A diplomatic revolution

A chapter is closed in the old Arab-Iranian rivalry


Because Pakistan was roiling with political and economic crises of its own, it missed what has been one of the epochal moments in the region, the rapprochement of Saudi Arabia and Iran. Earth-shaking enough as that may be, even more significant, especially for Pakistan, was who brokered the deal: China.

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Is that a moment of transition? Depending on how matters develop, this could be seen as the moment when the baton as the world’s leading superpower passed from the USA to China. It is interesting that China took such a prominent role in the announcement, with its Foreign Minister taking the place hitherto normally reserved for the US Secretary of State.

More interesting is why Saudi Arabia was willing to use Chinese good offices in this deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia does not normally even act without a US go-ahead. However, it should be noted that the USA and Saudi Arabia have been drifting apart. This was symbolized by the recent Saudi refusal to increase production to bring down oil prices, and thus bring back some of the US inflation so damaging to US President Joe Biden, which was reflected in his party’s loss of control of the US House of Representatives in last year’s election. Ever since the famous meeting in 1943 between US President Franklin Roosevelt and Saudi King Ibn Saud, Saudi Arabia has not only guaranteed the US oil supply but has been the USA’s best ally in the Middle East, except for Israel.

Another strain on the relationship is China. The USA and China are engaged in a trade war, which is actually a manifestation of the greater rivalry over which country is to lead the world. After the fall of the USSR, it seems, the aim is to become the sole superpower. Saudi Arabia should side with the USA, but China is its biggest customer. However, as the rest are the USA and US allies (India, Japan, and South Korea), it must be counted as being in the US camp.

China is also Iran’s biggest customer. However, Iran is under US sanctions and is also a fierce opponent of Israel. Indeed, one of the areas for a US-Iran clash has been the Strait of Hormuz, with Iran engaging in one attack on a Saudi oil refinery, as well s on its oil tankers.

Iran is more firmly in the Chinese camp. It recently signed a multidimensional cooperation deal that includes military matters and the development of Chabahar port. It has sided with Russia against Ukraine in alliance with China.

There are two major differences between Saudi Arabia and Iran, to the point where they may be said to be at opposite ends of the spectrum. The first is that the Saudis are proponents of Sunni Islam, and though not of any of the four traditional schools, their Wahhabi strain has found acceptance among Sunnis. On the other hand, Iran is Shia, but that does not indicate the school the population follows, but the direction of the state. Iran is attempting the implementation of the wilayat faqih, the concept of how to rule before the coming of the Imam.

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It should be noted that the Saudis have not adopted the title of Caliph, which is the wilayat faqih Sunni equivalent. (The Shia do not oppose the Caliphate as such, with Ali ibn Talib a Rightly Guided Caliph even of the Sunnis, Imam Hussain martyred at Karbala because he opposed the accession as Caliph of Yazid, and then the establishment of the Fatimid Caliphate in Egypt. They have a different view of it.) The Arab-Persian rivalry is ancient, probably dating back to the pre-Islamic era, but the conquest of Persia by the Arabs, recently converted to Islam, seems to have started the modern rivalry.

It has been quite intense. There was the removal of the Bani Umayya by the Bani Abbas. Apparently an intra-Qureshi struggle, the Bani Abbas had mainly Persian forces. The building of a new capital, Baghdad, and its shifting from the Mediterranean city of Damascus, was symbolic of the greater importance of Persia. Another symbol is the Arab use of the word Ajami, originally limited to Persians, to mean any foreigner.

Hopefully, this peace will last, but it is likelier than not that the Arab-Iranian rivalry will resume in the future. At moment, there have been no confidence-building measures, though the pattern of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman building up support for a future when his father passes away, can be discerned.

The fall of the Abbasids from real power saw the rise of the Bani Buwaih, a Persian dynasty. Ultimately, most recently, the Ottoman-Safavi rivalry, which saw Turkey pitted against Persia, manifested this sectarian rivalry. Both dynasties were Turk, but the Ottomans were Sunni and the Qajar Shia. The Ottomans became leaders of the Sunni world by being Caliphs. When the Caliphate was abolished, the Saudi Kings became leaders of the Muslim world by virtue of their oil wealth and being the ‘Khadimul Harmain Ash-Sharifain. This allowed a step towards its domination of the OIC, to the extent that it is now just a tool of Saudi foreign policy.

Even now, Saudi Arabia and Iran are jockeying for position all over the Middle East. Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen representarenas of conflict, with the last having seen 500,000 killed.

Another big difference is the attitude towards Israel. Iran is fervently still opposed, and while Saudi Arabia does not recognise it, it has played a major role in getting recognisers like Israel and Jordan a revival of their Arab League membership, which was suspended. Saudi Arabia also played a key role in the Abraham Accords, in the UAE and Bahrain recognizing Israel, as well as in Morocco’s later recognition. While it is unlikely to do any recognising soon, it is definitely ‘soft’ on Israel.

It is soft to the extent that it has conveyed conditions for recognition, like a civilian nuclear deal, and fewer restrictions on arms sales. However, there is no indication that the deal with Iran is a US precondition to recognizing Iran.

At the same time, it should be noted that Saudi Arabia nudged the Abraham Accord countries towards China, as they are both members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, with Chinese President Xi Jinping meeting a GCC Summit at the end of his recent visit to Saudi Arabia. China, after all, is the Gulf’s biggest customer.

The Saudi nuclear deal has sent alarm bells ringing in Washington, especially because of its difficulties with Iran over its nuclear programme. Though Netanyahu does want recognition, he cannot restrain the rightwing elements of his coalition, who have sparked an increase against Palestinians recently. Saudi Arabia may not be able to recognize Israel because of that.

Pakistan can only welcome the Iran-Saudi deal, mainly because it might see an ebbing of the sectarian conflict it is experiencing. As sectarian activists are influential in the Tehrik Taliban Pakistan, it is all the more welcome because of the recent upsurge in terrorism that it has experienced.

It will also be happy to see that some of its most important relationships are coming together. China is an old ally, and Saudi Arabia is not just tied to it because of Pakistani expatriates, but an important helper in times of need. Pakistan would also look to Saudi Arabia to invest in Gwadar, which has become likelier now that Saudi Arabia is drawing away from the USA.

After three centuries of rivalry, the Ottomans and the Qajars (who had by then supplanted the Safavis) finally signed the Treaty of Erzerum, which brought peace, in 1823, after the Turks had lost the Battle of Erzerum in 1821. That was also a ‘diplomatic revolution’, as the Ottomans and Persians did not fight one another again. However, geography is an unforgiving master, and the sectarian divide crossed over into post-Ottoman, post-Qajar times, and Saudi Arabia and Iran squared off, especially as both grew immensely rich from oil.

Hopefully, this peace will last, but it is likelier than not that the Arab-Iranian rivalry will resume in the future. At moment, there have been no confidence-building measures, though the pattern of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman building up support for a future when his father passes away, can be discerned.


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