In his most recent New Yorker article, “The Redirection,” Seymour Hersh tries to make some sense out of US efforts to build a US-Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran. In some respects, the essay runs along the same lines as my own effort to trace the lines of such a redirection in a ZNet article, “The Devil Wears Persian.”
Hersh also gives a nod to the possibility that the “shift” may be championed by factions within the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel but this theme remains relatively underdeveloped and the refusal to take factionalism more seriously tends to trouble his narrative.
Hersh pins the US strategy on Cheney, Right Zionist Elliott Abrams, and Zalmay Khalilzad. He sees John Negroponte as a critic and hedges on the role of Condoleezza Rice:
The key players behind the redirection are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney…
The Bush Administration’s reliance on clandestine operations that have not been reported to Congress and its dealings with intermediaries with questionable agendas have recalled, for some in Washington, an earlier chapter in history. Two decades ago, the Reagan Administration attempted to fund the Nicaraguan contras illegally, with the help of secret arms sales to Iran. Saudi money was involved in what became known as the Iran-Contra scandal, and a few of the players back then—notably Prince Bandar and Elliott Abrams—are involved in today’s dealings…
[T]he echoes of Iran-Contra were a factor in Negroponte’s decision to resign from the National Intelligence directorship and accept a sub-Cabinet position of Deputy Secretary of State.
On Saudi factionalism, Hersh reiterates some of the themes that have been developed in previous posts (here, here, and here)–including the idea that Prince Bandar is the a figure of any such new alignment. But Hersh hedges his bets on the depths of the Saudi schism:
The Administration’s effort to diminish Iranian authority in the Middle East has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia and on Prince Bandar, the Saudi national-security adviser. Bandar served as the Ambassador to the United States for twenty-two years, until 2005, and has maintained a friendship with President Bush and Vice-President Cheney. In his new post, he continues to meet privately with them. Senior White House officials have made several visits to Saudi Arabia recently, some of them not disclosed…
In a royal family rife with competition, Bandar has, over the years, built a power base that relies largely on his close relationship with the U.S., which is crucial to the Saudis. Bandar was succeeded as Ambassador by Prince Turki al-Faisal; Turki resigned after eighteen months and was replaced by Adel A. al-Jubeir, a bureaucrat who has worked with Bandar. A former Saudi diplomat told me that during Turki’s tenure he became aware of private meetings involving Bandar and senior White House officials, including Cheney and Abrams. “I assume Turki was not happy with that,” the Saudi said. But, he added, “I don’t think that Bandar is going off on his own.” Although Turki dislikes Bandar, the Saudi said, he shared his goal of challenging the spread of Shiite power in the Middle East.
I think the Turki-Bandar split runs deeper than a personality dispute. The Turki faction is more dovish on Iran and more hawkish on Israel and, in a US context, the Turki faction is closer to Baker than Cheney.
There are some unruly problems that disrupt Hersh’s attempts to craft a coherent narrative. Hersh takes up the Saudi-Israeli element of the redirection, but he can’t entirely square the circle:
The policy shift has brought Saudi Arabia and Israel into a new strategic embrace, largely because both countries see Iran as an existential threat. They have been involved in direct talks, and the Saudis, who believe that greater stability in Israel and Palestine will give Iran less leverage in the region, have become more involved in Arab-Israeli negotiations…
In the past year, the Saudis, the Israelis, and the Bush Administration have developed a series of informal understandings about their new strategic direction… Israel would be assured that its security was paramount and that Washington and Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states shared its concern about Iran…
[T]he Saudis would urge Hamas, the Islamist Palestinian party that has received support from Iran, to curtail its anti-Israeli aggression and to begin serious talks about sharing leadership with Fatah, the more secular Palestinian group. (In February, the Saudis brokered a deal at Mecca between the two factions. However, Israel and the U.S. have expressed dissatisfaction with the terms.)
Isn’t it possible that the Saudi brokered deal at Mecca between Hamas and Fatah represented more of a triumph for one faction than another? If the Mecca deal was part of a US initiative, it seems strange that the US was not only dissatisfied with the terms, as Hersh suggests, but was also reportedly caught by surprise by the deal.
There are certainly signs of renewed interest in some quarters for an Israeli-Saudi accord but to judge from the headlines, Prince Turki seems unlikely to emerge as a leading source of such enthusiasm. Right Zionists are not exactly dancing in the streets.
Hersh’s article focuses well-deserved attention on Saudi involvement in Lebanon, although even here I think he understates the conflict between Bandar’s hawkish approach toward Hezbollah and the Turki faction’s quest for reconciliation in Lebanon.
The biggest question is what a new US-Saudi-Israeli strategic alignment would mean for Iraq. Hersh’s whole analysis of the “redirection” begins with the question of Iraq:
In the past few months, as the situation in Iraq has deteriorated, the Bush Administration, in both its public diplomacy and its covert operations, has significantly shifted its Middle East strategy.
But Hersh is actually weakest in his attempt to link the “redirection” to the politics of Iraq. As Hersh suggests, the US initially aligned itself with Iraqi Shiites and marginalized Iraqi Sunnis.
One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni forces, and not from Shiites….
Before the invasion of Iraq, in 2003, Administration officials, influenced by neoconservative ideologues, assumed that a Shiite government there could provide a pro-American balance to Sunni extremists, since Iraq’s Shiite majority had been oppressed under Saddam Hussein. They ignored warnings from the intelligence community about the ties between Iraqi Shiite leaders and Iran, where some had lived in exile for years. Now, to the distress of the White House, Iran has forged a close relationship with the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
One peculiarity in this story: neoconservative ideologues appear, in Hersh’s telling, at the center of both the move toward Iraqi Shiites and a pro-Sunni redirection designed to counteract the “distress” the pro-Shiite tilt has caused.
Is the assumption that neoconservatives have been distressed by empowerment of the Iraqi Shiite majority? I see no sign of that distress, in part because Right Zionists close to Cheney have always argued–and continue to argue–that the empowerment of the Iraqi Shiite majority could provide a pro-American balance to both Sunni extremists (including the Turki faction in Saudi Arabia!) and Shiite extremists in Iran.
One might expect that a pro-Saudi tilt in US policy would require rollback of Shiite political dominance in Iraq and the containment of Iran. This might, in fact, reflect the goals of the Baker-Turki factions.
The restoration of Sunni Arab political power (through an anti-Shiite coup, etc.), however, is decidedly not on the agenda of “neo-conservative ideologues.” Neither, it seems, is a crackdown on Moqtada al-Sadr.
Hersh knows that the signs of “redirection” in Iraq do not appear to include a retreat from Shiite power.
The Administration’s new policy for containing Iran seems to complicate its strategy for winning the war in Iraq. Patrick Clawson, an expert on Iran and the deputy director for research at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued, however, that closer ties between the United States and moderate or even radical Sunnis could put “fear” into the government of Prime Minister Maliki and “make him worry that the Sunnis could actually win” the civil war there. Clawson said that this might give Maliki an incentive to coöperate with the United States in suppressing radical Shiite militias, such as Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army.
Even so, for the moment, the U.S. remains dependent on the coöperation of Iraqi Shiite leaders. The Mahdi Army may be openly hostile to American interests, but other Shiite militias are counted as U.S. allies. Both Moqtada al-Sadr and the White House back Maliki. A memorandum written late last year by Stephen Hadley, the national-security adviser, suggested that the Administration try to separate Maliki from his more radical Shiite allies by building his base among moderate Sunnis and Kurds, but so far the trends have been in the opposite direction. As the Iraqi Army continues to founder in its confrontations with insurgents, the power of the Shiite militias has steadily increased.
If Hersh knows why “the trends have been in the opposite direction” of those implicit in his sense of the redirection, he isn’t saying.
The Baker and the Turki faction are “irreconcilables” when it comes to Shiite power in Iraq, even as they seek to retain but contain the incumbent regime in Iran. For this crowd, the “trends” in Iraq continue in the wrong direction.
Hersh, however, may be missing a key piece of the puzzle. The faction behind the redirection–Cheney, his Right Zionist allies, and Bandar–are very hawkish about the Iranian regime but remain quite hopeful about relations with Iraqi Shiites, especially Grand Ayatollah Sistani.
The evidence for this is quite clear in the case of Cheney’s Right Zionist allies, if not in the case of Cheney himself.
On the Bandar front, the evidence remains murky. There are, however, some tantalizing clues.
Exhibit A: Nawaf Obaid.
Recall that Obaid made headlines with a November 29, 2006 Washington Post Op-Ed, “Stepping Into Iraq” that seemed to threaten Saudi action to thwart Iranian influence in Iraq. Obaid was fired by Turki after the publication of the Op-Ed.
Does Nawaf Obaid represent Bandar’s views? That remains a speculative proposition. Nevertheless, Obaid did appear to suggest that his views had some base of support in Saudi Arabia, if not “the Saudi leadership”:
Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iranian influence there. Senior Iraqi tribal and religious figures, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. Moreover, domestic pressure to intervene is intense. Major Saudi tribal confederations, which have extremely close historical and communal ties with their counterparts in Iraq, are demanding action. They are supported by a new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions who are eager to see the kingdom play a more muscular role in the region.
Is Bandar part of “a new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions”? Is Secretary-General of the Saudi National Security Council a strategic position?
In any event, Obaid’s Op-Ed was actually a condensed version of a larger report–“Meeting the Challenge of a Fragmented Iraq: A Saudi Perspective“–published in connection with his time as a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
Obaid’s report is long and complex and deserves to be read in full. Nevertheless, the relevant point in the context of Saudi relations with Iranian and Iraqi Shiites is that the report is, as one might predict, extremely hawkish about the pernicious influence of Iran in Iraq. The chief recommendations in the report concern preparing for a “worst case scenario” in which Saudi Arabia must aggressively “counter meddling by Iran.”
At the same time, the report includes a very important recommendation that was not part of Obaid’s Washington Post Op-Ed: “Extend a State Invitation to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani”
It is also important for the Saudi leadership to open a meaningful discussion with Grand Ayotollah Ali al- Sistani by extending an invitation to him to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Such an overture would send a strong positive message – both within the Kingdom and in the region at large – regarding Saudi Arabia’s position vis-à-vis the Shi’ite community. It would also demonstrate that the Kingdom recognizes Ayatollah al-Sistani’s authority and respects those who regard him as the leading Shi’ite Arab cleric. Ayatollah Sistani is not only the foremost religious figure for Iraqi Shi’ites, but his influence in Iraq’s political sphere is equally as important. An official state visit to Saudi Arabia would reassure the Iraqi Shi’ite community that the Saudi leadership fully acknowledges that they are critical to establishing stability in the country.