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The Hollow Saudi-Iranian Agreement

A new Chinese-brokered restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran is hardly sufficient to overcome those two countries’ longstanding hostilities. Far from representing a regional realignment, it is ultimately more likely to demonstrate the limits of China’s influence.

WASHINGTON, DC – The recently announced Chinese-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia to restore diplomatic relations is the latest sign that China is muscling its way into international diplomacy. Some see the deal as further evidence of the United States’ eroding might and influence, and of its Middle East fatigue. In fact, the agreement is less a sign of American torpor than a reflection of unique regional circumstances.

More fundamentally, the agreement is not the breakthrough it has been made out to be. Saudi Arabia and Iran are bitter adversaries with a century-long history of enmity and distrust. It is extremely unlikely that they will suddenly become friendly neighbors.

Some analysts see the deal as a testament to China’s policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, in line with China’s own framing of the news. But while it is certainly true that the US never could have mediated between the Iranians and the Saudis, given that it has been isolating Iran with sanctions for many years, this reality also gives the Iranians a powerful incentive to take any opportunity to poke America in the eye. If they can accentuate China’s diplomatic credentials and give pundits fodder with which to disparage the US, they will.