October 25, 2013
Number 10/13 #07
This Update deals with some extraordinary moves from the usually diplomatically careful Saudi Arabians, turning down a UN Security Council seat in what Riyadh made clear is mainly a show of anger directed at US Middle East policy, as well as at UN impotence, and also scaling back intelligence cooperation with the US.
Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute offers background, analysis, and policy advice on the Saudi show of temper. Henderson makes clear that the anger behind the Saudi move – which could only have been decided on by the 90-year-old King Abdullah – is the culmination of long-standing concerns over US handling of the Arab Spring followed by alarm over the US failure to enforce its chemical weapons red line in Syria, and recent efforts to negotiate an agreement with Iran. In policy terms, Henderson recommends a calm reaction in Washington and immediate US efforts to dispatch a high-level team to hear Saudi concerns, but also notes that the Saudi moves are counter-productive and it should be possible to get Riyadh to reverse course. For his analysis in full, CLICK HERE. More on the details of Saudi anger at the US from American political columnist Benny Avni.
Next up is American thinktank analyst Cliff May, who offers a reluctantly sympathetic discussion of the concerns expressed by the Saudis, especially vis-a-vis Iran. He notes Saudi concerns about the conciliatory US and Western rhetoric toward Iran appearing in the wake of the latest Geneva meeting on the nuclear program, and offers some history on Iran designed to suggest the Saudis have good reason to be sceptical that a deal is in the making that will stop Iran’s nuclear program and also prevent Teheran trying to dominate the Persian Gulf region. He also explores how what the Saudis see as the UN/US failure in Syria plays out in the calculus about Iran, and offers some suggestions about how the Iranian negotiations can be better handled. For all the details of his argument, CLICK HERE. More on the state of the Saudi-America relationship from Michael Totten from World Affairs, Colum Lynch of Foreign Policy and Walter Russell Mead of the National Interest.
Finally, on a different topic, prize-winning Israeli Palestinian Affairs journalist Shlomi Eldar analyses the difficult situation of Hamas’ rulers in Gaza in explaining the context of a very bellicose speech given last weekend by Hamas’ Gaza leader Ismail Haniyeh. Elder notes that Hamas’ Gaza enclave has never been more isolated and vulnerable – not only without external patrons such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, but with the closure of most of the Gaza smuggling tunnels into Sinai, now almost completely dependent on Israel to allow in basic necessities for the Strip’s residents. Elder diagnoses that only Hamas entrenched and strange sense of honour – which mandates “roaring like a lion” to conceal weakness – can explain Haniyeh’s apparently self-destructive calls for a new Intifada and renewed terrorist violence. For all of Elder’s knowledgeable discussion, CLICK HERE. More on Haniyeh’s speech and its implication from Israeli academic Reuven Berko.
Readers may also be interested in:
- The Wall Street Journal‘s editorial on the Saudi moves. Plus, British write Hugo Rifkind takes on the hypocrisy of the Saudi’s complaining about the “violation of rights” in their UN snit.
- A good article on the history and current state of the Turkish-Kurdish conflict. Plus, signs Turkey’s Jewish community may be starting to leave the country.
- A good New York Times report on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which have been continuing under the world’s radar, and indeed have recently accelerated.
- An enlightening New York Times report on the White House decision-making processes over Syria.
- Israeli columnist Evelyn Gordon discusses how Dubai’s determination to avoid all public mention of Israel at a swim meet they were hosting inconvenienced everyone involved.
- Isi Leibler writes again about the controversies over accountability in the wake of the corruption revealed at the Holocaust Claims Conference.
October 23, 2013
The kingdom’s rejection of a Security Council seat has fueled predictions of a major and perhaps rapid shift in bilateral relations.
Saudi Arabia’s abrupt October 17 decision to refuse a seat on the UN Security Council — an unprecedented occurrence — has generated international bewilderment and concern about the mechanics of the kingdom’s foreign policy. The sense of crisis was increased by reports on October 22 that Saudi intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan had warned European diplomats of a potential “major shift” in relations with the United States, due primarily to Washington’s perceived inaction on Syria and overtures to Iran. Yet the seriousness of such threats is uncertain, and timely U.S. diplomatic outreach may help defuse the situation.
Crises have occurred before in the longstanding U.S.-Saudi relationship, such as Riyadh’s leadership of the 1973 Arab oil embargo in protest of U.S. support for Israel, and the involvement of so many Saudi hijackers in the September 11 attacks. The latest spike in tensions stems from a number of issues, however.
From the Saudi perspective, the Arab uprisings that swept the region over the past three years have traded stability for chaos. That is why Riyadh gave ousted Tunisian leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali asylum and chastised Washington for its sudden withdrawal of support for Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak in 2011. And when the Muslim Brotherhood government in Cairo was overthrown this June, Riyadh rejoiced and promptly heaped financial support on the new military-backed administration, ignoring Washington’s less favorable view of the change.
Parallel to these events, the Saudis have grown increasingly wary of U.S. policy on Syria and Iran. Riyadh has been frustrated at President Obama’s decision to back away from a punitive military strike on Syria after Bashar al-Assad’s regime used chemical weapons against his own people. As for Iran, the kingdom is more concerned than ever about the regime’s efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability, and it doubts Washington’s promises to use force if necessary to prevent that outcome. Even if U.S.-led nuclear talks with Iran succeed, Riyadh is worried that they will have the consequence (intended or not) of casting Iran as the hegemonic power in the Persian Gulf. Despite these anxieties, the kingdom has been a crucial partner in U.S. policy toward Iran, expanding its own oil production in order to negate any deleterious global economic effects stemming from heightened sanctions (e.g., potential supply shortfalls caused by forced cutbacks in Iranian oil exports).
Against this backdrop, the Saudi moves of the past several days were completely unexpected, though Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal’s refusal to speak to the UN General Assembly on October 1 may have provided an early clue. At the time, one Reuters report described the prince’s decision as “an unprecedented statement of discontent” by a government that “usually expresses diplomatic concerns only in private.” The story also quoted an unidentified diplomat as saying that “the Saudi decision…reflects the kingdom’s dissatisfaction with the position of the UN on Arab and Islamic issues, particularly the issue of Palestine that the UN has not been able to solve in more than 60 years, as well as the Syrian crisis.”
The Foreign Ministry used similar language in an October 18 communique following the U-turn on the UN seat, criticizing the Security Council’s “double standards,” its lack of progress on Palestine, and its failure to eliminate weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The statement also denounced the use of chemical weapons by the “ruling regime” in Syria “while the world stands idly [by].”
Such language is typical of past Foreign Ministry statements about regional problems and, more important, reflects the reported views of King Abdullah himself. Only the Saudi monarch could have made such an abrupt decision on the Security Council seat — an apparent impetuousness that was in line with his reputation for straight-talking and, perhaps, his natural cantankerousness as a ninety-year-old ruler.
Although these statements were directed at the UN, the true target of the kingdom’s frustration is the United States. As Prince Bandar reportedly put it, turning down the council seat “is a message for the U.S., not the U.N.”
According to yesterday’s reports by the Wall Street Journal and Reuters — both of which quoted unidentified European diplomats briefed by Prince Bandar — Saudi Arabia will no longer coordinate with Washington on the arming and training of Sunni rebel groups in Syria. This suggests that Riyadh will supply more advanced weapons and be even less restrained in supporting radical jihadist groups whose views are inimical to the United States.
In addition, the kingdom reportedly does not want to remain “dependent” on Washington, and it could adopt policies that affect “arms purchases and oil sales” (though no details were given on these matters). The Reuters story also noted Prince Bandar’s disappointment that Washington had failed to back the Saudis in supporting Bahrain’s 2011 crackdown on antigovernment protestors. And the Wall Street Journal quoted him as saying the kingdom would work more closely with France and Jordan instead.
How these sentiments translate into actual policy remains to be seen, but Saudi diplomacy with other governments has been relatively vigorous over the past two weeks. On October 9, King Abdullah welcomed Egyptian interim president Adly Mansour to the Red Sea port of Jeddah; the French defense minister visited the same day. And on October 21, he hosted a joint meeting with King Abdullah of Jordan and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed al-Nahyan of Abu Dhabi, which shares Riyadh’s hatred of the Muslim Brotherhood and suspicions of Iran. Prince Bandar attended the latter meeting, suggesting that the conversation focused on Syria and support for anti-Assad fighters being trained in Jordan.
KEY SAUDI PLAYERS
Given the Saudi monarch’s age and relative infirmity, one could rightfully question his actual determination to alter the kingdom’s foreign policy and loosen ties with Washington. All of his key advisors know the United States very well, but they are probably just as exasperated by U.S. policy as he is. Currently, this inner circle includes:
- Prince Saud al-Faisal: The long-serving, Princeton-educated foreign minister is very close to the king, but his role is limited due to medical problems.
- Prince Bandar bin Sultan: The intelligence chief and former U.S.-trained pilot served as ambassador in Washington for twenty-two years; he has maintained influence by demonstrating competence, but the king does not fully trust him.
- Prince Mitab bin Abdullah: Head of the Saudi Arabian National Guard and the king’s eldest son.
- Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz: The second deputy prime minister (i.e., crown prince-in-waiting) and former F-15 pilot who also served briefly as intelligence chief.
- Prince Muhammad bin Nayef: The minister of interior (effectively homeland security) who is judged very capable by his American interlocutors. Sometimes considered a future king, but currently worn down from dealing with Shiite unrest in the oil-rich Eastern Province.
- Prince Faisal bin Abdullah bin Muhammad: Minister of education, married to the king’s daughter Adela.
- Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah: Deputy foreign minister, son to the king, and former point man on Syria policy.
- Khaled al-Tuwaijri: Chief of the king’s court, who discerns and relays the king’s decisions. Although not a royal, he is a crucial player who has earned the nickname “King Khaled.”
- Salman bin Abdulaziz: Despite his high public profile, the crown prince and notional defense minister is not a significant player because he is increasingly senile.
RECOMMENDATIONS FOR U.S. POLICY
Thus far, U.S. officials have reacted to the Security Council incident equanimously, with Secretary of State John Kerry noting that Washington continues to work closely with Saudi Arabia on a range of issues, including Syria. But the United States finds itself without an ambassador in Riyadh at this potentially crucial juncture. Ambassador James Smith, a political appointee, has just returned home after his four-year term, and a new envoy is yet to be named. Although previous bilateral dissonance has been repaired relatively easily, the latest incidents are unusually petulant and public, so Washington should dispatch a team of high-level officials to the kingdom for a full discussion.
Indeed, given the range of issues that a Saudi policy shift could affect, it is important that Washington act promptly to ameliorate or dispel some of Riyadh’s recent threats. One place to start is the UN, where protocol was thrown into confusion by the Security Council seat rejection. The two-year term for that seat does not start until January 1, so there is time for the Saudis to reconsider.
To be sure, Bandar’s reported threat regarding oil sales is a reminder of the world’s continuing dependence on the kingdom’s vast hydrocarbon reserves, especially amid the fortieth anniversary of the 1973 embargo. In diplomatic terms, however, the latest Saudi action at the UN was self-defeating, and the backlash may convince Riyadh that other policy changes would be counterproductive as well.
Simon Henderson is the Baker Fellow and director of the Gulf and Energy Policy Program at The Washington Institute. His publications include the 2009 Institute study After King Abdullah: Succession in Saudi Arabia.
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The Saudis have a point. Those words do not flow easily from my pen. For more than three decades, the Arab royals have spent billions of petrodollars promoting Wahhabism, a poisonously anti-Western interpretation of Islam, of which the most lethal expression is bin Ladenism.
But now the Saudis are angry with the Obama administration. The reasons include “inaction over Syria’s civil war as well as recent U.S. overtures to Iran,” a source “close to Saudi policy” told Reuters on Tuesday. “The shift away from the U.S. is a major one,” the source said. “We are learning from our enemies now how to treat the United States,” Saudi security analyst Mustafa Alani told The Wall Street Journal last month.
The Saudis read in The New York Times that new Iranian President Hasan Rouhani is implementing “conciliatory international policies.” They read in The Journal that “Iran’s new president and his foreign minister have shown a willingness to end their country’s nuclear stalemate and improve relations with the West.” The Saudis know this to be patently untrue. They know that Iran’s rulers, pragmatists and hardliners alike, are revolutionaries who intend to become nuclear-armed masters of the Middle East — a dire threat to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Azerbaijan, Israel and other nations in the region.
They read, too, that the latest round of talks “marked another first: Negotiations ended on a positive note.” Does no one fact-check anymore? Just last year, the talks in Istanbul were characterized by Western diplomats as “very positive: The vibe … was, ‘Wow, they are engaging.'” Actually, have there ever been Western talks with Iran that were not characterized as “positive”?
In apparent exasperation, the Saudis have turned down an opportunity to serve for a two-year term on the U.N. Security Council. They are particularly distressed by the Security Council’s refusal to take action against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, whom the Saudis see as Iran’s satrap.
Assad has been waging a brutal war against Syria’s Sunni majority, even deploying chemical weapons against women and children — indisputably an act of state terrorism. Assad has now promised to surrender the chemical weapons he had long denied possessing and still denies deploying. In exchange for that pledge, both the U.N. and the U.S. are muting complaints about his continuing use of conventional weaponry to slaughter rebels — and any civilians suspected of sympathizing with them.
If Assad remains in power — thanks largely to military intervention by Iran’s Quds Force, an elite division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanon-based foreign legion — Syria will become a virtual Iranian province. Hezbollah’s power over Lebanon will become unshakable. Iraq, already forced to kowtow to Tehran, will have no choice but to accept diminished independence and sovereignty as well. A rapprochement between Iran and Hamas, the Sunni/Palestinian terrorist group that rules Gaza, already appears underway.
True, the anti-Assad opposition is now dominated by al-Qaida-linked groups — a disastrous development, one that better analysis might have been anticipated, and better policies might have prevented. But the Saudis — and the Israelis, too, as it happens — figure they have less to fear from these groups than they do from Iran. It’s a question not of intentions but of capabilities.
Do Western negotiators get any of this? For more than 30 years, Iranians have alternated between negotiating with Americans and killing Americans. In The New Yorker last month, Dexter Filkins, among the top foreign correspondents in the world, wrote that in 2004, the Quds Force “began flooding Iraq with lethal roadside bombs that the Americans referred to as EFPs, for “explosively formed projectiles.”
The EFPs, which fire a molten copper slug able to penetrate armor, began to wreak havoc on American troops, accounting for nearly 20 percent of combat deaths. EFPs could be made only by skilled technicians, and they were often triggered by sophisticated motion sensors.
“There was zero question where they were coming from,” Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who at the time was the head of the Joint Special Operations Command, told me. ‘We knew where all the factories were in Iran. The EFPs killed hundreds of Americans.'”
Filkins reports that the Iranians also facilitated attacks by Osama bin Laden’s combatants: “[I]n May, 2003, the Americans received intelligence that al-Qaida fighters in Iran were preparing an attack on Western targets in Saudi Arabia. [U.S. Ambassador Ryan] Crocker was alarmed. ‘They were there, under Iranian protection, planning operations,’ he said. He flew to Geneva and passed a warning to the Iranians, but to no avail; militants bombed three residential compounds in Riyadh, killing 35 people, including nine Americans.”
This history — to say nothing of the slaughter of U.S. Marines in Beirut in 1983, assassinations and bombings from Berlin to Buenos Aires, and a foiled plot to blow up a swanky Washington restaurant while the Saudi ambassador was dining there — should cause American negotiators at least to be adamant about keeping economic sanctions firmly in place (or better yet strengthening them) until Iran’s rulers agree to verifiably dismantle their nuclear weapons program. More likely: Iranian diplomats will offer insignificant concessions that the American side will be all too eager to reward in the interest of what is wishfully known as “confidence-building.”
To avert that outcome, Senator Mark Kirk has proposed a plan that would put into operation an idea first floated by Mark Dubowitz, the executive director and sanctions expert nonpareil at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, the think tank I head.
Kirk’s plan would freeze Iran’s remaining overseas assets while giving President Barack Obama the flexibility to allow Iran access to some of those funds — but only if it agrees to end uranium enrichment and reprocessing.
“If Iran was to cheat in fulfilling any of its obligations, the quarantine would be re-imposed,” Dubowitz explained. He recalled that earlier this year, after what were described as “constructive” negotiations with Iran in Almaty, American negotiators allowed Iran to trade petroleum for gold which “ended up permitting Iran to earn billions of dollars in gold in exchange for no nuclear concessions.” To learn from such mistakes would be admirable. To repeat them would be diplomatic malpractice.
Years ago, the Saudis began pressing Washington to take serious action against Iran, to eliminate the Islamic republic’s nuclear weapons facilities, to “cut off the head of the snake,” as the Saudi ambassador (the one whose assassination soon thereafter would be on the menu) vividly phrased it. Here again, the Saudis had a point. Those words flow with surprising ease from my pen.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on national security.
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By Shlomi Eldar
Al-Monitor, October 22.
Ever since it was founded, the Hamas movement has been dealing with the need to find a safe transition from its uncompromising ideology and beliefs and the changing reality it faces. This effort has intensified over the past few years, since Hamas became a political movement that rules over the people of the Gaza Strip. Its leaders in Gaza, the West Bank, and other countries are used to treading carefully between the raindrops, seeking out justification for the compromises they must make to survive. Included among these compromises are the cease-fire with Israel and the war that Hamas waged precisely against the groups that sought to continue the campaign of violence against it.
The turbulence that has been sweeping across the Middle East over the past few years shook Hamas to its core. Many experts who study the movement are trying to determine if and how it will extricate itself from the current crisis. How will it restore its lost honor and regain the support of the Palestinian public?
Over the weekend of Oct. 19, Adnan Abu Amer, Al-Monitor’s correspondent in Gaza, listened to what the Palestinian Hamas Prime Minister had to say in a speech that was supposed to be historic, but ended up being banal at best. Abu Amer then went on to describe the crises facing the movement in the Gaza Strip. Calls by the Palestinian Tamarod movement for a revolution in Gaza like the one that occurred in Tahrir Square, and the dissolution of the historic alliance between Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Resistance Committees threaten the future of the Hamas movement and its ability to stay in power and govern.
And what is Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh’s solution to all that? Terror and violence. “We call for the renewal of the people’s Intifada in the West Bank, … and the renewal of high-quality attacks that will sow terror among the enemy’s leaders,” he read from the page in front of him without so much as batting an eyelash. But today Hamas, the “Islamic Resistance Movement,” which prided itself until recently for leading the jihad against Israel, looks more like a caged lion than anything else.
Given its wretched situation, Hamas is not only incapable of starting an intifada, but it is unwilling to bear the consequences of one. The members of its military wing are fighting the other Palestinian organizations to ensure that they don’t fire rockets against Israel and get the movement involved in yet another round of violence. They are worried that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will fulfill his threats and launch a military operation to topple their government in Gaza.
During Operation Pillar of Defense, in November 2012, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt got up on its hind legs to rescue Hamas. Then-President Mohammed Morsi sent his prime minister, Hesham Qandil, to Gaza. Immediately upon crossing the Rafah border crossing he announced that the peace between Israel and Egypt would be jeopardized if Israel launched a land operation in the Gaza Strip. The threat worked, and Avigdor Liberman, who was then Israel’s foreign minister, announced that the time was not yet ripe to overthrow Hamas.
Obviously, neither Qandil nor Morsi can save the Palestinian movement. Ever since the Egyptian government started systematically demolishing the smuggling tunnels in the Rafah region, Israel has become the primary provider of food and raw materials to the Gaza Strip. The channel connecting Israel and Hamas is based on common interests, but no less so on a balance of fear. Without that channel, the Haniyeh government could not last a single day.
The border crossings between Gaza and Israel are working at a rate that has not been seen ever since the Hamas coup in Gaza. Between 500 and 1,000 trucks enter Gaza through the Kerem Shalom border crossing every day with goods, raw materials and food. With tongue in cheek, senior Israeli security officials say that Israel has become Hamas’s only ally, and that it is what keeps the movement from crashing. Israel’s interest in keeping the Hamas government in power in its current constitution is reminiscent of the American interest in giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad another chance in Syria. The concern is that if Hamas falls, it will be replaced by far more extreme groups identified with global jihad.
This default alliance remains intact as long as Haniyeh and the other leaders of the movement follow the rules of the game as agreed upon. As long as there are no attacks and no rockets are fired into Israel, the oxygen line at the Kerem Shalom crossing will continue to operate. Other groups in Gaza — Islamic Jihad, the Resistance Committees, and smaller satellite organizations known collectively as Jalalat — accuse Hamas members of selling their soul to Satan (i.e., Israel) just to stay in power. That is the reason there is tension between the movements and why Hamas has been isolated internally ever since Operation Pillar of Defense.
More than 4,000 Palestinians were killed in the second intifada, and tens of thousands more were injured. Hamas, which was a broken organization on the verge of collapse when the riots began, recovered quickly enough to emerge as the leader of the uprising. That and the endless reservoir of suicide bombers that it managed to recruit at the time transformed it into the largest Palestinian movement.
Anyone who analyzes the new map of the Middle East will be quick to notice that without Iran, without Egypt, without Syria, and without Qatari money, which has stopped flowing into Gaza, the Hamas movement has no chance of repeating its past successes. On the contrary, another armed conflict, a series of attacks, or a hail of rocket fire against Israel will be the end of Haniyeh and his government in Gaza. Senior Israeli officials say so openly, and they reiterate this in closed-door assessments of the situation. There was good reason for Israel Chief of the Southern Command Sami Turgeman to warn on Oct. 13 that if there is another attack, “Gaza will look different.”
So what led Haniyeh to call for an intifada, when he is well aware that it would be of no benefit to him or his government? It must be honor, which is a key concept in understanding how Hamas works, and how the Middle East works in general. Anyone in trouble will roar like a lion to conceal his weakness. Haniyeh hopes for a new intifada to defend the lost honor of a movement that was once so proud but is now pleading for its life.
Shlomi Eldar is a columnist for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.