SHOCKING! China shows that diplomacy can work in the Middle East

Peace Advocate April 2023

Noah, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
Iran-Saudi Proxy War, Noah, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

by Jeff Klein

The Chinese-brokered peace deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia is causing shock waves in Washington and around the world.  In contrast to the US policy of militarist hegemony, China has succeeded with old-fashioned diplomacy and the promotion of mutual respect between nations. Its successful intervention may portend a new Middle East and a multi-polar world in birth. The US political-military establishment is justifiably nervous.

Through Chinese mediation, Iran and Saudi Arabia have agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations and tone down hostile propaganda against each other. The initiative also promises the hope of winding down the costly and brutal US-supported Saudi war against Yemen, which has devastated that country and causes hundreds of thousands of casualties. Saudi and Iranian foreign ministers are expected to meet this month in Beijing for follow-up talks to implement the agreement.

These developments are reasons for hope, even if the long-term prospects for a stable peace between Iran and Saudi Arabia are far from assured. The two countries have been at loggerheads since the 1979 overthrow of Iran’s absolute monarchy. This dispute had little to do with a Sunni-Shia religious conflict, as is often promoted in the Western narrative. Before 1979, the Saudis had good relations with the Iranian Shah of Shiite-majority Iran, both counties then being US (and, covertly, Israeli) allies. After the exile of the Shah and the establishment of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Saudis were the primary financiers of Iraq’s long war of aggression against Iran, which was also materially supported by the US and its allies. (This was before Saddam Hussein was declared to be part of President Bush’s “Axis of Evil.”) As Iran and Saudi Arabia dueled for influence in the region after 1979, it was not religious differences which caused panic among the Saudi monarchs but the “Republic” in Iran’s new national name.

The US relationship with the Middle East has been very different from the diplomatic model practiced by China.  After decades of failed and costly wars, the US still maintains a military presence in almost every country of the region. It has a major airbase in Qatar and the headquarters of the of its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. The US has also flooded the region with hundreds of $billions in advanced military hardware, sold to Saudi Arabia and the UAE above all – or given, courtesy of US taxpayers, to Israel. The Middle East or “Central Command” as the Pentagon refers to the region, remains an important “theater” of US military operations.  In fact, the US has divided the entire planet into various “Military Commands,” each one garrisoned with some of the 750 or so US foreign military bases in 85 countries around the world. In contrast, China maintains a single minor overseas military base in the northeast African country of Djibouti.

The US has long supplied logistical and intelligence support as well as advanced weaponry for the Saudi-UAE war against Yemen. In Syria, the US still maintains an illegal military occupation of the country’s resource-rich east, while it has officially recognized the Israeli annexation of the Syrian Golan, which it conquered and occupied in 1967.

China has engaged very differently in the Middle East. In contrast to the supposed “Rules-Based Order” promoted by the US — which in effect means “We Make the Rules, You Follow Our Orders” – China conducts its foreign affairs chiefly through diplomacy and trade. Their approach is based on international law, non-interference and mutual economic benefits or “peaceful modernization” between countries. China, of course, is pursuing its own national interests. Unlike the US, China is heavily dependent on Middle Eastern oil and justifiably fears that regional instability or simmering wars could threaten its access. As a result, China maintains diplomatic relations and trade with all the counties of the region. For this and other reasons, China is regarded by the US as a “strategic adversary,” as confirmed in the recently-released “Annual Threat Assessment of the U.S. Intelligence Community.”

Iran too is on the permanent list of US enemies, allegedly because of the threat of its avowedly civilian nuclear program. But Iran, like all Middle East countries (apart from Israel), is signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and supports the enactment of a “Nuclear Weapons Free Zone” for the region. If the US were truly concerned about nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, it would support the initiative of all the regional countries for such a treaty instead of blocking it on behalf of its ally and actual nuclear weapons power Israel.

The success of China’s diplomacy in the Middle East highlights an alternative, less militarized, approach to international relations and thus threatens the long-term US hegemony in the region. Indeed, there are hopeful signs that countries in the Middle East are moving toward more independence from the US in reducing regional tensions. The UAE and Qatar already maintain significant trade relations with Iran. And there has been a movement by several Middle East powers to reestablish diplomatic relations with Syria after a decade of materially supporting US regime-change efforts there. Turkey has been very lukewarm to the expansion of NATO and refuses to boycott Russia.

Despite handwringing in Washington (and Tel Aviv), there is little chance that the Saudis intend to cut their long-standing ties with the US that go back to the 1930s, long before the creation of Israel. Along with the Saudi announcement of Chinese investment in its petroleum sector and moves to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the country just announced a multi-$billion deal to purchase Boeing airliners. No doubt Saudi Arabia will also continue to be the world’s largest buyer of US military hardware – for which it relies on US contractors to maintain.

But the recent Saudi moves to navigate an independent policy in the Middle East represent a larger worldwide move among the numerous countries of the Global South. As the US and its allies pursue the dangerous policy of a new Cold War against China and Russia, many of the world’s developing nations have refused to sign up. They have said no thanks to the US-NATO crusade in Ukraine by abstaining from one-sided UN resolutions and they have refused to enforce sanctions against Russia, China or other US adversaries. As great power rivalry heats up, we are perhaps seeing a replay of the Third World non-aligned movement of the original Cold War era. Many countries are now seeking to navigate an independent and national path that rejects a military alliance with either side.

Unfortunately, there are few signs that the US governing elite is prepared to accept this new reality. Instead, our elites remain committed to global strategic and military supremacy, which the Pentagon calls “Full-Spectrum Dominance”. The effort by President Obama to begin normalizing relations with Iran through a negotiated nuclear agreement faced vehement opposition from Israel and its influential US supporters, especially the establishment wing of the Republican Party. The Iran agreement was unilaterally abrogated by President Trump and the Biden administration fumbled an early opportunity to re-enter the accord by throwing up new and unacceptable conditions. Military threats and the deployment of cruel unilateral US economic sanctions remain the go-to policies in dealing with supposed adversaries around the world.

US military spending is soaring to new heights as the Pentagon moves ever more aggressively to confront its perceived Russian and Chinese threats in Europe and the Pacific region. Our liberal elites still pine for a unipolar world where the US can threaten and bully other nations, sometimes in the name of “spreading democracy.”  Notwithstanding the rhetoric from the White House and the delusions of our liberal elites, much of the world regards efforts like the “Summit for Democracy” with the quiet derision it deserves.

Meanwhile, even the very partial democracy which exists in the US is becoming increasingly fraught. A generation of military and corporate-led globalism has helped to create a crisis at home with rising inequality, deindustrialization, regional depression and a large, disaffected population motivated by hatred for our governing elite and vulnerable to racist appeals from demagogues like Trump. The result has been a rise in mental health issues, mass shootings and a decline in life expectancy in many parts of the US, along with a crumbling domestic infrastructure that has become the laughingstock for much of the developed world. All of this is in part the blowback for thousands of US lives lost and trillions of dollars wasted on criminal wars. “American carnage,” as Trump called it at his 2017 inauguration speech.

Given the reluctance of our establishment to re-orient to an emerging multi-polar world and its continued reliance on military force, the prospect for even the very limited democracy we have in the US itself is becoming uncertain. If an engaged and energized citizenry fails to force the change that is needed, we are facing an uncertain future with the threat of a nuclear holocaust and a failed democratic state at home.

As a 20th century political sage once rightly pointed out: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”