Saudi-Iran tussle always goes Tehran’s way at UN

Rouhani’s West Asia peace plan will be dissected, discussed and digested because it is essential to stabilise a hugely disrupted region.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s West Asia peace plan will be dissected, discussed and digested because it is essential to stabilise a hugely disrupted region. Of course, any idea from one side of an arbitrarily drawn Shia-Sunni faultline will possibly cause Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia to throw a ginger fit, but after recent setbacks he is something of a wounded stag and may be amenable to reason.

The attack on Aramco, claimed by the Houthis, is a wound, of course, but so is the wasted four-year-long war in Yemen. It is now turning upon him. The sight of his buddy, Benjamin Netanyahu, hanging from the precipice is not reassuring either. Mr Netanyahu may well clamber on again, or he may fall without a trace, the chances of him being a durable figure in Israeli public life are at a discount. The picture must cause despair in Riyadh and Tel Aviv now that there is no John Bolton, holding a top secret folder to his chest and muttering: “I shall do such things, what they are I know not but they shall be the terrors of the earth.” (Lear)
The up-and-down in Iran’s image in Washington is frequent. An unforgettable image is the Oped page of the New York Times of March 20, 2005: Columnist Thomas L. Friedman had recommended Ayatollah Sistani for the Nobel Prize. Paul Bremer, US representative in Baghdad, had written a note to Ayatollah Sistani, seeking an interview. Sistani’s response was cryptic: “Neither you nor I belong to Iraq: Let Iraqis settle their affairs.”

The two belong to the same culture. Any observer of Iran would have anticipated the essence of President Rouhani’s message: “Let the region settle its affairs.”
The drone attack by the Houthis on Saudi Aramco’s Abqaiq oil facility in Buqyaq was devastating for the Saudis, of course. But it was much more worrying for the American military-industrial complex. The question uppermost in the minds of the Saudi ruling elite will be “if the trillions of dollars of Western arms which we have bought over the years cannot protect our crown jewels?” and the US arms market may take a profound hit worldwide, which will not be a happy development at a time when President Donald Trump is looking for deep pockets to clean out the Chinese in the trade war.

Mr Netanyahu is not a very “likeable” person in Tehran, as elsewhere. This was one of the ingredients in the anti-Semitism sweeping through the Western world. The persistent lobbying by the Israeli leader to demonise Iran has not worked. Indeed, it has boomeranged. In fact, he himself has had egg on his face as, for instance, at the high-powered conference in Warsaw last February with the known purpose of isolating Iran. Russia slammed the planned meeting at the very outset as “counterproductive” because of its obsession with Iran.

The conference collapsed after Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz had crossed all the possible diplomatic red lines. “Poles suckled anti-Semitism from their mother’s milk”, he told his hosts, leaving the conference in tatters. A meeting scheduled in Jerusalem to carry forward the ideas from Warsaw was cancelled. Can you blame the Poles for hating him? The Law on Restitution of Jewish Property was passed by the Poles because the Jews, as Holocaust victims, were successfully laying claim to property with the help of the Jewish clout globally. The US state department sent out instructions to all its missions to keep an eye on Jewish property cases. This behaviour comes across as high-handed to most sovereign states.

Here is an opportunity for the leader of Blue and White Party, Benny Gantz, to make Israel not just feared, but also loved. I have in years past travelled around the length and breadth of the Israel, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank with my dear friend, the late Eric Silver. Israel then was never a harsh, forbidding place it appeared to be in the Netanyahu years.

Just after Donald Trump became President, two grand old men and leaders of the strategic community, Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski, turned up in Oslo as guests of the Nobel Foundation. I could distil the point which had great urgency. The Arab-Israeli faultline was losing saliency to the Shia-Sunni faultline. There was an assumption that the Sunnis, being numerically superior, would in the end prevail. And with US and Israeli support, they could ask for the moon.
To get the calculations right, one must set aside Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim country, and Malaysia, both Sunni but different from the Arab world. In Indonesia, particularly, there is a quaint co-existence of Islam and Hindu culture. Even though Islam is the religion of an overwhelming majority, the Mahabharat and Ramayan define the nation’s culture.

The Gulf Cooperation Council put its heads together largely in response to the Iranian revolution of 1979. But it is far from a Wahabi-Salafi dominated homogenous group. In Bahrain, the conflict is unique — an 80 per cent majority Shia population is treated by the Wahabi ruling sheikhs as the only opposition. In 2011, when the Arab Spring was in the air, US diplomat Jeffrey Feltman had very nearly worked out a power-sharing arrangement between the ruling sheikh and the main Opposition. The arrangement was scuttled by the late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who saw any arrangement with the Shias as a compact with Iran, and therefore the devil. He saw Iran as “the head of a snake which had to be cut off”.

Has this approach worked for the Saudis? They are sitting on a heap of rubble in Yemen, in Aramco and in Syria. Iran, meanwhile, has consolidated itself with the Hezbollah in Beirut, the Hashd al-Shaabi (in Iraq) and the Houthis in Yemen.

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