Although Saudi Arabia has been manoeuvring to stymie the “Arab Spring” wherever it can, with the drama of an apparent Iranian conspiracy to murder Adel al-Jubair one might say, taking a bad metaphor further, its Springtime in Riyadh. Quite a few bottles of champagne were possibly pulled out in royal palaces and the villas of commoner henchmen across the capital. For the plot to Get Jubair in Washington has taken the United States one step closer to a military conflagration with Tehran: it’s still neither imminent nor on the horizon at any vaguely definable point in the short or medium term. But 1. Washington is one significant step further down that road and 2., and what I want to point out here, getting the US administration to that stage has been a Saudi foreign policy goal of the King Abdullah – “reformer”, “king of hearts”, etc. – era.
Saudi Arabia has denied publicly of course that it wants a new regional conflict. It always does. The Bob Woodward book Plan of Attack from 2004 revealed that a Jubair predecessor in Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan was pushing desperately for the Iraq invasion in 2003. The foreign minister Saud al-Faisal vehemently denied this as well as the fact that Saudi airbases and the American military presence at Prince Sultan airbase were being used to facilitate the operation. Saudi propaganda has tried its best to ring-fence the bellicosity around Prince Bandar bin Sultan (see Robert Lacey’s Inside The Kingdom, for example).
The distribution of roles is familiar. Saud al-Faisal says publicly Saudi Arabia does not want another war in the region, while blaming Iran exclusively for it ever coming to pass, while Jubair in private plays the war drums. But the material revealed by WikiLeaks is quite clear that he speaks for the king. In the most well-known of them, from April 2008, Jubair – the king’s personal translator who bilingual journalists have noted does like to embellish his interpretings and one of the most senior Al Saud minions among the ranks of elevated commoners – says the king wants the United States to “cut off the head of the snake”.
“Al-Jubeir recalled the King’s frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program. ‘He told you to cut off the head of the snake,’ he recalled to the Charge’, adding that working with the US to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq is a strategic priority for the King and his government.” http://wikileaks.org/cable/2008/04/08RIYADH649.html That came during a series of meetings over two days between US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, General David Petraeus and the Saudi inner sanctum of king, foreign minister, intelligence chief Prince Muqrin, and Interior Minister Nayef (“our Saddam“, according to Jeddan youth in WikiLeaks).
But elsewhere Jubair is even blunter. Take November 2007: “‘The position of the King is very clear on Iran,’ al-Jubeir said. King Abdullah believes that only a show of US strength will stop Iran’s expansionist policies and halt its nuclear program, he said, adding that the program is clearly intended to produce nuclear weapons. He noted that the King rejects the argument that military action against Iran will coalesce popular support around President Ahmadinejad. ‘He believes that the opposite will happen,’ the Saudi ambassador said.” http://wikileaks.org/cable/2007/11/07RIYADH2322.html
The king, and/or his American interlocuters, are careful not to have him quoted so directly as this in the State Department documents. Instead he offers anti-Shi’ite and anti-Iranian rhetoric and warnings of doom if the Iranians don’t stop their evil:
- “The Iranians are not good people,” he tells ambassador Ford Fraker at the Janadiriyya ranch while dismissing the US National Intelligence Report that said Iran had suspended nuclear weapons activities in 2003. http://wikileaks.org/cable/2007/12/07RIYADH2461.html
Now that the US administration thinks it has uncovered a plot, Saudi officials and Saudi media have gone into overdrive. Their time has arrived. They have been arguing for several years that Iran cannot be trusted and only an iron fist will work, because they fear that Washington will one day make its peace with Iran and its nuclear programme (putting Al Saud in a very uncomfortable position with its Wahhabi constituency, much of which will regard such a denouement as a deal-breaking failure by their temporal ruling allies). Saud al-Faisal put on his best suit to appear at the opening of the King Abdullah International Centre for Interreligious and Cultural Dialogue in Vienna last week to declare solemnly that the Saudi response would “measured”. “We hold them accountable for any action they take against us. Any action they take against us will have a measured response from Saudi Arabia,” he said. He is of course taking the piss because there will be no Saudi response at all: the whole point of this policy of recent years was was to get America to do its work for them and bear all the risks.
We may wonder about the timing of all this. It provided, at the least, a nice opportunity to bury the news of Abdullah’s next back operation. But beyond that, Obama said he was first made aware of the plot in June. At least one Saudi insider was boasting the week beforehand that a major escalation in the US position towards Iran was on the horizon. In conversation, some are clear they want a war. Saud al-Faisal was scheduled to open the Interfaith Centre, a nice podium for playing the wounded dove and denouncing the evil Iranians. The plot uncovery came a week after Saudi Arabia took an unusual swipe at Iran by issuing a statement denouncing an unnamed foreign country for stoking clashes in the Eastern Province – which Shi’ites say were provoked by mistreatment of two elderly men an din any case reflects disaffection of a discriminated minority – and using unusually strong language to accuse some Shia of having other loyalties.
Saudi thinking on Iran has been verging on the hysterical for several years now(and paranoia about hits: former Beirut ambassador Abdulaziz al-Khoja barricaded himself in his Beirut apartment in 2007 for fear of an assassination attempt). I don’t know if a used car salesmen really did or did not manage to get the Revolutionary Guards involved in a ridiculous hit, or said salesman only hatched the scheme on prompting from the US drug agency plant, or if there was a deeper Iranian involvement than that. Or whether Saudi Arabia coordinated positions on this with the US government last week, in June, or before… or had a more sinister hand in it along the lines of the fake news sent from Saudi Arabia to al-Wasat newspaper in Bahrain in March and used to prosecute its editors for publishing false news. But notwithstanding the fact that some senior officials, commoners and princes, are more ‘dovish’ on Iran than others, I do think the Saudi leadership see their moment to embroil the United States in more conflict with Iran, according to their strategic goal of several years, and wag the dog like crazy.