi Arabia is deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear program,” he said. “If this new opening between Iran and Saudi Arabia is to be meaningful and effective, it must address concerns about Iran’s nuclear program — otherwise the opening is just optics.”

Friday’s agreement also offers hope for a more lasting peace in Yemen, where a conflict sparked in 2014 is widely viewed as a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

A UN-brokered ceasefire agreed last April has largely held, although it expired in October without the parties agreeing to extend it.

Gerald Feierstein, a former US ambassador to Yemen, said Riyadh “wouldn’t have gone without getting something, whether that’s something Yemen or something else is harder to tell.”

Growing role for China

China’s involvement in brokering the deal could have “significant implications” for Washington, said Daniel Russel, the top US diplomat to East Asia under former President Barack Obama.

Russel said it was unusual for China to act alone to help broker a diplomatic deal in a dispute in which it was not involved.

“The question is, is this the form of things to come?” he said. “Could Xi’s visit to Moscow be a precursor to a Chinese mediation effort between Russia and Ukraine?”

When it comes to Iran, it’s not clear whether the results will be good for the US, said Naysan Rafati, a senior Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group.

“The downside is that at a time when Washington and Western partners are increasing pressure on the Islamic Republic, Tehran will believe it can break through its isolation and resort to great power cover given China’s role,” Rafati said.

China’s involvement has already raised skepticism in Washington about Beijing’s motives.

Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, dismissed China’s self-portrayal as a peace broker, saying it “is not a responsible advocate and cannot be trusted as a fair or impartial broker.”

Kirby said the US is closely monitoring Beijing’s behavior in the Middle East and elsewhere.

“As for the Chinese influence there or in Africa or Latin America, it’s not like we have blinkers on,” he said. “We certainly continue to watch China as it seeks to gain leverage and a foothold in its own selfish interests elsewhere in the world.”

Still, Beijing’s involvement contributes to a perception of growing Chinese power and influence that contributes to a narrative of a shrinking US global footprint, said Jon Alterman of the Washington Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“The not-so-subtle message China is sending is that while the United States is the predominant military power in the Gulf, China is a powerful and arguably growing diplomatic presence,” he said. –Reuters China’s role in Saudi Arabia presents Iran with a tricky test for the US

Russell Falcon

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