Why Did China Help Saudi Arabia and Iran Resume Diplomatic Ties?

On Friday, March 10, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced their agreement to reestablish diplomatic relations based on talks held in Beijing. China has portrayed itself as the broker of the agreement, and China’s senior diplomat congratulated the two countries on their “wisdom.”

Q1: Why did the two countries reestablish relations now?

A1: The agreement seems to have been moved forward during President Ebrahim Raisi’s visit to Beijing last month. For months, Saudi Arabia has put pressure on Iran through its reported support for Iran International, a foreign-based Persian-language broadcaster critical of the regime that is received in Iran. Since President Raisi took office in August 2021, he announced it was a priority to reduce tensions with regional neighbors. Saudi Arabia and Iran have had a wide variety of differences throughout the region, often fought through proxies. They span from Lebanon to Syria to Iraq to Yemen. Iran has supplied weapons to Houthi forces in Yemen that have threatened Saudi populations both on the border and in interior areas. Saudi Arabia has been increasingly interested in finding a way to end the conflict in Yemen, and this agreement is likely to move that forward.

Q2: What is the importance of China’s role, and what does this mean for China’s presence in the Gulf?

A2: Appearing to facilitate the negotiations adds to Chinese prestige. The not-so-subtle message that China is sending is that while the United States is the preponderant military power in the Gulf, China is a powerful and rising diplomatic presence. This adds to a perception of Chinese power and influence around the world, and it contributes to a narrative of a shrinking U.S. global presence.

Iraq had sought to play a role brokering Saudi-Iranian talks, and Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron of France actively sought to support rapprochement as well. China was well-placed economically to engage with both sides. China alone represents about 30 percent of Iran’s total international trade, so it is vital to Iran. China is Saudi Arabia’s largest oil export market, and Saudi Arabia is often China’s largest oil supplier. When President Xi Jinping visited Saudi Arabia in December, Iranians complained bitterly that he had tilted toward Saudi Arabia in his statements and actions. Given Iran’s international isolation, though, there wasn’t much Iran could do in protest.

Q3: What does this mean for the United States and its role in the Gulf?

A3: The United States could not have brokered this agreement because it does not have direct contact with Iran. Former Iraqi prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s departure from office in October 2022 removed the possibility that this would be consummated under Iraqi good offices, which had the quiet backing of the U.S. government. The Biden administration has spoken about the importance of regional security dialogues and is presumably supportive of this agreement, at least in general terms. But the fact that Saudi Arabia struck the agreement in a way that seems to have entirely excluded the United States sends a message that the Saudis are seeking to diversify their bets on security and not rely wholly on the United States. The U.S. government is of two minds on that; it wants the Saudis to take increasing responsibility for their own security, but it does not want Saudi Arabia freelancing and undermining U.S. security strategies.

Q4: What does this reveal about Saudi diplomacy?

A4: The Saudis seem to have structured these negotiations in a way that purposively left the United States far away from the agreement. Yet almost simultaneously, the Saudis leaked to the Wall Street Journal that they are open to negotiating diplomatic normalization with Israel and revealed some of the terms. The message from Saudi Arabia is that it will not be passive in regional diplomacy, and it will take its own measure of how to balance its interests. Saudi skepticism of Iran runs very deep, and Iranian hostility toward Saudi Arabia is similarly ingrained. Both countries expect that they will remain adversarial, but they believe that more direct channels of communication will serve their interests. Still, the Saudis feel enduring threats from Iran. Sustaining U.S. security guarantees against Iranian aggression, reportedly seeking U.S. agreement to some nuclear enrichment, and deepening security understandings with Israel, are part of a broader strategy against what Saudis see as an enduring Iranian threat.

Jon B. Alterman is a senior vice president, holds the Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and is director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program