Iran-Saudi deal casts China as desirable counsel : The Tribune India

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Iran-Saudi deal casts China as desirable counsel

Indian policymakers will have to carefully assess the developments because prima facie, the Iran-Saudi rapprochement raises questions about India’s decision to shed its traditional policy of pursuing strict neutrality and going for bilateralism in West Asia. Some Indian scholars have long advocated that India should act as a bridge between contending states of West Asia.

Iran-Saudi deal casts China as desirable counsel

‘Facilitator’: Beijing hosted talks at which Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to re-establish diplomatic relations. Reuters



Vivek Katju

Former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

Saudi Arabia’s National Security Adviser Musaad bin Mohammed Al Aiban met his Iranian counterpart Admiral Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of his country’s Supreme National Security Council, in Beijing on March 6-10. A spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that Wang Yi, who is now China’s top diplomat, having risen from his former office of Foreign Minister to become Member of the Politburo of the Communist Party’s Central Committee and Director of the Office of Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, “held talks with the two delegations and chaired the opening and closing ceremony of the talks.”

This careful formulation is aimed at giving the impression that China’s role was that of a positive facilitator and not that of a full mediator. The spokesperson added that the talks were held “in response to President Xi Jinping’s initiative of China’s support for developing good neighbourly relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.”

Clearly, despite the care taken by the Chinese spokesperson to project his country only as a ‘facilitator’, he has not sought to obscure the fact that his country has played a great role in getting the two principal states of the West Asian region to hold negotiations which would enable the “resumption of diplomatic relations and carry out cooperation in various fields.”

That the two main states of Sunni and Shia Islam met in the capital of a communist country whose President took an active interest in creating the enabling conditions for them to come together to address their differences is a development of great significance for West Asia. It is also a powerful signal to the world that China is now looked upon as a principal global power whose counsel and intervention is to be sought and is desirable.

The rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran is political and theological. Saudi Arabia has, in Mecca and Medina, the two holiest mosques of Islam. The ruler of the Kingdom calls himself their custodian. The oil wealth of the country has been used since the early 1970s to spread the Wahabi puritanical mazhab. This religious venture is to bestow upon the country not only political influence in the Islamic ummah but also overall leadership. Iran is the leader of Shia Islam.

While Najaf in Iraq has a special significance for Shias, it is Qom in Iran which has been the traditional seat of Shia learning. Ayatollah Khomeini’s doctrine of Vilayat-e-Faqih, which propelled the Iranian revolution of 1979 and established the clerical order, has ruled the country ever since and Iran has aspired for not just the leadership of Shia Islam, but of the entire ummah itself.

Thus, despite occasional attempts in Riyadh and Tehran at bridging the gap between the two countries, the chasm between them has remained deep. Indeed, the Saudis joined hands with Israel to vehemently oppose the Iran nuclear deal and they were at the forefront of approving former US President Donald Trump’s disavowal of it. That is one indicator of the attitudinal change which the rapprochement now being midwifed by China represents.

There is little doubt that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MBS) relations with the Joe Biden administration have been anything but warm. As the candidate, Biden had taken a strident position against MBS in the matter relating to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. As President, Biden had released the findings of US intelligence on this matter but he later tempered his approach to visit Saudi Arabia last summer. MBS, who is the real ruler of the Kingdom, received him correctly in protocol terms but went far beyond conventional protocol during the state visit of Chinese President Xi in December last year. That was a demonstrative endeavour at courting China.

Wang visited Tehran in 2021 and both countries agreed that China would make massive economic investments in Iran over the next 20 years. Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Beijing in mid-February this year. A Chinese readout stated that Xi told Raisi, “China always develops relations with Iran from a strategic perspective and no matter how the regional and international situation changes, China will remain steadfast in developing friendly cooperation with Iran and advancing China-Iran comprehensive strategic partnership.” These words stand in sharp contrast to the US and its allies still struggling to overcome Trump’s revocation of the Iran nuclear deal.

Significantly, the Chinese are trying to dispel the notion that they are attempting to fill the “so-called vacuum or set up exclusive blocs.” However, there is a valid assessment that while West Asia remains strategically important for the US, its salience in that country’s foreign policy calculus has diminished ever since it became self-sufficient in energy. The West Asian nations are not unaware of this development and contrast this with the continuing Chinese dependence on West Asian hydrocarbons. Thus, many are obviously viewing it as the waxing power while the US is waning.

An interesting aspect of the dramatic Chinese foray is how the I2U2 grouping would react to this development. This is especially because of the close ties between Saudi Arabia and the UAE and also between MBS and UAE President and Abu Dhabi ruler Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ). Is it that even while joining I2U2, MBZ, the shrewd player that he is, was encouraging MBS to open up with Iran and get the Chinese more deeply involved in the affairs of West Asia?

Indian policymakers will have to carefully assess the developments because prima facie, this development raises questions about the Indian decision to shed its traditional policy of pursuing strict neutrality and going for bilateralism in West Asia. Some Indian scholars have long advocated that India should act as a bridge between the contending states of West Asia. They feel that India could have attempted what China has done. This was simply not possible because of the overall orientation of the Indian foreign policy during the Modi years. Also, because the objective reality is that the global statuses of India and China are different today.

A last word: the Chinese move would cause consternation in Washington. It will bear watching how the US will respond. And that goes for its ally Israel, too.


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