What exactly worries the US about Chinese mediation in the Middle East?
On April 3, 1991, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 687, which ended the first major US-Allied war against Iraq. In exchange for preserving the country itself and his power, Saddam Hussein pledged to destroy his stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction and to pay compensation to countries, corporations and individuals affected by the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.
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There were still a few months left before the collapse of the Soviet Union, but in fact, Washington no longer considered the opinion of the USSR as the second superpower in this conflict. Operation Desert Storm was a milestone in the history of the American military presence in the Middle East.
The Central Command managed the distribution of more than 532,000 US military personnel to various units of the coalition forces, the total number of which amounted to 737,000 people.
This figure remains to this day the highest point of the American military presence in the region.
The political significance of that victory was even greater – it became a symbol of the beginning of America’s “golden decade” in world affairs, the beginning of the notorious “unipolar moment”.
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12 years later, George Bush Jr. brought his father’s work to overthrow Saddam to the end. On March 19, 2003, the Americans launched a new military campaign in Iraq. Hussein’s regime fell almost instantly, and the dictator himself was executed. However, it soon became clear that it was more difficult to plant democracy in Iraq, and simply to restore order there, than to defeat its almost unresisting army.
It soon became clear that the second Iraqi campaign symbolized not so much the success and power of the Americans as the beginning of the end of their dominance in the Middle East.
However, the decline of America’s influence in the Middle East began to be discussed even earlier – after the September 11, 2001 attacks. A decade later, a sign that the hegemon was losing its grip was the “Arab Spring”, which demolished authoritarian regimes loyal to Washington.
Russia’s actions in the Syrian direction also played a role, forcing even Moscow’s enemies to feel that “power is slowly changing.” The idea began to creep into the minds of the Middle Eastern elites that Americans can be said “no” if they impose an unfavorable agenda, and in general it is worth moving towards greater independence.
Washington followed all this not without irritation. But each time they consoled themselves with the fact that as long as the American military presence in the region is greater than that of opponents, Middle Eastern companies are tied to Western markets, and the elites are tied to prestigious consumption “in London and Paris”, there is nothing to worry about.
The election of Trump as president and the start of the campaign against China prompted the United States to somewhat reconsider its Middle East policy: now it was necessary to teach regional allies to be more self-sufficient, negotiate with neighbors and not bother Washington over trifles. Since Israel was Trump’s biggest concern in the Middle East, the Abraham Accords seemed to Americans the perfect way to bring Jews and Arabs together over their shared fear of Iran and their desire for economic development. The implementation of this plan made it possible to free up the resources necessary to fully focus on containing the PRC.
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The Russian special operation in Ukraine, of course, attracted the attention of the Americans. But in general, it only benefited their strategic interests – confusion and vacillation among the European allies ceased, taking under the trump card, they went under the strict guidance of Washington to various anti-Russian fronts. At the same time, the United States managed to annoy China as well – just remember Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.
But while the US military was working out scenarios for a war over Taiwan, and the American press was entertaining the population with speculation about the nature of the Chinese “white ball” over the territory of the United States, China struck from an unexpected direction – the Middle East. Therefore, when the representatives of Iran and Saudi Arabia concluded an agreement in Beijing to restore diplomatic relations that were severed seven years ago, the first reaction of the Biden team was to pretend that nothing extraordinary had happened. “The administration supports any effort to de-escalate tensions in the region,” the White House said dryly.
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Washington, of course, knew that such an agreement was being prepared. Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke directly about the need for negotiations between Riyadh and Tehran during a state visit to Saudi Arabia last December, the key parameters of such an agreement were spelled out during a recent visit to Beijing by Iranian President Ibrahim Raisi, and the details were worked out in China over the course of four days prior to the signing of the agreement. But the United States could not figure out how to parry the blow to its great power prestige.
The Americans are offended not only by the fact that China won a diplomatic victory, but also because of the next “treachery” of the allies – the Saudis. They so cleverly arranged the whole behind-the-scenes negotiation process with the Iranians and Chinese that even the Americans who knew about it could not do anything. However, they also found something to cheer themselves up here: the Saudis will still not be able to do without the US military umbrella in the coming years. Saudi Arabia’s dependence on the US is indeed great, but right now it is, strictly speaking, doing exactly what the US wanted its allies to do – ensuring its own security.
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Riyadh really seems to have learned to play a little thinner. In order to draw the Americans into the second round of their conditional multi-move, on the eve of the announcement of the deal with Iran, the Saudis leaked Wall Street Journal information about their readiness to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, to which the United States has long pushed them.
Even the conditions for this step were announced – the Americans must give Riyadh security guarantees and help in the implementation of the civilian nuclear program. It is clear that such issues are not resolved quickly, but the ball is sent to the field of the Americans – let them think.
What is happening, of course, is not reduced to a banal desire to show the nose to a senior partner. Tehran and Riyadh have really accumulated reasons to normalize relations. Iran is tired of Western sanctions pressure, internal protests and involvement in many geopolitical plots throughout the Middle East. And Saudi Arabia was tired of the war in Yemen, and indeed participation in numerous regional conflicts – all of them did not bring quick success and began to prevent the young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman from developing the economy of the Kingdom.
The Iranians and Saudis cannot get out of the quagmire of the Yemeni conflict and smaller “sparrings” without first settling their differences. So China’s offer to become an intermediary came in handy. Beijing has managed to convert its economic and trade resource (more than 30% of Iranian trade is with China, and for the Saudis it is the largest oil export market) into political influence and persuaded Tehran and Riyadh to take a step towards détente.
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It is difficult to predict how successfully the Iranian-Saudi agreement will be implemented. Its main point is not the return of diplomatic missions, but the obligation of the two countries not to encroach on each other’s sovereignty and not to interfere in the affairs of their neighbors.
Given the history of their relationship and the tradition of Middle East politics, this is easier promised than done. It is in this part that the Americans express reasonable skepticism and add: the real test of the stability of the “Chinese” agreement will be how much it will reduce the number of “destabilizing actions” of Iran in the region and whether it will become a new channel for discussing its nuclear program.
Why the Americans are focusing on Iran is understandable. But one gets the impression that they do not see the forest for the trees. Across the Middle East, many different forces have come into play: looking at the storm in world politics, local players are striving to fit into the new configuration in the most beneficial way for themselves.
And now, not only Iran and Saudi Arabia are shaking hands, but Ankara is also normalizing the dialogue with Riyadh, which deteriorated badly after the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. After a five-year break in relations with its neighbors, Qatar is trying to restore these relations.
Finally, the leading Sunni states of the region are gradually resuming contacts with the government of Bashar al-Assad, which ceased after the outbreak of the civil war in Syria. True, the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation is again intensifying and the crack in relations between the recent allies – Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – is growing wider, but most of these processes are taking place without any involvement of the United States.
Contrary to Washington’s fears, this does not mean that China, much less Russia, will immediately fill the power vacuum. But the example of Chinese mediation in the Iran-Saudi confrontation may be a symbol of the fact that one straw is enough to break the back of a loaded camel.