The China-brokered Agreement Between Iran and Saudi Arabia

On March 10, 2023, China brokered a deal to normalize relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran and Saudi Arabia after Riyadh severed ties following an attack on the Saudi embassy in Tehran in 2016. The three countries announced, “that an agreement has been reached…to resume diplomatic relations between them and re-open their embassies and missions within a period not exceeding two months, and the agreement includes their affirmation of the respect for the sovereignty of states and the non-interference in internal affairs of states.”


China can showcase its prowess as not only an economic actor but also a diplomatic one in the Middle East. Iran can boast of a victory on the world stage after months of mounting international isolation over its nuclear program, the protests enveloping its country, and its supply of arms to Russia for use against Ukraine. It also reinforces the supreme leader’s vision of a resistance economy neutralizing sanctions and broadly fits into his strategic pivot to the East, deepening partnerships with Moscow and Beijing. Iranian officials may calculate they have also slowed down expansion of the Abraham Accords. Saudi Arabia at the same time can remind Washington that it has other options in the region after a years-long perception that the United States is disengaging from the Middle East. It also is interested in ensuring a stable investment environment as it implements Vision 2030.

The Problems of U.S. Policy

Perceptions of U.S. disengagement harken back to the Obama administration, when the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) was concluded and traditional U.S. partners in the region felt the deal compromised their security interests by infusing Tehran with sanctions relief while leaving its missile and drone programs and support for terror proxies unaddressed. U.S. messaging over a pivot to Asia heightened such concerns. The lack of a U.S. response during the Trump administration to the attacks on Saudi energy infrastructure at Abqaiq and Khurais in 2019 increased the urgency for Gulf Arab states to rebuild channels of communication with Tehran to deescalate. President Biden also undermined the confidence of U.S. partners when he pledged to make the Saudi government a pariah during his campaign, delisted the Houthis as a foreign terrorist organization, and prioritized a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA above all else early on in his administration.

Problems Ahead

But the soaring rhetoric portraying China as a peacemaker willing to wield its considerable leverage over Tehran through its purchases of oil in defiance of U.S. sanctions belies its record. The Chinese Communist Party has in practice underwritten support for Tehran’s terror proxies through these energy transfers and provided a permissive environment for Tehran to procure parts to advance its missile and drone programs. Beijing has also repeatedly voted against censure resolutions of Iran at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Board of Governors—which has not been helpful in increasing pressure on Tehran.

Likewise, the existence of full diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia historically has not automatically resulted in meaningful rapprochement. While both countries had diplomatic relations in 2011, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force plotted to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the United States at a Georgetown restaurant. That is not to mention that the war in Yemen began in 2014 while embassies were still open.

This warming of ties between Riyadh undercuts U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran. American and Gulf Cooperation Council officials have repeatedly warned that regional diplomatic efforts “will not succeed if Iran continues to provoke a nuclear crisis.” Thus, this initiative risks reinforcing to Iranian decision-makers that they can advance their nuclear program without paying any meaningful costs. In fact, they are already being rewarded through the reopening of embassies with U.S. partners without even reining in their nuclear program.