“China’s Growing Influence in West Asia: A Complex Web of Geopolitics and Challenges”

China is expanding its political influence and presence in the West Asia as the United States (US) refocuses its strategic interests and military capabilities away from the Indo-Pacific to counter China’s growing threats, including those related to Taiwan. The deal negotiated by China with Saudi Arabia and Iran speaks for itself. The main focus of interest continues to be China, even though the individual motives of each party under that agreement can be contested or denied.

The Saudi Iran Agreement may be seen as reflecting China’s ambitions for a major role in the Middle East Regional Power dynamics. The nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) have largely supported the US for decades.  However, China appears to have shown itself capable of challenging the US influence in the region through its involvement with Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Iran still poses a threat, despite some claims that China’s influence is beginning to be more noticeable. In this regard, it is uncertain whether Iran will behave in a way that is consistent with China’s ideals over the long term or even in the short term. The latter possibility is clear in the case of Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthis, who just days before the announcement of the Saudi-Iranian agreement attacked senior defense officials and attempted to assassinate the defense minister. In this regard, it is important to note that the Yemeni government officials targeted in the attempted assassination are strongly backed by the Saudi government, raising doubts about Iran’s true intentions for rapprochement with Saudi Arabia.

Unknown are China’s incentives to Iran for carrying out the deal with Saudi Arabia. It will be interesting to see how China’s incentives for Iran will develop over the next few years, whether that be increased trade, economic ties, and investments from China at a time when Iran is subject to international isolation and sanctions, or increased military support. Furthermore, China may face unexpected difficulties in striking a balance between encouraging Iran and upholding Saudi Arabia’s strategic security interests. The test of Chinese relations with both sides in this regard will always be whether China can keep exerting pressure on Iran to favor Saudi Arabia. In any case, one may argue that the Chinese influence in the region could enable a more pragmatic approach toward Iran to be adopted which would ultimately have negative consequences on the Strategic Interests of the Gulf Cooperation Council over the longer term.

Regarding the aforementioned, Iran’s nuclear aspirations are also unknown. It is extremely unlikely that Iran would give up on its nuclear ambitions in light of the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran that was mediated by China. Iran’s nuclear ambitions still present a collective threat to the GCC as a whole and will always do so. As a result of Iran’s nuclear program and its increased uranium enrichment levels, this could actually pose a threat to China’s influence in the region. This issue also poses a serious threat to Israel, which has sought to strengthen its strategic ties with the majority of GCC nations over the past few years, particularly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in order to counter Iran’s nuclear threat. A crucial aspect to think about is how Israel and the US will now respond to the Iranian nuclear issue in light of the Saudi-Iran agreement that was mediated by China, as well as what part China might play in such a challenge. Iran may eventually try to use China’s influence in the region to undermine Western efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

The relationship between the Iranian government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IGRC) is another important consideration. The primary goals of the IGRC when it was founded in 1979 were to protect Iran’s post-revolutionary leadership and to stand up to both internal and external threats. The IGRC has a significant impact on non-state armed groups throughout the region, including those in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Many of these groups are categorically prohibited from operating internationally as terrorist organizations. There is also the Iranian army within Iran, which is compared to the IGRC as having less funding. The overlap of military responsibilities that the two organizations share, however, demonstrates that there has historically been rivalry between them. Additionally, there have always been disagreements between the two organizations regarding both internal social problems and foreign policy. It can therefore be difficult for the Iranian leadership to ensure the peaceful coherence between both military bodies toward Saudi Arabia in light of the Saudi-Iran agreement. Because of this, the Iranian government, including the IGRC, may hold opposing views to the agreement due to the existence of “hardline” factions within it. If there are internal conflicts within the Iranian government, these factions could generate significant political opposition, making it more challenging for the Iranian government to fully implement the terms.

Another factor that might affect how Iran adheres to its agreement with Saudi Arabia is domestic unrest; this makes it difficult for China to keep Iran’s leadership stable. Since September 2022, there have been widespread protests throughout Iran, during which more than 500 protesters have died and tens of thousands have been detained. The viability and success of the Saudi-Iran agreement will technically depend on how the public unrest toward Iran’s leadership develops, how it might affect Iran’s foreign policy toward China and the GCC, and how China and the GCC will collectively deal with the uncertainty of Iran’s internal stability.

Conclusion: Although the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran may mark a positive development in their long-standing tense relationship, Iran may still find it challenging to fully abide by the terms of the deal. The implementation of the agreement will be significantly hampered by issues of trust, domestic political opposition, regional power dynamics, and geopolitical volatility, particularly on the Iranian side. Furthermore, given that it “brokered” the deal, all of this presents China with a number of significant challenges that it must overcome if it wants to play a bigger role and exert more influence in the Middle East. This agreement might pave the way for a more stable and cooperative world with consistent diplomatic efforts and a commitment to compromise from all parties.

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