Iran’s Ali Shamkhani, Saudi Arabia’s NSA Musaed bin Mohammed Al-Aiban and Chinese counterpart Wang Yi signing the agreement (Arab News)
To gauge the importance of the Saudi-Iran rapprochement, mediated by China, it would be useful to see the evolution of this relationship since the Islamic revolution of 1979.
In an era aching for peace, such a radical development would undoubtedly be infectious. Just as the world sat up in wonder at the development, signals became discernable of quiet low-key efforts at repairing other parts of the frayed tapestry of West Asia. Deputy Foreign Ministers of Iran, Turkey, and Syria were headed for Moscow.
The Sunday Story
Tayyip Erdogan would be ready for bargains all around if these boost his chances in the May elections. Would it not be a coup for him if he goes into the contest after a summit with Syrian President Bashar al Assad? The meeting of the three officials has been postponed briefly because Moscow is readying itself to receive Xi Jinping on Monday.
True, the revolution which brought the Ayatullahs to power in 1979 did introduce a sharp bipolarity in the Islamic world, but what worried Saudis much more was a development in their citadel. At about the same time that the revolution was taking place in Iran, a group of Muslim militants who called themselves the ‘Akhwan’, a sort of double distilled variant of Akhwan ul Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood) occupied Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca, demanding that the House of Saud relinquish control of the holy shrines. The argument was that monarchical control was anti-Islamic.
This was not dissimilar to the Ayatullah’s demand. It had consequences too: the House of Saud began to describe themselves as “keepers of the holy shrines”. In good time the new title fell into disuse. And now that friendship, or at least its promise, has broken out between the countries, such awkward issues are unlikely to be raised. With such moderation breaking out, more theological debates will now intensify in Najaf and Qom on the one hand and among the Wahabi clergy on the other.
Iran was a Shia country even under the Shah. The Ayatullahs avoided the sectarian inflection and called it the “Islamic revolution”. The sectarian divide was amplified for strategic reasons by the Washington, Jerusalem, and Riyadh combination.
Since the establishment of the Jewish state, the Palestinian issue has had extraordinary saliency in the Arab world. For the Iranian revolution, it was a stated article of faith: no normalization with Israel unless all Palestinian rights were restored. Despite what happened to Saddam Hussain, Muammar Qaddafi, and Bashar al-Assad (his county was destroyed even as he survives), the Iranians have stood firm, thereby earning the wrath of Israel and all its supporters.
This stand on Palestine, standing up to the Israeli-US combine resonated in the Arab basement. This unnerved Arab potentates in dalliance with the Americans and Israelis. Playing up the “Shia axis of evil”, therefore served all their purposes. Even thinkers like Henry Kissinger began to amplify this propaganda. “The region is no longer focused on the Palestinian question, they are worried about the Shia-Sunni divide.”
When the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia returned from convalescence in a German hospital in the summer of 2011, he was dismayed that the Arab Spring had taken a toll on two of his friends – Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, and Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia.
He swore that there will be no more monarchies, sheikhdoms, and authoritarian regimes would be allowed to fall. Americans, he said, should “cut off the head of the snake”. The snake, in King Abdullah’s parlance, was Iran. To reach the “snake”, the Shia arc had to be weakened.
That is when the rebellion against Assad was manufactured and stoked. I saw US ambassador Stephen Ford and his French counterpart huddle with rebels in Homs, Hama, and Dera. A former US ambassador, Ed Peck who witnessed the brazen US interference in Syria, wrote this letter to a friend, a former Indian Ambassador to Damascus:
“I have been dismayed by the accolades and support given to Ambassador Ford, our man in Syria, for stepping well out of the traditional and appropriate role of a diplomat and actively encouraging the revolt/insurrection/sectarian strife/outside meddling, call it what you will. It is easy to imagine the US reaction if an ambassador from anywhere were to engage in even distantly related activities here. I fear my country remains somewhat more than merely insensitive and is sliding into plain rampant and offensive arrogance.”
After ten years of trying to oust Assad with the help of Western and regional powers, Americans find to their chagrin that the Syrian President is still around. If Assad cannot be defeated by a proxy war sustained for a decade, what hope is there of prevailing on Putin by proxy methods?
By 2015, President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry embarked on a pivot to the Pacific. By signing the nuclear deal with Iran, they were creating a power balance in West Asia. Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Turkey would “balance power” in the area, enabling the US to attend to the bigger business in the Pacific – the rise of China.
Donald Trump tore up the agreement. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner helped place the regional crown on the head of Iran’s implacable enemy – Israel.
Inconsistency in US policy was causing weariness. The messy American withdrawal from Afghanistan, caused the world to gasp. Punters began to change their bets. Provoke Vladimir Putin into Ukraine, trap him into a long war, and clobber him with sanctions until Putin is on his knees – this was the stated intention. Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, at this stage, French President Emmanuel Macron appears to have called it right. “After 300 years, Western hegemony is coming to an end.”
By this token, the US, as yesterday’s hegemon, has woefully diminished persuasiveness.
When Trump asked Jimmy Carter: “What should we do because China is going ahead of us?” Carter’s response was pithy: “except for a brief conflict with Vietnam in 1978, China has not been at war.” Carter’s punch line was telling: “We have never ceased being at war.”
Saeed Naqvi is a Delhi-based veteran journalist