New Middle East Cold War

The New Middle East Cold War: Saudi/Israel/Lebanon versus Iran/Syria/Iraq/Hizbullah

Helene Cooper with Hassan Fattah of the NYT has the scoop that Saudi King Abdullah told US VP Dick Cheney two weeks ago that if the US withdrew precipitately from Iraq, the kingdom would have little choice but to support the Sunni Arab guerrillas. The Saudi government had pledged to the US not to do so as long as US troops were in Iraq. But it is alleged that Saudi oil millionaires privately already send money to the guerrillas. Saudis, as Wahhabi Muslims, belong to a sect that is to the right of Sunnism. But the Wahhabi tradition dislikes Shiites and in any Sunni-Shiite struggle, the Wahhabis will come in on the Sunni side.

This item is no surprise, of course, and I have brought up this likelihood a number of times myself. What is remarkable is that it is being stated by the Saudi leadership and published in the press. The Saudis are usually circumspect. If they are leaking this sort of thing, their hair must be on fire with anxiety.

Cooper also reports the abrupt and mysterious resignation of Saudi Ambassador to the US Turki al-Faisal after only 22 months in Washington. Prince Turki has been an effective diplomat and has done a lot of outreach work, addressing ordinary American audiences (a style very unlike that of Prince Bandar bin Sultan, his long-serving predecessor). Prince Turki is the only Saudi official I know of publicly to espouse Gandhian principles of non-violence for the Palestinian cause. I met him more than once and was impressed by his humanity and acumen. I’m sorry to see him leave Washington. There are rumors that he is leaving to become foreign minister of the kingdom. If that were the case, I should have thought the promotion would be announced along with his resignation, which he called a “retirement.” The way this is being handled looks more to me as though he lost some big policy fight with the establishment in Riyadh. But we shall see.

The Saudis are usually important to the formulation of US policy in the Middle East. W. is now rudderless, with Rumsfeld gone and Cheney neutered by the November elections. Prince Turki’s departure in addition to hysteria about a regional guerrilla war in Iraq on the part of the Saudi King are an element of instability in White House policy-making that we could have done without.

Meanwhile, a de facto Israeli-Saudi alliance appears to be building against Iran and the Shiites. Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz is now saying that the 2002 Beirut peace plan put forward by then crown prince–now King–Abdullah of Saudi Arabia must be the basis for going forward with an Arab-Israeli peace process. Abdullah got the Arab League to offer Israel full recognition and political and economic relations if only they’d go back to the 1967 borders and recognize a Palestinian state.

At the time, then prime minister Ariel Sharon dismissed Abdullah’s plan rather rudely. But now Israel has been bloodied by a Lebanon war that it lost on points to Hizbullah despite its clear military superiority. Bashar al-Asad of Syria pointed out that every generation of Arabs hates the Israelis more than its predecessors. Iran is emerging as a new hegemon in the eastern stretches of the Middle East.

Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Olmert hoped that the Lebanon War of last August would finish off Hizbullah. Instead, Hizbullah put up a respectable resistance to the Israeli military. Now, Hizbullah and its Christian allies loyal to Michel Aoun have staged enormous daily protests aimed at bringing down the reform government of Fuad Seniora, and they may even succeed. Hizbullah is allied with Syria, which is allied with Iran.

While Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel are unified states in this new alliance, their de facto allies in Lebanon and Iraq include the bloc of Saad al-Hariri in the Lebanese parliament and the Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Iraq.

Iran gets support from Syria and Shiite Iraq and from Hizbullah in Lebanon.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh went to Tehran recently and got pledges of $120 mn. in aid. Haniyeh while there pledged never to recognize Israel. Iran has Shiite clients in Iraq now, and is reaching into the Levant with its patronage for Hizbullah and Hamas.

Iran’s farce of a “conference” on the Holocaust is a way of underlining its government’s complete rejection of a two state solution and of a Zionist state in the Middle East. Iran’s leaders support a maximalist Hamas vision of a fundamentalist Muslim Palestinian state in all of historical Palestine, which requires the dissolution of the Israeli state. Since Israelis tend to justify their state project with reference to the Holocaust, the Ahmadinejad faction in Iran is replying with Holocaust denial as a counter to this argument. Note that other prominent Iranians, such as former President Mohammad Khatami, accept the Holocaust and have lambasted Ahmadinejad for questioning it.

So Israel is up against determined enemies on its borders, which it has not been able to crush militarily, and which are political clients of Iran. Iran does not pose a conventional military threat to Israel, but Tehran is able to put pressure on it through support of asymmetrical operations, which it hopes can make the Israeli state collapse in the same way that the Soviet state collapsed. The Israeli leadership believes that Iran is trying to get a nuclear weapon, even though there is no good evidence for an Iranian nuclear weapon program (as opposed to a civilian nuclear research program).

I have been told that the Israeli leadership is extremely anxious about Iran becoming a nuclear power, and sullen about the outcome of the Lebanon war. They are further demoralized by the Baker-Hamilton Commission report, which calls for US talks with Iran. The Israeli leaders interpret this passage as a surrender by Washington to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and are preparing for the possibility that they might have to take on Iran themselves. This extreme anxiety about a nuclear Iran (which is at least 10 years away even if it is trying, according to the US National Intelligence Estimate) may have driven Olmert to make his gaffe of openly admitting that Israel has weapons of mass destruction. That gaffe has resulted in calls for his resignation. For one thing, in strict US law, it should result in sanctions by Congress. Olmert, battered by the outcome of the Lebanon War, and now accused of having loose lips of the sort that got Mordechai Vanunu an 18-year prison sentence, is desperate for a political breakthrough of the sort that might come from a realignment of Middle East politics.

Saudi Arabia is equally frantic about the possibility of a nuclear Iran, and is moreover apoplectic that the US delivered Baghdad into the hands of Iraqi Shiite fundamentalists allied with Iran. Saudi Arabia fears Hizbullah in Lebanon as an Iranian cat’s paw in the Arab world. The Khomeinists of Iran and south Lebanon believe that Islam is incompatible with monarchy (Khomeini said, “there are no kings in Islam.”)

Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and (de facto) the 14 March Bloc in Lebanon are ranged against Iran, Shiite Iraq, Syria, Hizbullah and Hamas. Neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia can openly admit to the tacit alliance for fear of anger from their own publics because of objectionable parties to it. But this is how things are shaking out.

Now the Saudis are openly saying that this new Cold War in the region could turn hot. If you don’t own a bicycle, I’d buy one, because a regional war of the sort Saudi Arabia said it feared would potentially cut off 20 percent of the world’s petroleum.