OPED By KN Pandita. Edited By Shweta Sengar
During his visit to Saudi Arabia last December, President Biden had little success repairing the setback US-Saudi relations had received from former President Donald Trump.
Ever since, the Arab world in general, and three Gulf States, namely Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain in particular, had begun to feel timid about dependence on the US for security cover.
The UAE and Bahrain demonstrated pragmatism in taking the initiative to smoothen relations with Israel. Though the Saudi Kingdom also has shed inhibitions, yet, as the leader of the Islamic world, it had constraints asking for a sprinkling of prudence.
The unexpected bomb and missile attack on the Saudi oil facilities in 2019 would not go without consequences for the entire political spectrum of the Middle East. It reduced the world’s oil production by at least five percent.
The US and Saudi both pointed their finger of suspicion toward Iran, but Tehran denied any role. It was not a tiny challenge thrown to the sovereignty of the Kingdom. Astute statesmanship desires that conflicts are converted into compromises and that peaceful resolution of differences is prioritized without compromising independence.
In 2021, discreet lower-level engagements between Iran and Saudi Arabia were first hosted by Iraq and later by Oman. It was agreed to elevate the dialogue to the level of foreign ministers. Beijing accord is the culmination of those Track II negotiations.
Human loss in the Yemen fighting was enormous, almost to the tune of 150,000 casualties, of which nearly 45,000 were civilians. The Saudis were unhappy with what its rivalry with Iran had wrought upon the famished Yemeni population. The Arab world was troubled by the tragedy in Yemen.
Assuming that the threat posed by America’s presence near the Persian Gulf was losing intensity in changing circumstances, Iran thought it was advisable to neutralize Israel’s outreach in the Persian Gulf by making a common cause with the Saudis.
Moreover, UAE and Bahrain, two Gulf states, had decided to end the hostility with Israel and open a new chapter of normal relations, including trade and travel. It was a clear message to the hardliners in the theocratic set-up in Iran that they were pursuing an outdated policy.
Of course, Iran will not reduce its anti-Israel outburst even after concluding a de-freeze deal with the Saudis because the causes of Saudi-Iran hostility transcend the boundaries of the factional feud. The reasons will have to be traced in the deep ethnic and historical calculus of the two nations.
Sanctions reimposed on Iran have begun to show a debilitating effect on its economy. During the recent anti-hijab protests by Iranian women, voices were also raised complaining about increasing youth unemployment and the country’s dwindling economy.
No sensible government will risk the repetition of the crisis. If that happens, foreign intervention cannot be ruled out.
In light of the peace deal with the Saudis, Iran will discover that it can slow down the compulsion to manufacture weapons of mass destruction. Of course, it will never abandon the idea, but going slow could open the chance of reconsidering the Program under the same parameters adopted for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action of 2015.
A deeper analysis of the dynamics of the Iran-Saudi relationship will show that reduced influence and interference of the US in the Middle East, de-hyphenating of US-Saudi traditional cordiality, increasing Russian footprints in Iran, and the balancing act of Beijing all come together to change the direction and course of political winds in the Middle East and the Gulf region.
The US has welcomed the deal but also cautioned about its viability.
The warning is not misplaced. The jolt delivered to the clerical regime of Tehran by the countrywide anti-hijab movement of Iranian women and the brutality with which security forces suppressed the mass movement are weighing heavy on the mind of the ruling Ayatollahs.
Born out of the womb of a mass movement, Tehran’s rabidly conservative and regressive regime is shy of its long survival. Who knows, a liberating movement of the masses in that country may be waiting in the wings.
In a socio-political scenario like that, the impact on the Iranian masses and the country’s entire social structure will throw up a new vista in which the innovative potential of the Iranian youth will find full democratic flowering.
That perception might have worked as a stimulus for the willingness of the clerical regime of Tehran to mend fences with Saudi Arabia, the inveterate enemy.
Normalization of relations between two important countries of the Middle East and Gulf region, who have been at loggerheads for a long time, will have a salutary bearing on trouble spots around. With the stopping of bloodshed in Yemen, Iranian arms and ammunition flow to the Houthi insurgents must also cease. It will impact the war in Syria, where both fighting parties show signs of exhaustion.
Perhaps Iran will be the bigger gainer out of a peace movement. After signing the agreement, there remains no justification for Tehran to nourish relentless hatred against Israel. That suits the pro-Jewish constituency in the American Congress.
Russia and China will be happy with the US being forced to change the goalpost. The deal should also contribute enormously to the lifting of sanctions against Iran.
Russia would be happy with the US adopting a more pragmatic stance on the Middle East. The colonial era myth that Moscow was eyeing overland connectivity to the warm waters of the Indian Ocean already stands exploded when, in the aftermath of the Soviet implosion of 1990, Moscow granted freedom to all Central Asian States to have governments of their choice.
The Iran-Saudi peace deal will also have excellent results for Afghanistan. The successful completion of the Chabahar-Helmand-Kabul-Termiz railway line will open the vast and resource-rich Central Asian region to the Global South.
It will be a booster for the trade and tourism industry of South and Central Asia. Negotiations could be renewed for the transportation of Iranian gas to India and Turkmen gas to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.
Finally, if the friendship deal between Iran and Saudi Arabia is signed and implemented with all sincerity, it may go down in the books of history as an epoch-making historic deal that has the potential of changing the destiny of the peoples of countries that have a stake in it.
- KN Pandita (Padma Shri) is the former Director of the Center of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University. Views expressed here are of the author’s.
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