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US officials skeptical of China's deal but concerned about deterring Iran

China’s diplomatic reach into heart of Middle East was an unmistakable signal to Washington. Read more in the weekly security-focused newsletter from Al-Monitor’s Pentagon Correspondent Jared Szuba.
A member of the US Airforce looks on near a Patriot missile battery at the Prince Sultan air base in Al-Kharj, in central Saudi Arabia on February 20, 2020.

China dealt the Biden administration a startling diplomatic upset by brokering a restoration of ties between adversaries Saudi Arabia and Iran late last week.

That the Chinese Communist Party’s first ever demonstration of diplomatic mediation outside of East Asia reached the heart of the Middle East — a region long dominated by the United States — was an unmistakable signal.

With one clever move, Beijing appears to have assumed the mantle of peacemaker for years-long talks, achieving in just three months what could ostensibly develop into a new chapter in regional relations — all while undermining the nascent US-led strategic architecture designed to achieve the same goal of stability.

Publicly, Biden administration officials brushed off the news, saying they were supportive of the initiative all along and that it serves Washington’s interests anyway. The latter part is certainly true, insofar as regional peace goes. 

The US military is stretched thinner in the Middle East than it has been in two decades, and any major attack by Islamist terror groups or by Iran and its proxies — such as the one that hit Saudi Arabia in 2019 — could derail the Pentagon’s timeline for regrouping its global forces for future contests with China, CENTCOM’s top commander warned Senate lawmakers on Thursday.

But US officials worry that the Saudi-Iran agreement will raise Beijing’s stature in the region at the expense of Washington’s — which likely it will, as long as Iran holds up its end of the deal.

That’s a big if, and American officials are skeptical. Iran has reportedly agreed to stop arming the Houthis, but its arms shipments have continued apace to the rebels in recent months.

Tehran now has the Middle East’s largest array of armed drones and ballistic missiles, rendering its military “exponentially more capable than it was just five years ago,” CENTCOM chief US Army Gen. Erik Kurilla said.

“Iran is undeterred from its malign activities,” Kurilla testified to lawmakers Thursday. 

So why would Tehran surrender its leverage now? For one, mediator China holds significant economic sway over the Islamic Republic, and rapprochement could further rupture the already leaky isolation Washington has built up around Iran in recent years.

Just what the deal means for US-led efforts to convince Arab states to build ties with Israel remains unclear, and likely depends on which lens one views it from: military, diplomatic or economic. 

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu went so far as to say that “American and Israeli weakness” encouraged Riyadh to turn to other channels.

The Trump administration trashed the 2015 nuclear deal and applied a maximum pressure campaign on Iran, but the US was not able to interdict all of Tehran’s subsequent retaliatory attacks towards Saudi Arabia and the UAE. 

Whether the deal will help Beijing translate its economic influence into further arms sales in the region is also likely to depend on Iran’s behavior. China has played both sides of the Gulf tensions, and the latest agreement is unlikely to reduce GCC states’ interest improving their air defenses, regardless of who is selling. 

But allowing the US to use bases in the Gulf for a future strike alongside Israel against Iran’s nuclear sites could be another matter, should talks between Tehran and Riyadh progress.

Ultimately, the deal may not go anywhere, as Jesse Marks argues over at Foreign Policy

Despite the latest naval exercise between Iran, Russia and China in the Gulf of Oman this week, it's too early to speak of anything like a Eurasian axis aligned against US interests. 

But if a multipolar order does emerge in the coming decades, this week's news reminds us that it may not start in the Indo-Pacific.

You can read the rest of this week's Security Briefing here. To get this newsletter in your inbox each week, sign up here.

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