If President George W. Bush’s main purpose in visiting the Gulf last week — as indicated by his call in Abu Dhabi last Sunday to confront Iran “before it is too late” — was to rally Washington’s Sunni-led regional allies, particularly Saudi Arabia, behind a containment-and-isolation strategy against Iran, especially in the wake of last month’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), it appears that he fell far short of his goal. Indeed, it now appears to have been counter-productive.
While in the run-up to Bush’s visit to Saudi Arabia, its foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, was quoted in some of the mainstream press as warning against U.S. efforts to pit the Gulf states against Iran in this way, a remarkably blunt editorial, entitled “Peace Now,” that appeared in the Jeddah-based English-language Arab News on the second day of the president’s sojourn in Saudi Arabia — two days after his Abu Dhabi speech — received virtually no notice. It should have, because it is probably unprecedented in its bluntness about the kingdom’s honored guest, constituting what the former U.S. ambassador to Riyadh, Chas Freeman, today called “a notable …breach of standard Arab etiquette” and one that was presumably condoned, if not approved, by senior members of the royal family. No one from the News has since been publicly admonished or dismissed, let alone arrested; indeed, no official has distanced the government from the sentiments expressed in it. The entire text, which is reproduced below, warrants attention, but the last paragraph — in which U.S. policy is described as “madness” — is not a little breathtaking, considering that the presidential party probably received complimentary copies with their morning coffee.
“Our region is not short of bloodshed and instability. Iraq, Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territories and Afghanistan are all scenes of past and present conflicts where largely innocent blood has flowed in plenty. We do not need yet another dangerous conflict.
That is why it was so sad, even depressing, to hear US President George W. Bush use his visit to the Gulf to continue his saber-rattling against the Iranians – and over a nuclear weapons program which his own intelligence chiefs say Tehran abandoned five years ago. To any dispassionate observer, US military action against Iran is unthinkable. Unfortunately the Bush administration’s record since 9/11 has not only embraced the unthinkable but, more dangerously, it has embraced it in an unthinking fashion.
To continue such dire warnings was inconsiderate given that Bush was the guest of Gulf states which are on Iran’s doorstep. Such warnings were not what we wanted to hear. As Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal told his Canadian counterpart Maxime Bernier this week in a message that he then repeated to French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, confrontational behavior by Washington toward Iran was not the answer. If Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states had a problem with Iran concerning its nuclear program, then they would talk to Tehran as neighbors should.
Before Bush’s Middle East visit, White House briefers were telling correspondents that the president would be pushing the Israelis for a Palestinian settlement in return for Arab backing of a tough stance with Iran. It was suggested that Israel might be more tractable if the “Iranian nuclear threat” were removed. But the linkage simply is not there. It is because of the enduring injustices visited upon the Palestinians, with US connivance, that the Arab world, not least Saudi Arabia, which has long been a US ally, has been so disappointed by the failure to reward loyalty and friendship by Washington’s driving through a Palestinian settlement.
And further, it is because Israel – again with US connivance – has acquired a nuclear arsenal that Iran and, before it, Saddam’s Iraq even thought of acquiring their own nuclear deterrents.
Purblind US policies and Washington’s desperate failure time and again to listen to the advice and guidance of its Arab friends in the region have brought us to this new moment of tension with Iran. We do not need more threats of war. Warmongering has already created the greatest level of regional instability in 60 years. Bush’s inflammatory threats against Iran ride roughshod over the counsels of peace that he has heard from every Arab government on his Middle East visit.
Whatever threat Iran may constitute, now or in the future, must be addressed peaceably and through negotiations. The consequences of further war in the region are hideous, not least because they are incalculable.
Even Bush, with the ruin of Iraq before him, must surely see that. Yet in his confrontational remarks about Iran, he offers no carrot, no inducement, no compromise – only the big US stick. This is not diplomacy in search of peace. It is madness in search of war.”
Freeman, who was moderating a panel on “Iran’s Strategic Concerns and U.S. Interests,” said it was very doubtful such sentiments were expressed directly to Bush during his stay in Saudi Arabia, particularly given the efforts expended by King Abdullah to establish a warm personal relationship with the president. Other participants, who included Gary Sick, Trita Parsi, Barbara Slavin, and Ray Takeyh, appeared to agree that the administration’s efforts to rally the Sunni Gulf leaders behind a confrontational stance against Iran were unlikely to succeed, with Takeyh asserting that, “You’ve begun to see Arab governments moving to integrate Iran as a means of …disarming” the threat that it poses. The Gulf states’ stance, he went on remains contradictory. “(They) don’t want American-Iranian confrontation, and they don’t want American-Iranian normalization,” he said. Along similar lines, readers might profitably read an interesting analysis published by the Royal United Services Institute for Defense and Security Studies in London by Neil Partrick, a Gulf specialist with the International Crisis Group, written on the even of Bush’s trip.