A glimpse of the Middle East’s potential future if America fumbles

Last week’s diplomatic breakthrough between Saudi Arabia and Iran doesn’t herald a new era of peace in the Middle East, but it does offer a glimpse of the region’s potential future as America fumbles and China makes continued inroads in its effort to reshape global diplomacy in favor of a web linking other techno-totalitarian regimes.

The deal, announced at a Beijing press event featuring the foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia and Iran, with China’s top diplomat between them, was the result of two years of secret talks brokered by Oman, Iraq, and China. It gives a two-month probationary period of sorts during which Tehran and Riyadh will build toward fully reestablishing an official diplomatic relationship that ruptured in 2016, after protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Iran. The announcement was light on specifics, but each regional giant will soon reopen its embassy in the other’s capital.

While its success is hardly a given, a suite of significant developments might follow. The Iran-Saudi proxy war in Yemen, which has dropped off over the past year, could officially come to a close if the two powers really do advance their diplomatic relationship. Syrian butcher Bashar al-Assad, a key Iranian client, might be brought in from the cold and deemed a legitimate actor, twelve years into his run atop the largest charnel house in the world. Saudi’s potential addition to the Abraham Accords, which has remained elusive, will become an even less likely prospect as the Kingdom weighs its options and further explores the possibility of bypassing America’s diplomatic architecture in the region.

That’s a mixed bag, but some say that the stability that might follow this deal is worthwhile. There’s ample reason for skepticism about that outlook.

The deal gives the Iranian regime breathing room, as it stares down the existential threat at home of a savvy people that knows it can do a lot better than Islamist dictatorship. And it limits Israel’s military options, potentially taking a possible partner in a strike on illicit nuclear facilities out of the picture. Meanwhile, the threat of Iranian uranium enrichment increases — which undermines deterrence and makes a destabilizing breakthrough ever more likely.

Long term, though, China’s growing clout is the most worrying aspect. General Secretary Xi has clearly made his country’s overtures to the region a key priority, visiting Saudi Arabia last December and inviting the Iranian president to Beijing earlier this year. A newer player in the region, China can lean on its status as the two countries’ largest trade partner to play to each side, in a way that America just cannot. There are authoritarian affinities too. The Saudis, as the Iranians, are willing to engage a regime that comes bearing gifts, without complaints about human rights. And while the Kingdom and the Islamic Republic have waged a shadow conflict against each other, they have more things in common than the recent past suggests. Both have extradition agreements with China. Both purchase Chinese surveillance technology. Both have an interest in seeking external support to keep domestic political opponents down. Whether or not this agreement survives, it sets down an ominous marker.

Yet China has not replaced the U.S. as the region’s preeminent external security player. For all of this administration’s work to undermine the U.S.-Saudi alliance, and to pull back America’s military presence from the Middle East, the security architecture in place is too massive for any White House to dismantle in four years. This agreement was made possible in part by President Biden’s recent neglect of Washington’s longstanding work to keep Riyadh onside — an unedifying business, but one that has brought America strategic advantages. Beijing’s inroads with Saudi are tentative, and susceptible to some disruption, if only Washington were to get its act together and start mending fences.

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