The Saudis have a point. Those words do not flow easily from my pen. For more than three decades, the Arabian royals have spent billions of petro-dollars 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 Hassan Rouhani is implementing “conciliatory international policies.” They read in the Wall Street 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 U.N.S.C.’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 unshakeable. 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-Qaeda-linked groups — a disastrous development, one that better analysis might have 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 E.F.P.s, for “explosively formed projectiles.” The E.F.P.s, which fire a molten copper slug able to penetrate armor, began to wreak havoc on American troops, accounting for nearly twenty per cent of combat deaths. E.F.P.s 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,” General 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 E.F.P.s killed hundreds of Americans.”
Filkins reports that the Iranians also facilitated attacks by Osama bin Laden’s combatants:
In May, 2003, the Americans received intelligence that Al Qaeda 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 thirty-five 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 operationalize 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 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 were to cheat in fulfilling any of its obligations, the quarantine would be reimposed,” 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 would soon thereafter 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.