Loose Canons

Soured Saudis Sulk Out

It’s all about Iran, as Riyadh no longer wants to hold hands with Washington.

By 10.28.13

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After a year of campaigning for a seat on the UN Security Council, the Saudi Arabian government was elected to it on October 18. They turned it down, forcefully, the same day.

How could that be? No nation offered a Security Council seat has ever turned one down, not even one of the non-permanent seats the Saudis were offered.

The Saudi action pokes a large pin in the UN balloon. It’s not quite the same as the U.S. rejection of the League of Nations. It’s worse because the League was assumed to be an effective global arbiter of affairs. The U.S. rejected membership in order to preserve national sovereignty. The Saudis’ rejection of the UN was, in part, because they didn’t want to participate in anything so useless and ineffective.

The decision to reject the Security Council seat had to have been made -- or at least acquiesced in -- by King Abdullah, the 89-year-old head of the Saudi gerontocracy. Saudi foreign policy usually moves at a glacial pace. Given the proximity in time between the election of the Saudis to the seat and their rejection of it (only a few hours), the rejection could not have been a last-minute decision. It had to have been debated for many weeks within the Saudi regime.

The Saudis said that their action was the result of the Security Council’s failure to force an end to the Syrian civil war and to bring about peace between Israel and the Palestinians (presumably on Palestinian terms). There had to be more than that, and there was. It all has to do with the Saudis’ intent to divorce themselves from the horrific mess that Barack Obama has made of U.S. foreign policy and their fear of Iran.

For the Saudis to reject U.S. foreign policy is surprising, given Obama’s emphasis on making friends in the Arab world. And if it were because we are putting pressure on the Saudis to change, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. There is so much evidence of the fact that the Saudis are a principal source of funding for terrorist groups that one wonders how they could be mistaken for an ally at all. (See, for example, the formerly secret December 2009 State Department cable, published by Wikileaks, that labels the Saudis a “critical financial support base for al-Qaida, the Taliban, [Lashkar-e-Taiba] and other terrorist groups and the June 2013 EU Parliament report to the same effect. But they have us over the barrel -- of oil -- so we don’t mention these stubborn facts, far less force the Saudis to change them.

For the Saudis to reject Obama and the UN for the reasons they did demonstrates the utter failure of Obama to maintain American influence in the Middle East.

Before the New York Times and MSNBC react in spitting rage to deny any fault in Obama, let’s consider what the Saudis have said. Two days after they gave the middle finger to the UN and Obama, Prince Bandar -- the Saudis’s former ambassador to the U.S. and their current head of intelligence -- called some Western diplomats to Jeddah where (according to a Wall Street Journal report) he told them that the rejection of the Security Council seat was “a message for the U.S., not the U.N.”

And only days later, the American-Saudi gap grew wider. The Saudis, not satisfied with the results of their rejection of the UN Security Council, began to hint at undefined economic consequences for the U.S. for inaction on Syria. And though Secretary of State Kerry assured the Saudis that he believed no deal with Iran was better than a bad deal, Prince Bandar told diplomats that he planned to reduce diplomatic interaction with the U.S.

If the Saudis are to be believed, this could mark their shift from American alliances to Chinese. They have a nuclear development agreement with China, and other agreements that could easily pave the way for a more thorough shift.

Bandar is also the head of Saudi Arabia’s effort to topple the Iranian-friendly regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. The Saudi regime has chosen to fight a proxy war against Russia and -- more importantly -- the about-to-be nuclear regime of Iran. It has stuck its neck out in Syria because it believes itself surrounded by Iran’s allies in Syria and by Shiites loyal to Iran in Lebanon (the Hezbollah terrorist group), Yemen, Bahrain, and Iraq.

When Obama fell for the deal Russian President Putin offered on Syrian chemical weapons and then decided to ask Congress for permission to intervene militarily in Syria, the Saudis’ effort to get us into Syria were thwarted. Obama’s cave-in to Putin on Syria weakens their position substantially. That’s only one point of contention between the Saudis and Obama. The other principal problem is Iran.

One of the mostly unspoken reasons that Saudi Arabia rejected the Security Council seat is that if it had accepted it, the Saudis would have had to have voted on future Security Council actions affecting Iran, such as maintaining or relieving it of economic sanctions and actions on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. (There have been five Security Council resolutions on Iran since 2008. None has had any effect on slowing or stopping Iran’s nuclear weapons program.)

The Saudis didn’t want to be put in a position in which they would be even partially responsible for action against Iran. Their action in Syria, unsupported by Obama, leaves them in fear of Iranian reprisals, which are sure to come. And their fear is exacerbated by the fact that it comes at the time when a war between Iran and Israel over Iran’s nuclear weapons program seems imminent.

Last year, the world heard and then ignored Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s warnings about the danger that is reached when Iran achieves a “breakout capacity.” Netanyahu defined that as the point where Iran could -- secretly and quickly -- act to produce a workable nuclear weapon. He drew an Israeli “red line” before that point. Netanyahu’s “red line” is different from Obama’s on Syria in that Netanyahu has no choice but to enforce it by military action.

Now, that red line has apparently been reached and Iran is ready to step over it.

According to a report by the Institute for Science and International Security, Iran can cross that red line very quickly. The report says that Iran now has the “breakout” capability Netanyahu warned about, and can manufacture 20% enriched uranium in one month in an amount sufficient to make a nuclear bomb.

For its part Israel is -- again -- warning that time has just about run out for the so-called “world community” to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear bomb. Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister, Danny Danon, told USA Today, "We have made it crystal clear -- in all possible forums, that Israel will not stand by and watch Iran develop weaponry that will put us, the entire Middle East and eventually the world, under an Iranian umbrella of terror." 

The Saudis can see how eager Obama is for a deal with Iran. Obama is willing to admit Iran has a “right” to enrich uranium under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation treaty, despite the Iranian’s forfeiture of any such right by violating the treaty. Obama is willing to ignore the Iranians’ work to mate a nuclear warhead to their missiles and to develop the trigger mechanism for a nuclear warhead.

The Saudis and everyone other than Obama knows that Obama’s eagerness for a deal with Iran will have only one effect. It will enable the Iranians the time they need to produce a nuclear weapon in secret and announce the fait accompli to the world.

The Saudis may be embarking on a new, more aggressive policy to insulate themselves from an Iranian attack. The likelihood of a Saudi-Iranian non-aggression pact is unlikely, given their religious and ethnic differences, but it’s not impossible.

What shape will that aggressive policy take? It will not be aimed at Iran. More likely it would intend to prove to Iran and the Arab world that Saudi Arabia isn’t willing to ride the weak horse -- America -- any longer.

When Israel attacks Iran -- not if -- the results of that war will reshape the Middle East in ways we can’t entirely predict. The one certainty will be that China will have far more influence there than it does now, and far more than we ever will have again.

Photo: UPI

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About the Author
Jed Babbin served as a Deputy Undersecretary of Defense under George H.W. Bush. He is the author of several bestselling books including Inside the Asylum and In the Words of Our Enemies. He is coauthor (with Herbert London) of the new book The BDS War Against Israel. You can follow him on Twitter@jedbabbin.