Sunday 17 February 2013

A propos Iran, the U.S. and Saudi foreign policy

U.S. and Iran footballers: A lesson for politicians?

Saudi foreign policy has to grapple with two key problems à propos change in the region and the world order.
One is Iran, which is not exactly a new problem. The other is the Obama Administration forging ahead with its strategic pivot from the Middle East to East Asia.
Saudi academician and writer Khalid al-Dakheel, in his weekly column today for the Saudi-owned pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, believes the two problems have taken new dimensions.
He explains:
After gaining a foothold in Bilad al-Sham through its alliance with the Syrian regime, Iran proceeded to plant Hezbollah as its military arm in Lebanon.
Ironically, this was done under the smokescreen of “resistance” (to Israel) and a Saudi-Syrian “understanding” on Lebanon.
Having then bagged Iraq from U.S. occupation forces and enthroned its surrogates in Baghdad, Iran is now out defending the Syrian regime and striving to be the paramount power in the Gulf as a step to expand its influence throughout the Arab Mashreq.
Iran’s aim is to be the nation-state of the region’s Shiites and to be recognized as such by Washington.
To realize this dream, after ensnaring Syria and Iraq, Iran has to face the bigger challenge posed by Saudi Arabia and Egypt – more so Saudi Arabia because it is the Gulf’s richest country, sits on Iraq’s doorstep and is home to Islam’s two holiest mosques (al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca and al-Masjid al-Nabawi in Medina).
Iran is aware that undermining Saudi Arabia is a tall order: the ethnic, sectarian and historical impediments are simply formidable and countless. That’s why Tehran chose instead to surround the kingdom with Iranian clients and hotbeds of unrest – northward in Iraq, southward in Yemen and eastward in Bahrain and Kuwait.
Egypt is as impregnable as Saudi Arabia, except that Egypt lies further away geographically and is currently beset with political and economic problems. This explains why Iran is trying to lure Egypt away from the Gulf with promises of financial aid and a collaborative solution for Syria.
With the Syrian regime now on its last legs, Iran can recognize the expiry of its sell by date, cut its losses and facilitate the transfer of power in Damascus. Or, it can continue backing the regime at the price of walking away with no more than a piece of a fragmented Syria.
Iran’s predicament is also the region’s. Therein lies the future significance of Saudi foreign policy and Washington’s pivoting from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region.
President Barack Obama’s pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region is all about China.
While the U.S. was off fighting its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, China’s amazing growth and the promise of its huge and expanding market turned the Asia-Pacific region into the global economy’s center of gravity.
A report last November by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) expects the United States to cede its place as the world’s largest economy to China as early as 2016.
Washington is equally concerned by China more than doubling its declared military spending from 2006 to 2012, roughly in keeping with economic growth.
There are two unmistakable signs Obama is forging ahead with steps to pivot U.S. foreign policy from the Middle East to Asia.
One is his perseverance in “leading from behind” on Syria. The other is keeping his “extended hand” to Iran.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as U.S. National Security Advisor under President Jimmy Carter, says the U.S. can deter and contain a nuclear Iran, such as it is still deterring North Korea from using its nuclear weapons against South Korea and Japan.
Also, confirmation of Chuck Hagel, Obama’s pick for defense secretary, remains blocked because he is soft on Iran and previously called for talks between Washington and Tehran without preconditions.
It seems America’s strategic shift to Southeast Asia, the accumulation of Arab crises and the Arab’s impotence in solving albeit one of them are pushing many Americans to support a political deal with Iran.
Strangely, all U.S. talk of such an understanding with Tehran makes no mention of Saudi Arabia.
So how would Saudi Arabia react? Could it face such an eventuality with its same old foreign policy tools and premises?
Saudi foreign policy needs to update its perceptions and tools to match up with America’s strategic rebalancing, Iran’s agenda and the current winds thrashing the Arab world, not to mention the sea changes in Saudi society, the region and the world order.
Can the foreign policy adopted at the height of the Cold War by King Saud and King Faisal, God bless their souls, remain unchanged after 50 years?
Clearly, the policy that failed in Iraq and Syria, was half-successful in Yemen and Bahrain and missed setting up stable and enduring alliances in the region needs reappraisal and revision.