The Taboo Line of the Discourse on the Iran-US-Saudi Triangle

To understand the nature of multifaceted geopolitical shift and growing regional and international crisis, stemmed in part, from the growing rift between Iran and Saudi Arabia, analysts and pundits need to move past the simplistic “pot calling kettle black” rhetoric, and focus as much on the difference between the two countries (surpassing the Persian/Arab, Shi’a/Sunni divide) as on the similarities. Additionally, the shift in the relationship between the United States, the Islamic Republic and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia needs to be reviewed in greater depth. To facilitate such a discussion we should start with examining the premises underlying the current discourse in the media.

First, despite the implications by human rights activists and other concerned citizens, US pivot away from Saudi Arabia and towards not only had nothing to do with the human rights violations in Saudi Arabia, but will have no effect on that issue inside the country, and if anything, will make the situation worse, not better. In the 1960s, President Kennedy convinced the Saudi royals to ban slavery inside the country. Although the human rights abuse remained severe, if not to say, catastrophic, clearly the U.S. administration could wield influence on even internal Saudi policy when relations are at their peak. In fact, Saudi Arabia was moving towards increasing liberalization inside the country prior to the takeover of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in 1979. (See Yaroslav Trofimov’s The Siege of Mecca for a fascinating account of those events).

Though it appeared that the conservative clergy triumphed and Saudi Arabia would be forever be in the hands of a backwards, medieval mindset which supported the most stringent interpretation of Shari’a and eschewed the sciences, as we know, even the most conservative regimes are not immune from diplomatic pressure and appropriate incentives, and the relationship with Saudi Arabia could have been handled to the advantage of the Western liberal-minded visionaries had our foreign policy at any point been concerned with long-term planning. Since it is possible to influence human rights behind the scenes, and we voluntarily chosen not to do anything, and in particular, this administration chose not to get involved in the Raif Badawi and Walid Abulkhair cases,

Nor was the breaking point the allegation of Saudi support of the 9/11 bombers or the sponsorship of the spread of Wahhabism,, a fundamentalist view of Islam, which has been spreading across international institutions of higher education, in particular, and contributing to the global jihadist movement. Both of these issues have been of concern for a number of years, and yet the strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, both on defense/intelligence and trade level appeared to be of more importance.

Likewise, traditionally, the US viewed this Gulf State as a Sunni regional leader and lent its support towards Saudi leadership as a strategic ally in the region considered to be of vital importance to the United States. What has changed? Why has the United States distanced itself from Saudi Arabia when there seemed to be no direct confrontation over any issue of vital importance?

The reason has little to do with Saudi Arabia’s internal or external policy and everything to do with this administration’s vision of the Middle East and the role the United States should play in that region and in the international community. Since his election to office, Obama has pursued the policy of moving the United States away from the role of the world’s tradition and into a more cooperative vision of “inclusivity” of just one of a confederation of players. His support has been for a multipolar world in general and a balance of power between Iran and Sunni Arab states in the Middle East specifically. Thus, the United States pursued a policy that would be supportive of Iran, its allies, and agenda in the region, and run counter to the Saudi interests and traditional alliances and line of action. Furthermore, this administration opened its Saudi ally to unprecedented level of criticism that would serve Iran’s interests but would not, by itself, change anything within the notoriously opaque country, concerned with the appearance of honor and to pressure from the Western foreigners.

None of this is new.

What would be new to the discourse is to call this shift in alliance for what it is: a reorientation of policy that is aimed to strengthen one country at the expense of others. “Balance of Power” is a rhetorical device, legal fiction.  First, Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s interests are so antithetical to each other, that any comprehensive agreement with Iran without taking into consideration Saudi interests in that agreement were bound to be viewed as a hostile move on the part of the United States.

Surely the administration was not so naive as not to understand the repercussions of the agreement with Iran in its current form for the US relationship with Saudi Arabia. The obvious conclusion that can be drawn from the terms of this agreement is that this administration was not seeking an establishment of balance between these two countries, but rather sought to strengthen Iran with the hopes that it would weaken Saudi Arabia and its allies. There are no provisions in the agreement that would balance the interests of the two sides, or, what is more disturbing, would consider the US interests in its relations with KSA. In other words, this administration willingly sacrifices its own existing interests vis-a-vis the Gulf States in order to establish a possibility of a relationship with the Islamic Republic. That is not what one would call a realpolitik move. Sacrificing a significant relationship for the sake of a possibility of a relationship would surely lead to a rather one-sided outcome.

The argument that Iran and Saudi Arabia are a distinction without a difference holds no water once we get to the level of geopolitical discussions. The truth is, the two countries are quite different on every level that would be of interest to anyone – economists, political scientists, theologians, international analysts, security specialists, and even human right defenders. The five most significant differences between the two countries, or more specifically, their governments,  that are not currently being discussed either in light of the nuclear deal or the Iran-Saudi conflict are as follows:

1. Although both countries have a nightmarish human rights record, the trend in Iran and Saudi Arabia runs in opposite directions. In recent years, Saudi Arabia has seen a slight improvement in women’s rights and education, whereas Iran is actually rolling back its freedoms for women and is reactionary in its educational model.

King Abdullah, who preceded the current monarch, was seen viewed as a force of RELATIVE progressivism in an otherwise backwards country tied closely to the conservative clergy as a result of the Mecca incident in 1979. He has encouraged integration of women into the educational system, albeit the rate of the development of women’s rights was far more slow than anyone in the West would appreciate. King Salman has been viewed as a reactionary force, yet some steps forwards have been observed as well (despite the abysmal treatments of critics of religion, thanks, in large part to pro-clergy forces like Mohammed bin Naif). For instance, Saudi women voted for the first time, an absurdly belated and largely symbolic step from our perspective, yet still better than a standstill.  Furthermore, in recent couple of years, segregated vocational training has been developed, allowing for the first time, the opportunity for Saudi Arabia to train for technical jobs, and run by British Universities. And confidential sources tell me about an increasing sense of modernity and openness to integration and liberalization among the younger, educated Saudis which points towards social progress that will eventually force the conservative government to start catching up with the reality on the ground.

By contrast, in Iran, which likewise “boasts” of a high level of executions, and harsh punishments for minor infractions and violations of shari’a-based regulations, civil rights appear to be regressing. Modesty laws for women are being observed more stringently, with the possibility of women’s cars being impounded if they are seen driving without hijab, a new measure that took effect in recent months. This is indeed a far cry from Saudi Arabia where women, especially in the cities, cannot drive at all, but can also be seen as a step towards curtailing freedoms. Women are being banned from watching volleyball games. And in a truly tragicomical development, eight members of Iranian women’s soccer team were found to be… men.

Worse still, the entire society is suffering from the restrictions in the educational system, whereupon high schools are cutting back on the studies of humanities, a trend that has been happening for several years and started with a cut-back in humanities at universities. In general, there is a crackdown on the possibility of Western cultural penetration, the trend that runs counter to the slow opening of KSA to outside influence on the level of business openings among young Saudis who have traveled to the West.

2. Although KSA’s support of Wahhabism has led to proliferation of jihadism around the world, and although both KSA and Iran favor fundamentalist application of Shari’a, KSA has moved away from funding organizations similar to ISIS, whereas Iran continues to support terrorism around the world.

Saudi Arabia has been frequently compared to ISIS in its application of Shari’a based criminal punishments. However, Iran is in many ways is a much more closed society than the supporters of nuclear deal realize. There are hundreds of floggings for various offenses carried out every year and that go unreported.  Why is Iran not being compared to ISIS despite the violent nature of its criminal system? Because it is not Sunni, and thus such comparisons are deemed inappropriate. The reason for that is quite simple. ISIS, Muslim Brotherhood, and other Islamist forces are a threat to Saudi regime and clergy. As Maajid Nawaz eloquently put it in a recent lecture, those who are seeking to curtail the proliferation of violent or even political Islamism, may find strange bedfellows in Conservative Muslims, who are generally opposed to these forces.

Particularly in recent years, ISIS has become such a growing international whirlwind of graphically violent activity with such high level of emotional appeal to the young and disaffected, that they are perceived as more of a threat that even Western forces by the monarchy. Indeed, unlike most Western states that are content with having their Saudi royal allies remain in power and prefer stability to bloody coups, ISIS and similar groups seek a global caliphate, and thus view conservative nation-states such as Saudi Arabia as a direct threat to their interests and religious worldview. Iran’s internal problems stem largely from ethnic nationalist movements. Externally, it continues to contribute heavily to terrorist organizations such as Hezbullah, and funding Shi’a militias and individual despots such as Assad who has committed mass atrocities against his own citizens.

3. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are opaque states. The United States has a poor grasp on the relationships between various Saudi princes and internal politicking. The current administration thinks it has good grasp of assorted Iranian factions. In reality, there are no factions.  Saudi pluralism is real, however unstable, unpredictable, and disturbing. Iranian state pluralism is non-existent.

The Saudi succession  is the subject of constant debate and discussion. The fact that the king can arbitrarily change the line of succession (as happened recently) does not make it any easier to follow the tangle web of relationships and rivaling factions. And the internal scheming and power plays even among princes that seem to be placed in appropriate order complicates the matter further. That the active young prince who seemed to have come out out of nowhere and is now taking charge of the defense council, removing it from Mohammed bin Nayef, our hereto main intelligence source in Saudi Arabia, and also the man closely tied to the conservative clergy and responsible for Raif  Badawi’s fate give sufficient room for doubt and pause; but that this 30-year-old  hawk is covertly meeting with Iranian opposition is a development that few analysts are bothering to follow at all.

That is a big mistake, because I think this development has a potential to become one of the most important geopolitical developments in the Iranian-Saudi crisis, with significant repercussion for the relationship of both countries with the United States. Saudi Arabia is investing a lot of resources into supporting the Baluchis and the Ahwazi Arabs in Iran, two oppressed, explosive regions, which have potential to create a great deal of trouble for the regime and to destabilize the entire country — and both of which have been completely ignored by the West.

What can we learn from the fact that the king is empowering his energetic son in opposition to the fearsome Prince Mohammed bin Nayef?  First, that he may be seeking to abdicate in favor of the hawkish, aggressive Defense Minister, but more importantly, we can see that Saudi Arabia has a far better understanding of Iran’s geopolitical ambitions (which we have been largely ignoring in favor of focusing on the nuclear discussion), and will be pursuing an active, interventionist policy, not only of proxy wars but of peripheral alliances, and possibly seeking to destabilize Iran from within.

As to the rest of the princes and where they align, this can only be surmised from occasional articles, and is hopefully being analyzed in great detail by our intelligence agencies and the State Department – but I am not holding my breath. But suffice it to say (for now — watch out for a more comprehensive analysis of the monarchy’s internal dynamics in the future), that individual princes vary greatly and wield influence in assorted areas, and should be carefully watched — Middle East is an interesting and at times unpredictable region. Things happen… all the time.

The situation in Iran is the polar opposite.  The West has a perception of a multiplicity of different factions that can be easily played against one another, but in the end, the only ones getting played are the people who have that perception. In essence, the Reformists, represented by President Rouhani at the forefront of the nuclear deal, are subservient to the Supreme Leader and the mullahs, and ultimately pursues the same goal. Just recently, the “hardliners” showed who is really in charge by passing over  most Reformists for the upcoming parliamentary elections. In other words, the regime at the helm of the Islamic Republic is a typical monolithic dictatorship that goes through its cycles of favoring certain power-hungry groups and discards them as soon as they have surpassed their utility, not only because expediency is the name of the game, but also because letting them stay at the vanguard too long is a politically risky and unnecessary move.

People need to know who is really in charge, and there is no better way to do that than to bring some close for a while and to kick them down as soon as they get too comfortable. But naive Western media, cleverly manipulated by Reformist agents of influence gets a distorted perception of the situation and does not see the long-term implications of the Reformist rise and fall inside Iran. Whence such a stark contrast between the two countries, both shari’a abiding, with such strong feelings about what the name of the Gulf s should be? Let us not forget that we are talking about a tribal society (Saudi Arabia) with traditional tribal dynamics (another under-discussed topic for another time) vs. a multicultural society with a long imperial history and a body of despots heavily influenced by the Soviet Union. To understand regime after the 1979 Revolution, one must understand its relationship with the Soviet Union.

4. Iran’s long term policy is territorial expansion and colonization and Saudi Arabia is not interested in expanding its borders.

One could (and should) criticize both countries for being racist and utilizing racism and scapegoating to support centralized power and keep their subjects away from heretical thoughts. Iran has a long history of conquering and subjugating its ethnic and religious minorities. Ethnic subjugation and oppression precedes the Islamic Republic — we need only to take a look at the history of Al Ahwaz, Iranian Kurdistan, and Baluchistan, not to mention South Azerbaijan. Saudi Arabia has a very restrictive citizenship system. Although it provides many poor foreigners with an invaluable opportunity to earn a living, it also frequently treats its blue collar workers like slaves. There is no shortage of horrifying stories about maids who have been raped by their employers and then imprisoned or otherwise further abused, servants who have been beaten or tortured, etc. etc.

Further, as discussed above, Saudi Arabia heavily invested in educational projects promoting a version of Wahhabism and particular views of the Middle East, and the Arab world, that proved antithetical to the study of other groups inside Western Universities (i.e. Kurdish or other minority studies have not gotten any prominence precisely due to Saudi and other Gulf state domination of the Middle Eastern Studies departments).

However, Saudi Arabia is not seeking territorial expansion, and does not aspire to impose on the territorial integrity of its neighbors. That is not to say that it has not engaged in proxy warfare against Iran, or supported operations about those who displeased it — but Saudis do not appear to enjoy engaging in direct warfare, and they have enough wealth from oil trade, revenue from the hajjis, and capital from various investments that its power is focused in its wealth. Its methods of influence are ideological rather than physically invasive.  Iran, on the other hand, has been directly arming terrorist organizations such as Hezbullah with the aim of co-opting countries such as Lebanon and Syria, which both ended up as failed states, not to mention its involvement in Iraq, and backing terrorist groups in Bahrain. It likewise supported the Shi’a Houthis in Yemen, and in general appeared a great deal from the Soviet methods of supporting assorted barely related minorities abroad in seeking expansion of spheres of influence.

Future articles will analyze Iran’s expansionist policy in a great deal more detail, but for now, it is worth discussing and contrasting the different focii of power for Iran and Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states reasonably fear Iran’s expansionist politics; whereas Iran sees Saudi Arabia and other neighbors as prey rather than a direct threat.

5. Iran has a large diaspora abroad and curries favor not just through lobbying but through infiltration of the media, academics, cultural centers, cultural institutions and many other outlets. Saudi cultural influence is largely restricted to the Sunni region, with some exception for the funding of the Western Middle Eastern Studies departments. Outside lobby groups, Saudis have not permeated Western outlets to even a fraction of the extent Iranians have.

In part, Saudi cultural isolation stems from a largely self-sufficient tribal and regional mindset. Second, although many of the princes travel to more liberal countries in the region to party and gamble, and make frequent business and leisure trips to the West, Saudi Arabia as such remains a relatively closed society, and although Western consumerism has penetrated its upper classes, Western cultural institutions has been relegated to private receptions.  Iran has had a great deal more of cultural exchanges with the West prior to the Islamic Revolution, and furthermore, has used Reformists strategically in penetrating Western media, academia, governments, cultural institutions, and organizations in order to spreads its message.

One needs only to look to the many well-known Iranian filmmakers, many of whom remain ardent supporters of the regime, pro-Reformist Iranian journalists in Voice of America Persia and BBC Persia, assorted Persian professors, and human rights “activists” to observe the extent of Persian influence. Saudi scholarship is largely relegated to the Gulf Institute, a think tank in Washington D.C., and maybe a couple of other similar NGOs.  Likewise, the Saudi diaspora is rather limited, and the lobby consists largely of business interests, unlike NIAC, which claims to represent a huge swath of the Persian communities in the United States. Saudi authors are rarely translated and largely unknown in the West, and Saudi cinema is in its nascent stages.

From all of the above, it follows that the public at large (and to some extent the influencers and public officials, are, overall exposed a great deal more to the Iranian message than to Saudi message, and certainly more to the Persian culture than to Saudi. When was the last time anyone here visited a Saudi restaurant in the United States?!

Based on the above points, several observations can be safely made.

1. Thanks to the lack of diplomatic prowess of the nuclear deal negotiators, as well as the overall shift in this administration’s focus and policy in the Middle Eastern, the US-Saudi relationship is likely to suffer irreparable damage. The issue here is not so much distrust, which can be overcome with skillful relationship-building efforts by the future administration, as the fact that the United States has placed itself in a largely irrelevant position in the Middle East, and will be out of the loop during the course of very important events.

As such, Saudi Arabia will have developed a policy and alliances entirely independent of the United States, and will prefer to steer clear of future dependency on a democracy where a short-term political shift can cause a near-permanent refocus of the country’s entire foreign policy, cause much damage in many sensitive areas, while causing substantial international embarrassment. Nevertheless, the United States is still an influential and very stable country, whereas the Gulf neighbors are in great danger of destabilization. Thus deterioration in relations would be detrimental to both countries. The United States would lose access to a significant segment of the Middle East, whereas Saudi Arabia would be losing a trade partner and a significant resource.

2. By engaging in a largely one-sided relationship of concessions with Iran, the United States is placing itself in a precarious position.

Namely, should the regime change from within, the United States will be viewed with hostility for failure to support legitimate opposition, show complete lack of concern for human rights inside the country, or otherwise develop relationships with anyone outside the regime. The United States has positioned itself such that it is neither here nor there. It already lost the trust of the Saudis, and has not actually gained anything of benefit from its relationship with Iran. By blatantly betraying the opposition, and failing to engage with them on any level, the United States has put itself in a position of weakness, despised and distrusted by all of the above. Even the Iranian regime will not trust a weak government and a weak nation that easily falls for a garbled naive message, but will continue to use the US until the time comes to cause significant damage to the United States and its interests.

Specifically, I have yet to see a solid analysis of what will happen in terms of natural resources as a result of this complicated gambit. During this passing year, the presidential candidates should figure out a strong policy line moving forward, and seek ways to reposition the United States in such a way as to garner respect from both sides. The only way to do that is to act trustworthy and dependable with allies, and attach any further concessions to highly specific and enforceable demands from the other side. Such concessions should be attached to US interests in the region.

3. There is no clear narrative being put forward by this administration about the next 15-30 years.

We only hear that the deal made the world and the United States somehow safer, but there is no vision of the future being articulated by our State Department or analysts. There are no best or worst cases scenarios being put forward by anyone. I would like those who have supported this deal to write a substantive piece articulating exactly what they predict is going to happen according to their optimistic prognoses. That way these “analysts” are on the hook for substantive predictions and cannot, in the future, pretend to have had no knowledge or foresight should their vision not actualize. Having a substantive foreign policy always involves (or should involve) calculating political risks of engaging in a course of action.

In the near future, I will be proposing a pessimistic/worst case scenario of our current course of action — which does not include massive nuclear explosions a year from now, and in other words, is fairly connected to reality. I am willing to take responsibility for putting forward a prediction, making suggestions, and admitting to being word should it not come to fruition in the manner I proposed or if my suggestions do not lead to desired outcomes if they are adopted. I do not see that being the case with the current crew of public opinion-makers who are engaging in vague analyses with no specific predictions for anything. But if we do not know where we are going, we are never going to get there. Saying that “things will get better” is not a strategy.We have a “negative vision” — that Iran will not get nuclear weapons or that it will develop them at a slower rater than without the deal, but there is no series of predictions of what else is going to happen, specifically. That, my friends, is a very dangerous place to be in.

Some words of advice for some of the stakeholders in this situation.

1. The US intelligence community, diplomats, and members of the Congress should take pains to make Saudi governance and judiciary less of a mystery. This will make predictions for the future much, much easier. 

Most importantly, I would encourage all of the above to utilize private actors, such as investors and other representatives of business interests, to develop closer relationships beyond their immediate circles, and share those insights with the government. Introductions to higher levels of power can be made through successful close personal relationship on the ground. We hear that so-and-so from Texas is close to such-and-such prince, but there is no practical outcome for anyone other than so-and-so himself. Furthermore, in the past, President Bush successfully utilized his personal close relationship with King Abdullah to liberate dissidents.

Having a significant and strategic network of personal relationships can lead to more productive conversations on all levels. This will also clarify Saudi Arabia’s course of action and political strategy. Much of intelligence gathering needs not be done by recruiting desperate characters in shadowy corners, which has proven to be a significant challenge because Saudi Arabia is suspicious of foreigners and watches them closely, and professionals have been able to get only so far… which I surmise based on the rather uninspiring political outcomes and lack of clarity in the discussions. Important glimpses into Saudi society and politics can be done simply by understanding existing relationships better and putting that information together by a few well-versed analysts with appropriate background in the region — in close cooperation with Saudis themselves.

2. Overcoming the current political rift with Saudi Arabia will take a lot of concert effort. Still, it can be done by various stakeholders even in the course of the next year, before we know who the next administration will be and what policy line it will follow.  Instead of trying to rebuild remnants of the past, I suggest focusing on developing a new kind of relationship that looks past the challenges the Iranian gambit presents and will continue to present for a very long time.

Up until now, our relationship with Saudi Arabia has been largely based in trade and defense work, both of which have suffered to some extent as a result of our Iran-oriented policy.  This new relationship should be based on exciting joint venture projects, that will create a level of partnership that will surpass future political differences. Such projects will provide the Saudis with an important opportunity to diversify their investment portfolios (currently focused on real estate in the West, which is one-sided and of limited utility to Westerns themselves), and perhaps further engagement in sciences, technology, and educational project, will finally lead this closed society to much needed modernization without necessarily causing internal fragmentation and the kind of tension with the clergy that will break the entire society apart.

The bottom line is, much as we all love to hate on the Saudis, what we ultimately would like to see is not a chaotic society with potentially someone like ISIS coming to power, but a return to a more liberal line, as we saw prior to the Siege of Mecca incident where the leadership was heading in the direction of current Moroccan monarchy and away from despotic absolutism. Even if the current administration is not courageous and creative enough to propose such projects on a government level, private investors should take the opportunity of come up with out-of-the-box solutions that would ultimately benefit both countries, and hopefully, the outside world as well. Furthermore, for those displeased with the Nuclear Deal, this would be a perfect opportunity to offset the effects of the risky investment in Iranian development, by taking a slower, more conservative route and balancing out that risk with a co-investment with an old more predictable ally (which will be less likely to end in nationalization!)

3. Saudi Arabia should make a systematic effort to offset Iranian cultural influence abroad by introducing the West and other countries to its own culture; in other words, to invest in positive image-making/PR.

That means becoming known as something other than a closed strict-Shari’a based society known mostly for executions and flogging dissidents. Even though Iran is doing exactly the same thing, it has also expended significant effort into spreading its culture abroad and strengthening its communities. Our image of Iran is more multifaceted than Saudi – we are familiar with Iranian film-making (however one-sided and Reformist), cuisine, arts, music, and we interact with Iranian human beings frequently over a variety of media. Even though Saudi society is concerned with Western influences, a significant number of Saudis travel abroad. Rather than spending their time exclusively on business, shopping, and partying, perhaps some of these individuals could be encouraged to engage in cultural public diplomacy with their Western counterparts.

And if up until now, non-religious culture in Saudi Arabia has been limited, now would be a good time to start encouraging its development, perhaps even if only in a modest and careful way. Some noncontroversial poetry could be shared, and certainly food is something that that rises above politics and religions and may be appreciated even by the most suspicious of Westerners. Likewise, traditional musical performances may be of interest to Middle East Studies departments and cosmopolitan big-city dwellers, so tours of such performers could be organized. Finally, contributing to current cultural institutions, without necessarily dragging assorted political agendas to the obvious forefront and causing acrimony, controversy, and the kind of attention no one wants right now, could influence Westerners to start seeing at least some of the Saudis in a more positive light.

4. Contrasting Saudi Arabia with Iran

As Iran’s influences increases, Saudi Arabia will find itself in an increasingly difficult position, even with its close alliances with other Sunni Arab states and unmentionable others. Iran will dominate the public discourse in more than one way. And with the amount of propaganda that is being poured into this nuclear deal, it will become vital for Saudi Arabia to come up with an image that contrasts this country with its Shi’a opponent, both among its rivals and among the suspicious Westerners. Creating an appearance of greater humanitarian concern will go a great deal towards winning friends and influence people. As long as Saudi Arabia is seen as politically weak, and internally despotic towards all the wrong people, it will continue to amass criticism and no amount of lobbying will help. Lobbying is aimed at Congress, and does not translate well into public opinion. It may help pass some defense-related bills, some tariff-related benefits, but will not assist with the kind of social shift that Saudi Arabia currently needs to oppose Iran. Furthermore, its strategy of supporting some of the minority activists in Iran is risky, and can in itself backfire in a variety of ways.

Assisting these minorities with humanitarian needs, and not merely arming some leaders of the factions, will position Saudi Arabia in an advantageous light. Seeing that this country is not only causing additional infighting and factionalism in a society that is little understood by the West, but that it is going out of the way to support the needy oppressed by the racist regime would make good headlines and place Saudi Arabia at an advantage even with business lobbying. At the same time, however, crackdown on sexual harassment of servants internally would not do damage to Saudi Arabia’s reputation as a religious state, but would indeed benefit its reputation tremendously abroad.

Notice that I have not said much about dissidents and liberalization of speech. I am pragmatic and realize the concerns such measures would present to Saudi society and monarchy in light of everything else that is going on (i.e. rebellious fractions, the rise of ISIS, and the difficult alliance with the clergy). Therefore it is understandable that liberalization of speech and religious codes is not only not a priority, but could, in fact be damaging, if done immediately and completely. Slow transition towards a more acceptable vision of a state in light of the fact that it is in fact facing an existential crisis and needs to focus its efforts on fighting a successful battle on many fronts, and not just in the defense arena, is unavoidable if KSA is intent on pivoting away from the possibility of turning the entire region into another Syria.

5. New Alliances in Unexpected Places

KSA has already moved in the direction of making defense pacts with some strange bedfellows, but it must go further in winning hearts and minds outside the Sunni bedrocks. It must invest much effort in winning over countries that have not been traditional SUnni allies prior to this, but that stand to be eventually threatened by Iran — I am talking about India. Although Pakistan, a traditional Sunni ally, could be of advantage in providing nuclear defense, moderating, and so forth, internally it faces significant challenges and may soon be faced with its own internal crisis. It simply will not have enough of a sway to provide a sufficient buffer if Iran follows the course of action it seems to have a long-term interest in taking — regional dominance, followed by the resuscitation of the Persian Empire.  Despite the difficulty of engaging with India for reasons that are fairly obvious, it may prove to be a necessary step for Saudi Arabia. Still, it is not a hopeless endeavor.

As it stands now, India, a significant and growing power in its own region, will soon be well position to wield a great deal of influence politically and otherwise, and cannot be discounted by anyone. Appealing to concerned communities in other places, including the secular Shi’a Azerbaijan, that is more concerned about its South Azeri brethren than the Islamic Republic’s Shi’a agenda bastardized by Soviet ideology, would prove to be an interesting and unexpected step. Right now, Azerbaijan is in a complicated position, surrounded by Iran, Russia, and Turkey. Although Turkey is viewed as a sister country, Erdogan’s warmongering is not proving an economic boon for anyone. Azerbaijan is largely ignored by the United States, and is open to new alliances, especially if those alliances would be helpful in its priority issues.

Both Azerbaijan and Saudi Arabia stand to lose from the release of Iranian oil into the market, and unfortunately Azerbaijan will be one of the first countries outside the Fertile Crescent to be subsumed by the nascent neo-Persian Empire should Iran choose to move in that direction. Finally, Saudi Arabia would do well to engage with various diasporas, and minority groups who are not Arab. Rather, opposing Kurds for reasons of them not being Arab and in many cases not practicing Islam, Saudi Arabia should support their aspirations and stir them clear of Iranian influence., which is evident in the games Russia and Iran have been trying to play with PYD and PKK.  Alliance with Turkey is inevitable, and there will be some tension of the issue, but Iran presents an existential crisis to Saudi Arabia, and Turkey does not, so reaching a compromise over Syrian Kurds will likewise would prove to be a wise and prudent step on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which has thus treated them dismissively.

Furthermore, KRG does not present a threat to Sunni Arabs in Iraq, so long as they do not support ISIS and engage with Kurds, whereas both Kurds and Sunni Arabs in Iraqs are being threatened by Iran and should Iran become influential in that area, not only will the Kurdish hopes for a state in the area be dashed, but both the Iraqi Sunnistan and Kurdistan meet the fate of Al Ahwazi Arabs and the short-lived Iranian Kurdistan, which is to say, oppression, infiltration, mass execution, and worse. It would be to Saudi advantage to counter ISIS influence among Sunni Arabs, because ISIS-created havoc weakens the entire region and plays into Iranian hands, and furthermore, at this point, the lesser of two evils for Saudi Arabia would be to support Kurds in Iraq vis-a-vis Iran.

All of these suggestions run directly counter to the traditional preferences of Sunni Arab States in the region, but that region is becoming increasingly fractured, the United States has moved away from its traditional alliances, and a total war of many different factions all fighting with one another would be disastrous for everybody. Creating coalitions with actual forces on the ground and real stakes in counter a mutual friend would serve the Saudis far better than creating laughable lists of countries with no fighting experience or desire to get involved in the snowballing mess.

6. The United States must engage with Iranian oppositionary movements both within Iran and in diaspora — or find itself at competitive intelligence and political disadvantage with disastrous results.

Up until now, the traditional policy of the United States has been to find the one party that we find credible and worth engaging and put all of our eggs in that one basket. How well that worked out we can see in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq (with Chalabi) and elsewhere. That short-sighted vision of diplomacy is outdated and has never served us well to begin with. It limits our options and puts us at the mercy of the one actor and forces surrounding that actor that we are engaging with. It does not make sense from a risk perspective, from an information-gathering perspective (need to have more than one source to corroborate that actor’s credibility at any given point), or any other perspective.

Especially in the Middle East, where the power dynamics are in a state of constant flux, and even seemingly stable dictatorships can be overturned in a blink of an eye, we cannot always reliably who will be in power or in favor tomorrow, much less a year from now, and thus it makes sense to have both sources of information and potential allies in every tribe, party, faction, minority, and otherwise definable group that we can find. That does not mean that by engaging with one we are betraying the other. Quite the opposite — it means thinking ahead, being smart, being in a position to foresee who will likely stab us in the back before the day is done and the night is over, and perhaps find ways of uniting different factions to our advantage, than pursue a haphazard “strategy” of trying to play favorites with one group of people and ending up having them become hated by everyone else, which is exactly what we have been doing up until now.

Times they are a’changing. We can no longer to live by the same archaic paradigms that have led us into traps again and again throughout the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. We are not here to replay World War I with bigger, better weapons. We are hoping to avoid conflict, not have to scramble to resolve conflicts as they explode before us. If so, we must learn to think more than a half a step ahead, consider what our frenemies are likely to do before they have done and we are still trying to figure out what actually happened – and we must learn that we can have more than one ally, friend, and so forth without being bullied by pseudo-realistic and inevitably wrong considerations that have succeeded only in postponing and compounding existing problems up until this point.

About the Author
Irina Tsukerman graduated with a JD from Fordham University School of Law in 2009 and received her BA in International/Intercultural Studies and Middle East Studies from Fordham University in 2006. Her legal and advocacy work focuses on human rights and security issue, mostly in Muslim countries. She is also involved in diplomatic outreach and relationship-building among different communities.