Sunday, May 04, 2008

Saudi Arabia, Iran and Shi'a Iraq

I need to be more attentive to Joschka Fischer's Monday columns because they're consistently better than 99% of the nonsense you hear on the TV news, and better than almost as big a percentage of what our Big Pundits have to tell us.

His column for this past week is Konfrontation am Golf Die Zeit 28.04.2008 focusing particularly on the current foreign policy concerns of Saudi Arabia.

Fischer argues that Saudi Arabia has become the most influential Sunni power in the Middle East for the moment, due to its current windfall in oil revenues, to the current weakness of Egypt and the self-imposed isolation of Syria. The Saudis are taking it for granted that nothing like Victory is going be the end result of the Cheney-Bush-McCain adventure in Iraq. Fischer writes, "Diese Chance wurde seit Langem vertan, wenn sie denn je bestanden hat." (This chance was missed a long time ago, if it ever existed.)

One of the basic realities in the Middle East now is that by removing the secular Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and turning Iraq for the (extended) moment into a failed state, Iran is increasingly becoming the dominant power in that region. (Israel's military power and nuclear arsenal are unequaled by any of its opponents in the Middle East. But that hasn't translated into great influence or constructive relations with most of its neighbors in the region. The big exception has been Egypt, with whom Israel concluded a peace treaty.)

The Saudis are not happy about Iran's new dominance, nor about the fact that their former Sunni-dominated neighbor Iraq is now dominated by the Shi'a, who are on good terms with Iran.

Fischer's take on the influence of Iran is important. Between our daffy Establishment press and the current administration's desire to lump all its enemies together, it's not very clear in American discussions of Iran that the Iraqi government we support is very close to Iran and that boosting Iran's influence was an all-but-inevitable outcome of the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Just in the last few days, for instance, an official Iraqi delegation went to Teheran, supposedly to challenge Iran's support for anti-government militias in Iraq. The Iraqi and Iranian governments made another deal to work together to improve security in an atmosphere of friendly cooperation. Tina Susman and Ramin Mostaghim report in Iran promises Iraq it will help 'stabilize security' Los Angeles Times 05/04/08):

Khalid Attiya, deputy speaker of Iraq's parliament, said the five-member delegation "sensed a positive stance" from Iranian officials. "The two sides have agreed to keep up efforts to stabilize security," he said.

Attiya made no mention of the recent accusations by the U.S. government, charges that the Pentagon has been leveling for years. U.S. military and political officials have been more vocal about the allegations since late March, when Maliki launched the Basra offensive against Shiite militias.

The United States blames much of the fighting since the offensive on Iranian-backed extremists. Iran says the United States is using it as a scapegoat for its problems in Iraq.

The heightened tensions have put Iraq in an uncomfortable position as it is pressured by Washington to be more aggressive toward Iran, with which it shares a long border and has strong economic and religious ties. Iraq's main Shiite group, the powerful Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, is allied with Maliki's Islamic Dawa Party and with the United States, but it also has close ties to Tehran.

The group's chief advisor in Iran, Mohsen Hakim, refused to discuss the allegations against Iran in an interview Saturday, saying there was "no official declaration about that from the Iraqi government."
Fischer notes than when our Dear Leader Bush travels to Iraq, he has to keep the visit a top secret. But when Iranian President Ahmadenijad visited earlier this year, the visit was not only announced in advance but he was cheered by crowds as he appeared in public. Fischer writes:

Trotz mehr als 160.000 amerikanischer Soldaten im Land muss sich der amerikanische Präsident jedes Mal durch die Hintertür ins Land stehlen. Ganz anders der iranische Präsident. Dessen Besuch in Bagdad war ein Wochen vorher angekündigtes, öffentliches Ereignis.

[Despite more than 160,000 American soldiers in the country [not counting mercenaries], the American President has to sneak into the country through the back door every time. Totally different for the Iranian President. His visit to Baghdad was announced a week beforehand and was a public event.]
Fischer says that the Saudis see Iranian support behind not only the Iraqi government, dominated by the SIIC and Dawa parties (principally the former), but also with Muqtada al-Sadr and his JAM militia and to some extent with the Kurds in northern Iraq.

While the Saudis are very unhappy over a Shi'a-dominated Iraq in any case, they are especially disturbed by the prospect of an effectively autonomous Shi'a province in southern Iraq, which the Iraqi government seems to be trying to enable at the moment. It's a little hard to tell to what extent Fischer is implying the Saudi view is accurate on the following point, but he seems to think it is. The Saudis see the Iranians supporting the Maliki government's crackdown on JAM because they, like SIIC, want to see Muqtada's organization weakened in the south leading up to the provincial elections currently expected in October (but they can be postponed).

The Saudis don't like the Shi'a militant Muqtada. But Muqtada is a nationalist opposed to the more drastic federalist schemes favored by the leading Kurdish parties and SIIC but opposed by the Sunni. The Saudis would prefer a unified Shi'a dominated Iraq to a Shi'a dominated Iraq with an automomous southern Shi'a province.

Fischer reminds us that part of the danger of war with Iran is that the Saudi-led Sunni coalition would push to create some kind of intensified confrontation, though the Saudis are fearful of the implications of outright war. Still, he sees the Saudis as determined not to accept the reality that the Cheney-Bush administration has created on the ground by the invasion of Iraq, i.e., Iranian hegemony in the region.

In discussing Europe's position toward the current situation in the Gulf region, he notes that most of the European public was sensibly opposed to participating in the invasion of Iraq. And he stresses that it would be a big mistake for Europe to allow itself to be drawn directly into a military conflict there.

I saw Fischer speak live in San Francisco about this time last year. He expressed the view that the US and Europe had to assume that Iran was pushing for a nuclear weapons capacity and that intensive diplomatic efforts were needed to prevent such a development. Someone asked his opinion on military action against Iran, and he just shook his head in apparent dismay and said he did not see that as a practical option.

Fischer describes the difference between the Saudi and American viewpoints on Iraq-Iran this way:

Die saudische Sicht auf den aktuellen Stand des Kriegs im Irak und seinen Fortgang unterscheidet sich strategisch diametral von der amerikanischen Sicht. Nur bei der Erklärung für den Rückgang der Gewalt im Irak gibt es noch große Übereinstimmung. Hauptursache für den Rückgang ist demnach das sogenannte „Sunni Awakening“, das zu einer weitgehenden Trennung des sunnitischen Widerstands von al-Quaida und zu einer Unterstützung des amerikanischen Militärs geführt hat. Hinzu kommen die Tatsache, dass Teheran gegenüber der schiitischen Miliz des Muktada al Sadr seine Politik geändert und einen Waffenstillstand durchgesetzt hat sowie die amerikanischen Truppenverstärkungen und das Faktum, dass die innerirakische ethnische und religiöse Säuberung in den umkämpften Gebieten weitgehend als abgeschlossen gilt.

[The Saudi view of the present state of the war in Iraq and its continuation is strategically the diametrical opposite of that of the Americans. Only in the explanation for the reduction in violence [in late 2007 and early 2008, a reduction that is no longer so apparent - Bruce] is there still great agreement. The main reason for the reduction is, according to them, the so-called "Sunni Awakening", which led to a far-reaching split of the Sunni resistance from Al Qa'ida and to the support of the American generals [for the "Awakening"]. In addition, Teheran changed its policy toward the Shi'a militia of Muqtada al-Sadr and arranged a cease-fire [in Basra and the surrounding area], there was the increase in American troops, and there was the fact that the inner-Iraq ethnic and religious cleansing in the disputed district was to a large degree completed.]
But the Saudis are fundamentally opposed to the current Iraqi government and the increasinly stregthened position of Iran. They and allied Sunni states see themselves as having a stake in provoking further tensions between the US and Iran, though the Saudis are highly concerned about the negative consequences of an possible war between the US and Iran.

Fischer notes that the Saudis share a common interest with Israel in this matter:

Eine solche Hegemonie würde von Riad als existenzielle Bedrohung des Königreichs und seiner territorialen Integrität angesehen werden. Hier gibt es eine mit den Händen zu greifende Interessenidentität zwischen Saudi-Arabien und Israel, die allerdings durch den anhaltenden Konflikt zwischen Israel und den Palästinensern politisch kaum Form annehmen kann. In Riad wird diese Position ... von Regierungsseite ... offen ausgesprochen. Saudi-Arabien hält eine militärische Konfrontation der USA mit Iran in den Folgen für kaum kontrollierbar und deshalb für hoch gefährlich.

[Such an [Iranian] hegemony [in the region] is seen by Riad as an existential threat to the kingdom and its territorial integrity. Here there is a very obvious identity of interests between Saudi Arabia and Israel, which nevertheless can scarcely take concrete political form due to the continuing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. In Riad, this position is openly expressed by the government. Saudi Arabia considers the consequences a military confrontation between the USA and Iran to be scarcely controllable and therefore highly dangerous.]
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