Saudi Arabia is furious at the permanent members of the UN Security Council. In September, the Saudi foreign minister cancelled his usual speech before the General Assembly in protest of UN inaction on Syria. Today, the Saudis turned down a highly coveted seat as a non-permanent member to that same UN Council. What gives?
Since the days of the Shah of Iran, the Saudi Royal Family have been concerned about the imbalance of power around the Persian Gulf. Iran is a country of nearly eighty million people. If left alone, without a superpower patron, Saudi Arabia would have to organize nearly the entire Arab Levant (including Egypt) in order to achieve some semblance of a balance against such a behemoth. In the past, the Saudis could count on both the US and Iraq as its strategic weight. Now, the lonely Saudi king has watched in vain as two inept American administrations have shifted the balance and thereby ignited a regional backlash.
The Saudi-American strategic partnership goes all the way back to WWII. With Britain protecting the tiny Gulf States, Saudi Arabian defense was the special project of the US. Let the cheap oil flow from the Arabian peninsula, and the American economy boomed. But US policy wasn’t just directed towards the Saudis. It also encompassed an Iranian component. In 1946, the US forced the Soviets off Iranian soil and back onto their most southern province in Azerbaijan. The Western world relied so heavily on oil from the Gulf that any direct Soviet encroachment could risk the strangulation of the world’s capitalist economies.
By 1953, the Iranians decided to nationalize their oil industry from the grip of British imperialism. This time, however, the Americans mistook this event as an example of Soviet expansion southward. It wasn’t. It was Iranian nationalism, pure and simple. The CIA helped to overthrow the democratic Mossadeq government and the Iranians never forgot. For the next twenty-six years, the Iranian Shah and the Saudi King stood like twin towers, both US allies, both protecting the Gulf from the Soviets.
By 1975 the Gulf balance-of-power became a supreme issue as the Shah began a campaign of regional hegemony. First, he pioneered Iran’s nuclear program. Second, he bought enormous amounts of American-made military equipment. Third, he envisioned an Iran whose regional strategic shadow would spread from the Hindu Kush to the Mediterranean. To pay for his ambitions, the Shah lobbied for higher oil prices by means of lower production. But the US was caught up in an economic crisis (no growth with inflation). The last thing that the Ford Administration wanted was higher oil prices. For the Saudis, Iran’s hegemonic actions were disconcerting, to say the least. The Gulf Arabs decided to increase oil production. The US agreed with their actions in order to keep prices low. Iran’s overspending in the face of lowered oil prices caused a severe budget crisis and recession. The Iranian people were hit hard. Within four years, the Shah was gone and the Islamic Republic born.
The second act in the Saudi struggle for a long enduring regional balance-of-power took place in the eighties. With a Saudi financial nod and an American amber light (some would argue it was green), Saddam Hussein of Iraq invaded Iran. This most horrible war lasted eight long year. Neither side could claim victory but a regional balance (from a Sunni perspective) was established. By the end of the war the Iranians felt surrounded on all sides. The Soviets were in Afghanistan to their east. The US Navy patrolled their southwestern coast, hostile Iraq was to their west, and the Soviet Caucasus on their north. Iran was in a tight box but Saudi apprehensions were eased.
With the fall of the Soviet Union in the nineties, the pressure on Iran cooled somewhat. However, the third act of the balance-of-power saga began a decade later, with 9-11. This terrorist nightmare caused American assessment to go haywire. By 2009, the Americans had invaded Iraq and overthrew nearly four hundred years of Islamic history (not since 1638 have the Shia controlled Mesopotamia) and then, President Obama decided to withdraw. The Saudi Royal Family, the GCC, the Sunnis of Iraq, the Hashemite King of Jordan and the Egyptian government were appalled. Not only had the Iranians broke out of their geopolitical box, but they were clearly on the ascendancy. An Iranian proxy state (Iraq) created by bungling Western powers now sat directly on the Saudi and Jordanian borders. Meanwhile, Iranian proxy clients in Damascus and southern Lebanon had spread the ex- Shah’s dream to the Galilee and the Golan. If all of Israel was not appalled, it should have been. The idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be solved in the context of this regional imbalance was an example of American ineptitude not unlike its own current political imbroglio.
We are now in the middle of act three in this long playing regional balance-of-power struggle. The Sunni push-back came with the uprising against the Assad regime in Syria. Israel lies at the very epicenter of this region and struggle. In 2006, it fought a mini-war against the Iranian proxy, Hezbollah. Wars were also fought against another Iranian proxy, Hamas, in Gaza. The Americans insist that Fatah is safe and a true partner for peace. I’m not so sure, because I don’t trust American judgement. They have messed up too many times. Ask the Saudi King. He’ll tell you a story of US wavering and lack of understanding. Can the Obama Administration really be considering a compromise on the Iranian nuclear program that would lift sanctions yet allow the regional imbalance to continue? Might not that same imbalance tilt even further toward Tehran once the money starts flowing in? And what would be the affect on Jordan? Could a Palestinian-Iranian alliance develop to the west of Saudi Arabia and to the east of Israel? Are you listening Mr. Secretary of State?
Once again, it is all about bringing down the price of oil. Follow the money! It is no wonder that the Saudi King is angry. Israel and Jordan should be angry too.
The region of the Middle East needs a structured balance-of-power where all nations can feel secure. Only the UN Security Council can provide the framework for such a Grand Bargain to work successfully. Beyond the UN, the region itself needs its own permanent balance. Iraq must stay intact as a democratic country. The same is true for Syria and Lebanon. The Hezbollah and Hamas missiles must be dismantled. If Iran contemplates expansion, it will be blocked by both the great powers and an Israeli-Arab Alliance that spreads from Cairo to Tel Aviv to Amman to Riyadh. Likewise, for the sake of a reasonable balance, all foreign powers must leave the Gulf. Finally, anything less than a regional Grand Bargain, will be a bad nuclear deal!
Maybe, in the future, the UN will prove worthy of the Saudi King’s good graces. Maybe, once a more permanent regional structure begins to take place, Israel-Jordan and the Palestinians can sit down to serious discussions about the future of the disputed territories and Jerusalem. Maybe, just maybe, UN Security Council Resolution 242 can be implemented without American ineptitude and go-it-alone superpower hubris.