A panicky Saudi Arabia has now openly seized the banner of outspoken opposition to Iran across the Muslim world, surpassing even Washington’s long and obsessive Iran-centered interpretation of Middle East events. Riyadh is perpetuating a false – and hence dangerously misleading – reading of key regional issues.
The Saudi Kingdom grows understandably fearful as “stable” autocratic rule in the region now faces the severest threats since the heyday of the Arab nationalist revolution half a century ago. The Saudi regime has chosen to single out Iran as the primary source of populist agitation and revolution. This in itself is an irony since Iran’s own regime – a complex, messy, unpleasant, fractured, and opaque blend of autocracy and quasi-democratic institutions – faces threats from domestic forces that demand greater openness. But that’s not the issue.
Iran has played its foreign policy cards shrewdly over the years, so that to most Middle Eastern publics, Tehran has displayed the kind of defiance of American dominance and its support for Israeli policies in the Palestinian territories that has always held street appeal – especially in states dominated by supine US-supported dictatorships. Polls indicate that Arab publics rate concern over potential Iranian nukes quite low.
Take the Palestinian resistance organization Hamas, which enjoys Iranian as well as Arab support. Hamas surely does not threaten Riyadh by dint of being a Sunni fundamentalist movement; its threat is that it is basically anti-monarchical, has called for armed resistance by Palestinians, and represents activist popular anti-autocratic forces at work. That is what unnerves the House of Saud: uncontrolled populism. Similarly, Riyadh also seeks to neutralize the dominant Shiite community in Lebanon led by Hezbollah that enjoys much popularity among Sunnis outside Lebanon for its stubborn resistance to Israeli military power.
Saudi Arabia's real problem with Iran: It's Shiite
So today Riyadh seeks to portray Iran as the heart of a new super-menace to Arab monarchy. Not so much because it is Persian, but above all because it is Shiite – a sect theologically detestable in Wahhabi, as well as Al Qaeda eyes. Wahhabis not only loathe Shiism, but they fear the internal “threat” of an oppressed Shiite minority in Saudi Arabia – only some 10 percent of the population — which must be kept under muzzle. More important, the oppressed Shiite population in Bahrain – an absolute majority – must never be allowed to gain power through elections, as happened in Iraq. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are fighting the tides of history and are losing.
This talk of Shiism represents a dangerous diversion because in fact the future of the Middle East is not basically about sectarian power. Yes, key dispossessed minorities – Shiites in Iraq and Bahrain, Sunnis in Syria – will seek to right skewed political balances, and sectarian tensions inevitably develop out of that unsettling process. But instability develops most explosively when frozen autocracies burst open, leading to a scramble for a new political order. Nonetheless, some sectarian stasis will eventually emerge, as it has in the past. Most Arabs are more concerned with liberation from harsh rule, and with corruption, jobs, dignity, and national sovereignty. Reversion to sectarianism, or racism, is everywhere the ruling scoundrel’s last ploy.
US must not follow Saudi lead
So Riyadh’s desperate call to create a club of Sunni monarchs and allied Sunni states in South and East Asia to hold the line on Iran runs counter to what enlightened Washington policy should want in this region. Anti-Iranian policies do not create a meaningful framework for a new regional order. Egypt may have no special love for Iran, but its new regime now clearly sees hostility with an important state like Tehran to be counterproductive.
Turkey, too, sees greater benefit in trying to integrate Iran rather than engage in fruitless and truculent confrontation. No other gulf state is truly “threatened” by Iran, nor has there been any war with Iran in a very long time – except for a diplomatic dust-up over a few islands under the Shah. Only the oppressive minority regime of Bahrain is threatened with change and now typically clings to Riyadh in a desperate end game.
Saudi Arabia probably does not want actual war with Iran. But it hopes its extreme stance on Iran will help gain Washington’s unconditional acquiescence for Riyadh’s own anti-democracy stance. But should Washington go that route? If Washington wants a stable and sound future for the Middle East, it should not follow Riyadh’s lead. Saudi Arabia will always sell its oil to the world – even if reduces its extravagant arms purchases from the US arms industry.
Riyadh may well succeed in buying off its own population from domestic revolt for some years to come. But the US should not be tying its star to a “flagship Saudi Arabia,” even under the best of circumstances. And especially not now that Riyadh exploits extreme ideological and sectarian appeals in an effort to blunt the slow but inexorable, complex process of Arab Spring.
Graham E. Fuller is a former vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA. His most recent book is “A World Without Islam.” He is an adjunct professor at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, Canada.