The agreement announced on Friday in Beijing regarding the normalisation of diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran and the reopening of their embassies is a historic event. It goes way beyond an issue of Saudi-Iranian relations. China’s mediation signifies that we are witnessing a profound shift of the tectonic plates in the geopolitics of the 21st century.
The joint statement issued on Friday in Beijing begins by saying that the Saudi-Iranian agreement was reached “in response to the noble initiative of President Xi Jinping.” The dramatic beginning goes on to state that Saudi Arabia and Iran have expressed their “appreciation and gratitude” to Xi Jinping and the Chinese government “for hosting and sponsoring the talks, and the efforts it placed towards its success.”
The joint communique also mentioned Iraq and Oman for fostering the Saudi-Iranian dialogue during 2021-2022. But the salience is that the United States, which has been traditionally the dominant power in West Asian politics for close to eight decades, is nowhere in the picture.
Yet, this is about the reconciliation between the two biggest regional powers in the Persian Gulf region. The US retrenchment denotes a colossal breakdown of American diplomacy. It will remain a black mark in President Biden’s foreign policy legacy.
But Biden must take the blame for it. Such a cataclysmic failure is largely to be traced to his fervour to impose his neoconservative dogmas as an adjunct of America’s military might and Biden’s own frequent insistence that the fate of humankind hinges on the outcome of a cosmic struggle between democracy and autocracy.
China has shown that Biden’s hyperbole is delusional and it grates against realities. If Biden’s moralistic, ill-considered rhetoric alienated Saudi Arabia, his attempts to suppress Iran met with stubborn resistance from Tehran. And, in the final analysis, Biden literally drove both Riyadh and Tehran to search for countervailing forces that would help them to push back his oppressive, overbearing attitude.
The US’ humiliating exclusion from the centre stage of West Asian politics constitutes a “Suez moment” for the superpower, comparable to the crisis experienced by the UK in 1956, which obliged the British to sense that their imperial project had reached a dead end and the old way of doing things—whipping weaker nations into line as ostensible obligations of global leadership —was no longer going to work and would only lead to disastrous reckoning.
The stunning part here is the sheer brain power and intellectual resources and ‘soft power’ that China has brought into play to outwit the US. The US has at least 30 military bases in West Asia — five in Saudi Arabia alone — but it has lost the mantle of leadership. Come to think of it, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China made their landmark announcement on the very same day Xi Jinping got elected for a third term as president.
What we are seeing is a new China under the leadership of Xi Jinping trotting over the high knoll. Yet, it is adopting a self-effacing posture claiming no laurels for itself. There is no sign of the ‘Middle Kingdom syndrome,’ which the US propagandists had warned against.
On the contrary, for the world audience — especially countries like India or Vietnam, Turkey, Brazil or South Africa — China has presented a salutary example of how a democratised multipolar world can work in future — how it is possible to anchor big power diplomacy on consensual, conciliatory politics, trade and interdependence and advance a ‘win-win’ outcome.
Implicit in this is another huge message: China as a factor of global balance and stability. It is not only Asia-Pacific and West Asia who are watching. The audience also includes Africa and Latin America — in fact, the entire non-Western world that forms the big majority of world community who are known as the Global South.
What the pandemic and the Ukraine crisis have brought to the surface is the latent geopolitical reality accruing through decades that the Global South rejects the policies of neo-mercantalism pursued by the West in the garb of ‘liberal internationalism.’
The West is pursuing a hierarchical international order. None other than the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell blurted this out in an unguarded moment recently with a touch of racist overtone when he said from a public platform that ‘Europe Is a garden. The rest of the world Is a jungle, and the jungle could Invade the garden.’
Tomorrow, China could as well be challenging the US hegemony over the Western Hemisphere. The recent paper by the Chinese Foreign Ministry titled ‘US Hegemony and Its Perils’ tells us that Beijing will no longer be on the defensive.
Meanwhile, a realignment of forces on the world stage is taking place with China and Russia on one side and the US on the other. Doesn’t it convey a big message that on the very eve of the historic announcement in Beijing on Friday, the Saudi Arabian foreign minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud landed suddenly in Moscow on a ‘working visit’ and went into a huddle with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who was visibly delighted? (here, here and here )
Of course, we will never know what role Moscow would have played behind the scenes in coordination with Beijing to build bridges between Riyadh and Tehran. All we know is that Russia and China actively coordinate their foreign policy moves. Interestingly, on March 6, President Putin had a telephone conversation with Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi.
Audacity of hope
To be sure, the geopolitics of West Asia will never be the same again. Realistically, the first sparrow of spring has appeared but the ice was melted for only three or four rods from the shore. Nonetheless, the sun’s rays give hope, signalling warmer days to come.
Conceivably, Riyadh won’t have any truck further with the diabolical plots hatched in Washington and Tel Aviv to create an anti-Iran alliance in West Asia. Nor is it in the realms of possibility that Saudi Arabia will be party to any US-Israeli attacks on Iran.
This badly isolates Israel in the region and renders the US toothless. In substantive terms, it scatters the Biden administration’s feverish efforts lately to cajole Riyadh to join Abraham Accords.
However, significantly, a commentary in Global Times noted somewhat audaciously that the Saudi-Iranian deal “set a positive example for other regional hotspot issues, such as the easing and settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And in the future, China could play an important role in building a bridge for countries to solve long-standing thorny issues in the Middle East just as what it did this time.”
Indeed, the joint communique issued in Beijing says, “The three countries [Saudi Arabia, Iran and China] expressed their keenness to exert all efforts towards enhancing regional and international peace and security.” Can China pull a rabbit out of the hat? Time will tell.
For the present, though, the Saudi-Iranian rapprochement will certainly have positive fallouts on the efforts toward a negotiated settlement in Yemen and Syria as well as on the political situation in Lebanon.
The joint communique emphasises that Saudi Arabia and Iran intend to revive the 1998 General Agreement for Cooperation in the Fields of Economy, Trade, Investment, Technology, Science, Culture, Sports, and Youth. All in all, the Biden administration’s maximum pressure strategy toward Iran has crashed and the West’s sanctions against Iran are being rendered ineffectual. The US’ policy options on Iran have shrunk. Iran gains strategic depth to negotiate with the US.
The cutting edge of the US sanctions lies in the restrictions on Iran’s oil trade and access to western banks. It is entirely conceivable that a backlash is about to begin as Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia — three top oil/gas producing countries start accelerating their search for payment mechanisms bypassing the American dollar.
China is already discussing such an arrangement with Saudi Arabia and Iran. China-Russia trade and economic transactions try to shun American dollar for payments. It is well understood that any significant erosion in the status of the dollar as ‘world currency’ will not only spell doom for the American economy but will cripple the US’ capacity to wage ‘forever wars’ abroad and impose its global hegemony.
The bottom line is that the reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Iran is also a precursor to their induction as BRICS members in a near future. To be sure, there is a Russian-Chinese understanding already on this score. The BRICS membership for Saudi Arabia and Iran will radically reset the power dynamic in the international system.
MK Bhadrakumar is a former Indian ambassador. This article is republished with permission from his blog.