Much has been analysed and written about the March 9 deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia, brokered by China. Most analyses focus on how China has swept the carpet from under the American feet and will now be viewed as a serious player in the Middle East where it has been trying to find a toehold.
The deal is an attempt to secure its long-term economic interests. It is also being viewed as a step towards wielding greater political influence in the region to rival the role that the United States has traditionally played. On the face of it, nothing could be more positive for the region and the world than an assured step towards curbing sectarianism within Islam. The Shia-Sunni rift gets translated into a geopolitical competition for influence due to the two most powerful Islamic nations in the Middle East, Iran (Shia) and Saudi Arabia (Sunni), being from two different ideological camps. Hence the deal has the potential to be a pathbreaker with the caveat that it is handled with kid gloves. Since it has the potential to go horribly wrong too, a brief explanation is necessary.
Another power adverse to US interests entering the Middle East was something coming for long and should not have taken the US by surprise. Ever since 1979, when the Iranian Revolution established the rule of the clergy by overthrowing Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and leading to the detention of 54 US embassy personnel as hostages by a segment of the new ruling elements, the US has been on what could be termed the ‘Royal Sulk’.
The ignominy of a superpower being held hostage has never left the American psyche. There were opportunities galore where even a slight rapprochement with Iran and a light rap on the Saudi knuckle could have led to the arrest of the runaway growth of Sunni obscurantism as the ideological war within Islam intensified and the extremist elements attempted to establish their hold. American scholar Stephen Schwartz argues that internal dynamics of Saudi Arabia incited suicide bombers, Osama bin Laden, and other Islamic terrorists throughout the world.
In his famous book, The Two Faces of Islam, Schwartz focused on the role of the Saudi hierarchy and intelligence service in the spread of obscurantist Islamic ideology which effectively made the US and western society the targets of the radicals who set up 9/11. The US could have put a cap on this activity by following a more balanced approach to the Iran-Saudi relationship. The Iranian nuclear program, discovered in 2003, shook off any thought of a softer US approach towards Iran. The US thus virtually cut itself off from rapprochement and pursued ‘containment’ as its doctrine, with a hidden agenda of ultimate defeat and destruction of the Iranian regime. The beneficiaries were Saudi Arabia and the GCC nations, receiving the US largesse of military equipment and most importantly, strategic focus.
Two issues were of importance. First, the coming of the Saudi-Israel partnership set up by the US, for the prime purpose of containing Iran; the Iranian antipathy towards Israel is well known and harps on the completely unacceptable policy of ‘holocaust denial’. The second issue earlier promised something more positive through the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) 2015 which could have brought Iran out of isolation and partially mainstreamed it. Donald Trump’s refusal to follow his predecessor’s sensible gamble of working cautiously led to the US withdrawal from the agreement and sent Iran back into its secretive isolation. It was already at war with the Saudis in Yemen through proxies. The proxy wars that Iran was sponsoring only intensified thereafter, leading to the targeting of the Aramco refinery in Saudi Arabia in 2019.
The US missed its opportunities because it refused to seek windows of opportunity to steady the Iranian nerves of uncertainty and perceptions of threats from its more powerful Arab neighbours. In fact, it added weight to Iran’s fears through more sanctions and stronger backing to the Israeli-Saudi camp.
The Chinese initiative may give hopes of a positive outcome for the stability of the Middle East but there are enough detraction issues which could counter a positive movement. The Saudi-Iran agreement does not take into account Israel, whose enmity and antipathy towards Iran also borders on the extreme. Israel will not favour anything that upsets the balance which is clearly in its favour.
Sensing a lowering of US sentiment for itself, the Saudi leadership under Prince Mohammad bin Salman took the initiative to test the waters when President Xi Jinping came calling in December 2022. He intended to show his Arab counterparts China’s value as the world’s largest oil consumer and how it can contribute to the Middle East’s growth, including within fields of energy, security and defence. China could have opted for cooperation in diverse fields with both Iran and Saudi Arabia individually without attempting a rapprochement between them. However, this could have been very temporary. The suspicion is on its larger understanding of the ideological issues of Islam and the potential they hold of acting as spoilers.
The US, with its deep-seated academic research of cultures, has been unable to fully appreciate the challenges and the opportunities that lay before it. China has created a mess of the Uyghur issue in Xinjiang and is extremely unpopular among the ideologically oriented extremist groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Will its entry into the complex quagmire of Gulf and Middle East politics be followed up by a steady and nuanced approach of understanding culture? To be an effective player as a big power, it’s not just the money you bring to the region or the markets you seek but the depth of involvement in issues that matter.
It will take a few generations for China to establish the kind of linkages the US has established in the Middle East. For now, we should count our blessings if the Yemen war comes to an end and drones are not flown into each other’s refineries. It may be highly premature to perceive a full turnaround in Iran’s security perceptions and thus any effect on its nuclear program. Some things are a little too quasi-permanent in the Middle East (the sectarian divide for example) and will need much more to change than a short visit by Xi Jinping, a couple of discussion sessions, and an Iranian presidential visit to Beijing.
Lt Gen Syed Ata Hasnain (Retd)
Former Commander, Srinagar-based 15 Corps. Now Chancellor, Central University