Why the U.S. and Saudi Arabia Are Suddenly Involved in a Tense Geopolitical Drama
Anxiety runs through the palaces of Saudi Arabia, where the expectation of permanent United States support has declined. Signs of this decline have been evident for the past few years. High on the list is the West’s nuclear deal with Iran. Saudi Arabia has historically wanted to strangle Iran, so anything less than that is seen as a defeat.
The U.S. is putting its leverage on the table: A bill in the U.S. Congress to hold the Saudis liable for 9/11. It could mean large payments from Saudi holdings to compensate the victims of the attack. It might also mean that the 28 redacted pages of the Joint Congressional Inquiry on 9/11 could be released. What lies behind the black marks is not so hard to imagine—and if it were made public, it would introduce a shift in America's historical memory about a very painful episode, no small thing. Saudi Arabia will come off poorly if these are in the public domain. An emboldened Iran, a disparaged Saudi Arabia: this is not the geopolitical scenario King Salman would like to see. He had hoped for the opposite.
Saudi Arabia’s problem with Iran is not about sectarianism within Islam. When the Shah of Iran sat on the Peacock Throne in Tehran, the Saudi royal family had no problem with him—despite the fact that not only was he an adherent of the Shia understanding of Islam, so were his countrymen. One royal family looked to another. What they feared in common was communism and secular nationalism, which they suggested was un-Islamic. The Iranian Revolution threatened Saudi Arabia because it produced an Islamic Republic. Much the same kind of anti-monarchical sentiment brewed in the gullies of Saudi Arabia. It had to be smashed. So too did Saudi Arabia want to tether or destroy the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Iraq was sent to do the job. It failed, although the war from 1980 to 1988 weakened Iran grievously. An angry Iraq turned against its Gulf Arab benefactors for insufficient support and invaded Kuwait in 1990, threatening Saudi Arabia as well. It was then that the United States entered the picture with its full spectrum warfare—bombing Iraq to smithereens and providing Saudi Arabia with the confirmation that the US military would protect it till the end of time.
George W. Bush’s war on terror removed two of Iran’s great adversaries—the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and the Ba’ath regime in Iraq. This allowed Iran, for the first time since 1979, to reach out to the Mediterranean Sea and toward the Indian Ocean. Saudi Arabia and Israel, both rattled by this development, pushed the West to send Iran back to its borders. The Syria Accountability Act of the US Congress tried to break the Iran-Syria link, the Israeli war on Lebanon tried to weaken Hezbollah—which has close links to Iran, and the Western as well as United Nations nuclear sanctions regime tried to damage Iran’s geopolitical standing and economy. None of these maneuvers succeeded. Iran remained resilient, as it does today.
The only remaining method to enfeeble Iran would have been a full-scale war against that country of 80 million people. Israel and Saudi Arabia, like unfed fighting dogs, pushed against their Western muzzles. It is not President Obama who refused to attack Iran. It is that an attack against Iran would have been catastrophic not only for the region but for the world. Reason dictated otherwise. It is in short supply in Riyadh and Tel Aviv.
Ugliness resurfaced once more about the role of Saudi Arabia or its royal families in the attacks of 9/11. Right after the attack, the US Congress set up a joint inquiry led by Senators Bob Graham (Democrat-Florida) and Porter Goss (Republican-Florida, later CIA head). The massive report from the committee (over 800 pages) contained a small section on Saudi Arabia’s role in 9/11—28 pages long. It was suggested before the report emerged that the section showed links between Saudi Arabia and 9/11. Two Saudi citizens, Omar al-Bayoumi and Osama Bassnan, had, it was argued, been involved in the financing of the plot, and had ties to the Saudi government. An unclassified section of the report noted, “One of the FBI’s best sources in San Diego informed the FBI that he thought that al-Bayoumi must be an intelligence officer.”
Denying these links, the Saudi government asked for the report to be released, but President Bush refused. It was redacted. After the report came out, Senator Graham said, “I was surprised at the evidence that there were foreign governments involved in facilitating the activities of at least some of the terrorists in the United States.” He did not mean Iraq.
In February this year, Graham, who is no longer in the Senate, said, “The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11, and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier.” These are strong words from one of the authors of the report.
If the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has any relationship with the terrorists of 9/11, the Kingdom must surely be open to a lawsuit in US courts. This is precisely what the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act in the US Congress intends. The bill would allow 9/11 families to sue the Saudi Kingdom in US courts for damages. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), one of the sponsors of the bill, recently bemoaned the failure of US courts to allow citizens to sue foreign governments that “fund the hate-filled organizations” that kill US nationals. “Unfortunately,” he noted, the US courts have “allowed countries like Saudi Arabia that has provided financial support to terror-linked operations to escape any repercussions.”
The reaction to Schumer’s bill from Saudi Arabia was swift. Last month, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister Adel al-Jubeir told Washington that if the bill went through, the Kingdom would be forced to sell its $750 billion in treasury securities. Jubeir said this would need to be done to protect Saudi assets from being frozen during a lawsuit. Saudi petro-dollars would no longer be recycled into the US banking system, which would have to rely for liquidity on fewer (and less reliable) states such as China. The financial threat is considerable. Obama hastened to say that he would veto the bill. His conversation today in Riyadh is no doubt appeasement of Saudi anxiety. That Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders support this bill, which Ted Cruz co-sponsored, shows that Obama’s firewall is not permanent.
Saudi Arabia has been floundering to re-establish its position in West Asia and North Africa. The nuclear deal and the entente on Syria have allowed Iran a regional role. This is now inviolable.
Attempts by Saudi Arabia to hit hard against Iran have not ended, although it is boxing against shadows. The war on Yemen was intended as Saudi Arabia’s attack on Iranian proxies, although these have not been in evidence. Instead of hurting Iran, the Saudi bombardment has destroyed Yemen (with enormous civilian casualties and famine in the country) and emboldened al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Cancelation of a $4 billion deal to the Lebanese military as a way to punish the country for the presence of Hezbollah has also backfired. Lebanon is aggrieved at these Saudi games, rather than willing to stand up against Hezbollah—which many Lebanese see as a national force, not an Iranian proxy.
Western arms sales to Saudi Arabia have allowed it to resupply its air force for the campaign against Yemen. Unable to tackle even the Yemeni army, Saudi Arabia has shown that would be worthless against a seasoned adversary such as the Syrian army (despite its attrition during the past half decade war) and the Iranian army (much more versatile and difficult to tackle). The refusal of Pakistan to send its troops to help against Yemen is an indication of the isolation of Saudi Arabia. This March, 350,000 troops from 20 countries took part in the Northern Thunder military exercise in Saudi Arabia. This was a show of force against Iran and a show of confidence against the West. But the countries that sent forces (including Pakistan, Turkey and Egypt) would not be willing to go into a protracted and impossible war against Iran. This was a show of force. Nothing more. It gave the Kingdom nothing of the confidence it needs.