Saudi Arabia in the new Middle East

A piece discusses how Saudi Arabia is dealing with the new Middle East, “Those concerned about the fallout from President Barack Obama and his administration’s nuclear deal with Iran — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — the hits just keep on coming. The recent revelation that the United States handed over $400 million in cash to Iran on the same day that it was releasing four American captives is but the latest disturbing detail in the saga that has become Obama’s extended experiment in appeasing the mullahs. Add it to the long list of other threatening post-deal developments, including the intensification of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the continuation of its efforts to illicitly procure nuclear materials, and the expansion of its aggressive and destabilising activities across the Middle East. Oh, and don’t forget thedetention of three new American hostages, of course. Somewhat less noticed in the JCPOA’s aftermath, but potentially no less consequential for regional security, has been the steadily escalating confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This was not a wholly unexpected development. Many analysts warned that the Saudis would not look kindly on a U.S.-Iranian agreement, negotiated largely behind their backs, that ended up leaving the country’s arch-enemy, the Shiite theocracy across the Gulf, with a large nuclear infrastructure, hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and a more or less open field to indulge its quest for regional hegemony. The Saudis, inevitably, would read it as America abandoning its historical role as the guarantor of Gulf security in favor of some new dispensation with an unreconstructed Iran — one that threatened to irreversibly alter the region’s correlation of forces in Iran’s favour”.

The article goes on in a similarly sweeping terms to argue “Obama’s penchant for stoking Saudi paranoia and fears has no doubt made matters much worse: Declaring, for example, that his aim was to establish an “equilibrium” between the Saudis, a longstanding U.S. ally, and Iran, a revolutionary power that has systematically attacked U.S. interests for four decades. Or publicly complaining about the fact that he’s“compelled” to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally at all. Instead, Obama has opted to diss the Saudis repeatedly as free-riders who seek to exploit American muscle for their own narrow, sectarian purposes. In Obama’s telling, the Iranians — handmaidens to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s multi-year campaign of war crimes and mass murder — have legitimate “equities” in places like Syria that deserve to be protected (Could he mean the land bridge via Damascus by which Iran supplies its Lebanese client, the terrorist group Hezbollah, with tens of thousands of missiles and rockets that will be used in its next war with Israel?). Rather than seeking to counter Iran’s revisionist agenda, Obama’s view is that the Saudis need to accommodate themselves to “sharing” the Gulf with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism”.

The writer goes on to add “Confronted with a newly empowered Iran and a retrenching America, the kingdom is striking back, not rolling over. It believes Obama’s policies have purposefully created a dangerous vacuum in the region, one that is primarily being filled by an Iran bent on sowing chaos and destruction, ultimately targeting the downfall of the House of Saud itself. No longer able to rely on Pax Americana, and unwilling to watch passively as the mullahs slip the noose over their collective neck, the Saudis have increasingly taken matters into their own hands, especially since the ascension of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2015, adopting a much more assertive and high-risk, even provocative, national security posture with a single-minded mission to challenge and confront Iran. The opening shot (literally) in Salman’s new anti-Iran campaign was fired even before the JCPOA was finalized in July 2015. In March of last year, the Saudis intervened in Yemen to stop Iran-backed Houthi rebels from taking control of the country. The Obama administration subsequently supported the effort, reluctantly, by supplying intelligence and military equipment. Though the Saudis — and a handful of Sunni allies, led by the United Arab Emirates — succeeded in rolling back rebel gains in southern Yemen, the war has been bogged down for months”.

Thankfully he does notice the obvious point that “The Saudis have also been active participants in Syria’s civil war, supplying weapons to Sunni rebels seeking to topple the Iranian-backed Assad regime. While the Saudis have worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in this effort, the kingdom has persistently pushed for a more aggressive strategy to remove Assad from power and sever Iranian influence in Syria — including by supporting a number of radical jihadist groups, some with close links to al Qaeda. Following the large-scale intervention by Russia’s air force to bolster the Syrian regime in the fall of 2015, the Saudis, with CIA cooperation, increased the flow of weaponry to the rebels, helping to inflict significant casualties on pro-regime units — including leading elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that, together with Iranian-backed Shiite militias, have served as the vanguard of Assad’s army. And even as the Russian/Iranian-led offensive has turned the tide of battle decisively in the regime’s favor, the Saudis have not eased their pressure. In February 2016, the kingdom even announced that it was willing to commit its own ground troops to an international force should the U.S.-led coalition decide it was useful. The offer allegedly remains on the table. More recently, a surge of Saudi weapons to a jihadist-led rebel coalition helped foil, at least for now, the Syrian government’s efforts to reconquer the strategic city of Aleppo”.

More worrying for global order and the future nations acceptance of the Pax Americana, he correctly writes that “the Saudis increasingly seeking to flex their muscle across the security, diplomatic, economic, and even religious spheres. To recount the highlights in some detail helps to underscore the sustained and comprehensive nature of the current Saudi campaign:

— In August 2015, in an unprecedented operation for Saudi intelligence, Saudi agents captured the planner of the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Ibrahim al-Mughassil, a Saudi Shiite with deep links to Iran and Hezbollah, was detained in Beirut as he was exiting a flight from Tehran and immediately rendered to the kingdom for interrogation. At the time, the United States had a longstanding bounty of $5 million for any information leading to Mughassil’s arrest.

— Last December, King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, announced the formation of an anti-terrorism coalition of 34 Sunni states that would be headquartered in Saudi Arabia and focused in particular on thwarting Iranian-backed aggression throughout the region. Only a few months later, more than 20 of the coalition’s members conducted large-scale military exercises in northern Saudi Arabia, near the Iraqi border — coincident with the kingdom’s public offer to commit ground forces to Syria.

— In early March, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) formally designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. In its statement, the GCC accused Hezbollah of “hostile acts” to undermine the sovereignty, security, and stability of GCC members. It also charged the group with responsibility for “terror and incitement” in Yemen and Iraq. Shortly thereafter, the Arab League followed suit, also declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

—The next month, the Saudis ramped up their diplomatic offensive at the April summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. With more than 30 leaders in attendance, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the kingdom not only succeeded in passing a final statement that denounced Hezbollah for conducting terrorist attacks across the region; it also got an explicit condemnation of Iran for its “continued support for terrorism” and its interference in the internal affairs of member states, including Bahrain, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen”.

He goes on to make the point that “The burgeoning Israeli-Saudi ties are clearly unnerving the Iranians. After the Eshki trip to Israel, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a harsh rebuke, tweeting: “Revelation of Saudi government’s relations with Zionist regime was stab in the back of [the] Islamic [community].” Days earlier, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, launched an extended attack on the kingdom, focusing in particular on Prince Turki’s activities and the Eshki visit. Nasrallah insisted that “None of this could have happened without the Saudi government’s approval.” He lamented that Israel is no longer viewed as an enemy by the Arab states, and claimed that “the worst and most important development in this matter is Saudi Arabia taking its relationship with Israel from a clandestine connection to a public one.” Nasrallah warned, “Saudi Arabia is set to recognize Israel,” and was ready to normalize relations “for free, without receiving anything in return” on the Palestinian issue. A particular Iranian worry when it comes to deepening Saudi-Israeli coordination could well concern Iran’s internal stability. The Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, has long viewed Iran’s large, disparate, and disgruntled minority communities as potentially a major vulnerability for the regime. This view was articulated most forcefully by Meir Dagan, the late Mossad chief, who regularly made the case to U.S. officials that promoting the downfall of Iran should be an essential element of any strategy, short of war, to end the Iranian nuclear threat. Dagan was convinced that more could be done to appeal to the Iranian people, in particular by working with dissatisfied minority populations who comprise an estimated 40 to 50 percent of Iran’s population. He also believed that the Arab Gulf states might participate in such a strategy, especially if the United States played a coordinating role”.

He ends “To be fair, the Obama administration can rightly claim a degree of credit for encouraging the Saudis to step up to this larger role. Obama has made clear that part of his “mission” as president has been to spur traditional U.S. allies, like the Saudis, to take action for themselves, rather than always waiting for the United States to lead and then “holding our coat.” The president has called this his “anti-free rider campaign.” The problem, of course, is that the administration’s effort to promote greater burden sharing has not been pursued by way of revitalising alliances with a new sense of common purpose and cooperation, but by leaving traditional partners feeling abandoned and betrayed. Obama seems to have been under the illusion that the abrupt retrenchment of U.S. power and leadership from the Middle East would result in the organic rise of a new regional equilibrium as local actors were forced to play larger roles in ensuring peace and stability. Instead, the policy has created a dangerous vacuum that’s been filled not only by predatory enemies like Russia and Iran, but by frightened partners such as the Saudis, who increasingly may seek to remedy their security dilemma through acts of self-preservation that not only fail to take U.S. interests into account, but could actually run counter to them”.

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