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Truce between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by China, raises some concern for U.S.


After years of hostility, Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to reestablish relations. This tentative peace was brokered by China after it was announced that officials from the three countries had met in Beijing for several days prior to negotiating the deal. This announcement from the three countries marks a new beginning of diplomatic relations between the two Middle Eastern powers and the reopening of embassies in Tehran and Riyadh within the next two months. China's involvement in the deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia comes as a surprise and concern to some as U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia and China have been strained in recent years.

Joining us to talk about this is Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group's Middle East and Northern Africa program director. He leads the organization's research, analysis, policy advice and advocacy in and about the region, and he's with us now. Thank you so much for joining us.

JOOST HILTERMANN: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: If I could just start with a sort of a narrower question, does this deal have any impact on the United States? I mean, if so, what?

HILTERMANN: It depends on how it is interpreted, of course. I think the main impact is to the parties to the conflict. Iran and Saudi Arabia, they have agreed to reestablish diplomatic missions, which also means they're hoping to lower the temperature in the region, which has been pretty high in the last six, seven years. And so that is good news.

I think if there's any impact to the United States, it's really about the role of China in particular. The White House has come out and said that it's quite OK with the fact that they are reestablishing diplomatic relations, but it's also clear that the United States could never have brokered this because it cannot speak to Iran directly. So if Iran and Saudi Arabia want to go ahead with this, they needed another intermediary, and that clearly was China.

Now, is the United States happy that China is starting to present - profile itself in the Middle East as a potential broker of relations and with a history where it has had huge and growing economic and commercial investments and interests and is now starting to dabble in the political sphere? I'm sure that there are some concerns about the rising power of China that is starting to manifest itself in the Middle East as well on the political level.

MARTIN: China's desire to expand its reach politically is known. But what do you make of Saudi Arabia's desire to kind of - or what seems to be a desire to expand their partnership with China?

HILTERMANN: So - but there's also a different way to look at it, which is that Saudi Arabia wanted to normalize diplomatic relations with Iran. And so how would it do that? And, of course, this has been in the works. I think the Saudis - so they had to bring in someone. It was China, and it made sense for the Saudis because they want to have much stronger commercial relations with China, one. And, two, they want to have some kind of other outside party other than the United States that is having their back in a way, because Saudi Arabia is very nervous about the state of the region, relations between Iran and Israel in particular, and is not trusting the United States to always have its back.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of that, there have been whispers of a potential normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Will this new deal with Iran, in your view, hamper those efforts?

HILTERMANN: No. To the contrary, I think Saudi Arabia would not be able to make a normalization deal with Israel without having covered its flank with Iran. So this was actually an essential element. For the Iranians, it's quite all right. They don't want an Israeli military presence in the Gulf, but they don't have an in-principle objection, as far as I understand them, to Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates or other Arab states having a relationship with Israel. But there are quite a few obstacles to Saudi Arabia normalizing its relations with Israel, which - it's still far from that. All I'm saying is that I don't think Saudi Arabia would have gone ahead without some kind of relationship with Iran first.

MARTIN: I want to raise one other issue. The civil war in Yemen has been going on since 2014. Iran and Saudi Arabia both have different stakes in this fight. Do you think that this agreement between the two means that we could see an end to that conflict?

HILTERMANN: Bringing the war to an end - there's different wars. One war is between Saudi Arabia and the Houthi rebels who control most of the country. Of course, the Houthis are supported by Iran, so the normalization of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, if it proceeds, could have, eventually, the effect of the Houthis reaching a deal with Saudi Arabia and vice versa. But that won't end the war because, in fact, there is a legitimate government in Yemen, which is very weak and very much fragmented among different parties, with even strong disagreements about whether Yemen should be a single country or two countries.

So even if the Saudis and the Houthis come to an agreement, that won't end the war. We still need to be a political process that brings the Houthis in the north together with the other party - with the legitimate government and the other parties. And who is going to guide that? Once the Saudis are out of the war, they may not have the appetite for that. And this is something, a concern that - certainly, that the parties have.

MARTIN: That was Joost Hiltermann, the International Crisis Group's Middle East and North Africa program director. Thank you so much for joining us.

HILTERMANN: My pleasure. Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.