‘Powerhouses’ prove bloc lacks political will

The Middle East tensions have escalated in the last few weeks. Picture: AFP

The Middle East tensions have escalated in the last few weeks. Picture: AFP

Published Apr 21, 2024



In the early 1900s, under French colonial rule, the health authorities in Hanoi, Vietnam, despite boasting a sophisticated sewerage system, had a problem with rats.

Hanoi health authorities embarked on what came to be known as the Great Hanoi Rat Massacre. Civilians were paid a reward for each rat they killed but, because of the lack of space for rat corpses, authorities began to compensate based on the number of rat tails collected.

As a result, Hanoi soon had rats running around without tails but worse still, health inspectors discovered farms on the outskirts of Hanoi which bred and exported rats.

The tale is often told as an example of how proposed solutions backfire or have unintended consequences that cause even bigger problems.

The recent retaliatory Iranian attack on Israel might have such unintended consequences and cause bigger problems for the region, specifically the Palestinian people.

First, despite October 7, 2023, Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu has dispelled Israeli fears. With nearly 99% of the nearly 300 Iranian drones and missiles being intercepted by Israel, and with the help of neighbouring Arab countries such as Jordan, Netanyahu can project to his people that he has kept them safe and has been able to fend off an attack by Iran.

The Iranians, though, have indicated that the retaliatory attacks served as a deterrence and was within the framework of a proportional response under international law.

It could have been much worse, according to Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

Second and more importantly, as this column has been outlining for weeks, Israel was fast being isolated.

Impatience with Netanyahu and his regime was rapidly developing in Washington, London and Berlin.

Today, because of the Iranian strikes, Israel again enjoys Western sympathy because Palestinians, in the eyes of the West, are no longer the focus as victims.

It is also fair to ask whether the US would have vetoed full UN membership for Palestinians, if Washington was impatient with Tel Aviv. Probably not.

While US President Joe Biden has hastened to indicate that the US would not be drawn into a war between Israel and Iran, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak expressed solidarity with Israel and condemned Iran’s actions as “reckless and dangerous”.

Meeting Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, German chancellor Olaf Scholz agreed with his host, on the implementation of UN Security Council resolution 2728 which calls for the prevention of further escalation of the conflict and a sustainable humanitarian response to Gaza.

Yet the two men will certainly sit on opposite sides of the table when it comes to Iran.

While the Chinese foreign ministry has called “on relevant parties to exercise calm and restraint to prevent further escalation”, Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi is on record as saying China “strongly condemns and firmly opposes” the April 1 Israeli attack on an Iranian diplomatic building in Damascus.

Yet, some commentators agree that China’s response to the conflict, in general, has been restrained.

Therefore, in terms of the BRICS Plus nations, Russia and China have firmly come out in defence of their fellow BRICS Plus member, Iran, by expressing a desire for restraint while condemning the April 1 attack.

Predictably, the West has come out to defend Israel.

However, what is also important to note, is the response of fellow BRICS Plus members who are also found in the region.

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that BRICS Plus members, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia shared intelligence with the US about Iranian plans to attack Israel.

While there is speculation about the United Arab Emirates, the Saudis have confirmed their support of Israel in the face of Iranian attacks.

Saudi membership of BRICS Plus has yet to be confirmed by Riyadh.

As the Chinese did, the Egyptians and Brazilians called for extreme restraint but did not condemn Iran.

The response of the Ethiopians to the Iranian attacks has not been explicit.

Under South African leadership, BRICS Plus countries were called to an extraordinary virtual summit in November last year, condemning Israel for their atrocities in Gaza and calling for an urgent humanitarian effort.

Yet under Russia, who chairs BRICS Plus this year, there has been no co-ordinated response by the group.

No doubt, the political differences in the group, especially between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the group complicates a co-ordinated response.

The lack of response by Russia shows that neither it nor China has the appetite to place the Palestinian question, which the Iranian strikes is simply a spillover of, on the BRICS Plus agenda.

This is because the BRICS Plus group is divided on the matter and because powerhouses, Russia and China, do not believe that such political matters must be addressed by the bloc.

For the two countries, BRICS Plus is about individual self-interest first and then only reaching consensus on economic matters.

In fact, the Indians are also following the self-interest and economic cue in their response to the conflict. Trade Secretary Sunil Barthwal was emphatic when he told reporters that Indian “policy interventions (towards the conflict) will only come after (they) understand the issues traders are facing”.

Russia, China and, of late, India have never understood BRICS Plus to be a political bloc but rather an economic one and then only to improve their individual economic lot.

Whether other BRICS Plus members’, especially South Africa, have understood this has yet to be proved.

At the same time, the impact of the border stand-off between India and China must also not be underestimated. Recently, Xi gave Chinese names to places India regards as its own.

The Iranian retaliatory strike on Israel therefore not only has unintended consequences for Palestinians but for BRICS Plus as well.

It has proved, if anything, that the BRICS Plus group is at best, about the economic interests of member states and at worst, the interests of Russia, India and China.

*Seale did his PhD on BRICS

**The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL