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Diplomatic Breakthrough in West Asia

Mediation in the Saudi–Iran deal hands China a distinct advantage in the West Asian region.

Atul Bhardwaj writes:

Iran and Saudi Arabia, the two arch-rivals of West Asia, have signed a landmark agreement to restore diplomatic ties and reopen embassies after relations were severed in 2016 when Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions in Iran following the Saudi beheading of a Shia spiritual leader Nimr al-Nimr. Previously, Saudi Arabia cut diplomatic ties with Iran after the attacks on its embassy in 1988. The relations were restored in 1991 but tensions continued to persist.

The Saudi–Iran rapprochement promises to end the mutual animosity between predominantly Shia Iran and Sunni Saudi Arabia that has dominated West Asian politics, disrupting peace in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen to overthrow the Iran-backed regime. It effected a regime change in Lebanon, in 2017 to weaken Hezbollah, which enjoys Iranian support. With the new agreement in place, the two are expected to cooperate rather than compete in managing regimes in the region. There are hopes that the agreement could become a catalyst triggering a flurry of positivity in a region marred by war and violence. One of the immediate fallout of the latest Riyadh–Tehran bonhomie is likely to be the end of war in Yemen.

Interestingly, the United States (US) has often threatened to curtail arms supplies if Saudi Arabia continued to violate human rights in Yemen using weapons manufactured by their military industrial complex. Now with the likelihood of extension of the ceasefire in Yemen, the need for US arms is likely to reduce, adversely impacting the advantage that Americans enjoy over Saudi Arabia.

Much to the chagrin of the US, the diplomatic breakthrough in West Asia is brokered by China, which has made its maiden foray into West Asian mediation arena with aplomb. China with its economic heft, and a need to integrate the West Asian giants into the Eurasian network is the only power capable of achieving this deal. The US which considers Iran as an “evil” was never expected to bring the two rivals together. The evolving cordiality between Iran and Saudi Arabia is antithetical to American strategy that for long has relied on a divide-and-rule policy, exploiting cultural differences, provoking sectarian strife and influencing threat perceptions of its allies and friends.

It is wrongly perceived that China has filled the space vacated by the US because the latter has not abandoned the region. The Biden administration has been actively engaged in engineering an agreement between Saudi Arabia and Israel, to isolate Iran. The coming together of Shia–Sunni regimes is certainly bad news for Tel Aviv that is harbouring dreams of reshaping its ties with Saudi Arabia, akin to what was achieved through the Trump-era Abraham Accords, with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. The agreement signals that Saudi Arabia will now refrain from jumping on to the US–Israel bandwagon, designed to pressurise Iran on nuclear issues. As of now, it is advantage China in the West Asian region.

Oil is not the only commodity determining West Asian politics. Just a few hours prior to the announcement of the agreement with Tehran, the news of Saudi Arabia’s nuclear ambitions surfaced. The Saudi monarch intends to embark on a civilian nuclear programme and seeks American assistance and blessings for the same as a reward for establishing cordiality with Israel. Saudi Arabia had floated the nuclear balloon, perhaps, to test the American commitment to its long-standing relationship. It knows full well that a civil nuclear deal for Saudi Arabia is well-nigh impossible under the present circumstances. Another major fossil fuel giant of West Asia entering the nuclear arena is a nightmare for Israel that has been lobbying hard to put a lid on Iranian nuclear ambitions.

It could also be argued that including the nuclear deal as the chief precondition to establishment of good relations with Israel could also mean that Saudi has diluted its position on Palestine. However, Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman is believed to be asserting strategic autonomy through normalisation with Iran and simultaneously jettisoning his image as a lackey of the US.

We are entering a world where countries are beginning to defy American diktats. Saudi Arabia has joined the growing list of countries that are refusing to wholeheartedly toe the American line against China or Russia. Saudi Arabia, which sells more oil to China than any other country, is in no mood to jeopardise its economy to fulfil American geopolitical objectives of isolating China. The Saudi-led OPEC’s (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) refusal to alter a pandemic-era pact with Russia to manage oil production and oil prices was the first signs of defiance against the West because the agreement has helped Russia currently confronting Western sanctions.

Many countries are shaping their foreign policy keeping in mind the ensuing collapse of Pax Americana. They want to avoid entering into another Cold War where they would be required to choose one of the blocs. Saudi Arabia is using the opportunity to assert agency in conduct of their foreign policy in a world where non-alignment is likely to be the new strategic mantra.


Updated On : 19th Mar, 2023
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