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New Atlanticist March 10, 2023

Experts react: Iran and Saudi Arabia just agreed to restore relations, with help from China. Here’s what that means for the Middle East and the world.

By Atlantic Council experts

Can the bitter gulf across the Gulf finally be bridged? On Friday, long-standing regional adversaries Iran and Saudi Arabia made a big announcement: They will reestablish diplomatic relations in a deal brokered by China. 

Below, Atlantic Council experts share their insights on the breaking news and its significance for one of the Middle East’s most consequential rivalries, for the region, and for the wider world. We’ll update this post as more contributions roll in.

Click to jump to an expert reaction:

William F. Wechsler: There are two big caveats to this apparent de-escalation

Jonathan Panikoff: China’s role is a warning to the US to not abandon the Middle East

Thomas S. Warrick: This is neither the end of an era nor the start of one

Daniel B. Shapiro: Iran is not changing its strategic goal of regional dominance

Jonathan Fulton: China has made its first major foray into Middle East diplomacy

Ahmed Aboudouh: China just left the US with a bloody nose in the Gulf

Kirsten Fontenrose: China somehow came out looking like a peacemaker

Holly Dagres: What role did an Iranian diaspora TV station play in the deal?

Carmiel Arbit: Saudi Arabia is playing several hands at once

Ali Bakir: Saudi Arabia is taking bold positions relative to the United States

Mark N. Katz: The biggest loser in all this may be Russia

Nadereh Chamlou: Iran-Saudi rapprochement is inseparable from Iran’s “women, life, freedom” movement

Andrew Peek: Wins for Iraq and China, and a warning bell for the United State

Masoud Mostajabi: US credibility as a peacemaker in the region has been compromised

Michel Duclos: China is following the script that Russia wrote with Turkey in Syria

There are two big caveats to this apparent de-escalation

US interests in the Gulf are more secure if the nations that surround it are actively working to de-escalate mutual tensions. That was the case when a 2001 security agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran helped prevent active conflict for ten years despite deep mutual mistrust, and it remains the case today. So we should welcome the news of the reestablishment of diplomatic ties between these two nations, following the agreement last year between the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Iran to exchange ambassadors once again.

However, this time the deal comes with two caveats, each of which raises important strategic questions for the United States. The first, most obviously, is that it was China that brought the sides together, with an announcement timed to coincide with the start of President Xi Jinping’s third term. After many years of proclamations from Beijing that it merely wanted to build economic relations in the Middle East and didn’t seek any political influence, we can see plainly that such declarations are false. Indeed, China has been steadily increasing its regional political influence for two decades, highlighted most recently by a visit by Xi to Riyadh in December and a visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing last month. Yesterday, China promised its interests in the region were only economic and it did not want to be a major political player; today China will promise that it only wants diplomatic influence, not a regional military presence. The world should have never believed yesterday’s promises and it certainly shouldn’t believe today’s.

Second, this announcement comes as the United States and Israel have been coordinating closely on potential responses to Iran’s ongoing nuclear program, with joint military exercises and the Israeli national security advisor visiting the White House this week in advance of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trip to Europe on the subject. While the White House may welcome the de-escalation, the Israeli government will not, as it will interpret the move as one calculated to diminish the threat of military action against Iran. It would not be surprising if the next announcement would be a renewal of US-Iranian discussions on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), once again brokered by China. While I remain skeptical of whether such a deal is likely (or even advisable) in current circumstances, such an announcement would be welcome in Washington yet seen in Jerusalem as diminishing the US-Israeli deterrence against Iran.

William F. Wechsler is the senior director of the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council and a former US deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism.

China’s role is a warning to the US not to abandon the Middle East

The decision by Iran and Saudi Arabia to resume diplomatic ties and exchange ambassadors builds upon quiet engagement that’s been ongoing for years and significant growth in trade between the two countries in 2022. More than anything, however, it reflects Saudi Arabia’s desire to lower the temperature with Iran. Despite all of the reporting about growing security and commercial ties, and possible normalization, between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Riyadh’s fundamental and sole strategic focus is the diversification of the country’s economy away from hydrocarbons. To accomplish that, Riyadh views its security as paramount to ensure that oil drilling, transport, and sales aren’t disrupted and that the country is seen as a secure place for long-term foreign direct investment. Both of those could easily be undermined by Iranian or Iranian proxy attacks—a likelihood reduced by this agreement.

At the same time, this rapprochement arrives at a time when the situation with Iran is heating up for the United States and Israel. Iran’s enrichment of uranium particles to 83.7 percent—just shy of weapons-grade purity of 90 percent—is causing extensive concern among Israeli and US policymakers. By making this deal with Saudi Arabia now, Tehran probably views it as an opportunity to slow growing relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Riyadh is likely to continue security and intelligence cooperation with Jerusalem, but Tehran is probably betting that their Saudi counterparts will be less inclined to enable Israeli and/or US military action against Iran.

The most interesting part of this development, however, may be the role China played in helping to broker the deal. The broad contention in the Middle East, and by many in the United States, is that China only has a passive economic interest in the region and is content to simply be a free rider on US security guarantees. Having just yesterday concluded a conference on China-MENA ties in Doha, I can vouch that this theme was abundant as part of the experts’ views here. But economic and commercial ties often give way to political engagement, which eventually can lead to intelligence and security cooperation. We may now be seeing the emergence of China’s political role in the region and it should be a warning to US policymakers: Leave the Middle East and abandon ties with sometimes frustrating, even barbarous, but long-standing allies, and you’ll simply be leaving a vacuum for China to fill. And make no mistake, a China-dominated Middle East would fundamentally undermine US commercial, energy, and national security.

Jonathan Panikoff is the director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative in the Middle East Programs  He is a former deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East at the US National Intelligence Council. The views expressed in this publication are the author’s and do not imply endorsement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Intelligence Community, or any other US government agency.

This is neither the end of an era nor the start of one

Washington should neither overreact nor underreact to today’s announcement that China played a role in the resumption of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Other countries friendlier to the United States, notably Iraq, had brokered exchanges between Iranian and Saudi diplomats and security officials. China’s public role in today’s announcement shows its interest in doing something that few other countries could have done: gaining the confidence of both sides.

Resumption of diplomatic ties between Tehran and Riyadh is not likely to lead to a major change in the Gulf’s security situation. In general, the world should applaud a reduction in tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia—tensions that have led to continued violence and instability in Yemen and the waters surrounding the Arabian peninsula. For reasons that are more geopolitical than religious, Iran and Saudi Arabia will always look at each other with a wary eye. So Washington does not need to see today’s announcement as either the end of an era or the start of one.

However, this should get both Congress and the Biden administration to check to see if Washington’s approach to the security picture in the Gulf is working for the United States’ long-term security interests. These are different from what they were forty or even twenty years ago. China is a major customer of Saudi Arabia’s and Iran’s oil. The United States gets no oil from Iran and relatively little from Saudi Arabia. The nature of the global oil markets, however, means the United States still has an economic and security interest in ensuring the free flow of oil from non-sanctioned countries to world markets.

The report that Saudi Arabia has offered Washington terms for the normalization of relations with Israel is something that should be the focus of US diplomacy right now. It may be that Riyadh’s terms are not something that Washington will be able to meet, but the announcement of China’s involvement in restoring Saudi-Iranian diplomatic ties shows that Middle East diplomacy is alive and well—and does not always go through Washington.

Thomas S. Warrick is a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security’s Forward Defense practice and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

Iran is not changing its strategic goal of regional dominance

Washington can see both a full half and an empty half of the glass in the announcement of resumed Iranian-Saudi diplomatic ties, brokered by China. The full half: reducing Iranian-Saudi tensions is a goal the United States has endorsed, having given its backing to previous rounds of such talks in Iraq and Oman. If implemented—a key caveat—it could help bring an end to the war in Yemen, as the United States has sought, and reduce tensions in Iraq which have led to the targeting of US forces. The empty half: seeing China’s influence rise by demonstrating its ability to leverage its constructive relationships with both sides of Middle East conflicts is unsettling, and is further evidence of the doubts in the region, even among US partners, about the United States’ staying power.

But both China and the Saudis are taking a big gamble here, putting significant chips on Iranian good intentions. While Iran has at various times chosen to escalate or de-escalate tensions with its neighbors, there is zero indication of a change in the strategic goals of the regime, which include regional dominance buttressed by its nuclear program, which continues to expand; wide extension of its influence through terrorist proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen; and open hostility to Israel, a key partner of Arab Gulf states, even if, in the case of Saudi Arabia, only unofficially. Will the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement survive the first reversion to form by Iran to carry out its unchanged strategic vision? And what tools can China bring to the table when the agreement’s terms and spirit are violated by Tehran?

When that happens, it will be a potent reminder to Riyadh that Beijing, for all its economic and now diplomatic influence, is an unreliable partner to ensure the Kingdom’s security. The Saudis may hope that their turn to China gives them leverage in demanding more weapons, security guarantees, and civil nuclear technology from the United States—packaged as compensation for a normalization deal with Israel. But their need for US support will not diminish and will require them to demonstrate to a skeptical administration, Congress, and American public that they are not turning to align their interests with China more than with the United States.

Daniel B. Shapiro is the director of the N7 Initiative and a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former US ambassador to Israel, having served in that role from 2011 to 2017.

China has made its first major foray into Middle East diplomacy

There’s long been an assumption that China’s straddling both sides of the Gulf was untenable for the long term, that eventually Beijing would have to behave like other countries and pick a side. That misses the foundations of its strategic-partnership diplomacy, which is interest-based and focused on developing bilateral relationships rather than balancing against a third party. Beijing has been able to intensify relations on both sides of the Gulf, all the while building diplomatic capital in a way that other extra-regional powers cannot. The obvious contrast is the United States, which has no positive leverage in Tehran; China’s got a stick but it uses the economic and development-focused carrots, while the United States just brings the stick.

This engagement between Saudi Arabia and Iran may lead to something positive, and it may fizzle. It’s too early to proclaim it anything other than a good first step. It is, however, significant as China’s first major foray into regional diplomacy. Beijing has been signaling since at least last January that it is willing to promote a non-US centered vision of the Middle East, and this is a sign of things to come.

Jonathan Fulton is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs and the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council.

China just left the US with a bloody nose in the Gulf

Chinese ambitions to mediate between Saudi Arabia and Iran are not new. Chinese five-point plans, flaunted by senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi two years ago, set out a Chinese vision for regional security and revealed a glimpse into Beijing’s objective to become a regional actor.

For China, the agreement solidifies its legitimacy as a heavyweight diplomatic mediator able to resolve the most antagonistic geostrategic competition in the region. It could create the first conditions for a shift in the strategic balance in the context of rivalry with the United States in the Gulf. China’s ambitions to position itself as a credible peacemaker have a broader scope covering conflicts in Syria, Libya, and Yemen, especially after this agreement. This could be problematic in Washington. The United States’ hesitance to spend more political capital on mediating conflicts is increasingly seen in the Middle East as evidence of the United States’ declining power and its focus on competition with China in the Indo-Pacific. The agreement could also provide the Chinese leadership with more strategic options since de-escalating tensions between Riyadh and Tehran creates a thin layer of security and stability necessary for oil exports bound to China, trade sea lines of communication, and Chinese Belt and Road investments.

For Saudi Arabia and Iran, China’s ostensible commitment to the “non-interference” principle and its “non-alignment” regional policy attached great credibility to its position as a broker. To be clear, both countries seem united in their grievances towards the Biden administration, albeit at different levels. Nonetheless, despite Iraq’s hosting the talks for the most part, China’s desire to take the lead has met Riyadh and Tehran’s willingness to hand it a diplomatic win—a stark indication of China’s growing influence over the two biggest powers in the Gulf.

It remains to be seen whether the Chinese mediation will hold in the future and, indeed, cover other regional conflicts. Nevertheless, China has just left the United States with a bleeding nose in the Gulf.

Ahmed Aboudouh is a nonresident fellow with the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

China somehow came out looking like a peacemaker

The Saudi-Iran deal is not a partnership, it’s a non-aggression pact. Neither side compromises anything in this deal. Establishing embassies is just a way to expand their opportunities to spy on each other.

But we can expect the Saudis to unfortunately be disappointed. Iran has been rearming the Houthis in Yemen since the ceasefire expired last fall. Iran reasons that the Houthis can restart attacks against Saudi Arabia and Iran can claim deniability and thus no violation of the deal.

Israel should not be concerned that this deal reduces its chance to eventually normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. The Kingdom’s two priorities are securing itself against Iranian threats and expanding its economic base. Agreements with both Israel and Iran are critical to the first. But Iran cannot contribute meaningfully to the second, while Israel can. And any Iranian pressure not to pursue relations with Israel will be entirely ignored by a crown prince focused on development goals.

China is the winner in this deal. The country that has sold each side the tools to battle one another somehow came out looking like a peacemaker.

Kirsten Fontenrose is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

What role did an Iranian diaspora TV station play in the deal?

On the heels of Raisi’s three-day visit to Beijing in February—a first for an Iranian president in twenty years—comes an unexpected turn of events: the resumption of bilateral ties between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran after seven years. Relations between the Persian Gulf neighbors were severed after protesters stormed the Saudi missions in Tehran and Mashhad in response to the execution of Nimr al-Nimr, a Shia cleric and Saudi critic, in January 2016.

Since April 2021, talks have been brokered by Baghdad in an attempt to resume bilateral ties between the two regional players. The sixth talks were aimed to resume just as mass anti-government protests kicked off in Iran prompted by the murder of Mahsa Jina Amini in September 2022. The talks were reportedly halted due to Iranian diaspora satellite channel Iran International’s coverage of the protests, which the clerical establishment believes is Saudi-funded and responsible for fomenting unrest across the country for the past five months. TheGuardian reported in 2018 that the outlet—nicknamed by some Iranians as “Saudi International”—is funded by a company owned by a Saudi businessman with close ties to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. However, according to the Associated Press, the owner of the channel, Voltant Media, is no longer owned by a Saudi national.

Some Iranians are wondering how the resumption of bilateral ties will impact Iran International. Since October 2022, the Persian language outlet, along with BBC Persian, has been sanctioned by Tehran over baseless accusations of “support of terrorism” and “incitement of riots” for its rolling coverage of the protests, and even the Iranian intelligence minister referred to the channel as a “terrorist organization” that would be dealt with.

One Iran-based journalist, without providing any evidence (and whose tweet was shared on an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Telegram channel), tweeted that Riyadh committed to not fomenting tensions via the Persian-language satellite channel. This could well have been one of Iran’s conditions to resume relations.

At the end of February, the United Kingdom–based channel had to suspend its London operations and relocate to Washington after numerous threats against its journalists by the security apparatus of the Islamic Republic and an incident that prompted the arrest of an Austrian national by its headquarters on charges of “collecting information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.”

Holly Dagres is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Saudi Arabia is playing several hands at once

It’s too early to judge whether there will be depth or durability to the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But it is important to take it in context: These deliberations have been going on for quite some time and have taken place alongside the deliberations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are opportunistic at every turn: They are contending with rising tensions at home, waning influence in the Muslim world, and strained relations with the United States. And so they are hedging.  

The UAE has shown it can find a delicate balance by maintaining cool but cordial relations with the Iranians and warm ones with the Israelis simultaneously. The parties understand and appreciate the geopolitical interests of their neighbors. And so rest assured, Israel will not demur in its courtship of the Saudis as a result of the announcement.

The Saudis are making hefty demands in exchange for normalization—including security guarantees and civil nuclear technology—and the United States has thus far offered no indication that it is willing to meet a price tag this high without significant changes from Saudi Arabia. The Saudis know that. So they are playing several hands at once—the Iran deal helps them further cozy up to the Chinese, who negotiated the agreement; it could bolster their image in the Muslim world (which could in turn help offset the pain of normalization); and it reinforces Saudi Arabia’s role as a leader in an increasingly dynamic region that is looking for more independence from the United States.  

Carmiel Arbit is a nonresident senior fellow for Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

Saudi Arabia is taking bold positions relative to the United States

This development resuming diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran is not shocking in itself given that Riyadh and Tehran have been working back and forth on this issue for some time with a clear message from the Iranians that they would like to see this happening. The fact that this round of talks took only four days confirms this idea.

Having said this, one should not expect that the chronic problems in the relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran will completely end any time soon, given the complex nature of this relationship as well as its high-level of securitization. Of course, we will likely witness a further de-escalation, but the overall outcome will highly depend on how the two players would like to proceed from this point on and whether they would like to build on the announcement.

The two regional heavyweights obviously need some time to focus on other internal and regional challenges and priorities.

This development also highlights the diversification strategy of Saudi Arabia in which Riyadh has been taking bold positions vis-a-vis the United States on critical issues recently and opening up more to Russia and China despite knowing very well the potential consequences of its actions.

The most striking aspect of the deal, however, is the presence of China. Although it might make sense, China’s footprint in this diplomatic breakthrough promotes the perception that China’s role in the Gulf and the region is significantly increasing in a way that would leave implications beyond typical trade and business relations. It also highlights the absence of the United States as a major player in the region, diplomatically, economically, and militarily.

Bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran one step closer to each other is not necessarily a bad thing for the United States given Washington’s focus on the Russian war on Ukraine and the rising regional tensions resulting from Iran gearing up its nuclear enrichment levels close to 90 percent military grade. However, this development should open Washington eyes on two things:

First, the United States should not downplay this initiative and should give more attention to such developments given its future repercussions on its interests and the region.

Second, the agreement will give China a soft boost in the region. Until now, China won the region economically. If it boosts its diplomatic and political presence, this means it is one step closer to being a rising player in the security realm in the region in the future.

Ali Bakir is a nonresident senior fellow with the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East programs.

The biggest loser in all this may be Russia

China’s helping to bring about the resumption of diplomatic relations is a dramatic move. The resumption of diplomatic relations between Riyadh and Tehran, though, is a far cry from either a peace agreement or settling any of the many differences between them. It is not even clear that China’s involvement was necessary for the restoration of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations to occur. Still, the optics of it raise the possibility of China playing a more effective role than the United States is resolving differences between these Middle Eastern adversaries. At the very least, China will be seen as an alternative to the United States as a Middle East mediator. 

One immediate impact of China’s role in normalizing Saudi-Iranian relations may be to complicate America’s hopes for another “Abraham Accord” that normalizes Saudi-Israeli relations. This will only further the image of declining US influence in the Middle East. Still, the United States may actually benefit by the restoration of Saudi-Iranian ties (whatever China’s role in bringing them about) if this improves the chances for resolving or at least ameliorating Saudi-Iranian differences in Yemen, Iraq, and elsewhere. Israel may even benefit if Saudi Arabia is now in a better position to serve as an intermediary between Tehran and Jerusalem. 

Whether this occurs or not, the biggest loser in all this may actually be Russia. Moscow has long advertised itself as the alternative to Washington as an effective Middle East mediator since Russia works effectively with Iran while the U.S. does not. But China, obviously, can too. 

Mark N. Katz is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

Iran-Saudi rapprochement is inseparable from Iran’s “women, life, freedom” movement

Given the persisting internal discontent, worsening economy, and the rising negative global sentiments vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic, Iran’s rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is an effort by regime insiders to reduce at least one of the many crises that it has created for itself in the past four decades. Xi Jinping’s visit to Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf states sent signals that China was intent on fortifying relations with the Gulf Cooperation Council—which has been typically aligned with the United States—even if these stronger ties would not bode well with Iran. Raisi’s visit to Beijing in February was by most standards a less than satisfactory visit. He came back rather empty handed, with some vague statements and promises. It is likely that the messages from Beijing, which Iran considered its strongest backer, have led the regime to improve relations with Riyadh.

A second point related to this rapprochement may be Iran’s concerns about the diaspora-led London-based news station Iran International. It is presumably funded by Saudi Arabia and has been on the forefront of the opposition to the regime. It has a wide viewership inside Iran and among the diaspora. Aware of its impact, the Iranian regime threatened the station, so much so that Iran International had to move its headquarters from London to Washington. Reining in the station’s funding is a top concern of the regime.

Third, Muslim countries have been surprisingly silent in the Mahsa revolution—“women, life, freedom”—except for a few Turkish and Tunisian non-governmental organizations. Being here at the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations in New York, I hear from Middle East and North Africa feminists and activists that with their countries’ growing dependence on Saudi financial support, they have been given a quiet message to be careful in their support of the Iranian women’s movement. To get Saudi help to dampen the resonance and support for the Mahsa movement among Muslim countries would be helpful to Tehran.

Nadereh Chamlou is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s empowerME initiative and an international development advisor.

Wins for Iraq and China, and a warning bell for the United States

The normalization of ties between Iran and Saudi Arabia is another result of the Gulf’s search for security in a post-United States region. Relations were severed in 2016 after a cascading series of crises that emerged in the wake of the negotiations of the JCPOA—negotiations that the Saudis and other regional allies had bitterly opposed, believing that it would lead to the United States ratcheting down its regional balancing of Iran. That balancing is vital to the modern Middle East, the defining feature of which is competition between Sunni and Shia blocs and, left alone, the greater strength of the latter. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan was just the last event in a sequence of strategic decisions that had increased Iran’s power, beginning with the Iraq war. The regional balance of power is stable when the United States is an active ally, which under the JCPOA the Saudis (and Israelis) feared it would not be.

The Abraham Accords grew out of a similar search for security and perception that the United States was decoupling from the region. There, the most exposed Sunni Gulf countries sought to replace some of the US deterrent they had relied on with Israeli deterrent, and keep US commitment as an ancillary benefit of the peace process.

Against this strategic framework, the reestablishing of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is meant to cool tensions in the short term. Baghdad is one likely winner in this development, since the talks it hosted arguably contributed in the short run. China is another: And the first major unilateral Chinese contribution to Middle Eastern diplomacy, ever, should be a warning bell for the US role in the future. 

Andrew Peek is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Middle East Programs.

US credibility as a peacemaker in the region has been compromised 

The announcement of a diplomatic breakthrough between the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, brokered by China, represents a significant achievement in regional diplomacy and could signal a new era in the Middle East. This development, which brings together two major regional players after years of hostility, underscores China’s growing presence in the region and poses a challenge to the United States, which is likely to attempt to undermine these efforts.

In contrast to the US-brokered Abraham Accords, which sought to establish diplomatic ties between Israel and a number of Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, efforts to normalize relations between Saudi and Israel have remained elusive. However, the United States has persisted in its efforts to achieve this goal. Unfortunately, Washington’s credibility as a peacemaker in the region has been compromised by its perceived unreliability and tendency to take sides in conflicts, such as in Yemen and Syria. In contrast, China is seen as a flexible mediator that avoids taking sides.

If this trend continues, more regional actors may turn to China as a mediator and trust it more than the United States. This development is positive for a region in need of increased diplomacy and dialogue between traditional rivals. Iran stands to benefit from further avenues to absorb US sanctions, while Saudi Arabia can hedge its bets in case normalization with Israel fails to materialize. China, in turn, benefits from expanded economic ties and a more secure commercial environment in the Middle East.

Masoud Mostajabi is an associate director of the Middle East Programs at the Atlantic Council.

China is following the script that Russia wrote with Turkey in Syria

Seen from Paris, this event represents a real success for Chinese diplomacy. On one hand, this is clearly a foray of China as a powerbroker in a region which used to be a preserve of the United States and, sometimes, its allies. On the other hand, China is displaying a skill in mediation which is also with no real precedents.

It’s also clear that this Chinese move and the response both by Saudi Arabia and Iran fit perfectly with the narrative China is trying to develop as a responsible, positive, peaceful power striving for constructive solutions and being more and more in a position to get things moving. In a way, the Chinese mediation may be considered as a complementary move to the so-called “peace plan,” or more accurately the “position paper,” of Beijing on the Ukrainian war. The striking feature of course is that China and Global South powers do not need anymore to rely on some action from the West. In that sense, China is following the script that Russia itself was the first to write by organizing through the Astana Process a cooperation with Turkey and Iran on managing the Syrian crisis.

In that context, two questions are emerging. First, is there to be a follow-up to the China-Saudi Arabia-Iran format? Is this Chinese “diplomatic coup” the beginning of a deeper political engagement of Beijing in the region? Second, could this first successful Chinese mediation become a template for a more assertive Chinese diplomacy not only in the Middle East but on the world stage?

The prudent answer is to say it would be premature to articulate a definitive assessment. However, one may consider as quite plausible that many countries in the Middle East are expecting a kind of external mediation coming neither from the West—out of disappointment towards US and Western policies—nor from Russia—because of Ukraine. China appears to be in a good position to fill a gap.

Michel Duclos is a nonresident senior fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former French ambassador to Syria.

Further reading

Related Experts: William F. Wechsler, Jonathan Panikoff, Thomas S. Warrick, Jonathan Fulton, Ahmed Aboudouh, Holly Dagres, Ali Bakir, Mark N. Katz, Daniel B. Shapiro, Nadereh Chamlou, Andrew L. Peek, Masoud Mostajabi, Michel Duclos, and Carmiel Arbit

Image: Saudi Minister of State and National Security Adviser Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban, meets the Iranian Rear Admiral Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and China's Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi, in Beijing, China, March 10, 2023.