Is China the new indispensable nation ? – Beijing brokers Iran-Saudi relations as U.S. and Israel are sidelined

Juan Cole

Informed Comment  /  March 12, 2023

Ann Arbor – In an interview with Al-Jazeera English, veteran Washington Iran watcher Hillary Mann Leverett asserted that, in the wake of the reestablishment of Iran-Saudi diplomatic relations in an agreement brokered by Beijing, China is now “the indispensable nation” in the Middle East. She underlined that the United States could not have achieved this accomplishment.

The joint statement issued on Friday, crafted by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and diplomats of the two feuding Middle Eastern states, pledged non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs. Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal Bin Farhan tweeted that the agreement formed part of the Saudi vision for peaceful cooperation in the region toward a common efflorescence.

The Iranian official press crowed about the excision of America from this decision, which was a solely “Asian” one, it said. The US, the article announced, is no longer the “Godfather” of diplomatic relations in West Asia (i.e. the Middle East).

Israel and the US Israel lobbies had been hoping to turn Saudi Arabia into a friend of Israel and have it join an aggressive coalition against Iran. That things went in the opposite direction has roiled politics in Tel Aviv. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu blamed President Joe Biden for being weak. Benny Gantz, in the opposition, instead blamed Netanyahu’s failed belligerency.

Leverett hit the nail on the head, and her phrase was too provocative not to steal. I can remember how, after the 1973 war between Egypt and Israel, Anwar al-Sadat unceremoniously dumped his Soviet military and political backers and took up with Nixon and his Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger in order to get the Occupied Sinai back from Israel and to extract Egypt from the cycle of ruinous Arab-Israeli wars. Sadat explained why he was now flying off to Washington, D.C., instead of to Moscow: “America,” he said, “has 99% of the cards.” He meant by this odd phrase, which doesn’t correspond to any card game of which I am aware, that only the United States could conclude a peace between Cairo and Tel Aviv. The Soviets would not have had the trust of the Israelis in the same way.

Now, half a century later, it is China that has 99% of the cards when it comes to relations across the Oil Gulf. The hardest of hard lines taken by the United States against Iran, with the imposition of a de facto global financial and trade embargo on that country’s oil exports, putting the two countries on a war footing, has led to the US utterly lacking influence in Iran or Syria, and to its having alienated most of Iraq. This invisible blockade was imposed on Iran even though it had carefully adhered to the 2015 nuclear deal it signed with the Security Council, a deal from which Trump withdrew and which he more or less destroyed.

Indeed, Oman and Iraq have been playing a key role in these Iran-Saudi negotiations. Regarding Iraq, then Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi invited the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Jerusalem Brigades, Qassem Soleimani, to Baghdad on January 2, 2020, to pursue these very negotiations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Then President Donald Trump could think of nothing better than to blow Soleimani away at Baghdad International Airport, along with an Iraqi general, claiming that Soleimani was coming to Iraq to kill Americans. Much of the US press swallowed this bald-faced lie, though perhaps they were dizzy from the 30,000 other lies Trump told.

It is desirable that Saudi Arabia and Iran turn down the dial in their often fractious relationship. With the Yemen War having subsided into stalemate and occasional truce, with the Syrian regime having survived the civil war with Russian and Iranian help, the flash points nowadays are fewer than at any point since 2010. In 2019 drones either belonging to Iran or an Iranian proxy hit the Saudi Abqaiq refinery and temporarily knocked out half of Saudi oil production. That was one of the most tense periods in the conflict, which was exacerbated by the youth revolutions of 2011 and after, and the civil conflicts that followed in some Arab states. Saudi Arabia saw Iran’s hand in Syria, Iraq, Bahrain and Yemen, for instance, and felt surrounded.

Middle East scholar Ibrahim Freihat pointed out on the same Al-Jazeera segment that China imports a great deal of petroleum from both Saudi Arabia and Iran, and it is in Beijing’s interest to keep the black gold flowing to fuel its cars, trucks and trains, the arteries of its vast $17 trillion a year economy. Quincy notes, “By 2019, it [China] imported $106.5 billion from Persian Gulf countries – 43.9 percent of its total imports of crude oil.”

So, Freihat argues that this deal, signed in Beijing, was something the Chinese Communist Party wanted in order to secure its own economic growth. Beijing has a goal of growing 5% this year.

In any case, the agreement and the role of China in it do demonstrate that big changes are taking place in the geopolitics of the Middle East, and by tying itself so closely to Israeli priorities, the Biden administration made a significant error in not reviving the 2015 nuclear deal. Iran would have been less likely to go into the Russian orbit if it had the prospect of trading with Western Europe, and it could have used Washington as the channel to restore relations with Riyadh.

Instead, the US just has its sanctions to keep it warm. China is now in the spotlight.

Juan Cole is the founder and chief editor of Informed Comment. He is Richard P. Mitchell Professor of History at the University of Michigan; he is author of, among many other books, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace amid the Clash of Empires and The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam