The China/Saudi Arabia/Iran agreement: Cautious optimism is required

Even US allies no longer trust it

Washington Watch

Pundits and politicians have had their say on the announcement in Beijing that after four days of negotiations, agreement has been reached between Saudi Arabia and Iran to restore diplomatic ties. While reactions have ranged from euphoria to cynicism to outright hostility, reality dictates that cautious optimism is the better course.

Here are a few observations on what just happened, why it happened, and what will need to happen moving forward:

It is no doubt significant that China was the address that brought the parties together. This was a role that the USA, for domestic political reasons, could not and would not play. As a result, we left a diplomatic vacuum that opened the door for Beijing.

The stage for the current state of affairs was set with US miscues in the region, beginning with the Bush Administration’s disastrous war in Iraq and the Obama Administration’s shortsighted approach to the Iran nuclear deal.

The Iraq war devastated the country and its peoples, and depleted US standing and resources, leaving us as “damaged goods,” even with many of our regional allies. It also gave Iran a foothold in Iraq. One of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group called for the convening of an all-party meeting (including Iran) to bring some stability to Iraq and the region. The Bush crowd rejected this recommendation. When the Obama Administration left Iraq in the hands of a deeply sectarian government, the die was cast, leading to renewed civil conflict and a stronger Iranian role in the country and across the region.

When the Obama Administration was involved in talks with Iran on the nuclear issue, I said to them: “Why are we expending all of our political resources and leverage to stop Iran from developing a bomb they don’t have and could never use, when we ought to be addressing Iran’s regional meddling which is the real threat they pose?” I proposed a regional security framework like the OSCE, which helped stabilize Europe for a generation. This too was rejected.

If the USA were smart, it would recognize that there’s a new game afoot. We have a choice. We can either remain on the sidelines, like Israel— shell-shocked, finger-pointing, and bad-mouthing this development— or we can seize this opportunity and offer to support and participate in expanding a regional peacemaking effort. I hope we choose the latter option, but fear we’ll choose the former.

By failing to address regional concerns, the nuclear deal left Iran more emboldened and U.S. Arab allies more insecure and questioning American intentions. Our backhanded efforts to reassure them led the Obama Administration to commit to support the effort to defeat the Houthi rebellion against the legitimate government in Yemen, which only served to increase Iranian involvement in that conflict. Then came the Trump Administration’s radical break from the Iran deal with no alternative and then their failure to provide support for Saudi Arabia when they were subjected to an Iran/Houthi missile attack. All of this left US Gulf allies unsure about our policies and commitments.

US American hubris, erratic behavior, and lack of concern for allies’ concerns led one Arab intellectual to describe the past two decades of US policy as “a dizzying roller coaster ride and we want to get off.”

No longer confident of US support, some Arab states drew closer to China and Russia and even began to inch their way toward trying to normalize relations with Iran. UAE restored diplomatic ties and Saudi Arabia began exploratory meetings in Baghdad with Iranian counterparts.

It fell to China, which has been expanding economic ties with both Iran and Arab Gulf countries, to close the deal by playing the needed diplomatic role that could facilitate an agreement. The China/Saudi Arabia/Iran pact not only envisions restored diplomatic ties, non-intervention, and respect for sovereignty, but also sets the stage for a regional economic summit later this year.

It’s also worth noting that recent polling across the Middle East demonstrates China’s enhanced role at the expense of the USA. While still seen as more powerful and needed as an ally, the USA is increasingly viewed as erratic and unreliable. And strong majorities in most Arab countries see China as the emergent power that will eclipse the USA in the next 20 years.

We’ve sold Arab states weapons, invested heavily in the region, and, at times, provided security when needed, but we’ve also been demeaning and demanding and too often have turned our back on our Arab regional partners, failing to address their concerns.  As Saudi Arabian leaders have told US presidents going back to Bush, “If you insist on acting according to your interests, even when they conflict with ours, then we will act according to our interests, even when they conflict with yours.”

As this China/Saudi Arabia/Iran agreement demonstrates, as a result of our hubris we may no longer be, as Madeline Albright often declared, “the indispensable nation.”

That said, declarations that “peace is at hand” are premature. Iran and Saudi Arabia will establish relations and China will parley its economic ties with both countries and others in the region to broaden the framework, but the big question remaining is whether Iran will and can reduce regional tensions by reining in its regional allies.

Iran has invested heavily in supporting proxy militias in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. If it is willing to do so, Iran may be able to exercise some restraint and control. But even if they cut back on financial and military support, it’s not clear whether the destabilizing groups they have backed in these countries will submit to their dictates. Deep-seated sectarian and structural conflicts remain in each of these countries— which Iran didn’t create, but instead exploited and helped to exacerbate. One measure of how serious Iran is about peaceful coexistence and focusing on trade, development, and promoting prosperity for its own people and the region, is its willingness to participate in regional efforts to stabilize the countries in conflict. It could do this by pulling the plug on support for its militias and working with Saudi Arabia and other parties to achieve political solutions in each.

If the China/Saudi Arabia/Iran pact can be built upon, it could represent a major transformation of the region. This outcome is far from assured and will require heavy lifting and good faith of all parties, especially Iran.

If the USA were smart, it would recognize that there’s a new game afoot. We have a choice. We can either remain on the sidelines, like Israel— shell-shocked, finger-pointing, and bad-mouthing this development— or we can seize this opportunity and offer to support and participate in expanding a regional peacemaking effort. I hope we choose the latter option, but fear we’ll choose the former.

Dr James J Zogby
Dr James J Zogby
The writer is President, Arab American Institute.

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