November 25, 2009
Number 11/09 #07
This Update looks at the state of the P+1 (US, Russia, China, Britain, France. Germany) group’s negotiations with Iran, and especially the apparent de facto rejection by Iran of the major deal on offer – which would take some Iranian uranium out of the country to be enriched for purely civilian use in Russia and France.
First up is Israeli strategic expert Ephraim Kam, who discusses the terms of the uranium deal, and the nature of Iran’s rejection of it. He points out that Iran has effectively demanded changes to the location of the uranium enrichment, the timing of it, and the quantity of uranium involved in such a way as to obviate almost all the benefits that the US and its allies anticipated from the deal. He predicts that, given the negotiating impasse that has currently been reached, a US quest for a new round of sanctions looks the obvious next step in the Iranian nuclear crisis. For Kam’s complete analysis, CLICK HERE. Some reports suggest a six-power deal about an additional IAEA condemnation resolution is now being completed on Iran, as a possible prelude to sanctions, in the wake of the Iranian rejection. Meanwhile, columnist Evelyn Gordon argues that US negotiating policy has helped encourage Iran to say “no” and try and spin out the negotiating process.
Next up, top American Iran scholar Abbas Milani looks in detail at the extent of the rift within Iran revealed by the election fraud in June and its aftermath. Interestingly, he argues that Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now effectively no longer supreme leader, having been partially supplanted by President Ahmadinejad and the head of the Revolutionary Guard. Arguing that regime change is achieveable, Milani ties this issue to the nuclear file, suggesting that a combination of smart diplomacy and smart sanctions can contain the Iranian ability to make mischief as well as strengthen democratising forces in Iran. For this complete argument, CLICK HERE. Michael Ledeen coalates some recent evidence of unreported clashes between the regime and dissidents in Iran. Also, reports say the Iranian regime is cracking down harder on dissidents, while the opposition Green movement in Iran is now calling for US and Western support, especially through sanctions.
Finally, John Hannah of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy looks at a neglected element of international pressure on Iran – Saudi influence over international oil prices. Hannah amasses evidence that Saudi Arabia may now be deliberately using its leverage to keep the international price of oil around US$75 to US$80 per barrel – high enough to protect their own fiscal position, but low enough to harm Iran’s (which requires at least US$90/barrel to balance the budget). Hannah further argues that with the Saudis viewing Iran as an existential threat, they could probably push the price lower, and pressure on Iran higher, with some additional persuasion, and this might be as effective as any sanctions likely to be mounted. For Hannah’s novel discussion and prescription, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Barry Rubin explains why Arab rulers, despite their fear of a nuclear Iran, refuse to discuss their concerns publicly.
Readers may also be interested in:
- The latest International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran hints that Iran likely has other secret nuclear facilities that have not yet come to light.
- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad says the nuclear issue is non-negotiable and the international media is “the lever of international Zionism to dominate the entire world”.
- Some history of the Iranian regime, looking at the role of the US Embassy hostage drama in turning the revolution toward extremism – plus a Wall Street Journal editorial on Iran’s latest hostage-taking efforts.
- American academic Ariel Ilan Roth explains why Israel views an Iranian nuclear weapon with such alarm – even if it is not used. Plus, Israeli historian Benny Morris argues that US President Obama will soon need to decide what to do if Israel decides there is no choice other than a military option.
- Iran has recently been “missile rattling” to deter any Israeli attack.
- Britain’s Channel 4 last week showed a controversial documentary about the supposed power of the “Jewish Lobby” in Britain. Some comments on the program come from academic David Cesarani and author Robin Shepherd. Plus, blogger “Shiraz Socialist” re-evaluates the oft-repeated myth that those who criticise Israel are routinely tagged as “”antisemites.“
- The bizarre situation of law professor and UN critic Dr. Anne Bayefsky, who appears to be being denied access to the UN after criticising aspects of UN behaviour.
INSS Insight No. 141, November 23, 2009
Since early October 2009, the talks between Iran and P5+1 (the five permanent members of the Security Council and Germany) have focused on the proposal for a circular deal: Iran would transfer some 80 percent of the low enriched uranium it has produced thus far to Russia (according to the most recent report from the International Atomic Energy Agency of November 16, Iran has to date produced close to 1,800 kg of low enriched uranium); in turn, Russia would enrich the uranium up to a 20 percent level and move it on to a third country – France, for example – which would process it into nuclear fuel rods for the research reactor in Tehran, which has been in operation since the time of the Shah.
On the face of it, the proposed deal is of limited significance. It only involves the supply of nuclear fuel to a small, dated research reactor serving primarily civilian needs, and affects only part of the enriched uranium in Iran’s possession. It does not involve Iran’s nuclear program in general, and does not at all ban Iran from continuing to enrich uranium any way it wants. It does not affect the development of plutonium at the installations in Arak. Furthermore, it says nothing about the sanctions against Iran, either on the part of the Security Council or bilaterally.
Nonetheless, all sides viewed the deal as having broad significance. The United States and Western states saw the deal as having a double advantage, considering the lack of a better option available at present in stopping Iran’s nuclear program. Should Iran accept the deal, the stores of enriched uranium in its possession would be reduced and the time table for achieving fissile material would be postponed by close to a year. In that sort of time frame it would be possible to conduct negotiations with Iran about its nuclear program under less pressure. The deal could also help to help build trust between the sides. Alternatively, Iran’s rejection of the deal could be instructive regarding its intention of using the enriched uranium in its possession for military purposes, and thus help enlist broad support for instituting severe sanctions. Yet even were a deal achieved, the American administration did not intend to reduce the sanctions on Iran already in place, and it was planning on continuing to work on freezing Iran’s nuclear program.
Iran too saw the deal as being of broad significance. From the outset, Iran presented a positive outlook on the deal and made it understood that in principle it supported it. However, later on in the talks, the Iranians expressed reservations about the contents of the arrangements; contradictory reports on its stance were published that obscured Iran’s position. The reservations expressed by Iran included:
- The place: Iran is not prepared to send its enriched uranium to Russia and then to France. It is demanding that it remain in Iran under the supervision of international observers until it is turned into nuclear fuel. The proposal that the uranium be moved to nations friendly to Iran, such as Turkey, was also rejected by Iran. The proposal that the uranium remain in Iran was rejected by the United States, as well as by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammed el-Baradei.
- The timing: Iran insists on first receiving the nuclear fuel and afterwards moving its enriched uranium to another country, or that that the exchange occur simultaneously. However, el-Baradei made it clear that according to the deal, a year must pass between moving the uranium out of Iran and its receiving the nuclear fuel in order to build trust between the sides.
- The quantity: An Iranian source claimed that Iran would need less nuclear fuel than the amount that was discussed, and would therefore hand over only 22 percent of its enriched uranium, rather than 80 percent.
Iran’s position is apparently affected by a double consideration. On the one hand, the fact that it is not being asked to suspend its uranium enrichment represents an important achievement for it, because it will thus be able to replace the amount of enriched uranium it would have to hand over in less than a year. This deal would also represent recognition of Iran’s right to enrich uranium within its borders, despite the fact that this contravenes Security Council resolutions on the matter. Signing such a deal would bestow a positive image on Iran as cooperating with the international community and would make instituting more sanctions very difficult; in fact, it might even allow for the reduction of sanctions currently in place. Such international legitimacy is very important to the Iranian regime, especially after the internal crisis it has just experienced.
On the other hand, Iran does not trust the United States and the West, and suspects that they would not hand over the nuclear fuel once Iran had agreed to let the enriched uranium out of the country. It apparently also worries that after it hands over its enriched uranium it would be more vulnerable to American pressures, and that the administration means to take advantage of this vulnerability in order to continue in its efforts to shut down the Iranian nuclear program. Moreover, after Ahmadinejad’s initial leaning towards accepting the deal, a wave of criticism by radical Iranians swelled because of his agreeing to let uranium, which had by right been enriched in Iran, out of the country. Even spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei came out against a dialogue with the United States. Reformist circles also joined in the criticism and took advantage of the opportunity to present Ahmadinejad as someone harming Iran’s vital interests.
In light of these considerations, Iran, finding itself in an uncomfortable situation, procrastinated over many weeks in formulating its stance. The administration made it clear that Iran would not be offered another deal and that it would not wait long for Iran to answer. Internal sources claimed the administration would wait until the end of the year for Iran’s response and then determine its next move. Equally importantly, Russia exerted pressure on Iran to accept the deal, and the Russian president added that his country, though opposed to sanctions, could not rule out the possibility of imposing them should there be no progress in the talks. This apparently reflects an agreement between the United States and Russia over the issue of placing further sanctions on Iran should Iran fail to contribute to progress in the talks, although it is unclear whether the two powers have agreed on the severity and nature of such sanctions. Furthermore, the report published on November 16 by the IAEA does not cut Iran any slack and casts doubt on its trustworthiness, both by stating that Iranian reporting to the agency about the new enrichment facility in Qom was inconsistent with the truth and by raising the question of Iran possibly hiding additional covert nuclear facilities.
What emerged from these deliberations was the announcement made on November 18 by Iranian foreign minister Manouchehr Mottaki to the effect that Iran rejects the terms of the deal and is willing to consider it only if the transfer of the enriched uranium and the receipt of the nuclear fuel take place simultaneously – on Iranian soil. Despite the statement made by the French foreign minister – that he views Iran’s announcement negatively though he is interested in continuing to negotiate with Iran – it is hard to imagine that any deal would be made under these conditions. In light of Iran’s unyielding stance, the probability that the American administration would agree to Iran’s terms is low as they obviate the principal advantages the United States saw in the deal to begin with. Based on this assumption, it would seem that the ball is now back in America’s hands and probably try to enlist international support for toughening the sanctions against Iran.
Dr Ephraim Kam is Principal Research Fellow and Deputy Director, Institute for National Security Studies, Tel Aviv University.
World Affairs, Fall 2009
The Iranian people are in a state of suspense as they watch an increasingly oppressive militarist junta and a more democratic regime both struggling to be born. History shows that such moments of turbulent stasis don’t last long. A tipping point is on the way, and prudent policies on the part of the West, particularly the United States, can help determine which way it will fall.
Prudence, in this case, involves understanding some of the factors that lie beneath the surface of the current social and political conflict. The crystal ball for Iran’s future may be cloudy, but certain things have already become clear. Even before the rigged election, the current regime had proved itself incapable of solving chronic economic problems of double-digit inflation and double-digit unemployment (with unemployment among young adults reaching 30 percent), and of creating new jobs for the million or so young men and women who enter the job market each year. A pandemic of corruption and cronyism in the bureaucracy and incessant interference in the private lives and public demeanor of its citizens have collided with the people’s clear desire for personal autonomy and government transparency. The Islamic Republic cannot or will not resolve the conflict between its misogynist laws and the relentless efforts of Iranian women, who have become the most committed advocates of democracy in Iran over the last two decades. No wonder former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, one of the most powerful men in the country, calls Iranian society a “seething volcano of resentment.”
In the election of June 12, that volcano finally erupted. The opposition has made a good case that the officially sanctioned results of the vote exactly reversed the true outcome, and that Mir Hossein Moussavi won the election with almost 24 million votes. Whatever the precise numbers, no more than 20 percent of the 70 million people of Iran can be said to have cast their ballots for the status quo. These stalwarts come from the ranks of the Revolutionary Guards, their families, the Basiji (the gangs-cum-militia who provide the muscle of the regime) and their families, and the relatives of martyrs from the war with Iraq, who receive regular stipends from the regime.
The events of the last three months have even revealed fissures in the foundational rationale of the Islamic Republic. The regime claims to be Velayat-e Fagih, the “Guardianship of Jurists,” but the great bulk of the highest-ranking Shiite clergy, the Ayatollahs, have no role in the government. Many of them—foremost among them Ayatollah Sistani—disagree with the very concept of the “Guardianship” as reinvented by Ayatollah Khomeini. Most of these ayatollahs remain followers of the “Quietist” school of Shiism, which instructs that during the absence of the twelfth Imam—his “major Occultation,” in Shiite parlance—the ayatollahs, as the highest authority of Shiism, should not seize power and attempt to create an “Islamic state.” That privilege is reserved for the missing messiah. Ayatollah Khomeini, by contrast, campaigned for an overhaul of this idea, and called for a seizure of power and the creation of an “Islamic state” as soon as the situation permitted.
The Quietist ayatollahs have either been literally silent on the current crisis, or have openly taken issue with Mr. Khamenei’s authoritarian stance and even sided publicly with those who have protested against it. Perhaps more significantly, however, many of the top ayatollahs inside Iran who bolstered Ayatollah Khomeini’s concept of the state—like Ayatollah Montazeri (under house arrest for more than two decades) and the Ayatollahs Taheri, Sanei, and Amoli (all favorites of Khomeini)—today not only defy Khamenei, but challenge his very fitness for the job of supreme leader (or Vali-Fagih).
As a result, the clerical leadership is in unprecedented disarray. Some of the sturdiest pillars of the regime—people like Rafsanjani, his successor as president Mohammed Khatami, former parliament chairman and recent presidential candidate Mehdi Karubi, and Moussavi, each of whom has at one time headed one of the three branches of government—have created a de facto coalition against the increasingly authoritarian rule of Khameni, the supreme leader, and against the demagoguery of his handpicked president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. This coalition may not agree on every issue, but it is now a matter of consensus among the opposition that June 12 marked the launch of an electoral coup.
Even among the ranks of clergy previously close to the regime, a rift has cracked wide open. The minister of intelligence and four of his deputies were summarily fired by Ahmadinejad, for instance, because they disagreed with the regime’s insistence that Iran’s crisis had been caused by a Western conspiracy, a “color revolution” concocted by the United States and implemented with the help of the British government. Khamenei has tried to distance himself from his own protégé by saying that he only supports “the good side” of Ahmadinejad, but all his efforts seem to be in vain.
It is certain that Khamenei’s days as the supreme leader—he whose words reign as the undisputed law of the land, or Fasl al-Khtab in Shiite theology—have now ended. He may retain the trappings of power, but only as the junior member of a triumvirate, including Ahmadinejad and the commanders of the Revolutionary Guard who staged the electoral coup. Only hours after Khamenei’s speech of reconciliation, Ahmadinejad publicly demanded the harshest punishment for the leaders of the reform movement.
The question yet to be resolved is whether this triumvirate can seal the profound chasm that now divides the establishment. Despite Ahmadinejad’s incessant attacks on him and his family, Rafsanjani could still be chosen to deliver the Friday sermon—an honor bestowed only on the most venerated of holy men. This shows how deeply the fissure runs. While Khamenei and his cohorts praised the recent presidential election as “blessed,” the “freest in the world,” and the “death knell of liberal democracy in the world,” Rafsanjani declared it incurably flawed, and the source of a “crisis of confidence” in the nation. It was, he said, un-Islamic to “ignore people’s votes.”
His opposition was echoed by arguably the most radical of the onetime pillars of the regime—Mehdi Karubi, the other reformist candidate along with Moussavi in the recent election. Karubi’s recently published letter to Rafsanjani demanding an investigation into evidence of the mass rape of men and women in prison caused an uproar in Iran’s politics. Even some in the regime have conceded that prisoners have been raped and abused by their interrogators; stories about secret detention centers where prisoners simply “disappear” have become commonplace.
Khamenei has not been silent in these days and weeks. On July 20, he loosed a well-orchestrated and dramatic attack on those who would defy him. His speech, echoed by his mouthpiece, a daily paper called Kayhan, threatened Rafsanjani, Khatami, and the rest of the opposition with a “storm” that would engulf them. Meanwhile, commanders of the Republican Guard were making ominous threats of their own. In recent weeks, their magazine Sobhe-Sadeq (“True Morning”) openly called for the arrest of Moussavi, Karubi, and Khatami on charges of treason. The show trial of one hundred leaders of the opposition, and their forced confessions to absurd crimes—exactly reminiscent of the Moscow trials of the 1930s—has offered the latest preview of things to come.
Still, the opposition has shown no sign of backing down. The many ongoing acts of resistance, such as the continued publication of some opposition papers, even those whose editors languish in prison, reveal the complexity of the current political landscape and the tenacity and prestige of the reformers. Khamenei controls the military and the police, but the opposition enjoys the support of the Iranian people. Every night, shouts of “Death to the dictator!” ring out in the streets of Tehran. Nearly all of Iran’s private sector has also come down squarely in the camp of the opposition.
The valor and dignity of millions of peaceful demonstrators in Tehran and other cities protesting the rigged election have shaken the politics of the Iranian diaspora as well. In spite of years of vivid brutality by the regime, the large Iranian diaspora has been, until recently, surprisingly quiescent. Now, all across the United States, Australia, Canada, and Europe, groups of concerned Iranians have gathered to further the cause of democracy in Iran. (A Green Coordination Committee is forming, and has already formalized relations with democrats of Russia, organized by Garry Kasparov.) The activities of these expatriates will not only affect facts on the ground in Iran but also shape the dialogue in America and Europe about realities inside Iran.
Yet the regime enjoys some international support as well, from European companies like Nokia Siemens Networks and, more crucially, from foreign governments. China and Russia, both eager to cement their footholds in Iran and to confront and curtail U.S. power in the region, and India, with its increasingly crucial role in many facets of Iran’s economy, have all assisted the regime in fortifying its oppressive apparatus at home. A new member of this alliance is Venezuela. Each week brings fresh reports of ever closer ties of “friendship” and “anti-imperialist” struggle between the Iranian despots and their Venezuelan counterparts.
These same forces that now come to Ahmadinejad’s defense have been responsible for delaying and diluting U.N. resolutions concerning the regime’s nuclear program. That we now hear, in Friday sermons, spontaneous shouts of “Death to Russia” and “Death to China,” instead of the usual orchestrated shouts of “Death to America,” suggests the extent of public disgust with the regime’s international supporters.
The dangerous ebb and flow of politics inside Iran, the growing voice of the Iranian diaspora, and Ahmadinejad’s desperate outreach to governments willing to bless his rule have further confounded the new American administration’s effort to devise a coherent Iran policy. In recent years, there have been two tendencies, both flawed in my view, that have dominated Washington’s debate about Iran. Scholars and experts functioning as apologists for the current government in Tehran, as well as a few companies eager to do business in Iran, have claimed that the Ahmadinejad–Khameni regime is resolute and invulnerable, and its democratic opponents fitful and lacking in critical mass. The regime is here to stay, they say; the United States must make a “grand bargain” with it. Forgo any attempt at regime change, offer the current government all the security guarantees that it demands, and, in return, expect that it will forfeit its atomic ambitions.
This line of reasoning has several flaws. It overestimates the regime’s strength and overlooks its profound strategic vulnerabilities, which are today more pronounced and evident than ever before. Moreover, the policy counts on the regime to keep its word. Such a policy ignores the fact that the hardline clerics who rule Iran are self-proclaimed believers in the Shiite doctrine of Tagiye—lying to infidels. Can a regime that embraces such a theological concept really be trusted? A “grand bargain” may be a good deal for the clerical regime and for those convinced that the business of America is business. But it is a bad bargain for U.S. foreign policy as a whole. Any hint that America has suspended its commitment to human rights and democracy in Iran amounts to a betrayal of those forces battling for their liberty on the streets of Tehran.
It must be said that those in Israel and the West who justifiably worry about a nuclear Iran and advocate a policy of externally led “regime change” are also wrong. These voices argue that military strikes against Iranian nuclear sites would prod an already dissatisfied Iranian population into a massive uprising against the regime. In reality, the forces now controlling Iran would be immeasurably strengthened by an American or (especially) Israeli attack.
The way to thwart this regime is not through smart bombs, but smart diplomacy and smart sanctions that will contain the Islamic Republic’s ability to engage in mischief around the world, all the while sending a positive message to the democratic forces of Iran. This policy ought to have as its ultimate end helping Iran become a democratic polity—and acknowledge that only the Iranian people can bring this result about. Based on what we know of Iranian history and human psychology, a military attack will prompt the now divided Iranian people to rally around the flag, and replace opposition to the regime with a patriotism that strengthens it.
The United States and other democracies around the world can help the cause of democracy in Iran by withholding recognition of the Ahmadinejad government. Advocates of “engagement” should concede that it is impossible to engage with a country unless you know who rules it and with what degree of legitimacy. Clearly Ahmadinejad’s highly compromised condition makes him an ever less plausible interlocutor. The next few months will surely provide a clue as to who genuinely rules Iran and how they intend to conduct themselves on the international scene. When engagement comes, its goal should be to boost the people changing Iran from within, not to return them to their silence.
Abbas Milani is the Moghadam Director of Iranian Studies at Stanford University. His latest book is Eminent Persians: The Men and Women Who Made Modern Iran, 1941−1979 (Syracuse University Press, 2009).
By John Hannah
ForeignPolicy.com 11/13/2009 – 2:07pm
Are the Saudis prepared to constrain oil prices to weaken Iran? It’s an intriguing possibility that, if implemented, could have major implications for U.S.-led efforts to curb the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.
In no small part because of a weakening dollar, oil prices have risen for most of the past year from a low of close to $30 per barrel to around $82 per barrel last week. But since then, prices have been slowly sliding back, dipping below $77 yesterday. Most media attributed Thursday’s decline to a report that U.S. oil inventories had increased higher than expected, and that U.S. consumers continued to reduce energy use in a still sluggish economy. No doubt true. But other factors have been at play as well.
Specifically, the near-record stockpiles of oil that currently exist not only in the United States, but across the developed world, have been made possible by the fact that OPEC has been increasing output at the fastest pace in two years. Earlier this week, Bloomberg reported that the cartel has boosted production more than a million barrels a day since March — despite the worst global recession since World War II. OPEC’s largest producer, the Saudis, have helped lead the way, increasing exports four out of the past six months. Saudi output has increased almost 300,000 barrels per day since earlier this year. Overall OPEC production reached its highest level in 10 months in October.
The Saudis have said that $75 per barrel is an appropriate target price. This week, a Saudi government advisor told the press that, at over $80 per barrel, prices had reached “the high end of our range” and any further rise could prompt the Kingdom to further tap its unused capacity — which currently stands at approximately 4 million barrels a day.
The Saudis have publicly explained their effort to moderate prices as a function of their desire to protect a fragile global economy. But it’s hard not to notice that the Saudi strategy also has the side benefit of pinching Iran. Specifically, while the Saudis in 2009 require an average oil price of about $51 a barrel to cover their budget, Iran needs an average price in excess of $90. If the price holds steady at the Saudi-designated range of $70-$80 for the rest of this year, the Saudi treasury could come in with a slight surplus. The Iranians, by contrast, have reportedly been forced to consider phasing out food and energy subsidies in an attempt to battle their looming fiscal problems.
Of course, reducing subsidies on essential commodities is almost always political dynamite — especially in a place like Iran, where the economy is already in a shambles, and where millions of Iranians have taken to the streets since the fraudulent June 12 elections to make known their hatred of the current regime. The fact is that the Islamic Republic is desperate for increased cash flow that could be used to buy off as many of its disaffected citizens as possible and cover up its gross economic mismanagement. Saudi determination to limit any price spike — for whatever reason — is clearly an impediment.
With daily exports in the range of 2.5 million barrels per day, Iran stands to lose about $900 million annually from every one dollar drop in the price of oil. With excess capacity of 4 million barrels per day, the Saudis are clearly in position to go much farther than they have to date in squeezing Iran if they so choose. An aggressive Saudi effort to depress oil prices well below the current $75 target could prove extremely harmful to Iran’s already reeling economy and tumultuous political situation. Almost certainly, such an effort could inflict as much pain on the Iranian regime as many of the sanctions currently being discussed by the United States and its international partners — and, given Russian and Chinese reluctance to get tough with Iran, would almost certainly be quicker and easier to implement.
Would the Saudis really be prepared to play hardball with Iran in this way? In the past, the answer has usually been no. Taking big risks to offend more powerful neighbors has generally not been the Saudi way. A transparent effort to inflict major damage on the Iranian economy would certainly incur the Islamic Republic’s wrath. The Saudis no doubt recall that a similar charge about depressing oil prices led Saddam Hussein to invade Kuwait in 1990. Even if an Iranian military attack is not likely in the cards, the Saudis have good reason to fear the kind of mischief Iran could cause within the Kingdom — especially among the large, potentially restive Shiite population that is concentrated in its oil-rich Eastern Province.
That said, there’s no doubt that Saudi King Abdullah views Iran — and the near-term prospect of its acquiring nuclear weapons — as nothing short of an existential threat to the House of Saud and its preeminent position in the Islamic world. There’s at least some chance that he may be prepared to consider doing things now that in the past would have been unthinkable in order to prevent his worst nightmare from coming to pass — especially if he’s provided sufficient support, encouragement and guarantees from the United States and our major European allies.
In this regard, the current crisis in Yemen, in which Saudi forces have been drawn into combat on their southern border against Iranian-backed Shiite rebels, has only upped the ante. As with almost everything Iran does, Abdullah no doubt perceives the Islamic Republic’s involvement in Yemen as the latest maneuver in a grand strategy whose ultimate target is the Kingdom itself and control of the Islamic holy sites of Mecca and Medina.
The big question is how far the Saudis are willing to go in drawing on their oil power to really do something about it — something, that is, that actually stands a chance of either 1) compelling the Iranian regime to fundamentally re-calculate its nuclear ambitions, or 2) speeding the regime’s unraveling at the hands of its already seething population. Of course, encouraging the Saudis to use oil as a political weapon is not without its downside risks; after all, the United States was on the receiving end of just such a Saudi gambit during the oil embargo that followed the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. But given the enormity of the stakes now at play vis a vis Iran — both for the Kingdom and for the United States — it’s clearly an option that at least deserves serious consideration. One hopes that it’s already the subject of intense consultations between Washington and Riyadh, preferably at the highest levels. Should the United States conclude that the potential benefits outweigh the risks, it will need to muster every instrument at its disposal to steel the Saudi king to take unprecedented measures to face down Iran’s unprecedented challenge.