China — a long-time partner of Iran that counts Saudi Arabia as its biggest source of foreign oil — played host to a deal to ease years of diplomatic deadlock between the Middle East rivals. It was an unusual role for Beijing, which has rarely used its clout as the world’s No. 2 economy to wade into global hot spots.
While Washington’s absence from the discussions prompted questions about US leadership, China’s involvement appeared primarily to involve providing neutral ground after talks had already been well underway. Here’s what we know so far:
1. What role did China play?
Beijing provided the physical site for representatives from both sides to close the deal, which comes in the weeks after Chinese President Xi Jinping held face-to-face meetings with both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iranian leader Ebrahim Raisi.
China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, presided over the opening and closing of the talks, which produced a three-way statement announcing the decision to restore diplomatic ties, including by reopening diplomatic missions within two months. Iran and Saudi Arabia also agreed to implement a security cooperation agreement that was signed early last year.
2. What does this mean for China’s diplomatic clout?
The deal helps bolster China’s reputation as a responsible player on the world stage, after US-led accusations about its human rights practices and its military designs toward Taiwan. Wang described the agreement as a “victory of dialog and peace.” But there’s also widespread skepticism: Many observers said it would take time to see if the pact lasts.
Beijing doesn’t have a deep history of negotiating breakthrough accords. Its 2017 proposal for peace in Myanmar never gained traction. More recently, China’s blueprint for bringing an end to Russia’s war in Ukraine was widely dismissed by Western governments who questioned Beijing’s ability to be an honest broker, especially given the “no limits” relationship between Xi and President Vladimir Putin.
3. What does it mean for Xi’s global ambitions?
Xi has long sought to create an alternative world order to challenge the US and its allies and the Tehran-Riyadh deal helps it show that Washington doesn’t have to be at center of major geostrategic breakthroughs.
Initially focused on building economic ties through its landmark Belt-and-Road infrastructure lending program, a key element of Xi’s strategy now includes extending China’s diplomatic influence with countries in the Middle East, Latin America and Africa. On the global stage, the Iran-Saudi deal may give China more credibility with countries in those regions.
4. Who benefits from the agreement politically?
Besides bolstering China’s diplomatic credentials and possibly lowering the temperature between two well-armed rivals, the agreement gives all three nations involved the chance to show that you can resolve issues without US engagement, something China and Saudi Arabia have been keen to demonstrate.
Iran — still under punishing sanctions for its nuclear program and facing criticism for its crackdown on protesters — said it hopes the agreement will help it repair ties with more Arab nations. Economically it could benefit both Iran and Saudi Arabia by luring more Chinese investment. And the deal could even help foster peace in Yemen, riven by a civil conflict that has been seen as a proxy war between Tehran and Riyadh.
Yet the agreement also sets up an interesting balancing act for Crown Prince Mohammed, who has helped turn his economy more toward Asia while chaffing at US criticism of his nation’s human rights record. But Saudi Arabia still relies on US firepower for its military, a reality unlikely to change anytime soon. And the deal risks a fragile working relationship the Saudis — tacitly backed by Washington — have built with Israel, which still considers Iran enemy No. 1.
5. How did the US react?
While some analysts said the agreement showed Washington’s influence is receding in a region it has long played a critical role in, the reality may be less clear-cut. The US has almost no direct communication with Iran, so serving as a mediator between Tehran and Saudi Arabia would be an unlikely role.
That said, the White House said it would welcome the deal if it helps end the war in Yemen. National Security Council spokesman John Kirby added, however, that “it really does remain to be seen whether Iran’s going to meet their obligations.”