Henry Kissinger must have a sense of deja vu as he watches China broker a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The triangular diplomacy is very similar to the former secretary of state’s own opening to China in 1971.
The de-escalation of tensions in the Persian Gulf is good for everyone — in the short run. And if Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to take on the role of restraining Iran and reassuring Saudi Arabia, good luck to him. The United States has been trying since 1979 to bend the arc of the Iranian revolution toward stability.
But over the longer run, Beijing’s emergence as a peacemaker “changes the terms of reference in international diplomacy,” Kissinger argues. The United States is no longer the indispensable power in the region — the only country strong or supple enough to broker peace deals. China has claimed a share of that convening power.
“China has in recent years declared that it needs to be a participant in the creation of the world order,” explains Kissinger. “It has now made a significant move in that direction.”
China’s growing role also complicates Israel’s decisions. Israeli leaders have viewed a preemptive military strike against Iran as a last resort, as Tehran moves ever closer to becoming a nuclear-weapons state. But as Kissinger notes, “Pressure on Iran will now have to take into account Chinese interests.”
The Chinese have been opportunists. They have capitalized on the diligent (and mostly thankless) efforts by the United States to bolster Saudi Arabia and to resist Iranian proxy fighters in Yemen, Iraq and Syria. The United States built the road to rapprochement, so to speak, but the Chinese cut the ribbon.
Secret Saudi-Iranian talks began two years ago in Baghdad under the sponsorship of then-Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, a U.S. partner. Some sessions were held in Oman, an even closer U.S. ally. In six negotiating sessions, Iranian and Saudi representatives agreed on a road map for resumption of diplomatic relations, which Saudi Arabia suspended in 2016 to protest Iran’s covert support of Houthi rebels in Yemen. Before reaching final agreement to reopen embassies, the Saudis demanded that Iran acknowledge its support for the Houthis and curb their attacks.
Washington has also laid the groundwork for a settlement of the horrific war in Yemen. Tim Lenderking, the State Department envoy for Yemen, helped negotiate a cease-fire last April. Civilian flights now operate from Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, and goods are flowing through Hodeidah, the country’s main port. The Saudis recently deposited $1 billion in the Yemeni central bank to stabilize the country.
Enter China, to harvest the goodwill. When Xi visited Saudi Arabia in December, he pledged that he would use Beijing’s influence with Iran to close the deal. When the three sides met in Beijing this month, Ali Shamkhani, Iran’s national security adviser, admitted backing the Houthis and agreed to stop sending them weapons, according to a knowledgeable source. Iran also pledged that it would not attack the kingdom, either directly or through proxies.
Two months from now, assuming the Iranians restrain the Houthis, the two countries will reopen embassies in Riyadh and Tehran. Hopefully, Lenderking can negotiate a peace agreement in Yemen by then, too.
The elephant in the room remains the Iranian nuclear program. With the collapse of the 2015 nuclear agreement, Iran has stepped up its uranium enrichment, and experts say it probably could test a simple nuclear weapon within months if it wanted to. But here, too, Iran seems to understand that it is near the cliff’s edge. Tehran pledged this month that it would allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to resume intensive monitoring of its nuclear sites.
Iran’s clerical regime is in retreat. Its currency has collapsed; its young women have defied the government edict to wear headscarves, and residents say the public is speculating about what kind of country will emerge after its aging supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is gone.
The Middle East, so long a zone of confrontation, is becoming a balancing game. Saudi Arabia is newly friendly with China and Iran, but is also working with the United States by providing $400 million to Ukraine; spending $37 billion for 78 Boeing airplanes; and backing a new 5G and 6G cellular technology known as O-RAN that could supplant China’s Huawei.
The United Arab Emirates is courting China, too, but it is also maintaining its defense relationship with the United States — and settling regional quarrels with Qatar, Turkey and Libya. The UAE has gone from “Little Sparta,” as former defense secretary Jim Mattis once dubbed it, to “Little Singapore.”
The truth is that a unipolar Middle East, where a dominant United States was encouraged in confrontational policies by its allies Saudi Arabia and Israel, wasn’t a very stable region. A multipolar Middle East, with its ceaseless hedging and balancing, will have its own dangers. And as Kissinger suggests, it will be a new game with new rules.