Behind China's brokering the Iran/Saudi deal.
China needs Middle East Oil, and we don't. Xi imports over 70% of their energy, whereas the US need import nothing. The US now has less skin in the game. Likewise, China needs Putin's oil and will make sure Vlad gets what he wants (over NATO and Biden's whining).
Behind China’s Mideastern Diplomacy
To keep oil flowing and diminish the U.S., Beijing brokers a deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
By Karen Elliott House, WSJ
March 12, 2023 3:03 pm ET
Surprise. As the world awaited announcement of a U.S.-brokered normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, China brokered an even more surprising normalization between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If Iran lives up to the agreement and respects “the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states,” the deal could have a stabilizing impact across the region. But Saudis remain deeply skeptical that Iran has abandoned its desire for domination.
What is most striking is the cooperation between China and Saudi Arabia, both of which fear a Mideast war could damage their grand ambitions. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is determined to transform Saudi Arabia into a major world power by 2030, and President Xi Jinping seeks to displace the U.S. as the global superpower but can’t do it without Middle Eastern oil. As Iran moves closer to nuclear weapons, both Beijing and Riyadh fear an Israeli strike would lead to a wider conflict; and an Iranian bomb would threaten the Saudis too.
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Concluding that the U.S. likely wouldn’t carry out its pledge to prevent a nuclear Iran, the Saudi regime decided to trade confrontation for alignment. “We have to accept reality and figure a way to live with a nuclear Iran,” one official says. “So, we will go from hostile relations to better relations.”
Yet the kingdom’s real purpose is to raise pressure on the Biden administration to abandon Iran and provide the security guarantees Riyadh demands to recognize Israel. Normalization remains a Saudi goal but not as part of the Abraham Accords. Instead, Saudi-Israel normalization would be a new initiative by Riyadh to pave the way for major Islamic nations like Indonesia and Malaysia to establish relations with the Jewish state. In exchange, the crown prince wants the U.S. to declare Saudi Arabia a strategic ally, provide Riyadh reliable access to American arms, and support his plans to enrich uranium and develop its own fuel production for 16 nuclear reactors the kingdom intends to build over the next two decades. All these measures will encounter resistance in Congress.
By cooperating with China to mend Saudi-Iranian relations, the crown prince has heightened the pressure on the U.S. to guarantee what is in its own self-interest: stability in the region built around Israel and Saudi Arabia. If President Biden wants a diplomatic success, he’ll have to accept some of the Saudi requests.
The crown prince has played a complicated hand exceedingly well. He has exploited China-U.S. competition for global influence and used his relations with both big powers to seek advantage in a messy Middle East. This deal demonstrates again his penchant for bold risk taking: Normalizing with Iran is fraught with peril. Iran may renege. Mr. Biden may prove unable to persuade Congress, further estranging Riyadh from U.S. lawmakers. While the crown prince is motivated primarily by geopolitics, one shouldn’t underestimate the role that personal relations play. He clearly gets along well with Mr. Xi but has no use for Mr. Biden, who as a candidate pledged to make Saudi Arabia a “pariah.”
If Iran passes the first hurdle—seriously curbing its activities in Yemen in the next two months—it and the Saudis will exchange ambassadors for the first time in seven years. To encourage Tehran to honor its commitments, the kingdom would provide commercial ties with Iran, ending its economic isolation and furnishing an incentive to cease attacks on Saudi Arabia. Given Iran’s record of violating commitments, Riyadh will have to follow Ronald Reagan’s dictum: “Trust but verify.”
This geopolitical shift is the result of a decade of declining U.S. leadership. Russia and China have filled the void by strengthening ties with Iran and Saudi Arabia. As a result, the Mideast is a cauldron of great powers seeking advantage. The Saudi crown prince has increasingly made clear he intends to be no one’s client but rather an independent power on the world stage balancing others to secure benefits for the kingdom.
Russia is Saudi Arabia’s key oil partner; together they control global production and keep prices high at a time when both need money—the kingdom for its modernization and Russia for its war in Ukraine. But to please the U.S., Riyadh is also providing $400 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
China’s motivation to broker this deal is clear. The pact burnishes China’s geopolitical leadership and—if it holds—reduces the risk of a Mideast war that could seriously disrupt oil supplies on which China is deeply dependent: Some 40% of its oil imports are from the Mideast, led by 1.75 million barrels a day from Saudi Arabia. Mr. Xi offered to broker a new chapter in Saudi-Iran relations during his visit here in December and Riyadh eagerly accepted. The Saudi-Iranian dialogue began nearly two years ago but Saudi officials say it produced no progress until China took leadership. Four days of secret talks in Beijing last week led to a breakthrough.
Iran’s motivation is less clear. But it’s undeniable that its embargoed economy is falling far behind those of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Tehran also faces a leadership transition and domestic protests fed in part by a struggling economy. Riyadh’s prominent role in the Group of 20 and its ties with China, Russia and Israel are providing it with growing geopolitical influence in the Middle East that Iran’s regional mischief-making can’t match. Moreover, the kingdom is determined to expand its own military capabilities by producing more of its armaments locally to reduce dependence on the U.S. or any other single arms supplier. (Saudi Arabia spent 80% of its arms budget on U.S. weapons in 2016 and plans to cut that to 20% by 2030.) All this likely moved Tehran to sign on to improved relations with Riyadh.
China has successfully used its good relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran to broker a deal. Let’s see if it yields a truly more peaceful Mideast rather than simply providing Iran a respite and the opportunity to focus more on antagonizing the “great Satan” and the “little Satan” (Israel). In any case, China doesn’t want to police the Mideast, preferring the U.S. retain that role while Beijing prepares for a potential military conflict with the U.S. over Taiwan.
Ms. House, a former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, is author of “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines—and Future.”