by Thomas W. Lippman
Prince Saud al-Faisal has been foreign minister of Saudi Arabia for 40 years. He doesn’t make rookie mistakes. When he says something in public, he means what he says.
That’s why it’s worth scrutinizing his comments at a joint news conference in Riyadh on Thursday with Secretary of State John Kerry. The secretary was there to persuade the Saudis and the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council—Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates—not to accept the gospel according to Bibi Netanyahu on the subject of nuclear negotiations with Iran.
Prince Saud unequivocally distanced his country from the maximalist position taken by the Israeli prime minister: that Iran should not be allowed to pursue any nuclear-related activities and that any agreement the United States and its negotiating partners might make that would permit Iran to retain some nuclear capability would be a dangerous mistake. In his opening remarks, without being asked, Prince Saud that the kingdom supports the effort of the P5+1 to reach a deal that would limit Iran’s nuclear facilities and subject them to intrusive international inspections while “maintaining Iran’s right—and all countries of the region’s right—to the peaceful use of nuclear energy,” provided that they comply with the rules of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Given Saudi Arabia’s commitment to develop its own large-scale nuclear power program, the foreign minister could hardly have said otherwise, and he was merely restating well-known Saudi policy. But coming just two days after Netanyahu’s controversial appearance before the U.S. Congress, in which he said that the Obama administration appeared ready to accept an agreement that would facilitate Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, and right after his meeting with Kerry, Prince Saud’s words had particular resonance.
But his statement does not mean that Saudi Arabia under its new king has modified its hostility to, or fear of, Iran. On the contrary, he laid it out in full view when he was asked about the current campaign by Iraqi forces and their allies to retake the city of Tikrit from the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and about reports that Gen. Qassem Suleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, is coordinating the campaign.
“The situation in Tikrit is a prime example of what we are worried about,” Prince Saud said. “Iran is taking over the country.” He didn’t say that “Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs” or “exerting undue influence,” but “Iran is taking over the country.” With those six words, he made explicit the fear that the Saudis have felt ever since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 opened the door to Iranian influence in a Shia-controlled Baghdad. The Saudis opposed the U.S. invasion for just that reason.
Saudi Arabia has never made any secret of its concerns about Iranian influence in Iraq, but the overt role of the formerly shadowy Suleimani in the Tikrit campaign seems to have stirred new anxieties. Suleimani is almost a legendary figure in the region, exerting broad influence while staying in the background. His alleged feats on Iran’s behalf, detailed in a New Yorker profile, reached such proportions that a Saudi commentator wryly referred to him as “Qassem Supermani.”
The spread of Iranian—meaning Shia—influence in Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, and Lebanon, as well as Iraq, is one reason the Saudis have not supported the Obama administration’s quest for a nuclear deal. They believe that the United States is pursuing that single objective, and seeking a single-focus deal—and hoping to use that single-issue deal as the foundation of an overall rapprochement with Tehran—while failing to confront Iran’s other activities. “That is really the main concern of the Gulf Cooperation Council,” Saud al-Faisal said—that the P5+1 would be satisfied with an agreement on the nuclear issue “at the expense of forgetting everything else that Iran does.” He said the Saudis “are, of course, worried about atomic energy and [an] atomic bomb. But we’re equally concerned about about the nature of action and hegemonistic tendencies that Iran has in the region.”
On that point Kerry told them what they wanted to hear.
“The first step is to make sure that the [the Iranians] don’t have a nuclear weapon,” he said. But if a nuclear deal is reached, “nothing else changes the next day with respect to our joint commitment to stand up against any other kind of interference or violation of international law or support for terrorism. And Iran remains a labeled state supporter of terrorism. So those efforts will continue.” He pledged that the United States and its allies “will not take our eye off Iran’s other destabilizing actions in the region.”
Prince Saud said that Kerry had been “very clear in the assurances he gave the country” on this subject, but he did not say whether he and King Salman were convinced. In fact, the Tikrit campaign in Iraq appears to have created new anxieties in Riyadh because of the uncomfortable position in which Washington finds itself there. On the one hand the United States is supporting Iraq’s fight to retake territory from IS, and has been conducting air strikes against IS forces. But on the other, the Tikrit campaign has made Suleimani and the Iran-supported Shia militias doing much of the fighting into de facto, if unwelcome, allies.
The campaign to retake Tikrit is “Iraqi-designed, Iraqi-led,” Kerry said. “Is General Suleimani— has he been on the ground, is he playing a role? The answer is yes. We’ve got information to that effect.” But the United States has been assured by Iraqi Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi that the Iraqis are in charge and are coordinating the campaign with local tribal leaders. “Everybody has known that there are some movements of Iranian forces, both in and out of the northern part of Iraq, who have been engaged with the fighting from the very beginning. But it is not coordinated. We are not coordinating with them,” Kerry said.
The United States and Iran are seeking the same objective, on the same ground, against the same foe, and each is reportedly using open radio frequencies that the other can monitor. To the Saudis, “not coordinating” may sound like a distinction without a difference. To them, as Prince Saud made clear, Iran’s activities outside its own borders are responsible for the region’s troubles, and those activities “must stop if Iran is to be part of the solution of the region and not part of the problem.”
Photo: Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal meeting John Kerry