Former Saudi Intel Chief Warns Against Iran War Scare ‘Hyperbole’

Now a Saudi national security official joins Israeli and U.S. current and former policy-makers charged with defending their countries’ security in warning against the current anti-Iran war hype. Everyone who thinks Riyadh wants an Israeli/U.S. war against Iran should pay careful attention to Turki al-Faisal’s recent comments.



Former Saudi intel chief Prince Turki al-Faisal just made the following remarks about the current round of U.S./Israeli vs. Iran tensions:

  • Two hundred dollars a barrel oil is not going to benefit anyone. What we need to do is get away from the hyperbole and threatening stances.
  • We don’t want to be sandwiched between a nuclear state, which is Israel, and a potential nuclear state, which is Iran.

In addition, he called for a “weapons of mass destruction free zone” in the Mideast, a reform that would of course totally undermine the core plank (security through superior strength) of Israeli foreign policy.


With these remarks, Turki al-Faisal joins recently retired Mossad chief Meir Dagan and former CIA acting director John McLaughlin in warning against the tendency of U.S., Iranian, and Israeli politicians to whip up a war scare. But of course a disgraced former politician trying to buy the U.S. election on behalf of a casino owner buddy of war politician Netanyahu knows better than former leaders of Saudi intelligence, the CIA, and Mossad.*


One of the main talking points of war party talking heads in the U.S. and Israel has been that Riyadh secretly supports these efforts. The former Saudi security chief’s pointed remarks should kill that war party propaganda trial balloon.


However, he was also quoted in a separate report as making a strikingly different remark, that–at least out of context–would appear to place him solidly in the neo-con/Likudnik war party:

Any threat to our interests or security will force us to use all available options to defend our interests, and national and regional security.



“All available options” has in recent years become U.S. neo-con and Likudnik code for nuclear aggression against Iran. In the absence of a full-text report of his remarks, al-Faisal’s meaning remains unclear, but the idea of Riyadh using nuclear weapons would seem to imply that it would obtain them from its close ally Pakistan. Such a threat on Riyadh’s part could be read not just as a warning to Tehran not to build nuclear arms but as a warning to Washington and Tel Aviv to tone down their aggressive anti-Iran campaign and start searching for a regional mutual security regime…exactly like the one al-Faisal spelled out.


 
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* I do not mean to suggest that anyone should take the word of an intel official as gospel. One obviously cannot, for they do not all agree. Nevertheless, it is in the nature of intelligence officials to overemphasize the “need” to stand up to adversaries and act tough; they are paid to take that position and certainly do not get their budgets by advocating compromise. So when the recently retired (and therefore liberated from censorship) heads of Saudi, Israeli, and U.S. intelligence all simultaneously caution the world against the dangers of precisely the war tensions that are being fomented by politicians in their own countries, a thinking citizen must take that warning very seriously. It follows that politicians who evade and pretend not to hear these warnings either are not thinking or have a private agenda that is not in the interests of the societies they claim they would like to serve. Voters beware.
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Additional Readings:

Differentiating Friends from Foes

To develop an effective Mideast policy, Washington and Americans generally must learn to distinguish between factions and individuals rather than labeling allies and adversaries by national or religious terms.

Like the Israeli and Saudi (and U.S. regimes), the Iranian regime is a coalition drawn from a wide range of political factions. Like the Israeli, Saudi, and U.S. political arenas, the Iranian political arena includes some folks who are nicer, nastier, more patriotic, less patriotic, more prejudiced, less prejudiced than others. A wise statesman tries to ascertain some appropriate distance from each political actor (not from the state as a whole; that would be a grossly short-sighted and irresponsibly self-defeating policy). At the moment, the “Dagan faction” in Israel, for example, is far closer to US national interests than the “Netanyahu faction.”

Today, the US “distance” from the ruling clique in Tehran should probably be significantly less sufficiently closer so that we can convince them that we are willing to accept Iran’s natural role in regional affairs.This means recognizing Iran’s right to inclusion in regional diplomacy and recognition that Iran has real and legitimate national security concerns that must be addressed in any international discussion of nuclear arms or freedom of the seas or any US discussion of where it would like to install overseas military bases.

Similarly, our “distance” from the current ruling elites in both Saudi Arabia and Israel should be greater. The Saudi ruling elite wants to use the US to push Iran away so the Saudis can lead global Islam…in a radical, militant, sectarian, fundamentalist direction that harms US national security. The Israeli ruling elite wants to use the US to push Iran away so it can continue unopposed to colonize the West Bank, suppress Palestinians, and make the rules that its neighbors must follow, again policies that harm US national security.

But this is a discussion of the appropriate US attitude toward specific political factions. The issue of states or societies is quite different. It is quite reasonable for the US to aspire to support the security of the Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, Saudi, or Iranian people as long as the support of A does not entail discrimination against B. Offering that support unconditionally or (offering hostility unconditionally) as a function of the faction or individual in control is simply unprofessional. It gives the initiative to the adversary. It empowers the adversary. It is a policy of weakness and blindness that teaches others that they are in control, and a professional policy-maker should not control to the leader of another country.

The issue of religion is also quite different. The Shi’i Shah was a close ally of Israel. The Shi’a of Bahrain engaged in a democratic protest. The Shi’a of Iraq are (depending on your perspective) either US allies or US proxies. The Shi’a of Lebanon actually welcomed the Israeli invasion in 1982…until the Israeli army started abusing them; then they rose up in revolt under the Hezbollah flag. The fact that someone is Shi’i or Sunni or Jewish is essentially irrelevant (but of course very useful as an excuse or cover for unrelated behavior).

One must of course start somewhere, but nationality and religion are not the places to start. Organizing friends and foes by religion or nationality is counterproductive. It confuses rather than clarifying.Instead, try  “level of deprivation.” If you are deprived of food or security, you will be considering a militant stance. You deserve sympathy. If you are still militant when no longer deprived, then you deserve to be condemned. That is simple, just a starting place. But at least it is a logical, useful starting place.

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Questions for Further Consideration:
  1. Can one differentiate among factions in the ruling coalition in terms relevant to U.S. national security?
  2. Can one differentiate among factions in the ruling elite in terms relevant to U.S. national security?
  3. Can one differentiate among the genres of political thinking by the thinking public in terms relevant to U.S. national security?


The Saudi Threat to U.S. Interests in Syria

The danger to U.S. interests posed by the tight U.S. embrace of the Saudi sheiks is revealed by the case of a potential collapse of Syria.
U.S. national security is increasingly under threat by the failure of American policy-makers to keep pace with the evolution of the Mideast socio-political system. Irans rise as challenger to the U.S.-centric global system, Israels increasing intransigence, the short-sighted military response to al Quaidas cultural challenge, and the Arab Spring constitute major sources of this suddenly accelerating evolutionary process. The bottom line is that the strategic pillars of U.S. Mideast policy are eroding faster than U.S. policy-makers are constructing replacements. One of these eroding pillars stands in the myth that it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to maintain a fundamentalist Sunni kleptocracy in charge of Saudi Arabia.
The stunningly rapid collapse of the Shah, whose hoard of modern U.S. weapons proved useless in maintaining his dictatorship over an angry population, should have taught Washington that piling weapons designed for a world war against traditional Soviet-style forces into the lap of a pre-modern dictator just sets the U.S. up for future problems. A repressive kleptocracy that hands its educational system to violence-prone fundamentalists is a house of cards. Arming that house of cards both stimulates the weaknesses–the repression, the corruption, the cultivation of religious extremism, fanning the winds of change, and ensures that whatever replacement regime eventually arises will inherit awesome military power. Arming the house of cards is the first level on which U.S.-Saudi cooperation endangers U.S. interests.
The attitude that Saudi behavior is beyond criticism both abets and implicates the U.S. in the Saudi elite campaign not just to repress Shia but to promote a hard-line version of Sunni beliefs. One of the core pillars of Saudi foreign policy is the encouragement of a militant version of Islam that has already led directly to al Quaida and is provoking sectarian conflict in Bahrain by converting popular aspirations for democracy into repression of the majority not because it wants freedom but because it happens to be Shii. This policy only provokes Tehran sectarian hard-liners to take an even harder line and empowers them by demonstrating that they really are under attack. Provoking sectarian conflict in the Mideast is a great cover for Saudi kleptocracy (not to mention Israeli expansion), but it is not in the interests of a weakened U.S. that desperately needs a breathing space to escape from regional misadventures and get its own rotting house back in order. The second level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and Washington is Washingtons self-defeating acceptance of Saudi sectarianism.
The third level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and the U.S. is the counter-revolutionary policy of the Saudis, whose insistence on standing in the path of Arab socio-political history risks alienating the rising generation of leaders throughout the Arab world from a U.S. that claims to support democratization. From both Riyadhs vicious campaign against Bahraini democracy advocates [thanks to Augustus Norton for bring attention to the Saudi-Bahraini war against doctors] and the public terms of the deal it is advocating in Yemen, which would leave the structure of the Saleh dictatorship entirely intact, it seems clear that Riyadh is in fact utterly dedicated to preventing reform in Yemen, and that it wants stability only in the narrowest, most short-term (and short-sighted) sense of clamping the lid on as tight as possible. The socio-political fire, fed by Arab revolt, is roaring hot; fuel, delivered daily by Salehs murderous security goons, is plentiful. What happens to a pressure cooker with the heat on full, lots of fuel, and the lid screwed tight? Stability is not the word that comes to mind.
American pandering to the Saudi sheiks, as though no other Saudi regime would ever choose to sell its oil on the world market, thus imposes a high national security cost rather than constituting the presumed bargain. But this high-level critique is subject to critique as imprecise, theoretically plausible but not clearly grounded in specific real situations or possessing a specific time-frame. So let us take the case of Syria in its current crisis: is Riyadh a plus or a minus for U.S. efforts to resolve the current Syrian crisis?
The kleptocratic billionaire sheiks deal with their fundamentalist Sunni partners has three components that cause problems for the U.S. Allowing the fundamentalists to control Saudi education means that a steady stream of radicals are being produced, of which some portion will either fund those who choose violence or actually become violence-prone themselves. Second, the tendency of Riyadh to permit violence-prone radicals to operate freely outside Saudi Arabia in return for leaving the sheiks in control of domestic politics creates instability throughout the region. Third is the tendency of Riyadh to use the radicals as weapons in its drive for international influence throughout the Muslim world by encouraging sectarian conflict. Just as Saudi influence intensified violence in U.S.-occupied Iraq, helping to stimulate sectarian civil war on top of efforts to liberate Iraq from U.S. occupation, and as Saudi military intervention in Bahrain turned a modernizing and peaceful democratic protest into sectarian oppression of the majority Shii population, Saudi involvement in a collapsed Syria would promote both the rise of a new dictatorship to shut Syria off from the Arab Spring and the rise of sectarian conflict as extremist Salafi elements gained influence within the Sunni population. This in turn would be seen as a direct challenge in Tehran, thus risking a further intensification and militarization of the broadening Saudi-Iranian struggle for regional influence.
The spread of sectarian warfare or even Iranian-Saudi proxy war might seem attractive to those American politicians under the sway of Israeli expansionists looking to set their various Muslim adversaries at each others throats. Military-industrial complex types will also salivate over opportunities for profitable arms sales. Nevertheless, over the long run sectarian chaos in the Mideast is a great threat to U.S. national security. The wasted American blood and treasure during the years of chaos in Iraq and the years of terror during the Lebanese civil war & war of resistance against Israel (recall the 200 Marines killed in their barracks in Beirut) are enough evidence that the U.S. should work to avoid sectarianism and warfare in the Mideast.
Sectarian warfare is not the only possible outcome of Saudi influence in Syria. Another possibility is simply a Saudi victory, which would install an oppressive dictatorship enforcing fundamentalist Sunni rules on a relatively moderate, secular population. Riyadh would clearly be delighted to thus screw tight the lid on the Arab Spring pressure cooker, but it may be too late to turn down the heat, and the next explosion of political demands might be a lot more violent than the current one if Arabs are taught the lesson that peaceful protest only gets you killed.
No doubt room for cooperation with Saudi Arabia to put a collapsed Syria back on its feet would exist. Managed to support the emergence of a modernizing middle class rather than to develop a playground for the rich through corrupt land deals, Saudi development funds could be useful, for example. But in general the interests of the Saudi billionaires in Syria conflict profoundly with those of the U.S. Allowing Saudi Arabia to transform Syria into a bulwark to defend the current repressive regime in Saudi Arabia will set the Mideast up for disastrous future blowback that will cost the U.S. dearly.

How Dangerous Is Syria?

As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, as the Syrian regime appears to be steadily losing the ability to govern in a rational manner, and as the pressure on Turkey to intervene continues to rise, consideration of the implications of a true disaster scenario becomes increasingly important.

Full-scale civil war in Syria seems unlikely on the surface simply because the protesters have no arms, but an endless stream of refugees will eventually prompt Turkey to do something, and whatever Turkey does will raise the likelihood of significant arms flowing into the arms of dissidents, increasing willingness of dissidents to fight back with force, and Syrian regime resistance with force. Once civil war occurs with Turkish forces inside Syria, Iran, Israel, and Saudi Arabia will start recalculating their options with increasing urgency.

From this point to a Spanish Civil War scenario, in which the powers exploit chaos in Syria to fight their broader fights, could be a short step. So the question becomes:

How likely is the Spanish Civil War Scenario in Syria, and what are the key decision points impacting the likelihood of such a scenario?

Turkey may well be able to intervene without greatly alarming any other actor. If either Iran or Israel were to insert significant military force, in contrast, that would immediately alarm the other, for good reason. The strategic difference between Syria as an Iranian ally and Syria as an Israel ally is substantial. How desperate to shore up their access to regional influence might Iran become?
How desperate to end Iranian influence over Syria might Israel become?

Calculating national interest concerning Syria is not simple. One could argue that, as status quo powers, the U.S., Israel, and Turkey would all benefit from a joint operation to eliminate the Assad regime. But if this operation left Israel effectively doing to Syria what it did in the 1980’s to Lebanon, that would have an enormously destabilizing impact, greatly facilitating an Israeli attack on Iran and thus probably provoking risky Iranian countermeasures. Such destabilization is unlikely to be viewed with equanimity in Ankara. The case has already been made that the U.S. and Israel are trying to overthrow Assad. Whether or not literally true today, the temptation to pursue this old dream is clear…and rising. Will Ankara see this line of reasoning as evidence for a rapid unilateral intervention?

While even senior Israeli officials are sufficiently concerned about a miscalculation in Tel Aviv to express their fears publicly, it seems somewhat alarmist to anticipate Israeli aggression against Iran the minute they get the ability to base planes in Syria. In fact, any major military initiative designed to transform Syria into a proxy state by any outside player seems alarmist at the moment. The more likely route to a Spanish Civil War Scenario for Syria is a long series of short, seemingly harmless little steps in a complex dance in which no outside player actually wants to invade but in which each player feels compelled to match all the others. Politics being politics, the end result will no doubt be that most of the steps will more than match the opponent, like a group of waltzing couples on a slanted dance floor, each of whom is simply trying to keep up with some other couple perceived to be dancing faster; the faster they dance, the harder it is to stay in place, so imperceptibly the whole group moves closer and closer to the edge.

Given Israel’s proclivity for overreaction, any step by Iran in the direction of stimulating a Syrian Hezbollah in the context of a collapsing Assad regime would make it very difficult for Tel Aviv to resist military intervention. A second way disaster could occur would be the rise of a serious Saudi-financed Salafi move to transform Syria into the center of Sunni activism in the region. This would strengthen Saudi claims to Muslim world leadership, constitute a direct defeat of Iran, and serve the Saudi campaign to pull Iraq away from Iran, while pushing the ambitious Turks back to the regional periphery. Once again, Israel would no doubt view this with alarm, though how it would balance off a check on Iran vs. an improvement in jihadi prospects is unclear since jihadis have not focused on targetting Israel. In any case, it is not hard to imagine a Spanish Civil War scenario leading quickly to a Greater Israel Scenario.

Rafah: Opening the Gate to Mideast Change

Cairo has just taken the initiative, upping the ante for all those trying to woo her: Rafah will be opened. Now for the devil in the details: let the bidding begin.
There is a world of difference between allowing Palestinians to visit local Egyptian towns in the Sinai to do their shopping and offering them access to the whole world via Egyptian ports and airport. There is a world of difference between allowing Hamas to control international trade and filtering it through Egyptian border guards. Cairo has signaled that it will be listened to but has left everything else open to negotiation.
Nonetheless, the fundamental shift to a “permanently” open border sets something new in motion: Tel Aviv has lost the initiative, and how it is to regain that initiative through its usual brute force is unclear. Gaza, it seems, will in principle at least no longer be a ghetto. Instead of the principle of a ghetto, with occasional exceptions, the reverse will be true: in principle, Gaza will have access to the world, with some exceptions. That shifts the initiative to Hamas. Will it be able to play the international negotiation game?
More, what will Cairo do the next time Israel attacks Gaza? When faced with 1.5 million refugees walking through an open gate, it will need a plan it can put into effect instantly: offer Gazans defensive military aid, set up a very costly refugee city, close the gate and return to the status of Israel’s lapdog…That looks like a very unpalatable set of choices for Cairo.
The alternative is to develop a preemptive policy. Thus, the opening of Rafah will pressure Cairo to continue moving toward the creation of a logically complete policy of resolving the Palestinian issue in a way that will be acceptable to Palestinians. That logic, powered not so much by morality as by very practical political concerns for any Cairo regime, will promote continued change. By a low-keyed shift in border regulations, Cairo will shift not so much the “situation” as the “dynamics” of Mideast politics. 
A small change on Saturday will quite likely transform via multiple,positive feedback loops into an ever more influential political movement as Cairo defends its decision by supporting Hamas and Hamas moderates to facilitate its new cooperation with Cairo and as Tel Aviv blunders from insult to injury, forcing Hamas and Egypt ever closer. The more Cairo starts looking like Arab nationalism’s new champion, the more beleaguered Riyadh will feel, with the likely impact being rising Saudi support for Palestinian justice as it struggles with its cognitive dissonance of being simultaneously “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” and ally of Israel.
Opening Rafah can thus be expected to break the Palestinian-Israeli logjam. Rather than constituting a new definition of stasis, it seems likely to launch a process the end of which is invisible but almost sure to require significant strategic repositioning by all the players.
  • Israel will become increasingly isolated and its policy of reliance on superior force increasingly irrelevant.
  • Hamas has the opportunity to become the unquestioned leader of Palestine but will have to reinvent itself to do so.
  • Saudi Arabia and Egypt will begin a tug-of-war to see which can influence the other the most. Riyadh just cut a deal with Cairo to give it $4 billion in aid. Whatever the terms of that deal, it did not prevent Egypt from announcing the opening of Rafah, suggesting that Saudi wealth will have a tough time trumping Egypt’s spirit of reform, size, and new-found confidence.
  • The U.S. alliance with Israel will become steadily more counter-productive and harmful to U.S. national security, though Israeli firsters in Congress will remain in denial.
Two processes are now promoting Mideast change: the Arab spring and Egyptian relations with Palestine, with each reinforcing the other. Egyptian democracy will promote Arab nationalism, which will promote a desire for justice for Palestine, which will further promote Arab nationalism. Whether or not that reinforcing feedback loop will in turn promote Egyptian democracy will depend on many other factors, including economics and the broader international environment, but over the medium term, the two forces for Mideast change will intensify each other. The Cinderella story of peaceful protest gave way in March to the Saudi-sponsored counterrevolution. Now Cairo is reinvigorating the forces of change by using its joint border with Gaza, a tool that Israel will have trouble countering.

Hubris in Tehran?

A Tehran diplomatic blunder threatens to undermine its rising regional influence.

Gen. Hasan Firouzabadi, Chairman of the Iranian military joint chiefs of staff since 1989, said on May 1:

Unfair and unIslamic (sic) moves will hurt the honor of Muslims in Saudi Arabia, and it will threaten the security of Saudi Arabia.
This is a hard statement to disagree with. Saudi Arabia’s blatantly sectarian move to suppress Shi’i Muslims in favor of Sunni Muslims certainly does seem to be both “unfair” and “un-Islamic.” The subsequent attacks on medical personnel are just one example of behavior that will “hurt the honor of Muslims in Saudi Arabia.” Whether Iran in any way threatens the security of Saudi Arabia as a result or not, others surely will. It seems impossible to imagine that Riyadh can escape negative consequences to its legitimacy and its stability.
One way or another, it seems almost certain that Washington, now standing almost silent on the sidelines, will see its valuable ally destabilized and its comfortable petroleum partnership with the Saudi kleptocracy impaired. Firouzabadi may be privately delighted to see the Saudis harm their own security while simultaneously empowering Iranian hard-liners or he may be genuinely outraged at the Saudi-Bahraini repression of Shi’i demanding justice…or both. But the bottom line is that Riyadh has undermined its long-term security, Iran looks good by comparison and has probably gained significant popularity in Iraq, and the chasm between the national security interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia has just widened.
Firouzabadi  continued:
The Arab dictatorial regimes in the Persian Gulf are unable to contain the popular uprisings. The dictators should relinquish power, end their savage crimes and let the people determine their own future instead of … opening an unworkable front against Iran.
Again, the general seems on solid analytical ground. Riyadh has seized the regional hardline position, while both Iran and Israel suddenly find themselves in the background, looking relatively peaceful. Iran in particular is finding its rhetoric confirmed, its international stance justified, its influence probably enhanced.
But the general went further, noting that “The Persian Gulf has always, is and shall always belong to Iran,” a remark that can be taken as a threat to Saudi Arabia and the other Arab countries that share its shoreline. If a cautious Iran can benefit from Riyadh’s clumsy counter-revolutionary campaign, the blatantly one-sided claim that Iran “owns” the international waterway seems a blunder that can only undermine its prestige. It cannot credibly both claim to be supporting justice in the Arab world and “ownership” of an international waterway that belongs as much not just to Saudi Arabia but also to Bahrain and its new friend Iraq as it does to Iran. Indeed, given the bitter half-century competition between Iran and Iraq over access to the Persian Gulf, the last thing an Iranian decision-maker hoping for influence in Iraq would want to do is claim that Iran “owns” the Gulf. How much one should read into this remark is unclear, but to make it in the midst of the Arab revolt at a minimum demonstrates poor judgment. One wonders how many Iraqis noticed this blunder and how much it might offset the rise in Iran’s image due to its defense of repressed Bahraini Shi’a.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff since 1989, Firouzabadi called on Arab military commanders in February to defend their countries and “support popular movements.” He can feel somewhat satisfied that in Egypt and Tunisia they did; in Yemen, the military has split. But his remark about the Persian Gulf tarnishes his “democratic image.” He also warned Washington in 2010 against attacking Iran in no uncertain terms and lauded the anti-Zionist attitude of the Arab revolt in April.
The regional influence of Iran today is rising by itself; Iran’s adversaries are so busy dropping stones on their own feet that Iran looks better and better every minute that it does nothing. Insensitive remarks by senior military officials that effectively confirm imperialist intent on the part of Tehran risk alienating precisely the rising generation of young nationalist Arabs that Iran is currently applauding. His remark constitutes evidence that the normally cautious Iranian foreign policy may shift to a more risk-taking stance as Tehran’s star continues rising and its leaders begin to calculate that they no longer need be so patient.
Over the last decade, Iran saw a superpower adventure eradicate its main enemy and open the door to Iranian influence over Iraq, its main regional ally fight Israel to a draw without any overt Iranian intervention, the development of  broad diplomatic and economic cooperation with rising regional power Turkey, and then a wave of popular revolts that destabilized all its Arab opponents and opened the door to renewed ties with an emergent Egypt. But Iran remains a weak country, imperiled by domestic dissent, economic mismanagement, and regional distrust. It would be ironic if Tehran’s good fortune from the hubris of others came to naught because all that good fortune led to hubris on the part of Iran.

Dealing with Denial

Let’s imagine that a decision-maker admits that he might be in denial but denies that it is intentional. How might he or she crawl out of the mental box?

Take the contentious issues of the degree to which Saudi Arabia and Israel may share strategic interests with the U.S. How might one move beyond fruitless argument? The simplest step that occurs to me would be to list the ways in which strategic interests coincide and the ways in which they clash.

Shared & Conflicting Strategic Interests: US-Israel & US-Saudi Arabia

Imagine! Merely to admit that such a list could be created would constitute a foreign policy revolution…or is it revelation(???)…in Washington. An initial version of such a list is provided as a target. I will be the first to attack it for not distinguishing between the “strategic interests” of the elite and the “strategic interests” of the societies. Making a simple list is not quite as simple as one might think!

More seriously, the obvious point is that the relative merits of an alliance are not really so obvious when one thinks about it. When you reach the (almost inevitable) conclusion that this is a less-than-satisfying approach, try Venn diagrams. But that’s a tale for another day…

Saudi-American Clash of Strategic Interests

In order to calculate U.S. self-interest, Washington decision-makers need to escape from denial about the alleged “common strategic interests” between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.
Denial is self-defeating: aspire to whatever goal you choose, but do yourself the favor of recognizing the potholes before you break an axle. Much blood is being spilled and much treasure wasted because of Washington’s proclivity to indulge in dangerous groupthink, its tendency to be in a state of denial about obvious dangers imperiling U.S. national security. Few examples are more egregious than the pretense that Saudi Arabia is a “friend.”
Yes, technically, the Saudis are “allies,” but that word simply means that at the moment, the Saudi elite finds cooperation with the U.S. to be beneficial. Of course it has beneficial aspects along with some that are highly injurious, but to call Saudi Arabia an “ally” implies nothing about the future, not does it in any way imply the absence of all manner of counterplot. When a secular, status-quo democracy is “befriended” by a repressive kleptocracy that rests its legitimacy on a deal that gives violence-prone fundamentalist crusaders control over domestic education and “morals” police plus a carte blanche for running an extremist sectarian international crusade, then that secular democracy should begin to worry.
Yet, respectable and recognized experts can make statements such as this blithely optimistic opening remark by Anthony Cordesman in a new summary of U.S.-Saudi ties:
Saudi Arabia and the United States may not share the same political system and culture, but they do share broad strategic interests.
Without citing the missing evidence of fundamental conflicts of strategic interest between the Saudi sectarian religious dictatorship and the U.S., Cordesman’s statement amounts to blind denial of the threat to U.S. national security posed by Saudi Arabia. The stunningly rapid collapse of the Shah, whose hoard of modern U.S. weapons proved useless in maintaining his dictatorship over an angry population, should have taught Washington that piling weapons designed for a world war against traditional Soviet-style forces into the lap of a pre-modern dictator just sets the U.S. up for future problems. Arming the house of cards and encouraging Saudi kleptocracy is the first level on which U.S.-Saudi cooperation endangers U.S. interests.
The second level is the sectarian implications of the Saudi elite campaign not just to repress Shi’a but to promote a hard-line version of Sunni beliefs. One of the core pillars of Saudi foreign policy is the encouragement of a militant version of Islam that has already led directly to al Qua’ida and is provoking sectarian conflict in Bahrain by converting popular aspirations for democracy into repression of the majority not because it wants freedom but because it happens to be Shi’i. This policy only provokes Tehran sectarian hard-liners to take an even harder line and empowers them by demonstrating that they really are under attack. Provoking sectarian conflict in the Mideast is a great cover for Saudi kleptocracy (not to mention Israeli expansion), but it is not in the interests of a weakened U.S. that desperately needs a breathing space to escape from regional misadventures and get its own rotting house back in order. Leading Saudi analyst Madawi al-Rasheed notes the dilemma for Washington:

The fusion of oil interests and Wahhabi Islam became a form of blackmail of the west, extracting from it an eternal silence over the regime’s abuse of human rights.

When Riyadh’s sectarian chickens come home, many will roost on the U.S., and this is definitely not in the interest of U.S. national security.

The third level of strategic clash of interests between Riyadh and the U.S. is the counter-revolutionary policy of the Saudis, whose insistence on standing in the path of Arab socio-political history risks alienating the rising generation of leaders throughout the Arab world from a U.S. that claims to support democratization. In this context, Cordesman’s statement that “in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and the United States agree that Yemeni stability and reform are critical in limiting Iran’s influence” is simply beyond belief. From both Riyadh’s vicious campaign against Bahraini democracy advocates [thanks to Augustus Norton for bring attention to the Saudi-Bahraini war against doctors] and the public terms of the deal it is advocating in Yemen, which would leave the structure of the Saleh dictatorship entirely intact, it seems clear that Riyadh is in fact utterly dedicated to preventing reform in Yemen, and that it wants “stability” only in the narrowest, most short-term (and short-sighted) sense of clamping the lid on as tight as possible. The socio-political fire, fed by Arab revolt, is roaring hot; fuel, delivered daily by Saleh’s murderous security goons, is plentiful. What happens to a pressure cooker with the heat on full, lots of fuel, and the lid screwed tight? “Stability” is not the word that comes to mind.
Surely, cooperation with the Saudis offers certain enticements, but they are just a part of the whole meal, most of which will prove indigestible. Policy-makers can of course weigh the potential advantages and disadvantages of eating with the Saudis, but pretending a mixture of sweet desserts and rotten meat constitutes a royal banquet will only get them an upset stomach. Half the truth is that short-term interests in common with the Saudis are mixed with serious conflicts of interest; the other half of the truth is that U.S. antagonism toward Iran (which comes at a given when you buy into the myth that Saudi Arabia and the U.S. share common strategic interests) is so much of a knee-jerk reaction that it prevents recognition of the host of interests in common between the U.S. and Iran. Put honestly, neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is a “friend” of the U.S.; neither should be labeled an “ally.” Each, like the U.S., works in its own interests; each, like the U.S., follows numerous policies that serve only the interests of narrow elite factions. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran have goals that the U.S. should view with a jaundiced eye, but on specific issues, cooperation with each on an issue-by-issue basis could be highly beneficial. Americans will remain blind to all that, however, as long as they remain trapped in a state of denial.

Tehran’s National Security Opportunity

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Tehran has done an impressive job of managing its national security challenges over the last 20 years. Can it now put the icing on its national security cake by teaming up with Arab moderates, especially the new Egypt, and isolating Saudi Arabia in embarrassed league with Israel?
One of the major questions regarding the long-term state of Mideast affairs is how Tehran will react to the simultaneous Arab democratization wave and sectarian Saudi challenge. By itself, a democratizing wave would not seem likely to attract very serious Iranian support nor offer Tehran’s hard-line leadership much opportunity, since it contradicts the militant foreign policy and domestic repression dominant in Iran. However, the Saudi counterrevolution makes Riyadh the leader of the region’s anti-democratic forces, and the brutal, obviously sectarian approach of Riyadh offers Tehran an opportunity to enhance its regional image, enhance its national security at low cost simply by supporting the newly emerging moderate Arab regimes. These regimes, to a discerning and patient Tehranian eye, could be seen as legitimate partners over a fairly long period on the simple basis of their desire for foreign policy independence. The more Tel Aviv and Riyadh team up to undermine Arab liberty, the easier it will be for Tehran to strike a tactical deal with any neutral, democratic Arab regimes that may emerge.
Whether such a deal actually transforms Iran into just another Turkey or in the end proves little more than a cloaking device for hard-line Iranian nationalism devoted to establishing a new world order is a question that will only be answered years from now, and will depend greatly on how things work out in the meantime: the answer is not preordained. Tehran kept its cool in the face of the flood of the U.S. military into its backyard and smoothly emerged the victor in the 20-year-long war between Washington and Saddam, while simultaneously maintaining its independence and avoiding Israeli attack. Now, Tehran has an opportunity to improve on this impressive record by “joining” an emerging Arab moderate center and thus isolating Israel and Saudi Arabia far off in right field. In five years, Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, and perhaps a couple other regional states could be comfortably tied by a booming hydrocarbon network of priceless strategic value to Western Europe and thus also of priceless strategic value to Iran. As the source of most of the gas, Iran could become, in European eyes, “too big to fail,” and thus protected from Israeli attack.
The big payoff for Washington would be if Tehran decided that the energy superpower game was more attractive than the game of leading the campaign to overthrow the U.S.-centric global political system.
The first move is up to Tehran, and so far, it is choosing the road of moderation and cooperation. Tehran has responded only with words to Riyadh’s brutal repression of Bahraini Shi’a, but simultaneously Tehran is moving steadily to shift regional strategic relations by pulling Egypt away from the Saudis. By ineptly interfering with the democratization process in Egpyt, the Saudis are only facilitating Iran’s way forward. Trading Egypt for Bahrain can hardly be a wise strategic move for Saudi Arabia.
The next move is up to Cairo and seems likely to come in Gaza. An Egyptian move to bring any significant measure of justice to the people of Gaza would simultaneous cause a fundamental rift with Riyadh and pave the road to normalization with Tehran.

Dictatorship and Religious Extremism: Two Sides of the Same Coin

A popular false dichotomy in the West–promoted partly by those who can see only black and white, partly by those with a private agenda to profit from chaos–holds that the choice in the Mideast lies between dictatorships and religious extremism. Don’t fall into this trap: dictatorships and religious extremism are two sides of the same coin.
As the pace of reform slows in the Mideast, the viciousness of criminal regimes rises, and the counterrevolution gains momentum, the prospects for moderate, peaceful modernization coupled with political reform, civil liberties, and the installation of regimes interested in popular welfare rather kleptocracy dimishes. In direct response to the fading prospects of responsible democracy, the prospects for extremism rise. Dictators and those who hope to benefit from dictatorships will stress the danger of religious fundamentalist extremism as though two opposite choices existed – either dictatorship by a kleptocracy or al Qua’ida. In truth, it is precisely the existence of one type of extremism that provokes the other.
Saudi Arabia is starting already in these initial post-Bahrain intervention days, to provide one example: the political elite, having evidently learned nothing from the wave of global terror, is once again kissing up to religious ultra-conservatives. From ultra-conservative dogma enforcing radical religious strictures to the use of violence against those who do not submit is a very short step: if “god” says you must and you don’t, it is very easy for the credulous to conclude that those who don’t are evil (short step) and (another short step) should be murdered. The Saudi mistake (from the perspective of those who aspire to live in a tolerant society) is to use religious fundamentalists to buttress the kleptocracy against the population.
Algeria is providing a second example of the tight relationship between the religious extremism the West fears and the Arab dictatorships Western elites find so convenient. Where Riyadh coddles fundamentalism to repress the people, Algers uses military oppression against both, leaving the people with no hope and thus making the revolutionary socio-political message of fundamentalists attractive. The Algerian mistake is to turn its back on a population that wants peace and offer it no alternative but resistance.
Extremist regimes that either repress their populations, as in the cases of Saudi Arabia and Algeria, or repress conquered ethnic minorities, as in the case of Israel, provoke an extremist response. Abuse of power by a criminal state provokes the empowerment of radical dissent and its own concomitant abuse of power. The longer the Mideast popular protests continue without substantive improvements socio-economic conditions for the population, the more radicalized politics is likely to become. It is not in the interests of the American people for Washington to pick elite favorites as clients but for Washington to support the emergence of independent, moderate, reformist political systems that focus on improving domestic socio-economic conditions. U.S. politicians may not be ready to turn any of their aircraft carriers into small-business loans for unemployed Arabs, but we might all be more secure if they did.
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READINGS:

A superb list of 10 things Western governments should avoid in the Mideast;
Needed for Arab democracy – jobs