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How an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran could affect U.S. influence

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Saudi Arabia and Iran have had tense relations for years, but on Friday, the two countries took a step towards toning down their animosity. Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to restore diplomatic ties that were cut several years ago, and the mediator was China. NPR's Deborah Amos joins us now. Welcome to the program.

DEBORAH AMOS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: What can you tell us about this agreement?

AMOS: So it was pretty simple as it was set out. It's a return to diplomatic relations broken off since 2016. Then Iranian protesters stormed the Saudi embassy in Iran. What they were protesting is the beheading of a prominent Saudi cleric convicted on terrorism charges. The cleric was a Shia Muslim, as are most Iranians.

Things got worse again in 2019 after missile and drone attacks on Saudi oil facilities. Saudi Arabia blamed that on Iran. Now, both sides are going to reopen embassies in two months. And as important, they agreed to renew a security pact signed 22 years ago to cooperate on terrorism, drug smuggling, money laundering, and another agreement on trade and technology.

RASCOE: So if these commitments are kept, what would that mean for the region?

AMOS: Well, it might, and I must emphasize, might, calm tensions. These two rivals have been on opposite sides of a number of regional conflicts - in Syria, in Iraq, in Yemen, and power struggles for control of Lebanon, too. I talked to Gregory Gause. He's a prominent Saudi expert at Texas A&M. We note he's also affiliated with a Washington think tank that's received funding from Saudi sources and many others. Gause says Yemen will be the big test of a rivalry that's been the major fault line in the Middle East.

GREGORY GAUSE: There's still plenty of problems with Iran. I think that the essentials of the rivalry are still there. Cease-fire in Yemen, but no settlement, right? To me, the real signal of a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will be a settlement. If the Chinese could do that, then, you know, Nobel Prizes all around.

AMOS: So that's hard. There's a fragile cease-fire in Yemen, but Saudi airstrikes there have killed thousands. And Iranian-backed Houthis - they've launched attacks into Saudi Arabia. So this is a very bitter stalemate right now.

RASCOE: OK. So now let's turn to the mediator in this deal. How did China end up playing a role that the U.S. often plays? And it seems like that might be just as important as the deal.

AMOS: So, look, this is a new role for China, and it's hard to overstate that. Why Saudi-Iran? You know, for one thing, China has influence with both countries. In Iran, China is a big trading partner - about 30% of Iran's trade. That's big. For Saudi Arabia, China is a big oil customer. The U.S doesn't have direct relations with Iran, so China could talk to both.

In addition, even though the U.S. still has huge military bases in the region, Arab Gulf countries have worried for years that the U.S. commitment to security is not as strong as some before. And analysts say the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman doesn't want to be limited to just working with the U.S., which has criticized him for human rights abuses in ways that China does not. So here's Bessma Momani. She's a Canadian Saudi expert at Waterloo University, and she says the crown prince's policy reflects this new Saudi nationalism.

BESSMA MOMANI: He's very much interested in advancing Saudi Arabia first and foremost, and those longtime agreements of the great relationship with the United States just don't resonate anymore.

RASCOE: So does this deal present downsides for the U.S.?

AMOS: Hard to say, but publicly, the Biden administration said it welcomed any agreement that de-escalates regional tensions. Here is a rare case that this deal is praised both by Washington and by Iran-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon. There are objectors. U.S. foreign policy experts are split. There's an argument - is this bad for the U.S. because China is taking over this traditional role in the region?

And it also raises questions about a U.S. diplomatic initiative - an attempt to broker a formal diplomatic opening between Saudi Arabia and Israel. That's something Israel has sought, but now might have to rethink it. For now, the U.S. is still a big security power in the region, but some Saudis I talked to about this diplomatic opening are excited. Some Saudi watchers say it's a dark day for the U.S. Others say anything that lowers tension in the Middle East is a good thing. But all agree this could be a big deal.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Deborah Amos. Thank you so much for joining us.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.