March Op-Eds (Iran-Saudi)
In the English-language Arab News, editor Faisal J. Abbas focused explaining the apparent contradictions of Saudi policies for English-speaking audiences:
Some may be skeptical of Saudi intentions, or indeed call this a U-turn; they are clearly not up to date with the Kingdom’s declared policy. Friday’s agreement is in line with what Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told The Atlantic magazine a year ago — that we see Iran as a neighbor. It was in both parties’ interests to resolve matters, the crown prince said, but the Kingdom’s security concerns must be addressed first. Arab News, 3.11.2023
He had a further word for U.S.-based commentators:
What I don’t get, however, is the skepticism and negativity of some US pundits. These armchair experts in Washington need reminding that if this deal sticks and progresses, it would actually serve American interests. Just think of maritime security in the Red Sea and the Gulf, think of how much it will reduce the cost of American security and military operations, and how many markets it would open up for US manufacturing and jobs. These skeptics appear to have forgotten that it was Barack Obama — like Joe Biden, a Democrat president — who simplistically said in his notorious 2016 interview with The Atlantic magazine that Saudi Arabia and Iran must learn to “share the neighborhood.” So Riyadh is damned if it listens to US advice, and damned if it doesn’t. Arab News, 3.13.2023
In Arabic, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed has a 2-part op-ed reviewing China’s role in the agreement, entitled “Is Beijing ending a 40 years’ conflict?” In terms of the future of the agreement, al-Rashed points to the challenges posed by other concerns (perennial worries over Iran’s nuclear program and regional political involvement) while emphasizing the Yemen in particular as a regional conflict that will indicate “major test” for the agreement:
We are optimistic that Saudi Arabia will lead and carry out this reconciliation, both regionally and internationally, but it is too early to extrapolate beyond this [specific] agreement. Other files are interconnected and explosive, the most important of which is Iran’s nuclear project for military purposes, and Tehran’s hegemony over four Arab capitals [Sana’a, Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut]. The major test is in Yemen. Tehran has a major role in managing the Houthi rebellion, and if the two sides, with the auspices of China, manage to prepare a conclusive, peaceful solution to stop the war and restore the legitimate government, that alone would be sufficient to declare the success of the Beijing agreement. Yemen is an issue that concerns the world: its war threatens the international maritime trade corridor, terrorist organizations settle on its land, and the war threatens the security of Saudi Arabia. On top of this, Yemen is a human tragedy that has been going on since the occupation of Sanaa, and the overthrow of the legitimate government. Aawsat, 3.12.2023
The follow-up article in turn argues-at least on the surface-that the agreement should be welcome news for the U.S. government.
The Beijing agreement should be good news for Washington, as it considered the repeated demands of the Gulf states for an American partnership or security guarantees (against Iran’s threats) as an unwelcome burden. This burden will be reduced if the agreement succeeds. Military annexes are not expected in the agreement, giving China bases or harbors to protect waterways and ensure that Iran does not attack its neighbors. Reconciliation is based on the interests of the three countries, Saudi Arabia, Iran and China. The direct or indirect Iranian attacks, through its militias in Iraq or Yemen, on a Saudi tanker or facilities, for example, would be an attack on China, the owner of the agreement. What about the concept of Iran neutralizing Saudi Arabia? Iran has created many enmities for itself that have nothing to do with its differences with Riyadh. Contrary to its policy of isolating Saudi Arabia from regional issues, the agreement may open up a new Arab space for the Iranians based on reconciliation, and not through arms and militia…. In any case, expanding the circle of reconciliations is a matter for Iran, and getting Saudi Arabia to be “neutral” may be an incentive for it to go the rest of the way and end forty years of Iranian-Arab tension… We look forward to China trying to address the rest of the conflicts with Iran, in Iraq and Lebanon, as well as concluding a truce with Israel. Perhaps it will participate in finding a solution to the Iranian nuclear weapons project, the most important international issue. It is certain that the United States and Europe would welcome a Chinese role, if it turns out that it is able to end this file: the difficult Saudi-Iranian dispute. Aawsat, 3.13.2023
Al-Riyadh‘s editorial page in turn had to execute a deft pivot from this on March 8:
Everything that has been happening in Iran in recent months indicates that the brutal regime is now facing an existential test that threatens its survival, and signals the end of a dark phase in the history of the Iranian Republic.. This regime has continued the attack instead of admitting its mistakes or trying to correct its policy, with certainty that this would be tantamount to surrender and a death sentence for the entire regime. This regime is built on an expansionist and sectarian ideology, and bases its legitimacy on this rather than on constitutional or popular legitimacy. Jamal al-Qahtani as “Word of Al Riyadh,” 3.8.2023
The Saudi-Iranian agreement came to put an end to outstanding issues that caused a rift in the region. [Poor] relations could have continued for decades longer, had it not been for the wisdom of our wise leadership, which responded to the Chinese President’s call to “develop good neighborly relations between the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran.” This is what happened, as the talks were held with a shared desire to reach common ground that will lead to mutual respect and commitment. Good neighborliness, national sovereignty, and non-interference in internal affairs-all of these are extremely important points for starting a new era in relations between Riyadh and Tehran, which will reflect positively on the relations between the two countries in particular, and on the stability of the region in general. Hani Wafa as “Word of Al-Riyadh,” 3.11.2023
Plenty of other articles in Okaz and Al-Riyadh underscored the Kingdom’s commitment to reconciliation. Throughlines among all were a) the Kingdom’s commitment to being a “good neighbor” with Iran and b) casting conflict with Iran as something that Western or “outside” powers want:
The Kingdom has never rushed to political decisions without uncalculating the consequences. Such is the case at the present time, when various Western powers are mobilizing a war of words and political and military insinuations against Iran. The Kingdom has overcome this slippery slope, knowing very well that it will lead to chaos in the region, by directing the Kingdom’s policy to diplomatic solutions. – Haila al-Mushawwah, Okaz, 3.14.2023
The Chinese were not involved in the colonization of this region and were not part of the political and military history of this region… It is certain that there are “forces” that do not want stability, renaissance and prosperity for this region and Africa. These forces always find their success in destruction and devastation, where the environment is suitable for exploitation, colonization, plunder, theft and slavery. They will seek to undermine every peace effort. – Abdul Latif Al-Duwaihi, Okaz, 3.14.2023
In short, Iran is a neighbor by virtue of geography, and good neighborliness is a must given that what unites the peoples of the region more than what separates them! – Khalid al-Sulaiman, Okaz, 3.13.2023
Among the facts of Saudi influence is that our hand has always been extended to reach understanding with everyone. Our influence is based on mutual respect, commitment to good neighborliness, respect for national sovereignty, and non-interference in internal affairs or influence over them. – Khalid al-Matrafi, Al-Riyadh, 3.13.2023
After the signing of the resumption of Saudi-Iranian relations, analyzes, warnings, and speculation began about what might happen, and whether the agreement could survive the setbacks due to the mismatch of negotiations with field reality, and what would happen if the major powers intervened to enact additional conditions to the agreement. – Abdo Khal, Okaz, 3.13.2023
Or, less carefully worded but in English, from Salman al-Ansari:
I can sense that the #US intelligence community is now looking for nothing but a way through which they foil the #Saudi – #Iranian rapprochement. The #US used #Iran as a "boogeyman" against #SaudiArabia for 4 decades, Riyadh wants to put an end to that cheap blackmailing… https://t.co/b1LMnvAZoi — Salman Al-Ansari (@Salansar1) March 14, 2023
And with a slight hint of skepticism from Hamood Abo Taleb (or perhaps I’m reading too much into this):
Certainly, all rational people and lovers of peace and stability welcomed the important agreement that was issued by Beijing yesterday between the Kingdom and Iran, and the provisions it contained… However, the two-month period specified for re-opening embassies and the restoration of relations is the first test of Iran’s credibility and proof of its good intentions. We must see the beginning of a real change in the scene that it created around us, and an actual correction in its dealings with the Kingdom. Even if Iran succeeds in testing it during this period, it must prove its seriousness Its continuity and full commitment to what has been agreed upon.Okaz, 3.12.2023
On the U.S. side of things, I was struck by a Twitter thread from WINEP’s Robert Satloff–one that I initially agreed with, since it spoke of an “exaggerated reaction about #China’s emergence as a #MiddleEast powerbroker.” Yet the point of the thread is not to “right-size” views of China’s role in the proceedings, but to again beat the drum of needing to do more for Saudi Arabia – a great example of what Alexandra Stark has referred to as “the state of the [security] relationships themselves… increasingly becoming the goal of US foreign policy in the region.”
The resumption of #Saudi–#Iran relations has triggered what I believe to be exaggerated reaction about #China’s emergence as a #MiddleEast powerbroker and a strategic shift of #Riyadh away from its traditional partners. 1/17 — Robert Satloff (@robsatloff) March 12, 2023
Satloff and many others in the U.S. think tank space have long served as conduits for Saudi, Israeli, and other governments to launder grievances with U.S. administrations. Take for example just a few quotes in recent NYT and WSJ stories about the Saudi government’s purported willingness to normalize relations with Israel-both of which were primarily sourced to “people familiar with the matter”:
Mark Dubowitz, FDD: “The kingdom is committed to normalization with Israel. Its requirements from Washington, even if they sound excessive to some, are an expression of Saudi security concerns and not a way to say no to Israel.” (WSJ, March 9, 2023)
John Hannah, Jewish Institute for National Security of America: “Discussion of the Palestinians was pretty dismissive… [Riyadh officials want U.S. support to enrich uranium and develop its own fuel production system, Mr. Hannah said.]” (WSJ, March 9, 2023)
Robert Satloff, WINEP: “[Senior Saudi leaders] “bitterly noted what they believe was U.S. indifference to Saudi security concerns.” (NYT, March 9, 2023, quoting from a report published last year)
The narrative these quotes* advance is that Saudi Arabia might just normalize relations with Israel as part of an expanded Abraham Accords (with Israel and Saudi Arabia throw together by a shared fear of Iran) if only the Biden administration would offer the Kingdom jut a few more concessions, such as:
Protecting weapons sales from Congress (the Biden administration has already done so many times)
a definitive security guarantee (that even a Republican president would find impossible to get through Congress)
Approving the share of nuclear technology (without the safeguards that the UAE readily agreed to – hard to get through Congress)
Ensuring that U.S. officials never, ever raise even the idea of “human rights” in public comments about Saudi Arabia ever again (tricky but doable for this administration)
Satloff’s thread quickly becomes an explanation for why the Biden administration should still offer concessions to Saudi Arabia in pursuit of a normalization deal with Iran despite a clear indication that Riyadh no longer views the Iranian threat as quite so existential. In tweet #7, he channels* a “Saudi leader at the highest level” to convey that “We want to hear a serious plan that will prevent #Iran from getting a bomb. If Iran does get a bomb, our policy will change – we will become friends with Iran. We live in this neighborhood. We have to survive.”
“But we want to hear a serious plan that will prevent #Iran from getting a bomb. If Iran does get a bomb, our policy will change – we will become friends with Iran. We live in this neighborhood. We have to survive.” 7/17 — Robert Satloff (@robsatloff) March 12, 2023
There are no prizes for guessing what Robert Satloff thought of the main “serious plan” on tap to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, or what Saudi commentators and officials thought of Trump withdrawing from the nuclear deal and all but guaranteeing Iran’s present enrichment levels. It can seem more than a little ironic that Faisal Abbas has gone from asserting that “no deal is far better than a bad one” in 2018 to ostensibly countering “armchair experts” such as Satloff with President Obama’s “controversial” statements from a interview with The Atlantic‘s Jeff Goldberg:
The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace… An approach that said to our friends ‘You are right, Iran is the source of all problems, and we will support you in dealing with Iran’ would essentially mean that as these sectarian conflicts continue to rage and our Gulf partners, our traditional friends, do not have the ability to put out the flames on their own or decisively win on their own, and would mean that we have to start coming in and using our military power to settle scores. And that would be in the interest neither of the United States nor of the Middle East. The Atlantic, 4.15.2016
(Obama’s subsequent riff on how “tribalism” is “the source of much of the Muslim Middle East’s problems” was not great at the time and remains… not great.)
The main problem for Satloff is that any Iran-Saudi rapprochement hinders the pursuit of his ideal world: one of an open-ended, militarized U.S. commitment to Saudi Arabia and above all Israel, with an eventual goal of regime change in Iran (or at least the incapacitation of Iran qua state). It’s telling that Satloff includes “strong-arming on Yemen” as among the sins of the Biden administration in approaching the U.S.-Saudi relationship, as though the administration hasn’t gone out of its way to defend the Kingdom from domestic U.S. criticism once warring parties reached a fraught ceasefire (formal or informal), and as though that ceasefire hasn’t had a meaningful impact on the ground. It does not actually matter how many people are dying or suffering at any given moment in the region so long as Iran is clearly losing “points” in the great game of regional influence. This is the only way to present the cooling of tensions in the region as yet another threat to American security interests.
Karen Elliott House takes a slightly different tack to the same end, putting more emphasis on Saudi Arabia’s “turn to China” but still claiming that the Iran-Saudi agreement is but a signal that Saudi officials need more concessions from the United States to get the Kingdom to normalize relations with Israel. (For House, Saudi Arabia doesn’t even seem to be committing to normalization–just a promise to help Israel normalize relations with a few other countries, repeating the shopworn but untested claim that Saudi Arabia can “deliver” the foreign policies of many sovereign nations of the Muslim world.) House is another individual whose frequent trips to Saudi Arabia always manage to bring back a Wall Street Journal op-ed or two encouraging U.S. leaders to please do more for Saudi Arabia. This time is no different (assuming she was at the Al-Ula meeting referenced below), as she lays out her (?) interpretation of the logic behind the Saudi government’s latest move:
Yet the kingdom’s real purpose is to raise pressure on the Biden administration to abandon Iran and provide the security guarantees Riyadh demands to recognize Israel. Normalization remains a Saudi goal but not as part of the Abraham Accords. Instead, Saudi-Israel normalization would be a new initiative by Riyadh to pave the way for major Islamic nations like Indonesia and Malaysia to establish relations with the Jewish state. In exchange, the crown prince wants the U.S. to declare Saudi Arabia a strategic ally, provide Riyadh reliable access to American arms, and support his plans to enrich uranium and develop its own fuel production for 16 nuclear reactors the kingdom intends to build over the next two decades. All these measures will encounter resistance in Congress. By cooperating with China to mend Saudi-Iranian relations, the crown prince has heightened the pressure on the U.S. to guarantee what is in its own self-interest: stability in the region built around Israel and Saudi Arabia. If President Biden wants a diplomatic success, he’ll have to accept some of the Saudi requests. WSJ, 3.12.2023
House’s article and Satloff’s thread represent two sides of the same coin-for them, Saudi-Iranian rapprochement is a big deal not for what it does (potentially winding down numerous regional conflicts and avoiding a major regional war) but for what it signals about Saudi views of the United States. Saudi leaders don’t really mean to reconcile with Iran, the narrative goes, they simply cannot find any other way to convey the gravity of the situation to U.S. counterparts (despite House, Satloff, and others’ efforts to the contrary). Offer the Saudi government more commitments, more pleasantries, more concessions and the Saudi government will act in full alignment with U.S. interests – a theory that has been tested many times in recent years.
Or, by contrast, the idea of Saudi-Israeli rapprochement might be merely cheap talk, as Saudi Arabia pursues its interests by winding down costly regional conflicts (that no longer do much for the domestic or international prestige of its leaders). In this case, the likely outcome (not for the first time) is that Saudi counterparts will simply pocket any concessions made and do little to alter present policies. Saudi commentator Abdulaziz Alghashian certainly suggests this is the case in the NYT, in judging Biden’s prospects for securing such a “diplomatic success”:
Mr. Alghashian said it was unlikely that Saudi officials would actually facilitate a major foreign policy victory for Mr. Biden while he was still president, given their grievances with his administration. “The Saudi ruling elite do not want Biden to be the American president to take credit for Saudi-Israeli normalization, but they don’t mind Biden taking the blame for its absence,” NYT, 3.9.2023
For now, the Biden administration appeals to feel likewise, with one official calling the deal “a good thing” for POLITICO.
Arabic meme about anonymous “well-informed sources,” playing on the literal meaning of “well-informed” as “having a high vantage point”
*(This reporting is careful to frame FDD and WINEP alike as “pro-Israeli American think-tanks,” and notes that these comments follow “trips to the region” by each individual. Yet much as Satloff and others like to pass off these quotes as “insights” gathered from meaningful research during trips to “the region,” these visits are transparently stage-managed to ensure that visitors see and hear what they are meant to. Any resulting quotes from “officials” should be clearly understood as talking points from Saudi and other Gulf officials.
It’s a process that works out well for both sides. Satloff, Hannah, Dubowitz and others can advance their pre-existing agendas by claiming to convey “views from the region,” which carry more value than their mere opinion on the matter. Likewise, statements by government officials (which a reader might naturally be more skeptical of) are vouched for by U.S. “policy scholars,” and put a name to a quote beyond the ubiquitous title of “source familiar with the matter.” It also creates more than a bit of dissonance given the contradictions between the narratives that Saudi and other officials convey under their own names and the narratives that circulate in anonymity or via surrogates.
These kind of trips provide the basis for op-eds on the Saudi side as well: Faisal Abbas highlighted (on March 9) a “candid discussion of the status of Saudi-US relations… was sponsored by THINK — an affiliate of SRMG, which publishes this newspaper [note: and has at least an arms’ length relationship with the Crown Prince] — at the Maraya hall [in Al-Ula], where the AlUla Declaration was signed two years ago.” From ‘Abdelrahman al-Rashed, a passing remark on a forum “forum dominated by frankness…where which personalities from both sides discussed [the relationship.”)