- By John HannahJohn Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, focusing on U.S. strategy. During the presidency of George W. Bush, he served for eight years on the staff of Vice President Cheney, including as the vice president's national security advisor.
For those concerned about the fallout from President Barack Obama and his administration’s nuclear deal with Iran — the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA — the hits just keep on coming. The recent revelation that the United States handed over $400 million in cash to Iran on the same day that it was releasing four American captives is but the latest disturbing detail in the saga that has become Obama’s extended experiment in appeasing the mullahs. Add it to the long list of other threatening post-deal developments, including the intensification of Iran’s ballistic missile program, the continuation of its efforts to illicitly procure nuclear materials, and the expansion of its aggressive and destabilizing activities across the Middle East. Oh, and don’t forget the detention of three new American hostages, of course.
Somewhat less noticed in the JCPOA’s aftermath, but potentially no less consequential for regional security, has been the steadily escalating confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran. This was not a wholly unexpected development. Many analysts warned that the Saudis would not look kindly on a U.S.-Iranian agreement, negotiated largely behind their backs, that ended up leaving the country’s arch-enemy, the Shiite theocracy across the Gulf, with a large nuclear infrastructure, hundreds of billions of dollars in sanctions relief, and a more or less open field to indulge its quest for regional hegemony. The Saudis, inevitably, would read it as America abandoning its historical role as the guarantor of Gulf security in favor of some new dispensation with an unreconstructed Iran — one that threatened to irreversibly alter the region’s correlation of forces in Iran’s favor.
Obama’s penchant for stoking Saudi paranoia and fears has no doubt made matters much worse: Declaring, for example, that his aim was to establish an “equilibrium” between the Saudis, a longstanding U.S. ally, and Iran, a revolutionary power that has systematically attacked U.S. interests for four decades. Or publicly complaining about the fact that he’s “compelled” to treat Saudi Arabia as an ally at all. Instead, Obama has opted to diss the Saudis repeatedly as free-riders who seek to exploit American muscle for their own narrow, sectarian purposes. In Obama’s telling, the Iranians — handmaidens to the Bashar al-Assad regime’s multi-year campaign of war crimes and mass murder — have legitimate “equities” in places like Syria that deserve to be protected (Could he mean the land bridge via Damascus by which Iran supplies its Lebanese client, the terrorist group Hezbollah, with tens of thousands of missiles and rockets that will be used in its next war with Israel?). Rather than seeking to counter Iran’s revisionist agenda, Obama’s view is that the Saudis need to accommodate themselves to “sharing” the Gulf with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
Needless to say, the Saudis beg to differ. Confronted with a newly empowered Iran and a retrenching America, the kingdom is striking back, not rolling over. It believes Obama’s policies have purposefully created a dangerous vacuum in the region, one that is primarily being filled by an Iran bent on sowing chaos and destruction, ultimately targeting the downfall of the House of Saud itself. No longer able to rely on Pax Americana, and unwilling to watch passively as the mullahs slip the noose over their collective neck, the Saudis have increasingly taken matters into their own hands, especially since the ascension of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud in 2015, adopting a much more assertive and high-risk, even provocative, national security posture with a single-minded mission to challenge and confront Iran.
The opening shot (literally) in Salman’s new anti-Iran campaign was fired even before the JCPOA was finalized in July 2015. In March of last year, the Saudis intervened in Yemen to stop Iran-backed Houthi rebels from taking control of the country. The Obama administration subsequently supported the effort, reluctantly, by supplying intelligence and military equipment. Though the Saudis — and a handful of Sunni allies, led by the United Arab Emirates — succeeded in rolling back rebel gains in southern Yemen, the war has been bogged down for months, with the Houthis still entrenched in the capital, Sanaa, as well as their strongholds in the north, including strategic positions on the Saudi border. Peace talks and ceasefires have come and gone. Prospects for a political settlement appear dim. Desperately poor and dysfunctional even before the war, Yemen has largely been laid to waste, a failed state that — already home to one of al Qaida’s most dangerous affiliates — appears destined to be a fertile breeding ground for jihadism, sectarian conflict, and regional instability for yeas to come.
The Saudis have also been active participants in Syria’s civil war, supplying weapons to Sunni rebels seeking to topple the Iranian-backed Assad regime. While the Saudis have worked closely with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency in this effort, the kingdom has persistently pushed for a more aggressive strategy to remove Assad from power and sever Iranian influence in Syria — including by supporting a number of radical jihadist groups, some with close links to al Qaeda. Following the large-scale intervention by Russia’s air force to bolster the Syrian regime in the fall of 2015, the Saudis, with CIA cooperation, increased the flow of weaponry to the rebels, helping to inflict significant casualties on pro-regime units — including leading elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) that, together with Iranian-backed Shiite militias, have served as the vanguard of Assad’s army. And even as the Russian/Iranian-led offensive has turned the tide of battle decisively in the regime’s favor, the Saudis have not eased their pressure. In February 2016, the kingdom even announced that it was willing to commit its own ground troops to an international force should the U.S.-led coalition decide it was useful. The offer allegedly remains on the table. More recently, a surge of Saudi weapons to a jihadist-led rebel coalition helped foil, at least for now, the Syrian government’s efforts to reconquer the strategic city of Aleppo.
Importantly, the post-JCPOA Saudi pushback against Iran extends well beyond the active battlefields of Yemen and Syria. Indeed, the list of initiatives is long and varied, with the Saudis increasingly seeking to flex their muscle across the security, diplomatic, economic, and even religious spheres. To recount the highlights in some detail helps to underscore the sustained and comprehensive nature of the current Saudi campaign:
— In August 2015, in an unprecedented operation for Saudi intelligence, Saudi agents captured the planner of the 1996 bombing of the U.S. military barracks in Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Ahmed Ibrahim al-Mughassil, a Saudi Shiite with deep links to Iran and Hezbollah, was detained in Beirut as he was exiting a flight from Tehran and immediately rendered to the kingdom for interrogation. At the time, the United States had a longstanding bounty of $5 million for any information leading to Mughassil’s arrest.
— Last December, King Salman’s son, Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s deputy crown prince and defense minister, announced the formation of an anti-terrorism coalition of 34 Sunni states that would be headquartered in Saudi Arabia and focused in particular on thwarting Iranian-backed aggression throughout the region. Only a few months later, more than 20 of the coalition’s members conducted large-scale military exercises in northern Saudi Arabia, near the Iraqi border — coincident with the kingdom’s public offer to commit ground forces to Syria.
— In January, the Saudis executed a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, despite Iranian warnings not to do so. When Iranian mobs sanctioned by the regime responded by burning down Saudi diplomatic facilities, the kingdom severed diplomatic relations with Iran. Several of Iran’s Arab allies also withdrew their ambassadors or otherwise downgraded ties, while the Arab League quickly condemned.
— The sole Arab League member that failed to back the anti-Iran measure, Lebanon, quickly felt the kingdom’s wrath. In February, the Saudis abruptly canceled an estimated $4 billion of assistance to Lebanon’s armed forces and security services, making clear that it constituted punishment for the dominant influence exerted on the country’s institutions by Hezbollah and its Iranian patrons. Within days, the Saudis and several Gulf allies also warned their citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon, pummeling the country’s critical tourism sector.
— In early March, the Saudi-dominated Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) formally designated Hezbollah a terrorist organization. In its statement, the GCC accused Hezbollah of “hostile acts” to undermine the sovereignty, security, and stability of GCC members. It also charged the group with responsibility for “terror and incitement” in Yemen and Iraq. Shortly thereafter, the Arab League followed suit, also declaring Hezbollah a terrorist organization.
—The next month, the Saudis ramped up their diplomatic offensive at the April summit of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. With more than 30 leaders in attendance, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, the kingdom not only succeeded in passing a final statement that denounced Hezbollah for conducting terrorist attacks across the region; it also got an explicit condemnation of Iran for its “continued support for terrorism” and its interference in the internal affairs of member states, including Bahrain, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen.
— April also saw the Saudis exercising their economic muscle against the Iranians. At a meeting of major oil producers in Qatar, the Saudis scuttled a deal to freeze production that was aimed at increasing the price of crude and bolstering the badly flagging economies of several producer states, including Iran. At the last minute, the kingdom insisted that there could be no deal unless Iran also participated in the freeze — a non-starter for the Iranians, who had repeatedly made clear that after years of crippling sanctions, they would continue ramping up production until they reached pre-sanctions levels of over 4 million barrels per day. Few had any doubt that a primary purpose of the Saudi decision to keep prices depressed was to undermine Iran’s fledgling economic recovery in the aftermath of the JCPOA.
— At the end of May, Iran announced that none of its citizens would be traveling to Saudi Arabia for the hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Islam’s holiest sites, “because of obstacles created by Saudi officials.” During the 2015 hajj, hundreds of Iranians had died in a stampede that Iran blamed squarely on Saudi mismanagement, greatly exacerbating Saudi-Iranian tensions. According to Gulf sources, in the preparatory talks for this year’s event, the Saudis did in fact go out of their way to make Iranian attendance difficult, if not impossible. For example, I was told that the final ministerial-level delegation that Iran sent to the kingdom to negotiate Iranian participation was not granted standard VIP courtesies at the airport. Its members were instead required to go through normal immigration and customs procedures, forcing them to wait in long lines to have their passports stamped. The Saudis were much stricter than in past years in capping the number of Iranian pilgrims that they would allow to enter the kingdom. Those Iranians that did come were to be banned from displaying any signs, symbols, or flags. Finally, the Saudis were insisting that the Iranians be kept in a closed camp, effectively barred from co-mingling and socializing with participants from other countries, often considered an essential element of the hajj experience. In the end, the mounting indignities and restrictions proved too much for the Iranians and they angrily broke off the talks.
— In June, it was Bahrain — a virtual satellite of Saudi Arabia — that took aggressive action against a highly-regarded Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Isa Qassim, revoking his citizenship and threatening to try him on charges of money laundering and supporting terrorism. That move came shortly after a court ruling that ordered the dissolution of Bahrain’s leading Shiite political movement, al-Wefaq, for whom Qassim served as spiritual leader. Iran reacted vociferously to the crackdown. Qassem Suleimani, the notorious commander of the Qods Force, the IRGC’s elite special operations unit, issued an unprecedented threat against Bahrain’s ruling Sunni family. “The Al Khalifa will pay the price of their actions, and its result will be nothing but the annihilation of this bloodthirsty regime,” he said. He called the action against Ayatollah Qassim “a red line,” the passing of which would “create flames of fire in Bahrain and the entire region.” And in a not-so-veiled warning to the Saudis, Soleimani declared: “The supporters of Al Khalifa should know insulting Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim and the continuation of pressure on the people of Bahrain is the beginning of a bloody uprising.”
— The Saudis, it seems, were not deterred. On the contrary, there is reason to suspect that they could be escalating their anti-Iran campaign even further by targeting not just Iran’s external activities, but its internal stability as well. In early July, Prince Turk al-Faisal — a senior member of the ruling family, the former long-time head of Saudi intelligence, and one-time ambassador to London and Washington — appeared at the annual conference of the controversial Iranian exile group, the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MEK), long viewed by Iran as a terrorist organization.
— In his speech, Turki offered a full-throated endorsement of the MEK, its leadership, and its agenda of toppling the Iranian government. He attacked the “Khomeini cancer” for spreading chaos in the region and responded to the large crowd’s chants by declaring “I, too, want the downfall of the regime.” Provocative, to say the least. While questions persist about the extent to which Turki speaks only for himself, or accurately reflects official Saudi policy, few believe that he would be allowed to trigger such controversies if his actions in fact displeased the Saudi government. In the case of the MEK appearance, that view is certainly bolstered by the fact that Turki’s speech was widely covered by the Saudi media, including live on several prominent Saudi-owned television stations.
—Harder to gauge as it relates to Saudi policy, but nonetheless intriguing, has been a significant uptick in activity this summer by Iranian minority groups. Starting in June, after a long period of inactivity, Kurdish rebels in northwestern Iran initiated several clashes with IRGC forces, with dozens reportedly killed on both sides. Iranian police and politicians have also been targeted by Kurdish assailants. In the southeast, along Iran’s border with Pakistan, jihadi groups linked to Iran’s Baluch minority have launched a series of attacks against the IRGC and Iranian Border Guard Forces. And in southeastern Iran, ethnic Arabs have claimed multiple attacks this summer on critical infrastructure related to Iran’s oil and gas industry, including a petrochemical plant and several pipelines. Interestingly, in addition to seeking the end of Iranian “occupation” of Arab lands, several of the groups claimed to be defending broader Arab interests as well, condemning Iran’s interventions in the affairs of neighboring countries, including Bahrain, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen.
— While there is no hard evidence connecting the kingdom to this flurry of separatist attacks, Iran seems convinced that a Saudi hand lies behind many of them. After a major clash with the Kurds in June, Mohsen Rezaei, the former head of the IRGC and current secretary of Iran’s influential Expediency Council, alleged that Saudi Arabia had dispatched two terror cells to Iranian Kurdistan. He further claimed that the militants were acting upon orders issued by the Saudi consulate in Iraqi Kurdistan, which had opened just a few months earlier, in February 2016. The consulate flatly denied the accusation, as did the Kurdish group that carried out the attacks.
— A month later, following additional clashes, Rezaei repeated his claims about the role being played by the Saudi consulate, warning for good measure that “The Saudis are the most evil government in the world and are driving into instability with their own insanity.” Also in July, the IRGC’s current commander, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, declared: “The enemies of the Islamic Revolution … are doing their best to spread insecurity in Iran. Some regional countries and Saudi Arabia have been added to the [list of] apparent enemies.” Concurrently, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, spoke about the attacks by Baluch militants, and in a clear allusion to the Saudis, charged that “one Islamic country uses its own money to spread war and terrorism in the region on behalf of the Islamic world’s enemies.”
— Heightening Iran’s paranoia in this regard, no doubt, has been a steady drum beat of reports for the past year that the Saudis are systematically seeking to improve relations with Israel as part of their efforts to counter Iran. Turki al-Faisal has appeared on a number of panels in the United States and Europe with former high-level officials in Israel’s national security establishment. More recently, in July, a retired Saudi general, Anwar Eshki, broke taboos when he led a delegation of businessmen and academics on an unprecedented trip to Israel. The delegation met openly with senior Israeli officials and conducted interviews with Israeli media outlets. It’s an open secret that these accelerating public interactions between Saudis and Israelis have been supplemented by an expanding covert relationship, including meetings between high level government officials, security experts, and intelligence agencies.
The burgeoning Israeli-Saudi ties are clearly unnerving the Iranians. After the Eshki trip to Israel, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, issued a harsh rebuke, tweeting: “Revelation of Saudi government’s relations with Zionist regime was stab in the back of [the] Islamic [community].” Days earlier, Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, launched an extended attack on the kingdom, focusing in particular on Prince Turki’s activities and the Eshki visit. Nasrallah insisted that “None of this could have happened without the Saudi government’s approval.” He lamented that Israel is no longer viewed as an enemy by the Arab states, and claimed that “the worst and most important development in this matter is Saudi Arabia taking its relationship with Israel from a clandestine connection to a public one.” Nasrallah warned, “Saudi Arabia is set to recognize Israel,” and was ready to normalize relations “for free, without receiving anything in return” on the Palestinian issue.
A particular Iranian worry when it comes to deepening Saudi-Israeli coordination could well concern Iran’s internal stability. The Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, has long viewed Iran’s large, disparate, and disgruntled minority communities as potentially a major vulnerability for the regime. This view was articulated most forcefully by Meir Dagan, the late Mossad chief, who regularly made the case to U.S. officials that promoting the downfall of Iran should be an essential element of any strategy, short of war, to end the Iranian nuclear threat. Dagan was convinced that more could be done to appeal to the Iranian people, in particular by working with dissatisfied minority populations who comprise an estimated 40 to 50 percent of Iran’s population. He also believed that the Arab Gulf states might participate in such a strategy, especially if the United States played a coordinating role.
Whether or not Dagan’s vision has yet come to pass, there’s now little doubt about its growing plausibility in a post-JCPOA world. As detailed above, the nuclear deal, with all its implications, is leading the Saudis to adopt a much more aggressive posture in confronting what they see as a growing Iranian threat. The kingdom’s historically defensive, risk-averse, even sclerotic national security doctrine has, under King Salman and especially his son, Mohammed bin Salman, increasingly given way to a bolder and more confrontational approach. Indeed, some have even called it reckless.
To be fair, the Obama administration can rightly claim a degree of credit for encouraging the Saudis to step up to this larger role. Obama has made clear that part of his “mission” as president has been to spur traditional U.S. allies, like the Saudis, to take action for themselves, rather than always waiting for the United States to lead and then “holding our coat.” The president has called this his “anti-free rider campaign.”
The problem, of course, is that the administration’s effort to promote greater burden sharing has not been pursued by way of revitalizing alliances with a new sense of common purpose and cooperation, but by leaving traditional partners feeling abandoned and betrayed. Obama seems to have been under the illusion that the abrupt retrenchment of U.S. power and leadership from the Middle East would result in the organic rise of a new regional equilibrium as local actors were forced to play larger roles in ensuring peace and stability. Instead, the policy has created a dangerous vacuum that’s been filled not only by predatory enemies like Russia and Iran, but by frightened partners such as the Saudis, who increasingly may seek to remedy their security dilemma through acts of self-preservation that not only fail to take U.S. interests into account, but could actually run counter to them.
That would include, of course, an endless war in Yemen that leaves in its wake a humanitarian nightmare and failed state on the Arabian Peninsula, and one running wild with jihadists of every stripe and sect, including a greatly strengthened al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula that still has its sights set on attacking America. Or a Syrian opposition wholly dominated by al Qaida, al Qaida lookalikes, or al Qaida wannabes. The surest way of getting Saudi Arabia to revert to its old playbook of plying global jihadist movements with money, weapons, and Wahhabi incitement is to leave the country feeling alone and desperate, abandoned by its chief patron to fight a series of escalating proxy wars against a supercharged Shiite theocracy. Ditto if you want to maximize the chances that at some point soon the kingdom pursues its own nuclear option to counter an Iran that, under the JCPOA, will in 10 to 15 years have a more or less clear path to the bomb.
As can be seen in the kingdom’s capture of the Khobar Towers attack planner, or in its recent efforts to isolate Iran and Hezbollah in Arab and Islamic forums, a more assertive Saudi Arabia — prepared to challenge Iranian aggression using the full array of cultural, economic, political, and security assets at its disposal — could indeed make a uniquely valuable contribution to stemming the regional implosion now ripping the Middle East apart. But the chances of Saudi Arabia taking on those roles will be greatly enhanced if its assets are tightly harnessed to reliable American leadership that has the capabilities, vision, and will necessary to mobilize broad coalitions on behalf of a more benign regional order — an order that effectively deters enemies rather than exacerbates conflict and that bolsters allies rather than undermining them. Overcoming the deep mistrust that now plagues the U.S.-Saudi relationship, and that reached its pinnacle with the JCPOA, may well be difficult. But more difficult still would be trying to secure U.S. vital interests in a Middle East in which Saudi Arabia is left adrift, alone, and increasingly desperate.
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