Saturday, May 17, 2008

Indian diplomat: Iran outmanoeuvre Saudi Arabia

An excellent article by a former Indian diplomat on the Middle East chess game between Iran and Saudi-US.

Saudi, US grapple with Iran challenge

By M K Bhadrakumar

Asia Times, May 17, 2008.

A timeless and abstract passion, which could gain instantaneous contemporaneity and which has proven to be unfailingly useful for statecraft, was invoked in Middle Eastern politics once again this week. It is the ultimate weapon in Saudi Arabia's arsenal of regional diplomacy. It is seductive in its appeal, yet almost embarrassingly direct.

That was how, most certainly, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal would have thought when on Tuesday he warned Tehran that its support to what he termed Hezbollah's "coup" in Lebanon would affect Iran's relations with Arab and Islamic countries. The Saudi prince went on to exhort all Middle East countries to respect Lebanon's independence and to refrain from stoking "sectarian tensions" in that country.

It is extremely rare for Saudi diplomacy to blatantly use the weapon of sectarianism against Shi'ite Iran and to draw a line of divide between the Persians and the surrounding Sunni Muslim Arab world. More so as Saudi clerics are usually put to use in playing the "Shi'ite card" against Iran.

But this time around, if the intention of the vastly experienced, cosmopolitan Saudi prince was to unnerve Tehran, he failed. Tehran coolly ignored the Saudi foreign minister's warning. To make things doubly clear, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said dismissively the Saudi prince spoke in "anger".

Anger, we know, doesn't go well with good Muslims. Ahmadinejad then proceeded to make a startling revelation that Faisal was not following the "orders" of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud.

Indeed, King Abdullah seemed to quickly dissociate himself from his foreign minister's dire warning to Iran. On Wednesday, the Saudi ambassador in Tehran, Osama bin Ahmad al-Sonosi, called on the chairman of Iran's Expediency Council, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, to hand over a letter from the Saudi monarch containing an invitation to the Iranian cleric leader to visit Riyadh to attend the International Islamic Dialogue Conference. The Saudi ambassador reportedly said, "King Abdullah believes you [Rafsanjani] have a great stature in the Islamic world ... and he has assigned me the duty of inviting you to the conference."

Rafsanjani expressed his appreciation for the "special invitation" and bemoaned that "disagreements" in the Islamic world involving both politicians and clerics have alas created an "undesirable situation". He added the conflicts in certain Islamic countries, especially Iraq and Lebanon, had widened the "chasms between Muslims". He expressed the hope the Islamic Dialogue Conference could "moderate the atmosphere and facilitate cooperation between Islamic states". In turn, the Saudi envoy underscored that "through the conference, we [Riyadh] are seeking to promote unity in the Islamic world".

Conceivably, the Saudi foreign minister had reason to feel frustrated. The entire Saudi political stratagem in Lebanon has backfired. The Saudi backing for the Foud al-Siniora government's moves to drag Hezbollah into a civil war stands badly exposed. A most awkward detail known to the "Arab street" is that Saudi intelligence and diplomacy was acting hand-in-glove with the United States in the dubious business of emasculating Hezbollah. The ultimate US-Saudi intention was to curtail Hezbollah's dominating stature on Lebanon's political and security landscape.

The crisis in Lebanon was proceeded by a barrage of propaganda in the Saudi-supported media aimed at discrediting Hezbollah in Arab opinion and to demolish its profile as Lebanon's resistance movement before disarming it.

In fact, Saudi propaganda went into overdrive. To quote the al-Hayat newspaper published from London, "Hamas takes Gaza hostage. Hezbollah takes Beirut hostage. Muqtada al-Sadr threatens Iraq. Al-Qaeda threatens the whole world. Extremist militias and movements suppress peoples and overthrow governments ... the only difference between what the Taliban did in Afghanistan in the 1990s and what Hezbollah did in Lebanon is the time and place."

As it turns out, Hezbollah made the Siniora government and its Saudi backers look very foolish. As Israeli military intelligence chief Major General Amos Yadlin put it, Hezbollah proved last week that it is the strongest force in Lebanon - "stronger than the Lebanese army" - and could have seized power if it had wanted to. "Hezbollah did not intend to take control ... If it had wanted to, it could have done it," Yadlin told Ha'aretz newspaper.

Equally, the US and the Saudis, in their acute embarrassment, have tried to characterize the dispute as religious. But it was the Siniora government's decisions concerning Hezbollah's communication system and the sacking of the chief of Beirut airport which triggered the confrontation. These decisions were interconnected and had manifestly security-oriented overtones.

At any rate, Siniora's government was supposed to confine itself to running the day-to-day affairs until a Lebanese president is elected, but instead it made a strategic decision of countering Hezbollah's expanding influence. (This followed secret visits by the secretary general of the Saudi National Security Council and former intelligence chief and ambassador to the US, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdul Aziz al-Saud, to Beirut.) In retrospect, Hezbollah would seem to have staged a "counter-coup" rather than a "coup".

The Saudis have realized there aren't many takers in the Arab world for their anti-Iran, anti-Hezbollah ploys at present. Qatar, Yemen and Algeria have visibly dissociated from the Saudis. Syria continues to firmly align with Iran. Oman, which currently heads the Gulf Cooperation Council, is most disinterested in Saudi Arabia's anti-Iranian stratagems. The deputy to Oman's Sultan, Fahd bin Mahmoud al-Said, paid a successful visit to Iran on April 20. A visit by Oman's Sultan Qaboos to Iran is in the cards. Sensing its growing isolation, Riyadh mounted the latest Arab League mediation in Lebanon on Wednesday. The Arab League meeting itself was scarcely attended.

Tehran, however, tactful as ever, has promptly responded to the "softening" of the Saudi stance. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on Wednesday that if the Arab League delegation led by Qatari Prime Minister (and Foreign Minister) Sheikh Hamad bin Jassem al-Thani, could reach a comprehensive solution, Iran would support it. Iran stands to gain by being seen as cooperating with a regional peace initiative.

Iran's active diplomacy in the past year has proved highly effective when the crunch came, in thwarting repeated US-Saudi attempts to invoke the specter of a "Shi'ite crescent" in the region spearheaded by Tehran.

The Lebanon crisis may prove to be a turning point insofar as despite last week's fighting in Lebanon, the broad perception regarding Hezbollah in Arab opinion - that it is the fountainhead of resistance rather than a Shi'ite militia locked in fratricidal strife - remains largely intact. This broad perception cuts across sectarian divides in the Arab world.

The supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mohammed Mahdi Akef, said the Lebanese resistance is the only group that determines what is good for the country while facing the "Zionist-US plot that is penetrating deep into Lebanon". Akef stressed that in the Muslim mind, Hezbollah's image stands unshaken. Similar statements of solidarity have been made by other Sunni Islamic organizations in the Middle East, including in Jordan, despite the Jordanian regime's close alliance with Riyadh.

Such solidarity of regional Muslim opinion favoring Hezbollah works to Iran's advantage. The Saudi king's invitation to Rafsanjani to visit Riyadh is a grudging acknowledgement of this political reality. Washington has been desperately keen to transfer the "Lebanon file" to the United Nations Security Council next week. US deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams said in Washington on Tuesday, "We are going to be unrolling a few things in the course of the week, starting perhaps with the Security Council." But it is unlikely the Saudis will want a showdown with Iran over Lebanon at New York at this juncture.

The Saudis would assess that the mood in the Middle East region will militate against Riyadh getting involved openly with the George W Bush administration in disarming Hezbollah, whereas the focus ought to be on forging national unity in Lebanon. Nor does Tehran actually seek any confrontation with Riyadh. Time works in its favor. Therefore, we may expect some sort of agreement being worked out involving the Lebanese parties under the auspices of the current Arab League mediatory mission.

What is most extraordinary is that all this is playing out on the sidelines of Bush's own visit to the region. As things stand, the Middle East is seething with anger that the Bush administration has dumped the Israel-Palestine "peace process", despite all the hullabaloo at the Annapolis conference in the US last November. In addition, Bush's close identification with Israel profoundly alienates Arab opinion. The Bush administration's overall credibility is also very low, given the Iraq quagmire. Bush is being left in no doubt that the mood in the Middle East is firmly against any US adventurism against Iran. Curiously, Washington seems to anticipate the trust deficit in Riyadh and Cairo, the key Arab capitals that are on Bush's itinerary.

No doubt, there is some symbolism in the fact that just ahead of Bush's tour, the US warship USS Cole, which has been deployed in the Persian Gulf since March, crossed the Suez Canal on Sunday en route to the Mediterranean. Again, in a well-timed statement on Wednesday, even as Bush arrived in the Middle East, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates spoke at two different forums in Washington about the imperatives of the US engaging Iran. Gates virtually shut the door on a military option against Iran, saying, "There is no doubt that ... we would be very hard-pressed to fight another major conventional war right now."

Gates said, "We need to figure out a way to develop some leverage ... and then sit down and talk with them [Iran]. If there is going to be a discussion, then they need something, too. We can't go to a discussion and be completely the demander, with them not feeling that they need anything from us." In yet another venue on Wednesday, Gates amplified, "My personal view would be we ought to look for ways outside of government to open up the channels and get more of a flow of people back and forth ... We ought to increase the flow the other way [of Americans visiting Iran]."

What it adds up to is that the Bush administration realizes that it is left with hardly any choice other than resorting to "Track II" diplomacy with Tehran. The Iranians are no more taking the lame-duck administration in Washington seriously. They know the Bush administration stands widely discredited in the Middle East. They know it is in any case necessary to deal with the new administration in Washington next year. They are shrewd enough to assess that any US exit strategy in Iraq that the incoming US administration formulates, will be critically dependent on Iran's cooperation.

Meanwhile, the axis involving Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah remains intact. Tehran knows it can afford to sit tight for the remaining period of the Bush administration. Of course, it should not do anything rash in the meantime that might provide an alibi to Washington to lash out. Most important, the Iranian regime knows its policy enjoys strong popular support within the country.
Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday that the masses overwhelmingly supported Iran's "fight against arrogant power ... You can find no one in Iran willing to give up nuclear technology".

The Saudis have no answer to the challenge posed by Iran. Sadly, their response is to build a wall to protect Saudi Arabia from subversion from Iraq as the US winds down its troop levels. But the Saudis need to realize the futility of warding off an existential challenge by building bunkers and concrete walls.

The most critical calculation behind Tehran's policy at the present juncture would be that US-Saudi ties have come under unprecedented stress, which in turn, incrementally, weakens Riyadh's leadership role and overall standing in the region. In an insightful dispatch from Riyadh, Karen Elliott House, the Pulitzer Prize-winning diplomatic correspondent and a former publisher of the Wall Street Journal, wrote in the newspaper on Wednesday that the US and Saudi Arabia are finding it "problematic" to steer their relationship, which is already "fraying" at its edges. The core ingredients of the traditional mutually beneficial relationship - a US security blanket in lieu of cheap Saudi oil - are lacking even as the "neighborhood around Saudi Arabia has become much more threatening".

House writes, "Nor can the US protect the [Saudi] regime from its own domestic challenges ... In sum, the mutual needs of the US and Saudi Arabia remain as great as at any time over the past 75 years, but the abilities of both parties to make the partnership mutually productive are diminishing, perhaps irretrievably so. It's difficult to see how this trend can be reversed, regardless who occupies the White House a year from now."

Close to three decades after the Islamic revolution in Iran, Tehran will be keenly watching for signs of Saudi acceptance of the need to accommodate its rising profile as a regional power. But it is too early to tell. Things are in great flux. Lebanon, as ever before, is only one turf where the epic struggle in the region is being played out.

As the Tehran Times commented, "These incidents are not limited to Lebanon. Indeed, a chain of events is unfolding from Gaza to Baghdad's Sadr City to Beirut, with the United States and Israel clearly stirring up the violence. Gaza and Beirut are strategically interconnected because the security of the Zionist regime and the United States directly depends on these three places."

Riyadh is in two minds. The urbane Westernized Saudi foreign minister's uncharacteristic threat to ostracize Shi'ite Iran in the Islamic world on account of its regional policy in Lebanon harks to the past. The Saudi king's native wisdom in inviting an Iranian cleric leader to visit Riyadh at the present critical juncture beckons to the future. The House of Saud is apparently being pulled in different directions.

M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).

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