The last few weeks have seen media dominated by tumultuous events in the region, in particular the attack on Saudi Arabia’s oilfields, which shocked the Kingdom and sent a very clear message to Donald Trump that if he continues to pursue a policy of denying the world of Iranian oil, then Tehran has the capability to also restrict the flow from KSA as well.
But it also sent another message which was perhaps heeded better in Riyadh than in Washington which was that Iran is prepared to start a war with Saudi Arabia if it has to, as it is being pushed into a corner where diplomatic options seem meaningless in comparison to military ones. In the last few days of the UN’s general assembly, we witnessed informal shuttle diplomacy by several world leaders trying to send messages to Iran’s president. Macron, Johnson et al failed with the “it’s a good time to talk” approach, when, in reality all they achieved was to advertise to the world their shocking ignorance of Iranian politics, as it would never be President Rouhani’s off-the-cuff decision anyway to meet Trump in the alcoves of the UN building.
Sobriety won the day though with leaders from the region who showed Trump and the UNGA circus that in fact all they provided was an occasion where such leaders could be in the same room as one another. But while western media got itself wrapped up in the debate of whether Trump could strike Iran – or indeed whether Saudi Arabia could – we all took our eyes off the ball.
The CBS interview with Saudi Arabia’s capricious crown prince drew some attention for the polemic subject of Khashoggi as “MbS” claimed that he didn’t order his murder.
No one is buying that. As indeed, neither the folly that Iran didn’t strike the Saudi oilfields. The Middle East is a quagmire of lies and half truths. What emerges as the only real truth is a lack of appetite for war.
Saudis won’t strike Iran
The real bombshell in the interview, which MbS was clearly prepared for, was his almost incidental comment about wishing that Trump and Rouhani would meet and that he preferred a diplomatic solution to the crisis.
And so the cat is out of the bag. Saudi Arabia is certainly not in a position to strike Iran, militarily, and the US is certainly not going to take any lead in such an operation. We have arrived at the diplomatic option through default of exhausting the rhetoric of the military one, which only really existed as a facet of Trump’s alter ego via a twitter rant. It’s also worth noting the pressure on MbS in Riyadh which is reaching fever pitch from his contemporaries who are angry with him about the Iranian attacks.
And where are the hawks baying for blood with Iran anyway? Bolton and Bibi are out; MbZ is reported to have struck a deal with Iran, with MbS now looking for dialogue.
President Rouhani confirmed this when he claimed that Pakistan’s Imran Khan had been asked by the Saudis to talk to the Iranians. And so, Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince, often in the news for making foolhardy, misjudged decisions, actually made a smart one: reach out directly to Iran.
So now the dog is wagging the dog, leaving Boris and Macron somewhat redundant in their cheap suits as they take on the mere role of onlooker to what is a huge decision taken by the Saudis. If those back channel talks function, without petulance, then there is a very good chance that the tension in the region can be deescalated but it will be for the Saudis to tell Trump that he has to reverse the lever on the Iran sanctions, starting with the more recent tightening of sanctions on the central bank in Tehran.
The talks might prove embarrassing for Trump whose entire Middle East policy has been to capitalize on instability, indeed even contribute to it, in the vain of providing business and jobs to the US arms industry. But when talks get going between the Saudis and Iran, it might just become evident that in reality, Riyadh cares little about the so-called threat of Iran’s nuclear or ballistic capabilities – which it will have whether it is a pariah state or not – but more about its abilities to eclipse Saudi Arabia in time with its geopolitical ambitions and business verve.
Of course, the Saudis will no doubt ask for the Iranians to back peddle on their enrichment program and to guarantee that no such attacks will follow the recent one on their oil fields. But what they really should be doing is looking for ways to follow the historical events which followed immediately after the end of WWII where France and Germany used natural resources and energy as a basis for securing a peace deal with one another. This is the role which Macron and Boris should be playing rather than mimicking a man about to jump in a swimming pool (as the UK leader did at UNGA, looking buffoonish into the bargain).
Let’s do nukes together
Nuclear energy in the entire region could be the way forward for both countries and the money that the Saudis would save on defence could be ploughed into state building, jobs, start ups and the new vision of a modern economy. Probably, MBS wants a way out of the Yemen war, which is face- saving as well. He is more likely to get that by talking directly to Rouhani than Trump, Boris or Macron. We shouldn’t get carried away by the initiative by MbS, but it is hugely encouraging and pragmatic that he took the step to engage the charismatic Pakistani leader to step up to the crease. And hugely significant that he chose a regional leader who had good relations with Iran in preference for the cheap suits at UNGA. Any kind of war in the region would sky rocket oil prices which would be devastating for the economy of Pakistan, not to mention regional instability. The honeymoon period between MbS and Trump is well over. This at best now is a gauche marriage of convenience which has only given both partners a headache without the sex. The Saudi Crown prince’s overtures to Russia however are in full swing as President Putin will visit Riyadh in mid October and will look to capitalize on the mess that Trump’s foibles have created for the kingdom – which might even involve broadening the arms spending chit-chat beyond merely S-400s. Saudi Arabia is waking up and smelling the coffee as Trump’s so-called “war” with Iran makes no sense in any light. Working out a peace plan makes a lot of sense for the entire region. Someone needs to call the CEO of Lockheed Martin with the bad news as Putin’s Middle East Peace plan seems to be more of a runner than Trump’s.