Iran vs. Saudi Arabia – the Americans’ double play in the Middle East


November 21 , 2017 – Fort Russ News – 

Op-ed by Vasily Vankov – translated by Inessa Sinchougova

Note, this op-ed first appeared on SVpressa.Ru in 2016. It is topical in light of the US-Saudi-Yemen conflict and the beginning of the Syrian peace process with Iran and Turkey.

Having pardoned Tehran from the “axis of evil” as a bonus for abandoning its nuclear program, the United States is using Iran’s return to the Middle East as a full-fledged player, to implement the imperial “divide and conquer” strategy borrowed from the Romans.

Speaking at the Washington summit on nuclear security, President Barack Obama said that Washington does not mind that Iran’s contracts were nominated not only in dollars, but also in euros. Another demonstration of the US administration’s favour, was very painfully perceived by the Saudis, who jealously watch every positive manifestation of the Americans’ attitude toward their main rival.

Especially so, considering that shortly before that the head of the US administration allowed himself a number of unflattering statements about Riyadh. This is about the acclaimed article “The Doctrine of Obama,” which was published in The Atlantic Magazine. This article cites excerpts from the president’s speeches, which criticize the policy of the leadership of Saudi Arabia. As noted in one of the statements, Saudi Arabia should not only learn how to peacefully coexist in the region together with Iran, but, moreover, to share spheres of influence with it.

Obama also made it clear that Washington, despite having military bases on the Arabian Peninsula, will not cover Saudi Arabia in the event of a military adventure of Riyadh against Iran. 

The article draws attention to the fact that the US president finally saw the negative influence of Wahhabi Islam on the stability in Asia. According to him, the Saudis are carrying out the expansion of the fundamentalist version of Islam in countries such as Indonesia, flooding it with their money, teachers, preachers and madrassas.

To the inconvenient question of a journalist, whether Saudi Arabia can be considered an ally of the United States, the American president evasively (almost in the style of the questionnaire on marital status) replied: “Everything is very difficult.” The very monarchs of the Persian Gulf countries Barack Obama indirectly accused of irresponsibility, calling them “careless riders.” For the sake of justice, this delicate definition applies equally to the overseas patrons of the Saudis themselves.

Until recently, Washington turned a blind eye to the monarchy’s support for radical Islamists around the world, and also refrained from criticizing the frankly totalitarian regime leading the “American unsinkable aircraft carrier” in the region.

However, given the propensity of US foreign policy strategists to double play, the question of Washington’s willingness to give up support of its long-standing partner remains open.

The editor-in-chief of the journal “Problems of National Strategy” Ajdar Kurtov, believes that Washington sends an unambiguous signal to Riyadh.

– Relations between the United States and the Saudis for a number of reasons have escalated recently. And this is not only the result of competition for financing, but, for the influence over the forces that are fighting in Syria and Iraq. 

There are also purely economic factors. Approximately ten years ago, US authorities decided that the extraction of shale gas or, scientifically speaking, the “gas of difficult-to-penetrate layers” would not only help to get rid of energy dependence on the “Middle East gas station”, but also move on to expansion in the world hydrocarbon markets. They have already started building terminals for LNG production both on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts- to be able to send it to both Europe and Asia.

A huge amount of resources were invested in this project, including information resources. Therefore, all world media (including Russian) several years ago actively discussed the theme of the “slate revolution”. However, in the conditions of braking in the world economic growth, energy prices fell sharply, as a result of which shale projects became unprofitable.

And Riyadh contributed a lot to this, setting the Americans a real hydrocarbon “race for survival”, refusing to reduce the level of production?

– That’s right. Even after an angry statement from Washington, the Saudis agree to abandon their oversupply only if Iran agrees to freeze oil production. This proposal is rather absurd considering that Saudi Arabia produced more than 10 million barrels a day in January. While production in Iran, according to OPEC, is at the level of 3.1 million barrels.

The American shale oil business can not win the race. But this affects the interests not only of gas-oil workers, but also of bankers, investment and insurance companies. And Obama has to reckon with the discontent of the energy lobby.

How far did the factor of lifting sanctions from Iran affect the cooling of relations with the Saudis?

– Americans attribute to themselves the credit of curtailing the “Iranian nuclear program” and the withdrawal (while partial) of Tehran from sanctions. This allows them to create a field for maneuver in the Middle East and to avoid the situation when their former allies (monarchies of the Persian Gulf and Israel) acted like the tail that “tried to wag the dog”.

The royal family in Saudi Arabia is painfully aware of the new reality when its main competitor in the region converges with the United States.

At the same time, the American elites understand that Saudi Arabia has been and remains the spiritual center of much of the Muslim world. In this regard, Washington can not completely ruin relations with this country.

In the event of a final geopolitical rupture, the ruling clan of the Saudis can fully solidarise with radical Islamists. Turning into a new Iran for Washington, whose spiritual leaders used to call the US “Greater Satan.”

This is not at all favourable to the American authorities. By the way, Obama made his claims on the policy with Riyadh not at a meeting of the Congress, but in an interview with journalists. I repeat, this is a signal to Riyadh, so that he corrects his position.

Will it be heard?

– The United States has a whole set of effective instruments of influence on the Kingdom. For example, to suspend the execution of contracts in the field of military-technical cooperation. It’s no secret that most of its weapons are purchased by the Saudis from the United States.

I do not exclude the possibility that the public rhetoric towards Riyadh may be due to the fact that by the end of 2015 Russia’s export arms contracts portfolio reached its maximum value of $ 55 billion. The Saudi Arabian authorities and other countries of the Persian Gulf have already sounded The possibility of purchasing various types of weapons from Russia, which look preferable to the price / quality ratio.

That is, Washington warns – do not even try!

– It is possible to say that. But, most importantly, the US is unhappy with the spontaneous activity of representatives of the ruling family. For example, the head of Saudi intelligence began to travel to different countries, to negotiate something. And, as far as I understand, without the permission of Washington, while the US is accustomed to keeping the allies “on a short leash.”

Obama mentioned the negative impact of Wahhabi Islam on stability in Asia. At the same time, as an example, he cited not the vicious links of the Saudi regime with the odious ISIS, but confessional proselytizing in Indonesia.

– The US itself is playing a double game with Islamic extremists. Therefore, it is too early to talk about changing the general paradigm. As for Indonesia, it is the largest Muslim country in the modern world. Moreover, it is in the Asia-Pacific region, where the US is promoting its regional draft agreement on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. If the Saudis continue to radicalize such a large player, this could prevent the Americans from placing the region under their control.

US sanctions against European banks prove that if desired, the White House could have stopped financing extremist groups, both from the monarchies of the Persian Gulf and from Turkey.

– It’s possible to do this with the Europeans, but with the regimes in the Arabian Peninsula this is a problem. OPEC countries own American treasury securities at $ 289 billion, while the share of Saudi Arabia is considered to be the largest. To compensate for the largest budget deficit in a quarter of a century, Riyadh has already rid itself of foreign exchange reserves by $ 100 billion. According to some experts, if the Saudis sell off the remaining securities of the US Treasury, they can, therefore, bring down the American debt market. Therefore, the Americans will not take drastic steps in the financial sphere against their obstinate allies.

How likely is the scenario of the disintegration of Saudi Arabia?

– Yes, we know what is happening now in neighboring Yemen, where the Shiite insurgents are actively assisted by Iraq. Although in Saudi Arabia, Shiites constitute 15% of the population, to be honest, I do not think that this scenario will be realized. And, especially since it will be supported by the United States. Because if a Shia state separates from Saudi Arabia, it will blow up the entire situation in the region.

That is, it will automatically strengthen Iran, may strile Israel (through the activation of the Shiite “Hezbollah”). Plus, “Assad must leave”, it seems, still remains the idea-fix of Washington, despite the confrontation with ISIS. In this regard, they still needs a single Saudi Arabia as a factor of pressure on the Syrian leader.

Of course, Saudi Arabia, in spite of the absolute monarchy, is not a monolith. There is preserved, tribal division, the power of compatriots. Against this background, there is the ruling royal family of Saudis, whose autocracy is not to everyone’s satisfaction. In this regard, the United States can leave a  state in tact, but, say, remove the ruling dynasty if it allows itself too many liberties. I do not exclude that in the depths of the CIA this option is being worked out. If the Americans bring their creature to power, it, for obvious reasons, will be more compliant.

According to the director of the Middle East and Central Asia Study Center Semyon Bagdasarov , Americans are trying to diversify geopolitical risks in the Middle East.

– This is what is called, “do not put all the eggs in one basket.” Washington is pursuing a policy that neither Israel, nor Saudi Arabia, nor Iran can act as allies-monopolists in relation to the Americans. At the same time, the latter try to manipulate these countries, playing on certain contradictions.

When Obama expresses displeasure about the promotion of the Wahhabist ideology by the Saudis, is this not a game for the public?

– The Americans themselves fueled and even generated Islamic movements with extremist ideology. As they say, blame others for your own sins so that they do not think about you.

Calling for the Saudis and Iran to balance each other, are the Americans reconsidering their concept of the “Greater Middle East”, understood as the chaotisation of the region?

– Partly. Invading Iraq in 2003, they thought that it would be easy to do, but did not calculate all the consequences. At the same time, Washington is closely monitoring the situation. Hence the recent statement of the State Department on the inadmissibility of the emergence of Kurdish autonomy in Syria or Iraqi Kurdistan. And, in general, the US acts on the situation – if it succeeds, they will maintain relations with any force. They need to have in the Middle East several centers of influence, between which it is possible to maneuver or intermittently squirt them with each other.

The Americans will not overthrow the ruling dynasty in Saudi Arabia. But, if thanks to the Iranians the process will start, then they too will join it. Whoever wins – the US would also be winning.

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