The Obama administration appears surprised by the sudden eruption of Saudi-Iranian hostility after the Saudi government executed Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and the Iranians responded by organizing/sponsoring/approving an attack on the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. Both sides have walked the rhetoric back just a bit in the last day or two.
The U.S. administration remonstrated both sides, but its most public worry appears to be that events would get in the way of brokering a peace agreement in Syria. State Department Spokesman John Kirby said, “What we want to see is tensions caused by these executions reduced, diplomatic relations restored, so that the leadership in the region can focus on other pressing issues… We have consistently urged everyone to deescalate tensions.”
“The secretary is very concerned with the direction this thing is going,” said another one senior official. “It’s very unsettling to him that so many nations are choosing not to engage. With so much turmoil in the region, the last thing we need is for people not to be having conversations.”
A former Obama White House Middle East adviser told Al-Monitor. “To the degree that people hopefully wanted to see the Vienna process succeed, it required that Iran and Saudi Arabia be willing to sit at the same table and talk about a cease-fire and political process… Our approach to the region has depended on a Saudi-Iran modus vivendi. That is all blown out of the water, at least for now.”
It is “very unclear why the Saudis decided to do this now,” said another former Obama administration Middle East official. “A complete puzzle.”
No, it isn’t.
This is what happens when a government — namely the United States government — mistakes talk for action — when the Secretary of State equates sitting at a fancy table in Vienna with the willingness of the parties to engage in actual give and take diplomacy. When Americans believe countries will simply cede their national or societal interests, as they understand them, just because we want it.
Saudi-Iranian tension is not an impediment to resolving the Syrian civil war.
The Syrian civil war is a manifestation of Saudi-Iranian differences.
This is the reality of modern Saudi-Iranian relations since the Islamic Republic came to power in 1979. Its first manifestation was the Iran-Iraq war that killed more than a million people. It is what drives the arming and funding of both Sunni and Shiite jihadists from Uighurs in China to Bedouins in Sinai to Boko Haram in Nigeria to Libya to Syria to Iraq to Mali to Chechnya and Dagestan to Yemen. It is the 21st century incarnation of a 7th century war.
Secretary Kerry wants them to have a conversation. They want to win. He wants them to focus on the misery of Syria and the threat of ISIS. They want to win. He wants them to be civilized. They want to win.
The Obama administration has had as its fundamental operating principle the removal of American forces from the Middle East, replaced by management of the region by regional players. But from the Romans through the Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ottomans, British, and French this region never, ever ruled itself through nation-states. To think it would/could do so now is foolish at best.
The U.S. is not a traditional colonial or occupying power. Our primary interest is in the free movement of goods and people across the seas, including oil, but without necessarily managing the internal affairs of other people; at least not much. But the regional players knew that if they took action that severely threatened U.S. interests, we would defend those, and generally defend our regional friends.
The Saudis wanted an assurance of defense against Iran and were furious over the JCPOA in part because it didn’t deal with non-nuclear issues. Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal told an interviewer:
There is awareness… of this need to look at it not just from the nuclear issue but also in terms of Iran’s conduct in the area. (Emphasis added) And you know, we’re the ones who live there; we’re the ones who suffer from Iran’s politics and policies. If you look at the whole range of Iranian interference, you look at Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Bahrain, Yemen, there’s a whole host of problems for us. With Iran being the initiator and the instigator and the inciter of instability and negative issues in the area.
The U.S. was unable to secure even its own national interests in the nuclear negotiation — four Americans remained in Iranian prison and two more were arrested in the weeks following (one was actually Lebanese, but the Iranians thought he was American). The Iranian parliament approved the nuclear deal in October, but the language they voted on was not the same as the U.S. version of the agreement. Also in October, the Iranians showed off a new missile, which according to U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, can carry a nuclear weapon. In December, an Iranian rocket came within 1,500 meters of theUSS Harry S. Truman sailing in international waters in the Straits of Hormuz. At the end of the year, the Iranians announced that any strengthening of U.S. visa security (the purview of Congress) would be considered a violation of U.S. obligationsunder the nuclear deal. And all the time, Iranian forces were on the ground fighting in Syria.
In none of these cases, did the U.S. make more than a token protest, and in fact, invited Iran to sit at the Vienna “peace table.”
The Saudis fear a future without an American security umbrella, particularly as Iran rises to fill the American void. But it is hard (impossible?) to feel sorry for them. They created radical Sunni jihad (but a surprising amount of its financial and logistical support comes from Iran) and now they find it counterproductive. They opened a war against Iranian-supported Houthis in Yemen and now they can neither win it nor end it. They are struggling with a budget crisis they created by flooding the market. They are struggling with what appears to be the end of the Middle East oil payoff era mainly because Americans got really tired of paying the price in blood and treasure of keeping the pipelines open for people whose societal and political life is anathema. The Saudis are struggling with a population that has come late — but come — to an understanding that women are people and kings are not God.
Finally, understanding the U.S. will not help them, the Saudis picked up the gantlet the Iranians threw down. This is not the first brush in the war and it won’t be the last.