Michael Weiss

Saudi Moves

After Obama’s Iran deal, Riyadh’s begun waging its own charm offensive – and it’s working

Prince Nayef, the new Saudi point-man on Syria.

That the United States has had no credible Syria policy for three years because President Obama has been preoccupied by striking an accommodation with Iran on its nuclear weapons program has almost, but not quite, reached the level of conventional wisdom, whatever protestations the administration has made to the contrary.  A somewhat more contentious corollary of this argument is that Obama is actually doing more than just bartering over the delay of Iran’s nuclear breakout capacity – he is experimenting with American détente or rapprochement with the Islamic Republic, which would easily be the foreign policy legacy of his presidency, tantamount to Nixon opening up China. If it worked.


This grander theory has been advanced by my colleague Tony Badran and by the Brookings Institution’s Michael Doran; it has also been floated as a likely (hazardous) perception of the president’s move to lessen sanctions on Iran by Henry Kissinger and George Schultz. The evidence substantiating it has even come in the form of subtle admissions made by Obama himself in interviews with what I’m sure were carefully selected journalists, David Remnick and Jeffrey Goldberg.


But a less explored aspect of this what-if question has been the anxiety with which the very possibility of a US-Iranian realignment has been registered by America’s Gulf allies, the biggest and most influential of them in particular. The anxiety reads something like this: Almost a decade and a half on from 9/11 and two long and unpopular wars in the Middle East, Washington has tired of its postwar partnership with Saudi Arabia. Might the US therefore be in the early stages of not just engaging the epicenter of Shia Islam but of making it the new, preferred guarantor or subcontractor on regional “stability”?


To “get Iran to behave in a more responsible fashion,” as Obama told Remnick a few months ago, would be the theoretical short-term gain of bringing the mullahs in from the cold. But the practical long-term effect could well be trading Riyadh for Tehran as America’s regional client, or at least making it competitive for the role. 


If you listen closely, you will hear this very idea being celebrated in Washington circles as sensible and long overdue, and not just by the likes of Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett. The increasingly influential online publication Al-Monitor, which markets the Revolutionary Guard and the Syrian mukhabarat to English-speaking audiences, has made it something of an editorial mission statement. Ryan Crocker, the serially employed US diplomat who not long ago turned down Obama’s offer of continued public service – this time as the State Department’s lead policy planner on Syria – has more or less fantasized openly about the CIA and the Revolutionary Guard running joint operations, and this in the definitive profile written of Machiavellian IRGC commander Qassem Suleimani, no less. Even Obama has never quite described the Saudis in terms he’s fond of applying to himself: “[I]f you look at Iranian behavior,” he told Goldberg, “they are strategic, and they’re not impulsive. They have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits.” (Overseeing the slaughter of Sunnis and underwriting both Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda in the Levant is a kind of non-impulsive, cost-benefit strategy, I suppose.)


The perception that a swapping of US client states is being entertained seems to have had a discernible impact on Saudi Arabia’s decision-making of late. Ironically, if any realignment stands a chance of success, it will be between Washington and Riyadh, which has grown smarter in its method with dealing with the current administration.


The first indication that a form of couple’s therapy had been initiated by the kingdom came in mid-February when Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Gulf official best acquainted with the United States, and the one most exasperated by its current course in the Middle East, was replaced by Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef as the Saudi point-man on Syria. Bandar’s problem was that he was seen as too gung-ho for regime change in Damascus and too willing to employ unsavory Islamist rebels to make that a reality. John Kerry called him “the problem” in Riyadh’s approach to Syria. Other US officials described him as “hot-headed” and “erratic” (as against Iran’s cool-headed pragmatism, no doubt.) Prince Mohammed, on the other hand, gets on well with the Secretary of State and with CIA Director John Brennan. He met with and impressed national security advisor Susan Rice last month. He has also “won praise in Washington for his counterterror work against al Qaeda in Yemen and elsewhere,” as the Wall Street Journal reported on Feb. 19, and is thus amenable to a White House which values the fight against Al-Qaeda in Syria as the only one worth waging. All Prince Mohammed lacks is a Twitter account.


While the focus of that Journal article was on how this royal personnel reshuffle augured a more “cautious” or “diplomatic” Saudi policy, there also came the interesting disclosure that it was Prince Mohammed who was best placed to persuade the United States to allow surface-to-air missiles to reach designated rebel groups in Syria. The Saudis are not, it seems, all that quiescent or revisionist when it comes to hitting Assad where it hurts. Having a counterterrorism guru in charge of overseeing the distribution of man-portable air defense systems (MANPADs) has lowered the volume on US objections that these devices will fall into the hands of extremists. The missile systems are now sitting in warehouses in Turkey and Jordan. And the Saudis reiterated again to members of the US Senate last week that they were going forward with sending them into Syria.


New, lighter arms have begun to trickle again in conjunction with rebel plans to push into southern Damascus and reclaim terrain lost by them in the months since the Ghouta chemical weapons attack. The “southern offensive,” which began as an operation known evocatively as Geneva Horan, aims to secure Quneitra, Suweida, and Deraa as a rebel buffer zone free of both regime forces and jihadists. The Saudis are shrewdly selling this plan to Obama, now said to be groping for new “options” after the predictable failure of Geneva II, as a way of facilitating his favored political solution through their favored military means. 


Then last week came the blacklisting. The Saudi Interior Ministry designated three groups as terrorist entities: Jabhat al-Nusra, ISIS, and the Muslim Brotherhood. It further announced that it intends to prosecute any national who supports any of them “financially or morally” or who advocates on their behalf through news or social media. The Ministry also banned the recruitment or proselytization of foreign fighters “in conflict zones in other countries” (with one clearly in mind) and gave Saudi muhajireen 15 days to return home or be tossed into the clink where, in accordance with King Abdullah’s edict in February, they could remain for 20 years. This move was undertaken with the full awareness that both Iran and Syria have been furiously propagandizing themselves as regional antagonists of Salafi-jihadism, and allies-in-waiting in America’s global war on terror. 


As NOW has observed, the ban probably won’t affect the less threatening Syrian and Lebanese incarnations of the Brotherhood, with which the Saudis still deal. But the State Department, no doubt happy to see Nusra and ISIS proscribed, has yet to adopt a strenuously fault-finding attitude about the addition of the entire movement to a terrorism list; it just disagrees. Why? The Brotherhood remains a four-letter word in Foggy Bottom because of its disastrous management of Egypt before the Sisi coup, which Saudi Arabia backs financially and morally and which the United States avoids talking about whenever possible. And the Islamist movement’s main patron in the Gulf happens to be a joint US-Saudi bête noire


Indeed, the growing isolation and censure of Qatar is an area of congruence between Washington and Riyadh, even if the former does not, because it cannot, say so publicly. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates last week recalled their ambassadors from Doha in protest of Qatar’s “interference in their internal affairs.” What Prince Bandar once witheringly termed “only 300 people and a television channel” has now become an international security threat to the Gulf Cooperation Council – and to the United States. 


As Jeffrey Goldberg reported on March 12, the same countries that pulled their envoys from Doha also sent their foreign ministers to Kuwait last month to berate Qatar’s emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hama al-Thani for sponsoring a host of regional and cross-sectarian nasties that include the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hamas in Gaza, Hamas’ Brotherhood kin in Egypt, and Nusra in Syria. Much of this meeting, I’m told by another source, centered on the noxious role played by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the sinister Al Jazeera cleric whom the Saudis believe (quite rightly), speaks with Qatari state sanction. Sheikh Tamim denied it all, even against hard evidence proffered by the foreign ministers.


Qatar, as it happens, has been teaming up with Iran outside of Yemen. It’s helped arrange for Hamas’s renewed financing by Tehran, financing that had been cancelled two years ago after the Syria uprising pitted the jihadist group against its hosts in Damascus. Since then, and until recently, Hamas had been entirely reliant on Qatari and Turkish subsidies. (Its reconciliation with Iran evidently took place through two meetings, one in Ankara, the other in Doha.) A stronger, wealthier Hamas will certainly prove an obstacle to John Kerry’s pursued peace plan between Israel and the Saudi-backed Palestinian Authority in Ramallah.


You’ll have noticed that a consignment of M-302 surface-to-surface missiles was interdicted on March 5 by Israeli naval commandos in the Red Sea, off the coast of Sudan. The missiles were intended for Hamas, but the circuitous route they took to get to Gaza merits scrutiny. They flew from Damascus to Tehran to Bandar Abbas, and then sailed to Umm Qasr and onto Port Sudan. It won’t have escaped King Abdullah’s or Prince Mohammed’s attention that high-tech weapons intended for a rival faction to the PA had to move from Syria to Iran to Iraq before coming close to their intended recipients. Bashar’s not just exporting hardware to Hezbollah next door; he’s returned to the status quo ante, and all this while the mullahs are trying to be chums with Kerry’s boss.


For months now, there have been rumors that a US-Iranian rapprochement might prompt a quiet Saudi-Israeli one. (Again, even Obama himself has indicated that two historical foes uniting out of mutual hatred for his statecraft is at least a step in the right direction for Middle East harmony.) The Saudis tipped off the Israelis about America’s secretive conclaves with the Iranians in Oman, and everyone is familiar with what Riyadh’s private attitude would be if IAF jets took off tomorrow for Natanz or Qom. But notice the absence of news items suggesting that the IDF or Israeli intelligence have got a problem with running MANPADs to Syrian rebels.


The Saudis think strategically, and they have their interests to pursue, too. In November, they were refusing a seat at the UN Security Council in disgust at US policies in the Middle East. Now, they’re making the case that arming their clients in Syria will not only batter Assad into a compromise and contain the proliferation of Al-Qaeda, but that doing so will have the added benefit of robbing state-sponsored terrorists of a crucial transport nexus, in addition to improving the conditions for other forms of ambitious American deal-making in the region. This may not be a “charm offensive” in the Rouhani-sense, but it’s a case. The question now becomes: What will Iran’s counteroffer look like?

Prince Nayef, the new Saudi point-man on Syria. (AFP photo)

"The perception that a swapping of US client states is being entertained seems to have had a discernible impact on Saudi Arabia’s decision-making of late."

  • abuhamza

    Are we really talking about a reshuffling of Islamic ideas,suni shia. Which one of them will suit Americas policies,or better yet,which one will suit Israelis policy.

    March 16, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Bottom line: Obama's policy is bearing a lot more fruit than his critics on Syria had even begun contemplating. Saudi Arabia finally taking some initiative, a rapprochement with Israel bodes extremely well for the Middle East problem, a reduction of angst vis-a-vis Iran, etc. etc. etc. Add to this slew the fact that neither side in the Syrian crisis really poses any serious danger on the long term to anyone, regionally or internationally, and what you get is a very successful brand new US policy that might in fact break through long simmering issues in the region. Kudos to President Obama when Michael Weiss is praising his policy, after months of incitement to war and to a US involvement in Syria.

    March 15, 2014