- Karim Traboulsi)
There are many reasons behind the scramble by the United States, both at the level of the executive branch and the legislative branch, to affirm to Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz that Washington is determined to maintain and develop the historical relationship between the two countries, especially at this critical juncture. Part of the rush to reassure the new leadership in Riyadh -- by sending a high level delegation led by US President Barack Obama and senior officials in his administration and previous Republican and Democratic administrations - has to do with concerns over the stage of tension and mistrust that marked the bilateral relationship during the early years of Obama’s term. This had peaked with the Saudi leadership expressing clear resentment with the Obama administration. Last year, Obama became alerted to this and sought to reform the relationship with the late King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, who relayed to US officials that Egypt was a strategic decision for Saudi Arabia that was not subject to bargaining. The US president modified his controversial policies on Egypt to dispel the impression that he supported the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to power. The process of reforming the US-Saudi relationship moved forward through the war on ISIS in an international coalition. There was agreement on the anti-ISIS strategy in Iraq but there was disagreement over the anti-ISIS strategy in Syria. Yemen remained hanging between quasi Saudi-US accord and quasi Saudi-US divergence. Iran, meanwhile, remains a big question mark in the US-Saudi relationship, with implications that extend from Yemen to Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon. This week, while US President Obama and his delegation were visiting Riyadh offering condolences for the death of King Abdullah, who had adopted moderation, dialogue, understanding, and reform as his slogan, the Iranian leadership represented in the Revolutionary Guards was boasting of its vast influence and its military participation in propping up the regime in Syria together with Hezbollah. The Iranian leadership was also preparing to respond to the Israeli attack that took out senior Iranian and Hezbollah commanders in the Golan. However, the response did not take place in Syria but a decision was made to open the Lebanese front, prompting the question: Does the policy pursued by President Obama on Iran reassure the latter so much that it is confident it would not be held accountable for any excess -- just like Israel is never held account for its excesses? Or are there political American frameworks that go farther and are deeper in relation to Iran that President Barack Obama has presented to the new Saudi leadership, to reassure it with regard to the nuclear issue -- in both the event a deal succeeds or it fails -- and with regard to the regional issues despite the growing tentacles of the Revolutionary Guards from Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, and Saudi’s immediate vicinity in Yemen?
Analysts differ over the interpretation of the US-Saudi relationship in relation to the oil prices. Some believe the Saudi drive to cut prices to be hitting two birds with one stone: Russia, Iran, and Venezuela on the one hand, and US oil production specifically the so-called shale revolution, which was set to make the United States the world’s top oil and gas producer, on the other. Others believe lower oil prices are the result of a Saudi-US agreement to hit the Russian economy, contain Venezuela, and restrict Iran’s hands at the levels of its nuclear program and regional ambitions.
Most probably, the second theory is the correct one. If the first theory was right on the mark, we would not have seen a high-level US delegation go to Riyadh to pay tribute to the late king and get acquainted with and reassure the new leadership. The interests at stake would tolerate no flattery. Furthermore, all indications suggest the United States and Saudi Arabia agree -- despite having different priorities -- on communicating to the Russian leadership the two countries’ resentment over Moscow’s policy in Ukraine (a US priority) and Russia (a Saudi priority).
The slump in oil prices deeply hurt the Russian economy, and caused serious tensions in US-Russian relations, to the extent that Russian diplomacy has accused the United States and the West of starving the Russians. The other consequence of the declining oil prices is that Russia has sought to play a role in Syria by sponsoring the process of creating a new Syrian opposition that would reach accords with the Syrian government. Even though the Russian positions did not change at their core, Moscow is trying to appear more flexible and prepared to play less rigid roles in terms of support for the regime in Damascus.
In Iran, the damage resulting from lower prices have hit the Iranian core as well, but Tehran has so far refused to admit this. The risks and adventures of the Revolutionary Guards in the Golan and through Hezbollah in Lebanon against Israel are but an attempt to deflect attention away from the internal situation in Iran.
Clearly, President Barack Obama strongly wants the nuclear negotiations between the P5+1 countries with Iran to make a breakthrough to secure his own legacy as president. However, these negotiations continue to be difficult. Clearly as well, Barack Obama is determined to prevent the Republican-dominated Congress from imposing additional sanctions on Iran during the negotiations. The sanctions in place already restrict Iran’s nuclear and regional ambitions in Obama’s opinion, while low oil prices have made matters worse for the moderates.
In reality, the moderates led by President Hassan Rohani have so far been unable to prove their ability to take charge or bring the country towards moderation in the event sanctions are alleviated. All the support and momentum that the moderates had received did not seem to help them rein in the hardliners represented by the Revolutionary Guards or radically influence the orientations of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei.
All US and European policies that had the goal of empowering moderates ended up empowering the forces opposed to the moderates. There are no guarantees that lifting the sanctions would help the moderates. On the contrary, the party that would benefit the most would be the Revolutionary Guards. They have made their regional ambitions at the top of their priorities, and would never allow the Islamic Republic to surrender the “right” to possess nuclear capabilities. Iran’s regional ambitions have not changed in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. None of these countries have seen a course-correction from Tehran. Where there was a course-correction, it was because Tehran was compelled to do so rather than as a result of a voluntary decision.
Tehran considers itself the winner in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen. But the opposing view is that Iran is bogged down in the four countries, because it is far from being victorious and is closer to a major defeat. Iran’s limited financial abilities -- because of the sanctions and oil prices -- restrict its ambitions and make Iran likely to become implicated in quagmires that would drain its strength.
The leaders of the Revolutionary Guards absolutely refuse the idea of their forces being drained. For this reason, they do not mind expanding the scope of the confrontation and escalating it qualitatively.
This is exactly where the main difference between the Revolutionary Guards and other leaders in Iran lies. The Islamic Republic does not want a qualitative escalation that would lead to a confrontation with Israel or the collapse of the nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 countries. This is in its view simply suicide.
The Iranian-Iranian division is being tested now in Lebanon and not in the Golan. If the Iranian leadership at the level of Ayatollah Khamenei decides that the Iranian interest requires not to escalate to the point of a confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah, the developments of the past two days could be contained to avoid a repeat of what happened in 2006.
The problem is that Israel under Benjamin Netanyahu may decide that it has no option but to respond to Hezbollah’s retaliation. In that case, things could get out of control, especially Iranian control over Hezbollah.
So far, there may be Iranian-Israeli understandings to keep matters confined in the context of limited responses, as this is a mutual interest for all sides. Indeed, the 2006 war had not concluded with a victor, no matter how hard the sides claimed otherwise. The 2015 war would be decisive, but Iran is not prepared for this. Neither a direct military confrontation with Israel is on the cards, nor has the time come for selling off the precious card of Hezbollah.
The danger lies in the fickleness and electoral calculations of Benjamin Netanyahu. He may decide that his interest lies in taking a risk at time of week options for Iran and Hezbollah. But he could also decide to show self restraint because Israel has not made up its mind regarding the need to get rid of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the midst of his battle with ISIS and similar groups.
The Obama administration is working on containment because it, in turn, does not see that its interest lies in a full confrontation between Israel and the camp consisting of Iran, Hezbollah, and the Syrian regime. Therefore, there might be an agreement over “necessary” responses, provided that they are limited.
The issue is greater with Iran, and has to do with something broader than direct retaliation. This takes us back to the US-Iranian relationship and its impact on US-Saudi relations and vice versa.
The message behind the high level representation of the US delegation to Saudi has another theme, namely, Tehran. The message is clear and its gist is that the United States no matter how much it is seeking a qualitative shift in the relationship with Iran, believes the relationship with Saudi Arabia remains the starting point for US long-term interests.
from Arabic by Karim Traboulsi