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US leadership role in Middle East facing deep challenges

The Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran Ali Shamkhani (R) shaking hands with the Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party Wang Yi (C) during a meeting with Saudi Arabia's National Security adviser and Minister of State Musaad bin Mohammed al-Aiban (L)
— Washington (AFP)

China's shock success at bringing Saudi Arabia and Iran together has challenged the United States' longstanding role as the key outside power broker in the Middle East.

Beijing's persuading archrivals Riyadh and Tehran to reestablish diplomatic relations upstaged the United States just as Washington appears powerless to intervene in the political tensions in Israel over the Netanyahu government's sharp-right turn, which has inflamed Palestinians.

"Anything that can help reduce tensions, avoid conflict and deter in any way dangerous and destabilizing actions by Iran is a good thing," US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday on the Saudi-Iran deal announced on March 10.

US officials have tried to minimize Beijing's role in the region, saying it is far from supplanting the United States: much of the Middle East still sits under the Pentagon's security umbrella.

But China's breakthrough is a real challenge, as Washington remains deeply preoccupied with the Ukraine war and, over the long term, with blunting Beijing's diplomatic and military advance in the Indo-Pacific region.

James Ryan, Director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, said Washington is happy if anyone can contribute to Middle East regional stability, even rival China.

"The Biden administration has very clearly said that when it comes to the Middle East they're going to favor security, they're going to favor stability," he told AFP.

"American involvement just overall is going to be more on the sidelines than it has been in the past," a message the Saudis "very clearly" understand, Ryan said.

- Tense ties with Riyadh -

China stepped in in a period when the US views Iran as a major threat to the region and yet its own relations with longtime ally Saudi Arabia have frayed.

Meanwhile, its ability to intervene in Israeli-Palestinian disputes has greatly diminished.

Despite scoring a huge $37 billion contract to sell more Boeing jets to the Saudis this week, Washington's ties with Riyadh have been tense since President Joe Biden ordered a review of the relationship in October.

Biden has spoken of "consequences" after the Saudis snubbed US requests to increase oil output to force down prices that soared after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Instead, Riyadh cut production, sending prices even higher with global impacts.

- Abraham Accords -

A Saudi-Iran rapprochement also threatens the ultimate goal of the US-crafted Abraham Accords: Arab powerhouse Saudi Arabia's recognition of Israel after decades of refusal.

In negotiations driven by Washington, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain launched the process of recognizing Israel in 2020, and since then Morocco and Sudan have followed suit.

But Riyadh has resisted pressure to do so as well.

The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported that the Saudis want security guarantees from Washington and assistance on their civilian nuclear program in exchange for recognizing the Jewish state.

Meanwhile, Biden's hopes to break some ice with Iran by restoring the 2015 deal that limited its nuclear program -- abandoned by predecessor president Donald Trump -- have gone nowhere.

Instead, Tehran has moved further away, supporting Russia in its war on Ukraine.

- Stymied by Israeli politics -

The turmoil in Israel is another headache.

Despite repeated calls from US officials for de-escalation, including a visit by Blinken to Jerusalem and Ramallah in late January, the violence between Israelis and Palestinians has worsened.

Much is being driven by a deep rift in Israeli politics, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's move to weaken the country's supreme court.

Day after day, US officials condemn inflammatory actions, while reiterating "unwavering" support for Israel and commitment to the "two-state solution."

Yet that has had no impact on the increasingly hardline government of longtime ally Netanyahu.

In an interview with AFP on Thursday, Blinken said that the United States would not take sides in the "very vibrant democracy of Israel."

"Consensus is the best way forward," he said of the political schism.

But pressure is mounting on the Biden administration.

Around one hundred Democratic lawmakers recently wrote Biden expressing concerns about the direction of Netanyahu's government and urged the US leader to use all diplomatic tools possible to prevent it from "further damaging the nation’s democratic institutions."

"In this fragile and combustible moment, consistent and sustained US diplomatic leadership is critical," they told Biden.

But with US elections looming next year, the White House's latitude "is going to be very limited" in its ability to impact Israeli politics and the Palestinian issue, said Ryan.

The Israelis "are much more confident now, especially post-Abraham Accords, in their ability to act as they please," he said.

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