US influence in the Middle East may be declining, but the real winner is Russia
At the end of last week Saudi Arabia and Iran restored diplomatic ties with one another after a seven-year hiatus. Much of the media coverage focused on China’s role in facilitating the détente, framing it as a “geopolitical realignment” in the Middle East. In this case, the pundits haven’t quite got it right.
Granted, the deal was signed in Beijing. And Saudi Arabia, Iran and China all signed a joint statement emphasising the need to develop “good neighbourly relations” between Tehran and Riyadh. But it was the Saudis who pushed for the deal.
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In September 2019, Iran launched a massive attack on Saudi oil facilities, temporarily shutting down half of the Kingdom’s production. Then-president Donald Trump’s refusal to forcibly retaliate spooked the Saudis, who had until that point been vocally supportive of Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. In response, the Saudis halted their anti-Iran agitation and immediately began signalling a willingness to meet at the negotiating table.
Still, it is true that this deal is a sign of waning American influence in the region. China and Iran collaborated to present the pact with the Saudis in a way that humiliated the US, and its framing in much of the press as a Chinese diplomatic triumph has given them what they sought.
The displacement of US hegemony in the Middle East began more than a decade ago, with Barack Obama’s quest for a nuclear deal. This was accompanied by a strategic shift, in which Iran was treated as a “normal” state and even as a potential partner in the region. Tehran had no interest in partnering with the US, but the clerical regime was very grateful for the space this gave them to consolidate their Islamist imperial project in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and beyond. This was often with (at a minimum) indirect support from the US under the banner of “fighting terrorism”, specifically ISIS.
While China has benefitted from its relationship with Iran, the main state beneficiary of the deal has been Russia, the third member of this increasingly integrated anti-Western alliance. Russia has been a strategic ally of Iran’s since at least the late 1980s. Wherever one goes, from Syria to Ukraine to Latin America, the other is right there alongside — and China is not far behind.
This tripartite axis was broadly accommodated by the US’s principal Middle Eastern allies: Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey and even Israel. The shift became even clearer on the realisation that Trump’s primary difference from Obama in foreign policy was rhetorical, with many of these allies going through Moscow to make their terms.
The possibility of this latest deal reducing regional “tensions” is based on the idea that instability is rooted in a two-sided “sectarian proxy war” between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Really, though, the trouble stems from the regime in Iran exporting its Revolution through subversion and terrorism against its neighbours. To the extent that this deal has any effect, it will be to enable that project.