Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Iran So Far Away...[from us at least]

Greg Gause gives an interesting interview to Bernard Gwertzman of the Council on Foreign relations discussing, mostly, the state of play for Saudi Arabia vis-a-vis Iran and Iraq. Of particular interest, and something that I have been monitoring as part of my ongoing coverage of the effort to enlist Sunni dictatorships (SADDAM) to confront Iran, is Gause's contention that Saudi Arabia is not exactly enthusiastic for a military confrontation per se, since it's their necks that are closest to being on the line:

The Saudis will be very anxious to hear what President Bush has to say about Iran because the Saudis share the American view that Iran is a threat and has to be contained. But they’re very nervous about a direct U.S.-Iranian confrontation because they think they’d be on the front line of that. [...]

To the extent that there’s a fear that the Bush administration might even after the NIE be pursuing a confrontational policy, yes, they want more engagement. But the Saudis are in a situation that is much like the position of our NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies during the Cold War. During the Cold War, the NATO allies were afraid if U.S.-Soviet relations became bellicose they would be the battlefield. But they were also afraid if U.S.-Soviet relations were too friendly their interests would be sold out. The Saudis would like to have a peaceful but wary U.S.-Iranian relationship.

Last February I commented on this apprehension, noting:

[O]ne of the key members of that putative pan-Sunni bloc, Saudi Arabia, has recently crossed the picket line in order to engage Iran in common pursuit of a solution to quiet the rampant violence and communal tension in Lebanon. A breach in the supposed "united front" this early in the game doesn't exactly portend well for the long term success of the project.

While roaring birth pangs and roiling conflicts between Sunnis and Shiites, writ large, might sound attractive to certain denizens of the White House, the leaders that reside in the region that is designated to be set ablaze won't likely agree on the aromatic quality of napalm in the morning. At least when it's their houses being incinerated.

Here is Gause on the recent haj invitation extended from Riyadh to Ahmadinejad (also discussed here):

The Saudis are playing a sophisticated game here. They see Iran as a rising power in the region—in Iraq, in Lebanon, and among Palestinians. They fear that Iran [the major Shiite power] will be the ultimate beneficiary of the Iraq war [because of Iraq’s large Shiite population] and so they do want to contain them. But they want to contain and embrace at the same time. They don’t want a direct confrontation with Iran. They had those direct confrontations during the Ayatollah Khomeini period during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and they didn’t like it.

Gause also touches on the tension between the Saudi regime and the Maliki government, hinting at the Saudis' longview, and preferred champion - albeit a longshot (as discussed here, here and here):

They don’t like the Iraq war and they don’t like the results that it has brought about. But they were very worried that if we just left, Iran would completely dominate the new Iraqi state. And so, they very publicly at the end of 2006 called for the United States, as the Saudi ambassador put it, “not to leave Iraq before you’ve fixed it.” But the most interesting development in 2007 from the Saudi point of view is the rise of the Awakening Councils, the tribal and other Sunni groups uniting against al-Qaeda and cooperating with the United States. We don’t have much evidence on this because the Saudis are secretive about such things, but I’m pretty confident that the Saudis have encouraged this with their influence and with their money. And those Awakening Councils are kind of the natural extension of Saudi influence into Iraq. [...]

They certainly have a proxy contest for influence. But at least on the Saudi side I think they are willing to acknowledge that Iraqi Shiites are the demographic weight in Iraq and they are going to be the dominant part of the government. What they worry about is that the Sunnis will be cut out completely and that the Iraqi Shiites who are in the government will be clients of Iran. And they look at Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as basically a client of Iran. [...]

[Ideally the Saudis would] bring the Iraq war to an end with Ayad Allawi as prime minister. He’s a good Shiite, but he’s not a client of Iran and he’s not a sectarian religious figure. And Allawi’s government would bring in lots of Sunnis. Politically, I’m not sure that could be pulled off. But that’s what they would like.

I tend to agree. The question is, will the Saudis learn to live with Maliki or someone with a similarly sectarian Shiite outlook? Because Allawi ain't happening. If not, will their proxies in Iraq eventually turn their guns on the Maliki government (or its next incarnation)? As Marc Lynch noted in his highly recommended roundup of Arab media chatter concerning Awakening-style developments:

The Jordanian analyst Hassan al-Barari recently reported on a meeting he had with Abu Azzam, identified as one of the leaders of the Abu Ghrayb Awakening. According to Abu Azzam, the greatest threat to the Arab Sunnis is the Iranian occupation, and then the American occupation. The number one enemy was not al-Qaeda as portrayed in the media, he stressed, but rather Iran and its agents. The American occupation was only for the medium term but the Iranians would stay. If the Resistance could not fight the Americans and Iranians together, the logical solution was to align with the temporary American occupation in order to improve the Sunni position to defeat the Iranians.

In this instance, as with the Saudis, "Iranian occupation" and "Maliki government" are functionally synonymous.

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