War's Havoc in Iran and Saudi Arabia

By , Bahman Baktiari is assistant professor of international affairs and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Maine.

PRESIDENT Bush continues to underestimate the ramifications of a major war with Iraq. The idea that superior military technology and international support will assure a quick victory with no ``murky ending,'' appeals to those who see the trees rather than the forest. Should a war with Iraq begin, the political, economic, and security implications for Iran and Saudi Arabia will be immense. For Iran, war would place the delicate situation of the pragmatists like President Rafsanjani in danger. Rafsanjani's strict neutrality maintained so far will be criticized and exploited by the radicals who have recently suffered major setbacks in the political struggle inside Iran. Since the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in June 1989, the pragmatists have gradually taken control of major institutions. They strengthened the presidency and dissolved the post of prime minister; introduced tough legal and political requirements for candidates to the powerful Assembly of Experts; initiated a program to integrate the Revolutionary Guards with regular armed forces.

Also in the past two years, Rafsanjani and Foreign Minister Velayati have worked very hard in restoring relations with England, and improving ties with the Soviet Union and the Persian Gulf states. Moreover, President Rafsanjani has developed a special relationship with important regional leaders like President Ozal of Turkey. Divided and demoralized, the radicals are on the defensive.

In light of the tenuous internal situation between the pragmatists and the radicals, Rafsanjani's endeavor to maintain Iran's neutrality has been remarkable. Despite the largest deployment of American troops since Vietnam, the radical elements have not been able to undermine his position. This will all change if the United States decides to go to war with Iraq. It will rejuvenate the radicals with a new agenda impossible for the pragmatists to oppose.

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It is astonishing that an ``expert'' like Henry Kissinger calls for strong measures against Iraq, given his record of failure in the region. It was Dr. Kissinger who pressured the Carter administration to admit the Shah of Iran into the United States, thereby igniting the Tehran embassy-hostage crisis. Kissinger destroyed the chances of pragmatic elements inside Iran that wanted to avoid confrontation with the United States. Now he counsels a policy that would have the seem effect.

The impact on Saudi Arabia will be no less than on Iran. Already the international attention and the presence of American troops is testing the legitimacy of the Saudi rulers and their claim to be the ``protectors'' of the holy land. The Saudis have wagered that they will be able to temper the implications of a war with enough internal support to overcome any domestic opposition. Yet the apparent calm in the Saudi internal situation is a fa,cade behind which discontent is pervasive.

The bureaucrats who run the government machinery privately express strong opposition to massive corruption within the royal family. Criticism of hypocrisy stemming from public displays of piety by officials who privately enjoy amenities forbidden under Islamic law is quite common among Saudi citizens. The student bodies at major universities have increasingly become politicized and vocal in criticizing their government. One student told me that the king's son Mohammad bin Fahd is singled out for criticism for receiving vast commissions on government contracts.

Events are bringing changes in Saudi society that will reduce the power of the regime to withstand internal uprisings. The most dramatic is the government's decision to open up the elite National Guard, which is in need of recruits to fill the places of those sent to the front. Until now, the guard had recruited its men from Bedouin tribes in the Nejd, in the center of Saudi Arabia. They are the staunchest loyalists. Throwing open its ranks to city workers will inevitably affect its ability to deal with internal issues, and the new recruits will not be as loyal as the Bedouins.

The Bush administration should not ignore the internal realities of the Persian Gulf states. The policy of brinkmanship has exacted a huge toll from these volatile regimes. It is not the question of how long should we wait for the sanctions against Iraq to force a withdrawal from Kuwait. Rather, the realities in the Persian Gulf determine what option is in the best interest of the region.

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