As`ad AbuKhalil china International Middle East

Saudi-Iran Deal a Possible US ‘Suez Moment’

The U.S. does not want to experience what Britain experienced in Suez in 1956: a watershed moment signaling its global decline.
Smoke rises from oil tanks beside the Suez Canal hit during the initial Anglo-French assault on Port Said, Nov. 5, 1956. (Fleet Air Arm, Imperial War Museums, Wikimedia Commons)

By As`ad AbuKhalil / Consortium News

The announcement in China on Friday of the resumption of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran (after a 7-year freeze) caused a stir in Washington with U.S. mainstream media underlining the rise of China’s diplomatic role in the region at the expense of the U.S.

The U.S. has consistently aborted diplomatic initiatives of its allies and adversaries alike. China, on the other hand, emphasized that the cornerstone of its policies in the region is peace and diplomatic relations, in clear contrast to U.S. and Western roles in launching wars and instigating conflict. 

Iran has been calling for the normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia for a few years, but Saudi Arabia snubbed all those initiatives. The Saudi government has been trying to win a brutal war in Yemen, which basically, and paradoxically, brought Iran closer to the Saudi border by virtue of Houthi reliance on Iranian assistance in the face of Saudi savagery. 

The Iraqi government (through its Shiite component) has been mediating between Saudi Arabia and Iran for a few years. The Shiite political groupings in Iraq are fully aware that a rapprochement between the two countries would reflect favorably on the relations between Sunni and Shiite political grouping in the country.

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Those discussions in Iraq were held at a low-level and did not amount to much (in fact, it is said that Qassem Suleimani when he was assassinated was on his way to participate in behind-the-scenes negotiations with Saudi Arabia through intermediaries).

The U.S. and Israel don’t look kindly on the news of the diplomatic breakthrough. They first fear that China is increasingly assertive in its role in the region, and the U.S. does not want to experience what Britain experienced in Suez in 1956: a watershed moment signaling its global decline. The U.S. stood up to Britain, France and Israel who combined to attack Egypt after its leader Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. The event is seen as the final act of the British Empire before joining the more powerful U.S. imperium. 

If China is eager to play a larger diplomatic role in the region it is because there is reception, nay eagerness, in the region for an expansive Chinese political role. China does not have a negative image in the Middle East or in developing countries in general. It is the U.S. and NATO that are seen as aggressive and intrusive. 

The Ukraine-Russian war reminded the U.S. government that it has not won the hearts and minds of developing countries: compare that to the popularity of the U.S.S.R. among developing countries during the Cold War, particularly due to active Soviet support for anti-colonial and independence movements around the world.  

Saudi Calculations

Saudi Arabia has its own calculations as well. The news of the resumption of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia coincided with news (in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal) that the Saudi government has been negotiating with the U.S. over the terms of its normalization with Israel. 

The Saudis wants to extract a big price from Washington: the two newspapers mentioned a Saudi demand for the establishment of a nuclear reactor in Saudi Arabia and its ambition is to obtain advanced U.S. weapons without conditions or restrictions. But both papers omitted the most important term of the agreement between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over normalization with Israel: Riyadh wants to obtain official and unwavering support for the coronation of Muhammad bin Salman as the next King of Saudi Arabia. 

When the UAE signed a peace treaty with Israel, it quickly elevated the relationship between the two countries into a strategic alliance. But the UAE, which did not object to the Saudi-Western war against the Syrian regime, aimed at improving relations with Damascus to avoid being subjected to media attacks for its flagrant betrayal of the Palestinian people. 

To be sure, the Syrian regime does not own a media empire analogous to the ones possessed by the UAE and the Saudis, but attacks on the UAE from an Arab government source would have caused unwanted embarrassment. Sure enough, the Syrian regime and its supporters avoided attacking the UAE for its relations with Israel as a favor for the UAE’s reconciliation with Syrian leader Bashar Al-Asad. 

Similarly, as the Saudi monarchy prepares for establishing relations with Israel, it can’t afford to have Iran and its media subject the Saudi ruler to attacks from an Islamic religious perspective. The Saudi government takes seriously its credential as a leading Muslim country, and it can’t afford for Iran to present itself, yet again, as the only true Muslim defender of Palestinians and the Aqsa Mosque in particular.

Saudi Media Campaigns

Iran had been wanting the rapprochement much more than the Saudis. Teheran has been subjected to massive campaigns of vilification from a sectarian, anti-Shiite perspective and from a racist, anti-Persian perspective. Saudi media and entertainment empires have devoted their resources to mobilize Arab and Muslim opinion against Iran and its sphere of influence in the region. 

Not coincidentally, the propaganda agenda of the Saudi regime conformed with the propaganda of Israel. Furthermore, aware of the influential role that Saudi media play in the propaganda war on Iran, there has always been an Arabic speaking faction within the ruling Iranian military-security establishment that called for improving relations with Saudi Arabia (Arabic-speaking Ali Shamakhani, secretary-general of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, represented this trend and he was the man selected to seal the deal with the Saudi representative in Beijing). 

Furthermore, the protests that swept Iran over the past several months revealed, more than ever, the role that Saudi Arabia plays within the exile Iranian opposition. Not only does the Saudi government promote the Shah’s son in its media, and not only does it reportedly fund and support the cultish group People Mujahedin Iran, but it also runs a network of media outlets directed against Iran and its interests.

Iranian International (the powerful London-based, Iranian opposition television station) was a leading voice and source for developments inside Iran during the protests. (Western media never mention that it is a Saudi regime station). Reports, allegations, and fabrications by Iran International made their way into most mainstream Western media. 

Iranian government propaganda outlets complained regularly about the role of Iran International. And just as Saudi Arabia in the past reconciled with the Qatari regime due to the influence of the Aljazeera network, the Iranian government is increasingly uneasy about the role of Saudi-run media, especially those that are Persian-speaking (Saudi Arabia has Persian language pages for most of its media). 

Saudis Have Alternatives

The U.S. has known about the Saudi-Iranian talks and it is highly unlikely that Saudi Arabia wishes to replace the U.S. patron with China. If anything, the Saudi government wants more not less American intervention in the region and it has looked with disfavor at U.S. withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Instead, the Saudi government wants to stress that it has alternatives to its exclusive dependence on the U.S. It should be remembered that during the Cold War years, clients of the U.S. in the Middle East often threatened to strike alliances with the Soviet Union. None actually did so.

The agreement for the resumption of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is just that, an agreement which governed the reopening of embassies in both countries. It signals a thaw in the relationship but not a full-fledged honeymoon. 

None of the thorny issues between the two countries were sufficiently discussed and no substantive agreements were reached (the agreement calls for discussing those issues in the coming months). That could happen but it is unlikely to lead to results because both sides are so heavily invested in their regional posture and allies. They both associate those regional policies (and wars, in the case of Saudi Arabia) as essential for regime prestige and political legitimacy. 

There is little common ground possible between the two countries: not in Yemen, or Lebanon or Palestine or in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia seeks accommodation with Israel while Iran supports resistance against Israel; Saudi Arabia wants a client regime in Yemen, while Iran supports the Houthi regime; Saudi Arabia wants to smash the power of Hizbullah while Iran regards Hizbullah as an element of primacy in the Iranian regional alliance. 

Both sides may be approaching the agreement for different reasons: Iran seeks to lower the tempo of Saudi media vis-à-vis Iran, and a reduction of Saudi financing of Iranian opposition and dissident groups, while Saudi Arabia is sending a message to the U.S. at a time when the Biden administration has become more hawkish on Iran than Trump. 

If the agreement does accomplish the goal of truly bringing peace and amity between the two rivals, China may then enjoy a Suez moment:  when the world signals the end of the American Empire like what happened to the British.

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As`ad AbuKhalil

As`ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the Historical Dictionary of Lebanon (1998), Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), The Battle for Saudi Arabia (2004) and ran the popular The Angry Arab blog. He tweets as @asadabukhalil

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