Saudi and Israeli Punching Bag
The most surprising defection from the pro-American coalition in the Middle East is, however, Saudi Arabia. In part, that kingdom's erratic behavior may result from a growing awareness among its ultraconservative, kleptocratic princelings that they face an increasingly uncertain future. Christopher Davidson's new book, After the Sheikhs: The Coming Collapse of the Gulf Monarchies, outlines the many pressures building on the country.
One significant cause of instability, claims Davidson, is the "existence of substantial Western military bases on the Arabian Peninsula, [which are considered] an affront to Islam and to national sovereignty." For decades, such an American military presence in the region provided a security blanket for the Saudi royals, making the country a virtual US protectorate. Now, amid the turmoil that has followed the war in Iraq, the Arab Spring, and the rise of an assertive Iran, Saudi Arabia isn't sure which way to turn, or whether the United States is friend or foe.
Since 2003, the Saudi rulers have found themselves increasingly unhappy with American policy. Riyadh, the area's chief Sunni power, was apoplectic when the United States toppled Iraq's Sunni leader Saddam Hussein and allowed Iran to vastly increase its influence in Baghdad. In 2011, the Saudi royal family blamed Washington for not doing more to prevent the collapse of the conservative and pro-Saudi Mubarak government in Egypt.
Now, the Saudis are on the verge of a complete break over Washington's policies toward Syria and Iran. As the chief backers of the rebels in Syria, they were dismayed when Obama chose not to bomb military sites around Damascus. Because it views Iran through the lens of a regional Sunni-Shiite struggle for dominance, it is no less dismayed by the possible emergence of a US-Iran accord from renewed negotiations over that country's nuclear program.
To express its pique, its foreign minister abruptly canceled his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September, shocking UN members. Then, adding insult to injury, Saudi Arabia turned down a prestigious seat on the Security Council, a post for which it had long campaigned. "Upset at President Barack Obama's policies on Iran and Syria," reported Reuters, "members of Saudi Arabia's ruling family are threatening a rift with the United States that could take the alliance between Washington and the kingdom to its lowest point in years."
That news service quoted Saudi Arabia 's intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, as saying that his country was on the verge of a "major shift" in its relations with the US Former head of Saudi intelligence Prince Turki al-Faisal lambasted America's Syria policy this way: "The current charade of international control over Bashar's chemical arsenal would be funny if it were not so blatantly perfidious. [It is] designed not only to give Mr. Obama an opportunity to back down [from military strikes], but also to help Assad to butcher his people."
This is shocking stuff from America's second most reliable ally in the region. As for reliable ally number one, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has visibly decided to be anything but a cooperative partner in the region, making Obama's job more difficult at every turn. Since 2009, he has gleefully defied the American president, starting with his refusal to impose a freeze on illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank when specifically asked to do so by the president at the start of his first term. Meanwhile, most of the world has spent the past half-decade on tenterhooks over the possibility that his country might actually launch a much-threatened military strike on Iran's nuclear facilities.
Since Hassan Rouhani was elected president of Iran and indicated his interest in reorienting policy to make a deal with the Western powers over its nuclear program, Israeli statements have become ever more shrill. In a September speech to the UN General Assembly, for instance, Netanyahu rolled out extreme rhetoric, claiming that Israel is "challenged by a nuclear-armed Iran that seeks our destruction." This despite the fact that Iran possesses no nuclear weapons, has enriched not an ounce of uranium to weapons-grade level, and has probably not mastered the technology to manufacture a bomb. According to American intelligence reports, it has not yet even militarized its nuclear research.
Netanyahu's speech was so full of hyperbole that observers concluded Israel was isolating itself from the rest of the world. "He was so anxious to make everything look as negative as possible he actually pushed the limits of credibility," said Gary Sick, a former senior official in the Carter administration and an Iran expert. "He did himself harm by his exaggerations."
Iran: Obama's Ironic Beacon of Hope
Both Israel and Saudi Arabia are fearful that the Middle Eastern balance of power could be tipped against them if the United States and Iran are able to strike a deal. Seeking to throw the proverbial monkey wrench into the talks between Iran, the US, and the P5+1 powers (the permanent members of the UN security Council plus Germany), Israel has put forward a series of demands that go far beyond anything Iran would accept, or that the other countries would go along with. Before supporting the removal of international economic sanctions against Iran, Israel wants that country to suspend all enrichment of uranium, shut down its nuclear facilities, not be allowed any centrifuges to enrich uranium, abandon the heavy-water plant it is constructing to produce plutonium, permanently close its fortified underground installation at Fordo, and ship its stockpile of enriched uranium out of the country.
In contrast, it's widely believed that the United States is ready to allow Iran to continue to enrich uranium, maintain some of its existing facilities, and retain a partial stockpile of enriched uranium for fuel under stricter and more intrusive inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Ironically, a US-Iran détente is the one thing that could slow down or reverse the death spiral of American influence in the region. Iran, for instance, could be helpful in convincing President Assad of Syria to leave office in 2014, in advance of elections there, if radical Sunni Islamic organizations, including allies of al-Qaeda, are suppressed. Enormously influential in Afghanistan, Iran could also help stabilize that country after the departure of US combat forces in 2014. And it could be enlisted to work alongside the United States and regional powers to stabilize Iraq.
More broadly, a US-Iran entente might lead to a gradual de-escalation of the US military presence in the Persian Gulf, including its huge naval forces, bases, and other facilities in Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait. It's even conceivable that Iran could be persuaded to join other regional and global powers in seeking a just and lasting negotiated deal between Israel and the Palestinians. The United States and Iran have a number of common interests, including opposing al-Qaeda-style terrorism and cracking down on drug smuggling.
Of course, such a deal will be exceedingly difficult to nail down, if for no other reason than that the hardliners in both countries are determined to prevent it.
Right now, imagine the Obama administration as one of those vaudeville acts that keep a dozen plates spinning atop vibrating poles. At just this moment in the Middle East, those "plates" are tipping in every direction. There's still time to prevent them all from crashing to the ground, but it would take a masterful effort from the White House—and it's far from clear that anyone there is up to the task.
Bob Dreyfuss is an independent investigative journalist based in Cape May, New Jersey, specializing in politics and national security. He is a contributing editor at the Nation, and his blog appears daily at TheNation.com. In the past, he has written extensively for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.
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