WASHINGTON, March 18, 2023 (BSS/AFP) - China's shock success at bringing
Saudi Arabia and Iran together has challenged the United States' longstanding
role as the key outside power broker in the Middle East.
Beijing's persuading archrivals Riyadh and Tehran to reestablish diplomatic
relations upstaged the United States just as Washington appears powerless to
intervene in the political tensions in Israel over the Netanyahu government's
sharp-right turn, which has inflamed Palestinians.
"Anything that can help reduce tensions, avoid conflict and deter in any way
dangerous and destabilizing actions by Iran is a good thing," US Secretary of
State Antony Blinken said Wednesday on the Saudi-Iran deal announced on March
US officials have tried to minimize Beijing's role in the region, saying it
is far from supplanting the United States: much of the Middle East still sits
under the Pentagon's security umbrella.
But China's breakthrough is a real challenge, as Washington remains deeply
preoccupied with the Ukraine war and, over the long term, with blunting
Beijing's diplomatic and military advance in the Indo-Pacific region.
James Ryan, Director of the Middle East program at the Foreign Policy
Research Institute, said Washington is happy if anyone can contribute to
Middle East regional stability, even rival China.
"The Biden administration has very clearly said that when it comes to the
Middle East they're going to favor security, they're going to favor
stability," he told AFP.
"American involvement just overall is going to be more on the sidelines than
it has been in the past," a message the Saudis "very clearly" understand,
- Tense ties with Riyadh -
China stepped in in a period when the US views Iran as a major threat to the
region and yet its own relations with longtime ally Saudi Arabia have frayed.
Meanwhile, its ability to intervene in Israeli-Palestinian disputes has
Despite scoring a huge $37 billion contract to sell more Boeing jets to the
Saudis this week, Washington's ties with Riyadh have been tense since
President Joe Biden ordered a review of the relationship in October.
Biden has spoken of "consequences" after the Saudis snubbed US requests to
increase oil output to force down prices that soared after Russia's invasion
Instead, Riyadh cut production, sending prices even higher with global
- Abraham Accords -
A Saudi-Iran rapprochement also threatens the ultimate goal of the US-crafted
Abraham Accords: Arab powerhouse Saudi Arabia's recognition of Israel after
decades of refusal.
In negotiations driven by Washington, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain
launched the process of recognizing Israel in 2020, and since then Morocco
and Sudan have followed suit.
But Riyadh has resisted pressure to do so as well.
The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported that the Saudis want
security guarantees from Washington and assistance on their civilian nuclear
program in exchange for recognizing the Jewish state.
Meanwhile, Biden's hopes to break some ice with Iran by restoring the 2015
deal that limited its nuclear program -- abandoned by predecessor president
Donald Trump -- have gone nowhere.
Instead, Tehran has moved further away, supporting Russia in its war on
- Stymied by Israeli politics -
The turmoil in Israel is another headache.
Despite repeated calls from US officials for de-escalation, including a visit
by Blinken to Jerusalem and Ramallah in late January, the violence between
Israelis and Palestinians has worsened.
Much is being driven by a deep rift in Israeli politics, including Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's move to weaken the country's supreme court.
Day after day, US officials condemn inflammatory actions, while reiterating
"unwavering" support for Israel and commitment to the "two-state solution."
Yet that has had no impact on the increasingly hardline government of
longtime ally Netanyahu.
In an interview with AFP on Thursday, Blinken said that the United States
would not take sides in the "very vibrant democracy of Israel."
"Consensus is the best way forward," he said of the political schism.
But pressure is mounting on the Biden administration.
Around one hundred Democratic lawmakers recently wrote Biden expressing
concerns about the direction of Netanyahu's government and urged the US
leader to use all diplomatic tools possible to prevent it from "further
damaging the nation's democratic institutions."
"In this fragile and combustible moment, consistent and sustained US
diplomatic leadership is critical," they told Biden.
But with US elections looming next year, the White House's latitude "is going
to be very limited" in its ability to impact Israeli politics and the
Palestinian issue, said Ryan.
The Israelis "are much more confident now, especially post-Abraham Accords,
in their ability to act as they please," he said.