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  • Writer's pictureLuis Rueda

The Realignment of the Middle East?

Last Friday, March 10, 2023, Iran and Saudi Arabia signed an agreement to restore diplomatic relations after several years of suspension. The agreement was brokered by China and signed in Beijing. This agreement stands out for two reasons. First, that it was signed at all. Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran have been high for years now and both seemed to be on a collision course. Second, that it was China that brokered the agreement. Many have heralded this agreement as a new era in the Middle East with China gaining influence and playing a larger role in the region. Some claim that this is a diminution of US influence and power in the region. Let us take a look at these claims.

This agreement calls for the reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is not a peace agreement in any sense of the word and does not eliminate the cause of tension between the two countries. The tensions center around Sunni (Saudi Arabia) and Shia (Iran) religious differences, they center on a regional power struggle between both countries for influence and dominance in the Persian Gulf—or Arabian Gulf depending upon your view, and another indicator of the tensions—as well as proxy conflicts in Yemen and to a lesser extent Iraq. You can see the struggle for influence at play in faraway countries like India, where both Iran and Saudi Arabia devote effort and money to building mosques and cultural centers that support their religious and political ideologies.

Despite the agreement, these tensions will remain for the foreseeable future. What the agreement does allow is for each nation to dialogue directly with the other, without the need for third-party intercession, when they need to resolve tensions and keep lines of communication open. This helps promote a degree of stability in the region, small though it might be. Overall that is a good thing for both countries, the region and the United States as well.

The second issue is a little more difficult to analyze. If you are a zero-sum game (or zero-sum gain) geopolitical strategist then this agreement is a loss for the US. Your worldview is that when China wins the US loses and vice versa. I believe it is more complex than that. For some time now the US role in the Middle East has been undergoing a transition. Prior to the 1991 Gulf War, the US maintained a sort of "over the horizon" policy in the Middle East, at least in the Persian Gulf. US military power resided outside the Gulf, just over the horizon but was ready to intervene as needed. After the First Gulf War that changed. New military bases were constructed in several countries and US forces were stationed there. These Arab countries were more than happy to have US forces near at hand to defend them after Iraq's brutal invasion of Kuwait. This made eminent sense militarily. It allowed rapid deployment and intervention with the forces at hand and allowed for faster and smoother movement of follow-on forces. It did not make as much political sense, however.

Not only did the US' physical presence in these countries create tensions for a variety of reasons but they also altered US policy. Now the protection of these bases and the capability they offered became a central goal of US policy. We found ourselves taking sides and placating certain countries because they provided us with basing rights. Maintaining basing rights became central to US Middle East policy. By taking sides we were slowly losing our credibility as a neutral arbiter in the region.

Adding to the situation was the slow erosion of a consistent US policy toward the region. US support of Israel became more strident with one US administration trying to outdo the former for its support. Overall, our policy shifted with the wind, at least it appeared to throughout the region. We would go back and forth from a military-focused policy to one that tried to divest and ignore the region as much as national interest allowed (frankly, the region was a headache to deal with). This was followed by a transactional policy, what can you give me today, which in turn was harnessed to US domestic political considerations rather than national security considerations. This was further complicated by US inconsistency. We pulled out of the JCPOA, the nuclear deal with Iran. That was good news for some countries in the region but for others, it brought into question US reliability. We had pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and were threatening to pull out of NAFTA, and even NATO, which had been our most important and successful alliance. Many nations began to believe they could not rely on US promises.

During the Cold War, we had more or less followed a consistent policy of containment of the Soviet Union, followed by US administrations of both political persuasions. The difference was in how to implement the policy, not the policy itself. We lack that consistent policy toward the Middle East.

Our lack of an embassy in Tehran also hampered our ability to broker an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, not to mention we had thrown our full support behind Israel's efforts against Iran and senior officials were calling for the overthrow of the Iranian government. We were clearly not a neutral player. We had been manipulated often by regional players to side with them and our room for maneuver was severely restricted. Enter China.

China lacks the baggage we have in the Middle East. They have not taken sides, not pushed a political agenda, and focused almost exclusively on trade. They have representation in both Riyadh and Tehran and were able to deal directly with both players instead of having to act through middlemen. China can transcend the conflicts and political interests, while we cannot. We are too closely identified with certain players and policies. China was well poised to bring about the agreement. Does this spell the end of US influence in the region? Probably not.

The US will remain an important player in the Middle East due to its economic and military might. China will not likely come to the aid of Saudi Arabia in the event of a conflict, the US will. What we are seeing is the end of US dominance in the region. There are now other powerful players that we have to take into account. We can no longer take our primacy for granted. It is time to step back and assess what we want to achieve in the Middle East, what our goals should be, and stick to them. These goals should be free of individual self-interest and focus on US national interests. We should not assume a knee-jerk reaction to China's success. It will take time to assess what the impact of this agreement will be for the region and the US.


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Those 3 nations together are the ones that will be the answer to Israel, the United States must stay out of that one.

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