Exclusive: Last year, Saudi intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan was swaggering around the world boasting of Saudi influence over radical jihadists from Syria to Chechnya and collaborating with Israel against Iran. But Bandar is gone and the Saudis may be retrenching, writes Andres Cala.
By Andrés Cala
Saudi Arabia – after suffering setbacks in its support for jihadists in Syria and other proxy struggles against regional rival Iran – appears to be pulling back from confrontation and looking for ways to lessen tensions, even inviting Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to visit.
In other signs of retrenchment, King Abdullah removed his hawkish intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan and moved to curb support for al-Qaeda terrorist-linked organizations in Syria and Iraq, including imposing prison terms on Saudi jihadists fighting for these groups.
Riyadh, which sees itself as the power base for Sunni Islam vs. Iran as the leader of Shiite Islam, could be playing for time but appears to be seriously considering a strategic shift that involves seeking a détente with Iran that could have broad regional and even global repercussions.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, though at odds over Ukraine, both support a lull in the Sunni-Shiite sectarian feud raging across the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria where Shiite-leaning governments are under pressure from Sunni rebels, including Islamic radicals supported by Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf oil states.
Once Obama decided not to attack Syria last summer – and the government of Bashar al-Assad gained the upper hand in the civil war with the help of Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah – it became clear that a Saudi-backed rebel military victory was unattainable. Similarly, last month’s elections in Iraq reaffirmed the authority of a Shiite-led government that has been harshly critical of Saudi support for Sunni extremists in Iraq.
Those setbacks have led Riyadh to consider cutting its losses in Syria and Iraq while simultaneously doubling down on its support for Egypt’s military dictatorship, which overthrew the elected Muslim Brotherhood government last year and is now seeking to crush that populist movement. The Brotherhood represents a different kind of threat to Saudi Arabia’s monarchy, i.e., a democratic movement based in Sunni Islam.
Iran is not in the best shape either, weakened by the proxy wars in Syria and Iraq and by Western sanctions. The reformist government of Iran, with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s blessing, has been calling for a détente with Saudi Arabia for some time. Saudi rulers are familiar with some Iranian reformists, having dealt with them over a decade ago.
Put simply, both Iran and Saudi Arabia appear to have calculated that they need a pause in their regional sectarian strife so they can focus on other domestic and geopolitical priorities.
The emerging Iranian-Saudi détente also could represent a setback for Washington’s still influential neocons and other foreign policy hawks who have favored ratcheting up tensions in the Middle East with an eye toward U.S.-induced “regime change” in Syria and Iran.
But perhaps the biggest loser is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who insists that Iran and its Shiite allies represent Israel’s greatest strategic threat. Netanyahu’s government has voiced support for the Syrian rebels in their war against Iran’s ally Assad, who is an Alawite, a branch of Shiite Islam.
Netanyahu also has called for military strikes against Iran to destroy its nuclear facilities, rather than trust negotiations to ensure that Iran doesn’t develop a nuclear bomb. (Israel currently is the region’s only nuclear-weapon state, though it refuses to acknowledge what is widely regarded as a large and sophisticated nuclear arsenal.)
The Saudi monarch also appears frustrated by the recent collapse of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, a development which further undercut Saudi interests when Iran’s ally, Hamas, was able to negotiate a unity government with Fatah’s Palestinian Authority. Hamas also has close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
The Israeli-Saudi Alliance
A variety of common interests led to the odd-couple alliance between Israel and Saudi Arabia, especially when the worldly Bandar – the kingdom’s longtime ambassador to the United States – was in charge of Riyadh’s powerful intelligence agency. Netanyahu and Bandar both saw the “Shiite crescent,” stretching from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut, as their shared strategic threat.
Thus, they found themselves on the same side in challenging Iran and its Shiite allies. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Saudi-Israeli Alliance Boosts al-Qaeda.”]
Netanyahu and Bandar also jointly despised the Muslim Brotherhood government which came to power in Egypt via elections, Bandar because it represented a political challenge to the Saudi monarchy and Netanyahu because it opened supply lines to Hamas in Gaza. Both welcomed the ouster of elected President Mohamed Morsi and the military’s brutal crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood.
King Abdullah’s removal of Bandar earlier this year represented a blow to the anti-Iran hardliners in Saudi Arabia and Israel. In the latest sign of this geopolitical shift, Riyadh invited Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif to visit the kingdom whenever he chooses to “talk” about how Iran “becomes a part of the effort to make the region as safe as possible.”
Saudi Arabia’s willingness to talk to Iran does not put the centuries-old Sunni-Shiite rivalry to rest, but it could decrease the region’s bloodshed, especially in war-torn Syria. A détente could evolve into a version of the Cold War’s glasnost by emboldening reformists in both camps.
As the Syrian carnage shows, there is no real option of a clear-cut victory for either side in the Iranian-Saudi proxy wars. In that context, the only reasonable outcome for Syria is for the Iranian and Saudi clients to pull back in favor of renewed, realistic negotiations. Peace in Syria would also deliver a serious blow to al-Qaeda’s Sunni extremists who have exploited the violence and divisions that have ripped apart Iraq and Syria to establish new bases of operation in the center of the Middle East.
Even if a détente can be worked out between Iran and Saudi Arabia on the Syrian civil war and broader strategic interests, such as constraints on Iran’s nuclear program, the two countries will surely remain adversaries and simply redraw their red lines. For Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Bahrain will become the priorities. Iran will seek to bolster its relations with Syria and Iraq.
But the new strategic map could pit both Iran and Saudi Arabia against al-Qaeda, which – from its earliest days – has declared itself the sworn enemy of the Saudi monarchy (despite on-and-off Saudi support for the jihadists). Al-Qaeda’s militants also have targeted Saudi Arabia’s neighbor Yemen, which makes the extremists a threat to long-term Saudi stability.
These are the historic battlegrounds that revolutionary Iran and royalist Saudi Arabia have been contesting for the past three-and-a-half decades, since the Iran-Iraq War in 1980, which Iraq’s Saddam Hussein launched against Iran with the support of the Saudi monarchy. What has changed in recent years is Iran’s ability and willingness to push back as well as rising domestic pressure inside Saudi Arabia against the House of Saud.
Defending the Crown
To defuse some of the domestic pressure coming from younger, more liberal-minded, Internet-connected Saudis, the aging King Abdullah sees the value in focusing more on internal concerns. Along those lines, he has created a new position and named his youngest brother Muqrin deputy prince, or second in line to heir Prince Salman.
This generational threat to the monarchy is coming from well-educated Saudis who are demanding more liberties, such as letting women drive and broadening freedom of speech. Unemployment also is a major economic concern, especially as Saudi oil revenues will come under pressure in the future as Iraq and Iran boost exports and as domestic consumption rises.
But the biggest threat, at least from the Saudi monarchy’s point of view, is the Muslim Brotherhood. To crush the elected Brotherhood government in Cairo, Riyadh bankrolled Egypt’s military dictatorship, which seized power last year. Saudis, and to lesser extent Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, are giving Egypt “grants” of oil and oil products of $4.6 billion in the 12-month period since the July 2013 coup. That doesn’t include billions more in credits and aid from the Gulf Cooperation Council, estimated by Bank of America-Merrill Lynch at possibly $18 billion in fiscal year 2014.
The Saudi and GCC message, one at odds with the Obama administration but supported by Israel, is that the Brotherhood must not be allowed to govern, period. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE withdrew their ambassadors from Qatar in March over Doha’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood and its nuanced diplomacy toward Iran. The Saudis later declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization.
Basically the monarchy fears that some or all these pro-democracy forces will combine into a renewed Arab Spring, shaking the Kingdom’s stability.
Iran, for very different but equally threatening reasons, also needs time to regroup. It’s starting to break Western-imposed isolation with the possibility of a broader deal with the United States on sanctions – despite continued resistance from neocons and hardliners in the State Department to a negotiated resolution of the Iranian nuclear dispute.
For world powers favoring a more peaceful Middle East, the possible Saudi-Iranian diplomatic thaw should be positive news. Russia and China would welcome it for both diplomatic and economic reasons. And most of Europe would discreetly cheer since trade with Iran would boost the Continent’s sputtering economies.
Still, it’s not clear which way these dominoes will fall. There are powerful interests in having them cascade toward détente and peace, but there are other potent forces that still prefer heightened confrontation and regard the only long-term solution to challenges posed by Iran and Syria as violent “regime change.”
Andrés Cala is an award-winning Colombian journalist, columnist and analyst specializing in geopolitics and energy. He is the lead author of America’s Blind Spot: Chávez, Energy, and US Security.