WASHINGTON — Finally, there is a peace deal of sorts in the Middle East. Not between Israel and the Arabs, but between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which have been at each other’s throats for decades. And brokered not by the United States but by China.
This is among the topsiest and turviest of developments anyone could have imagined, a shift that left heads spinning in capitals around the globe. Alliances and rivalries that have governed diplomacy for generations have, for the moment at least, been upended.
The Americans, who have been the central actors in the Middle East for the past three-quarters of a century, almost always the ones in the room where it happened, now find themselves on the sidelines during a moment of significant change. The Chinese, who for years played only a secondary role in the region, have suddenly transformed themselves into the new power player. And the Israelis, who have been courting the Saudis against their mutual adversaries in Tehran, now wonder where it leaves them.
“There is no way around it — this is a big deal,” said Amy Hawthorne, deputy director for research at the Project on Middle East Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington. “Yes, the United States could not have brokered such a deal right now with Iran specifically, since we have no relations. But in a larger sense, China’s prestigious accomplishment vaults it into a new league diplomatically and outshines anything the U.S. has been able to achieve in the region since Biden came to office.”
President Biden’s White House has publicly welcomed the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and expressed no overt concern about Beijing’s part in bringing the two back together. Privately, Mr. Biden’s aides suggested too much was being made of the breakthrough, scoffing at suggestions that it indicated any erosion in American influence in the region.
And it remained unclear, independent analysts said, how far the rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran would actually go. After decades of sometimes violent competition for leadership in the Middle East and the broader Islamic world, the decision to reopen embassies that were closed in 2016 represents only a first step.
The key to the agreement, according to what the Saudis told the Americans, was a commitment by Iran to stop further attacks on Saudi Arabia and curtail support for militant groups that have targeted the kingdom. Iran and Saudi Arabia have effectively fought a devastating proxy war in Yemen, where Houthi rebels aligned with Tehran battled Saudi forces for eight years. A truce negotiated with the support of the United Nations and the Biden administration last year largely halted hostilities.
The U.N. estimated early last year that more than 377,000 people had died during the war from violence, starvation or disease. At the same time, the Houthis have fired hundreds of missiles and armed drones at Saudi Arabia.