The Beijing-brokered accord between Riyadh and Tehran announced last week was a geopolitical jolt — unanticipated and unclear in its implications for China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, let alone the U.S., Israel and the rest of the world.
What's known is that after seven enmity-filled years the two major Mideast powers will re-establish diplomatic relations; that Iran will quell militant attacks on Saudi Arabia; and Saudi Arabia will quiet criticism of Iran disseminated on a Farsi-language news service. Other likely effects include "some sort of deal on Yemen, allowing Saudi disengagement in return for Iran not taking advantage of such a shift," Simon Henderson, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said via email.
That alone would be a relief to the region, since the Saudi-Iranian proxy war has resulted in what the United Nations calls "one of the world's worst humanitarian crises." Whether it withers Iran's deeply destabilizing involvement in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond is one of the many unknowns.
Indeed, "what's really significant here is how much we don't know," said Ronald Krebs, a University of Minnesota political science professor whose scholarship focuses on the Mideast. Uncertainties like Iran's and Saudi Arabia's true motivations, said Krebs, as well as whether Chinese incentives played any role, and even if "the agreement has any legs."
If it does it could slow walk the kingdom's consideration of joining the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords, the Trump administration's signature foreign-policy achievement that saw some Arab nations recognize Israel. (A Saudi balk would be just the latest setback for an Israeli government reeling from unrest).
Just days before the unexpected entente was announced, the news narrative from the region was Riyadh's reported requirements to join the accord, including U.S. security guarantees, reduced restrictions on U.S. arms sales, and help from Washington on developing a civilian nuclear program — conditions that would be challenging for President Joe Biden to accept, especially since he previously promised to make Saudi Arabia a "pariah" for the killing of Saudi activist and journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was a U.S. resident at the time of his murder. The killing, concluded U.S. intelligence agencies, was approved by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's de facto ruler.
The U.S., however, "remains the most desired ally, even for Saudi Arabia," said Henderson, citing the "mega order" of new Boeing aircraft announced on Tuesday.
Biden's now infamous fist-bump with the crown prince didn't end the arms-length status of America's relationship with its formerly close ally, and didn't even accomplish his goal to increase the flow of oil (the Chinese likely fared much better by tightening ties with both Iran and Saudi Arabia).
And Tehran has been a pariah to Washington for 43 years, since diplomatic relations were severed after Iran's seizure of hostages at the U.S. Embassy. The divide has only deepened over Iran's potential nuclear-weapons program and since Iran started arming Russia with drones for its war in Ukraine. Together, the strained relations with Saudi Arabia and no relations with Iran meant that the U.S. was "simply not going to play that kind of brokerage role," said Krebs.
That's the role, however, that the U.S. is used to playing, particularly in the Middle East. That it was the Middle Kingdom, as China has historically been called, that was middle man may amplify implications in the region — and beyond.
Especially since China has a human-rights record as heinous as Saudi Arabia and Iran (which has tortured children as young as 12 amid the theocracy's unholy repression of protests convulsing the country, according to an Amnesty International report released on Thursday), and approaches rapprochement differently than the U.S., which reliably and rightly emphasizes human rights and other values-based factors in its diplomacy.
China, conversely, is likely to stick to international, not internal factors. Coupled with Chinese President Xi Jinping's desire for China to play a more determinative diplomatic role globally — including in his visit to Moscow on Monday, reflecting the "no-limits" Russia-China partnership — the ever-volatile Mideast may now have Beijing as a key regional player along with Washington. In fact, Xi plans a major summit soon in Beijing between Iran and the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council.
"Beijing's efforts reflect an ascendant role for China in the Middle East, and also a newfound diplomatic activism," Ryan Hass, a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, said in an email interview. China, said Hass, has previously been a "convener" for talks on North Korea or a participant in Iran nuclear negotiations, "but never an active mediator of international disputes."
China, Hass said, "seeks to frame the United States in many parts of the world as a self-interested power with a militarized foreign policy that bullies weaker powers into submitting to its demands. China wants to be viewed as a peacemaker and contributor to other countries' economic advancement. Their mediation supports the self-image Beijing seeks to sell in the developing world, and particularly in the Middle East."
The projection doesn't match present reality, however, as evidenced by Beijing's internal repression, external bellicosity toward Taiwan and other Asian nations, and its support of Russia, which the U.N. accused of war crimes on Thursday, a day before the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But the projection may present China as a viable, even valuable alternative to nations seeking an interlocutor that won't interfere internally. "The symbolic power of China playing this kind of brokerage role for the first time in the Middle East, and in a region outside of its immediate area where there's still a lot of skepticism — that should not be underestimated," said Krebs.
That skepticism provides the scaffolding of cross-continental partnerships responding to China's rise, including the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, India, Australia and the U.S., the trilateral AUKUS (Australia-United Kingdom-United States) security pact — which just on Monday brought Biden to San Diego to meet with his British and Australian counterparts to announce the development and deployment of nuclear-powered attack submarines — and the bilateral agreement between Japan and South Korea, whose president on Thursday became the first leader from Seoul to go to Tokyo in 12 years as the two Asian nations try to be more cohesive in their approach to China and North Korea.
Beijing's diplomatic win needn't be perceived in Washington as a loss, however. And in fact, that's the State Department stance. "We've been there supporting it in every step of the way," spokesman Ned Price said on Monday. "Anything that would serve to de-escalate tensions and prevent conflict is in our interest."
Indeed, cooling the conflict and ending Yemeni suffering "is the right posture for America to take," said Hass. "If America ever becomes opposed to peace because China played a role in achieving it, then we will have lost our moral and strategic compass."
Whether those compasses pointed toward the unforeseen accord is unknown. At minimum, the timing of China asserting, and succeeding, diplomatically came quicker than anticipated.
"Many people in the intelligence community expected that China would start to play a role of this sort in the future," said Krebs. But they were "not expecting it in the next few days, nor in the next year, let alone two years or maybe even five to 10 years."
China "doesn't really have a recent history of mediating international disputes," said Hass, who added that "This is new ground for Beijing to claim, though."
The new ground is still being set, so Washington should tread strategically.
This is a story, concluded Krebs, about "the capacity to control the contingency of human affairs, and really trying to understand: What does it say about the kind of major power China wishes to be?"
The answer to that key question will profoundly matter not just around the region, but around the world.