Iran in Iraq: Saudi Arabia Still Worried

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

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Thomas Lippman

Thomas W. Lippman is a Washington-based author and journalist who has written about Middle Eastern affairs and American foreign policy for more than four decades, specializing in Saudi Arabian affairs, U.S.- Saudi relations, and relations between the West and Islam. He is a former Middle East bureau chief of the Washington Post, and also served as that newspaper's oil and energy reporter. Throughout the 1990s, he covered foreign policy and national security for the Post, traveling frequently to Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East. In 2003 he was the principal writer on the war in Iraq for Washingtonpost.com. Prior to his work in the Middle East, he covered the Vietnam war as the Washington Post's bureau chief in Saigon. Lippman has authored seven books about the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute in Washington, where he serves as the principal media contact on Saudi Arabia and U.S. – Saudi relations.

SHOW 10 COMMENTS

10 Comments

  1. George says:
    Obama wants to leave his office of legacy of SEEMINGLY freezing the Iran nuclear program, while playing blind to Iran’s more serious ambitions to build a new empire in the region on the mantle of US disengagement from the Middle East.

  2. Are you an “Oracle” George? Just curious as to how you reached your conclusion?

  3. Thanks Norman. I think George should educate himself a little deeper!
    George, Iran has been surrounded militarily from all sides by the west for 35 years. As you may know, Afganistan and Pakistan are on the east, Iraq and Turkey are on the west, the ex-Soviet states are on the northern boarders and American navy ships are on the south in the Persian Gulf! Thus the reason for the Iranian foreign policy objectives, in return for the western objectives, that it has surrounded Israel by its own proxies like Syria, Hamas, and Lebenan!
    Iraq and Afghanistan are the gifts from G. Bush to Iran and the Iranians do thank GB for the mess he created in these 2 countries and for giving them some breathing room. Iran is and will be in the neighborhood and anyone wants stability and security in their neighborhood! So the Iranians are trying to help cleaning up the mess, secure and stabilize the 2 countries with which Iran has very long boarders. The western media of course misrepresenting the whole thing as if Iran has hegemonic goals and objectives. The west tried to peel off Syria from Iran but it couldn’t do it because the Russians and Iranians were standing in the way! The west had to back off from their objective because had Syria become destabilized it would’ve spilled over into Israel to the Iranian chagrin! Because of the failures of the objectives in Syria and the political vacuum this mess created ISIS was born out of the ashes with financial help from the Saudis! Well, here we are today with everone is trying to capture and put the Frankenstein ISIS back in its cage!

  4. “Saudi Arabia” in this report is nothing more than the despotic, mysogynist and dynastic House of Saud, nothing more. The Arabs who actually live in the Middle East fear Israel and U.S. who actually have nukes, and not Iran which doesn’t have nukes, according to several polls. So who cares when Prince Saud says. “Saudi Arabia Still Worried” So long as the Sauds can continue cooperate with the U.S. funding M.E. terror what do they care.

  5. The House of Saud is funny. They are crying victim. The country who gave birth to Al Qaeda, raised it, nurtured it, financed it, the same Al Qaeda who attacked my country on 9/11 and didn’t pay any price for it, the country who gave birth to ISIS, raised it, nurtured it, financed it, sent it to Iraq and Syria to roll back the influence of Iran, the same ISIS who is now destroying the timeless and priceless treasures left to us by the Assyrians and other extinct, glorious civilizations, the same ISIS who is making videos beheading locals and Westerners on a daily base to shock everyone into submission, those Saudis are here to educate us that “Iran is the source of all the trouble in the region”. How about you all own up to your contribution to the mess and you clean up your own part before pretending like that history did not take place and instead point the finger at others? To me, both are guilty, but the crimes of the Saudis far outweigh the crimes of the Iranians and I can’t help but feel a bit of sympathy for Iranians who suffered in the hands of the same Saddam who was financed by Saudis and backed and armed by the west to invade Iran. As for Suleimani being in Iraq, yeah, I’m concerned about that too but I can say that and not feel hypocritical because unlike the Saudis I didn’t send an army to Bahrain to keep the Bahrain dictators in power when the country rose up to ask for some reforms and some say in their government. Here again, if one was to judge the sins of one against the other, Saudis sent an army to protect a Sunni dictator who’s putting down the majority Shiites of Bahrain, While Iranians have sent people to protect a U.S. backed semi-democratically elected leader of a majority Shiite country who’s being invaded by satanic figures called ISIS who are mascaraing Shiites, Sunnis, Kurds, Yazidis, Christians and old historical buildings (and for some callous reason the last one gets me the most). You be the judge of who would be backed in this equation by any impartial observer.

    Obama’s White House called Netanyahu “chickensh*t” for his tough talk but timidity to take on enemies who can fight back. In reality, that term applies to Saudis much more than anyone else. For a country who has been the biggest purchaser of arms in the region, especially from us, and the biggest spenders on arms next to the major powers, they have been wet paper tigers. For the entire duration of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Saudis have stayed put, shaking in their palaces, begging the Americans to tell Israel to please, please don’t harm them because they’re never going to get involved. They may have given some funding to the Egyptians and Syrians at various points to do the fighting, but even that dried up pretty quickly. Then there was the Iraq-Iran war which the Saudis tried to remotely control through money and support. Then when Saddam turned on them and invaded their borders, Saudis ran and hid behind America and Desert Storm happened with Saudis on the sidelines, shaking in their palaces. Then they tried to buy a country, financing the Talibans in Afghanistan. If I remember correctly, Saudis and Pakistanis plus a couple of gas-station sized Arab kingdoms were the only ones to recognize the Talibans who were the ISIS of their day, killing and maiming school girls for going to school and hanging people in soccer stadiums for watching TV.

    I can go on, but you can clearly see the pattern of House of Saud’s behavior. And so it always makes me laugh when the Saudis are called the leaders of the Arab world. The closest thing the Arab world has to a leader is Egypt. As for whining about Iran’s behavior, let Iraqis, Syrian freedom fighters, Lebanonese and Yemenese do that. They have a point. You, House of Saud, don’t.

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