KC Singh | Iran-Saudi-China accord a wake-up call for India?
A “joint trilateral statement” issued by China, Saudi Arabia and Iran at the end of last week took the world by surprise. It was known that China had been engaging both nations for a while, but the diplomatic outcome was unanticipated.
Saudi Arabia and Iran, who lead the Sunni and Shia factions of Islam respectively, had been at loggerheads ever since the 2011 Arab Spring, which had rattled autocratic regimes across the Islamic world. On countering the democratic upsurge in Iran, they had an identity of views. However, they ended up backing different factions, based on their shared
sectarian identities, once the upsurge mushroomed out of control all across West Asia and North Africa. The proxy war between them surged in Syria, Libya and most significantly in Yemen.
In 2016, after the Saudis beheaded a Shia cleric, Iranian mobs overran the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Diplomatic relations were snapped as the two ratcheted up what the New York Times calls their “open hostility and proxy conflict”. It climaxed when a Saudi oil facility was hit by missiles, suspected to be fired by the Houthis, under Iranian oversight.
The joint statement on Friday opens by lauding “the noble initiative of His Excellency President Xi Jinping” for supporting “good neighbourly relations” between the two Middle East rivals. It reveals that the three delegations had met in Beijing from March 6 to 10. Also, it thanks Oman and Iraq for the role they had played in the rapprochement. Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to reopen their diplomatic missions in each other’s countries and resurrect the May 27, 1998 agreement on multi-sectoral cooperation. They committed to “recognise the sovereignty of nations and non-interference in their internal affairs”. The last concedes that support to allies and proxies, especially based on common sectarian identities, has caused regional conflicts like in Yemen and Syria.
This accord raises a number of questions. First, it directly undercuts the Abraham Accords sponsored by the United States which coaxed the Gulf nations into engaging with Israel. The United Arab Emirates has been at the forefront of this. The Saudis had been reluctant to join, realising that until Israel becomes more accommodative towards the Palestinians, any deal with Israel will invite criticism from public opinion across the Arab world, the so-called “Arab street”. The new trilateral agreement makes the Saudis’ engagement of Israel even more complex. Prior to it, the Saudis had publicly set conditions for normalising relations with Israel. They sought a civil nuclear programme and security guarantees. Calculating that the United States was unlikely to do that without an Israeli nod, the Saudis felt free to flirt with the Chinese.
China gains considerably from the deal by projecting its growing role as an economic and political power just as President Xi Jinping’s third term was endorsed by the Communist Party of China. China steps into the strategic vacuum left by the US pivot, first to the Indo-Pacific and now to Europe and the Ukraine war as well. The Iranian government spokesman exulted that the historic agreement was forged “entirely by Asian countries”. He added that it “will change the dynamics of the region”. The last claim requires analysis.
As Western sanctions isolated the Iranian economy from global trade, China grabbed a bigger role in energy and goods trade with Iran. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia realise that as Europe weans itself off Russian oil and gas, by accelerating transition to a low-carbon energy future, their markets are in Asia, especially in China and India. The United States in any case is no longer dependent on oil from the Gulf. The Saudis are simply repositioning by asserting strategic independence. While the full implications of the changed dynamics will emerge gradually, two consequences are obvious. One, the Saudis have been struggling to find an honourable end to their intervention in the Yemeni civil war. If the Iranians play ball, the Houthis may accept a negotiated compromise.
Two, the Saudis are now unlikely to allow Israeli warplanes to use their airspace for attacking Iranian nuclear facilities. With a more hawkish Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now in charge in Jerusalem, such an attack looked more likely as the Iranian nuclear enrichment programme advances.
Where does this deal leave India? Only days earlier there was much backslapping as the four-nation I2U2 group, consisting of India, Israel, the UAE and the US, had met. The Abraham Accords were to create a new US-sponsored Gulf security paradigm to isolate Iran, limiting its influence across the Shia crescent stretching from the western Iranian border to the Mediterranean. A churn in Iraqi politics also created political forces which openly rejected Iran’s hegemony and manipulation of politics via surrogates. Even Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad was drawn into engagement with the UAE and other Gulf sheikhdoms. But the new trilateral undercuts the grand American plan. Saudi Arabia was always critical to creating a solid anti-Iran front.
For India, it is a wake-up call. Pakistan, a Chinese ally, gains from the Saudi-Iran detente. The Chinese have already rolled over $1.3 billion Pakistani loan. Separately, the IMF is still examining a $ 6.5 billion bailout. The “I2U2” now leaves India in a group isolated by the new Saudi-Iran-China convergence. There has been speculation for some time about differences between old friends Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan. The hurried investment by the Nahyan family in the eventually abandoned Adani Forward Public Offering showed Abu Dhabi keeping the Indian government in good humour. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heading a more intensely right-wing coalition appears a less desirable ally than most conservative Arab nations would stomach. New Delhi may have no issues with Mr Netanyahu’s domestic politics but even the UAE might be unable to digest it if the repression of the Palestinians intensifies.
The controversy generated by the ORF promotion video for the Raisina Dialogue, which showed protests in Iran over female head-covering, was avoidable. The cancellation of the Iranian foreign minister’s visit leaves India-Iran relations in the lurch. The trilateral will only stiffen Iranian touchiness: they are difficult to handle at the best of times. The lesson is that new foreign policy forays based on supposed personal equations can stymie India.
China is displaying the readiness now to start shaping regional politics to suit it. India is not yet powerful enough to do so. But it can certainly avoid joining groups forged by outside powers. As Iran’s spokesman has pointed out, their new trilateral accord was made in Asia.