The US, as yesterday’s hegemon, has woefully diminished its persuasiveness
As the world sat up at the Iran-Saudi rapprochement mediated by China, signals became visible of quiet, low-key efforts at repairing other parts of West Asia’s frayed tapestry. The deputy foreign ministers of Iran, Turkey and Syria were headed for Moscow. That initiative was overwhelmed by Xi Jinping’s historic Moscow visit, but its significance can’t be under- estimated.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be ready for bargains all around if these boost his chances in the May elections. Wouldn’t it be a coup for him if he pulls off a summit with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?
A look, meanwhile, at the Iran-Saudi background.
The revolution which brought the ayatollahs to power in Tehran in 1979 introduces a sharp bipolarity in the Islamic world, but what worried the Saudis much more was a development in their own citadel. Around the same time, a group of Muslim militants calling themselves “Akhwan”, a sort of double distilled variant of Akhwan ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), occupied Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca, asking the House of Saud to relinquish control of the holy shrines. The argument was that monarchical control was anti-Islamic.
This wasn’t dissimilar to the ayatollahs’ demand. It had consequences too: the House of Saud began to describe themselves as “keepers of the holy shrines”. In good time, the new title fell into disuse. And now that friendship, or at least its promise, has broken out between the two, such awkward issues are unlikely to be raised. With such moderation, the more theological debates will intensify in Najaf and Qom on one hand and among the Wahabi clergy on the other.
Iran was a Shia country even under the Shah. The ayatollahs avoided the sectarian description and called it the “Islamic revolution”. The sectarian divide was amplified for strategic reasons by Washington, Jerusalem and Riyadh.
Since the Jewish state was established in 1948, the Palestinian issue had extraordinary saliency in the Arab world. The Iranian revolution went one better. It was a stated article of faith: no normalisation with Israel until all Palestinian rights were restored. Despite what happened to Saddam Hussain, Muammar Qaddafi, Bashar al-Assad (with his country destroyed even as he survives), the Iranians have stood firm, thereby earning the wrath of Israel and all its supporters.
Standing up to the Israeli-US combine obviously resonates in the Arab basement. This unnerved Arab potentates in dalliance with the US and Israel. Playing up the “Shia axis of evil” thus served all their purposes. Even thinkers like Henry Kissinger began to amplify this propaganda: “The region is no longer focused on the Palestinian question, they are worried about the Shia-Sunni divide”.
This came in handy even for late King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia when he returned from convalescence in a German hospital in summer 2011. He was dismayed the Arab Spring had taken a toll of two friends -- Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. He swore that no more monarchies, sheikhdoms and authoritarian regimes would be allowed to fall. The Americans, he said, should “cut off the head of the snake”. The snake, in King Abdullah’s parlance, was Iran. To reach the “snake”, the Shia arc had to be weakened.
That is when the Syrian rebellion against Mr Assad was manufactured and stoked. I myself saw US ambassador Stephen Ford and his French counterpart huddle with rebels in Homs, Hama and Dera. A former US ambassador, Ed Peck, who saw the brazen US interference in Syria, wrote this letter to a friend, a former Indian ambassador to Damascus:
“I have been dismayed by the accolades and support given to Ambassador Ford, our man in Syria, for stepping well out of the traditional and appropriate role of a diplomat and actively encouraging the revolt/insurrection/sectarian strife/outside meddling, call it what you will. It is easy to imagine the US reaction if an ambassador from anywhere were to engage in even distantly related activities here. I fear my country remains somewhat more than merely insensitive, and is sliding into plain rampant and offensive arrogance.”
After 10 years of trying to oust Mr Assad with the help of Western and regional powers, the Americans find the Syrian President is still around. If Mr Assad can’t be defeated by a proxy war sustained for a decade, what hope is there of prevailing on Mr Putin by proxy methods?
By 2015, President Barack Obama and secretary of state John Kerry were embarked on a “pivot to Asia”. By signing the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, they were creating a power balance in West Asia. Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey would “balance power” in the area, enabling the US to attend to the bigger business in the Pacific: China’s rise.
Donald Trump tore up the agreement. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, helped place the regional crown on the head of Iran’s implacable enemy: Israel. Inconsistency in US policy is causing weariness. America’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan caused the world to gasp. Punters began to change their bets. Provoke Vladimir Putin into Ukraine, trap him into a long war and clobber him with sanctions until Mr Putin is on his knees -- this was the stated intention. Nothing of the sort happened. In fact, at this stage, French President Emmanuel Macron appears to have called it right: “After 300 years, Western hegemony is coming to an end.”
The US, as yesterday’s hegemon, has woefully diminished its persuasiveness. When Donald Trump asked Jimmy Carter: “What should we do because China is going ahead of us?” Mr Carter’s response was pithy: “Except a brief conflict with Vietnam in 1978, China has not been at war.” And his punch line was telling: “We have never ceased being at war.”