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How China's Iran-Saudi Diplomacy Stunned The World — Starting With Washington

The move is seen as a coup for China in its efforts to assert itself as a global superpower, while also presenting itself as a responsible and peaceful nation in the eyes of the non-Western world. The agreement is expected to help reduce tensions in the region and revive hopes for peace in Yemen, where the two countries have been fighting a proxy war.

Photo of Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman Chinese President Xi Jinping shaking hands.

A 2016 file photo of Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammad bin Salman and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Pierre Haski


PARIS — There is the agreement itself, and there are the circumstances surrounding the agreement. Saudi Arabia and Iran had severed diplomatic ties in 2016 after the execution of a Saudi Shiite leader. The restoration of relations between these two rival Middle East powers is therefore no small feat.

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But even more intriguing, more spectacular, and totally unexpected is the role played by China. For it was in Beijing that Friday's agreement was signed. The photo of China's top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, surrounded by the Saudi and Iranian ministers, in front of a large Chinese painting in Beijing, attests to a world that has suddenly changed.

This is undoubtedly the first time that China has taken on the role of mediator in the Middle East, a stance that has electrified the region and beyond since the announcement of the agreement.

Among the most shocked is the United States, once the exclusive protector of Saudi Arabia, and Israel, which had been slowly shaping its relationship with Riyadh toward a shared stance against Iran and its nuclear ambitions.

Raisi in Beijing

For Beijing, in the midst of a new cold war with the United States, this is a diplomatic coup: China displays both its superpower status in an area where it was not expected, and presents itself as a responsible and peaceful nation, which is good for its image in the non-Western world.

The real role played by China in the negotiations is unknown, beyond providing the framework for the final stage, that of the signature. But what is interesting is to understand why both Iran and Saudi Arabia accepted this Chinese sponsorship. Each has its own reasons.

Iran, under U.S. sanctions, is emerging from its isolation and forging closer ties with Russia and China. The rapprochement with Moscow was manifested by the delivery of drones used against Ukraine. But not enough attention was paid to the visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Beijing last month, a prelude to this agreement.

Photo of Musaad bin Mohammed Al-Aiban (L), Saudi Arabia's Minister of State, Wang Yi (C), director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the CPC Central Committee and Admiral Ali Shamkhani (R), Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, in Beijing on March 10, 2023.

Top diplomats of Saudi Arabia, China and Iran for the signing ceremony in Beijing on March 10, 2023.

Luo Xiaoguang via ZUMA Press

Shuffling of cards

For its part, Saudi Arabia has been playing a more subtle game since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. It has emancipated itself from American tutelage, refusing Joe Biden's request to increase oil quotas, before the surprise rolling out the red carpet for Xi Jinping.

The Chinese leader was certain to be the first to shake hands with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman when Westerners were boycotting him after the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. But there is also a more lasting reshuffling of cards, linked to the mid-sized powers on the planet.

What does this agreement change? It reduces tension between these two countries, which have been on the brink of war more than once. Its first effect should be to revive hopes for peace in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia and Iran have been waging a proxy war.

Iran should also abandon its threats to its neighbor, such as when it bombed oil installations in 2019.

But what about Iran's nuclear program, which is dangerously close to the critical threshold of uranium enrichment? And what about other fronts of Iranian activity in the region, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon...?

The agreement raises as many questions as answers it provides. But it has achieved its first objective: to surprise, and to signify to the West that the world has changed.

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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

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After the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in Moscow for a three-day visit. How far will he be willing to go to support Putin, a fugitive from international justice?

Photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Interior Minister Vladimir Kolokoltsev

Extended meeting of Russian Interior Ministry board on Monday, March 20

Pierre Haski


PARIS — Since Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin said last year that the friendship between their nations was "boundless," the world has wondered where the limits really lie. The Chinese president's three-day visit to Russia, which began Monday, gives us an opportunity to assess.

Xi's visit is important in many ways, particularly because the International Criminal Court has just issued an arrest warrant against Putin for his role in forcibly sending thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. For Putin, there could be no better response to this international court, which he does not recognize, than to appear alongside the president of a great country, which, like Russia, is also a permanent member of the UN Security Council. How isolated can Putin really be, when the leader of 1.5 billion people in China comes to visit?

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