By Col. DAN SMITH
Writing in the New York Times on January 31, columnist Thomas Friedman reminded readers that both putative U.S. enemy Iran and putative U.S. ally Saudi Arabia have mixed records in their post-September 11, 2001 relations with the United States. The caution was timely, given the increasingly reckless rhetorical assaults on Iran that were emanating from various administration sources. Most often (or most prominently discussed), what the U.S. public heard from the White House, the State Department, and the Pentagon was an echo of Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” speech in which both Iraq and Iran were portrayed as evil and unredeemable. And while Iran has continued to be castigated for its activities, almost nothing is said–or reported–or remembered about Saudi activities that have been “unhelpful,” as a former Defense Secretary once said, to U.S. objectives.
First, Iran opposed Taliban rule in neighboring Afghanistan. While Tehran’s promise to assist in search and rescue missions for pilots of any U.S. aircraft that crashed in Iran during operations in western Afghanistan is widely known, many analysts believe that Iran had been covertly undermining Taliban rule and al-Qaeda’s safe haven for some time, that Tehran’s activities were known in Washington, and that Tehran was sharing information with Washington. Moreover, during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in March 2003, Iranians accompanied exiled Iraqi militias and others who reentered Iraq as British forces swept across southern Iraq securing the coast and the Iran-Iraq border areas. Curiously, there is little information about how many Iranians accompanied returning Iraqis and how many remained after the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq. What has emerged, however, is that after Baghdad fell Iran offered to sit down with the U.S. to negotiate the nuclear power/weapons issue, Iraq’s stability and reconstruction, and regional power sharing. Washington flatly declined to engage–and even tried to claim that no communications were received by any policymakers. Accusations are easier to make than denials. Almost as easy are deliberate omissions of fact meant to skew perceptions.
In either case, the inescapable question–to borrow a phrase from the Democratic party’s 1984 presidential primary race–“where’s the beef?” For some weeks, U.S. military and civilian leaders had been promising to present evidence showing the extent to which Iran was meddling and how nefarious its activities were in Iraq. In the first week of February, it seemed the evidence would be laid out for the world to see. But on the morning set for the “beef,” the press conference was abruptly postponed. The first reason cited for the volte face was the old “chestnut”: protecting intelligence sources and methods.” Later statements pointed to skittishness about some of the evidence. Just how these explanations, particularly the second, were received is a study in itself of the deep damage to U.S. government credibility abroad from the Bush administration’s misrepresentations of its intentions and actions. Initially, given the debacle at the UN in February 2003, just prior to the invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, the second explanation seemed a positive step that would remove questionable and flimsy “evidence.” But this “reasonable step” was ominously reminiscent of the “cherry-picking” activities of Pentagon undersecretary Douglas Feith’s “back-room” intelligence operation in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq–as documented by the Pentagon’s own Inspector General and presented in testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee. During the six days spent re-reviewing all the evidence, administration spokespersons continued to claim that the evidence of Iraqi interference was “incontrovertible” even as they demurred to provide corroboration. Finally, on February 11, the “evidence” was made public.
How solid is it?
To answer this question, a distinction needs to be drawn between two elements of the “proof” offered. The first is the existence of Iranian influence in and of itself. What would be surprising is not that Iranians are in and are trying to influence the course of events in Iraq, but that they were not making such efforts. The two countries share a long common border–one currently patrolled mainly by UK forces who, by as a matter of fact, do not support Washington’s claims that Iranians (and Iraqis) are bringing large numbers of weapons into Iraq and arming Shi’a militias or splinter elements from these militias. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and special elite units of the Guards undoubtedly are entering Iraq, probably under cover of the large numbers of Iranian pilgrims visiting mosques in Iraq’s holy cities. (In a sense, such activities would reflect what the CIA did through Pakistani intermediaries to arm Afghan’s mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in the 1980s.) Another source of weaponry would be the black market, with Iraqi smugglers a conduit to move weapons and bombs produced in Iran into Iraq. The existence of Iranian-produced weaponry in Iraq has been common knowledge for some time based on markings on weapons caches discovered by coalition forces and the remnants of exploded munitions (e.g., tail assemblies of mortar shells). Reporters who were briefed on February 11 noted that in August 2005, then-Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld mentioned Iranian arms found in Iraq. The second element is the extent of the influx and why the administration is suddenly emphasizing the issue at this time.
In remarks this past week at the NATO summit in Seville, Spain, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates did acknowledge that the quantity of the inflow is not huge; the problem is that the influx consists of increasingly sophisticated and lethal devices used for improvised roadside and car bombs. Not addressed by either Gates or the unidentified briefers–all of whom were from the Pentagon–was the implied connection between U.S. fatalities and the influx of materials and know-how from Shi’a Iran sources. For months, analysts have attributed 99% of U.S. fatalities to attacks not by Shi’as but by Sunni extremists. Most U.S. fatalities occur in al-Anbar province , where Sunnis dominate, and around Baghdad with its mixed population. Keeping the pot boiling in these two areas is not in Iraq’s long-term interests for two reasons: the longer the unrest, the longer the U.S. will remain and the more troops it will employ–witness the current “surge.” Second, when the U.S. finally leaves, Iran will not want the Sunnis to have these very lethal weapons to use against Iraqi Shi’as. The timing may well be related to this week’s anticipated debates in the House and the Senate on the administration’s Iraq war policy and in particular the current troop “surge.” Among the numerous proposed pieces of legislation and non-binding resolutions are bills that would require the president to obtain specific congressional approval before initiating hostilities against Iran (unless Iran were to attack U.S. troops or ships in international waters first). If the intent was to overshadow the congressional debates and votes, using as “evidence” explosive fragments collected more than 12 months only adds to the cynicism of an already jaded U.S. public.
Gaining perspective on how consistent Saudi Arabia ahs been in supporting U.S. objectives requires a little more history than for Iran. The formation of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) by Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Venezuela in 1960 put oil-consuming countries like the U.S. on notice that “collective action” on pricing by oil producers lay in the future. By 1973, the start of Richard Nixon’s second term as president, demand was in danger of outstripping supply. Iraq was threatening to invade Kuwait, and Iran’s Shah was vying with Saudi Arabia’s monarchs for regional dominance. In the United States, inflationary pressures from the Vietnam War and the Great Society were rising. Nixon imposed wage and price controls and severed the long-standing tie between the dollar and the price of gold (the “gold standard). In October 1973, Egypt and Syria initiated the Yom Kippur War, causing oil prices to jump from around $3.00 to $11.50 per barrel. When Washington asked Saudi Arabia to help calm commodity markets by increasing its production, the Saudis refused because Washington refused to publicly side with the Arabs against Israel. OPEC also declared an embargo on any country aiding Israel. When Nixon announced a $2.2 billion military aid package for Tel Aviv, OPEC cut production and embargoed exports to the U.S. until the contesting armies disengaged.
During the” second” oil shock in 1979, Saudi Arabia broke with other OPEC producers who tried to use the Iranian revolution and unrest in Iran to triple oil prices. The move backfired because of increasing supply from western, non-OPEC producers. Moreover, when war (1980-1988) between Iran and Iraq removed additional oil from the market, the OPEC producers suffered more than consumers because OPEC’s market share had dropped precipitously. They no longer could control the market. Nixon’s diplomatic strategy in the Gulf favored the Shah as the region’s military surrogate for U.S. interests. Whether intended or not, the provision of military hardware, including the then top-of-the line Navy F-14 airplane, served to define the geographical expanse of “vital” U.S. national interests in the Arab Middle East using two non-Arab countries at anchors: Persia (Iran) and Israel. The fall of the Shah and U.S. support of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq debacle unhinged this strategy, forcing the U.S. to re-engage directly–as it did in the so-called “Tanker War” to keep the Straits of Hormuz open and the oil flowing from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and even Iraq. y. The 1990s opened with Iraq’s six month invasion and occupation of Kuwait (August 1990 to February 1991) and its defeat by an UN-sanctioned, U.S.-UK led coalition of western forces and contingents from Arab states. The Saudis, concerned that they could lose oil fields should Saddam Hussein move further south, served as the base of the coalition effort. Having dislodged the Iraqis from Kuwait as per the UN mandate, the westerners settled down into “permanent” bases in Saudi Arabia, which offended many Muslims as the kingdom is the site of the two Holy Cities of Islam. In the run-up to the March 2003 invasion of Iraq and subsequent events, Saudi Arabia generally has responded to Bush administration entries to increase oil production to offset the loss of Iraqi petroleum exports (still below the pre-2003 invasion level).
Nonetheless, petroleum skyrocketed to $60 dollars a barrel in the summer of 2006 during the 33-days of armed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah. The Saudis also have attempted to mediate between warring factions in Iraq even as some in the kingdom provide resources to Sunni factions. But there is a potential dilemma looming with regard to relations with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated countries (80 percent of Muslims are Sunnis). By effecting regime change from a secular, anti-Shi’a Saddam Hussein to a religious pro-Shi’a government, Washington has opened the Pandora’s box of sectarian hatred that had been dormant for decades. In so doing, since most Sunni-dominated countries in the Middle East also have significant minority Shi’a communities, these countries could witness growing civil unrest and, in oil-producing countries, attacks on key petroleum infrastructure with all the ramifications that would inflict on the world economy. Significantly for U.S.-Saudi relations, the Shi’a community in Saudi Arabia is concentrated in the oil-rich eastern provinces.
Others have remarked on the fact that for George Bush, history seems cleaved into two parts–B9/11 and A9/11. This perspective surfaced again in a January 29, 2007 interview on National Public Radio when Bush acknowledged: “September the 11th changed my attitude about a lot of things. It really did.” Curiously, however, “Before 9/11” (B9/11) usually doesn’t figure into the memories about Saudi actions relative to U.S. objectives, only those of Iran, while what Iran has done A9/11 is relegated to the realm of deliberate provocations or at least unwarranted opposition to U.S. policies. Skewing history to fit the administration’s worldview is bad enough. (That is what the administration accuses Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of doing by denying the Holocaust occurred.) Worse is the predilection of those telling the tale to fall under the hypnotic effect of repetition so that they now are convinced of its veracity and are building future U.S. policy and programs on these misconceptions. Avoiding war with Iran or any country starts with correcting the tale the public hears and accepting that others have perspectives that are nourished or diminished by how they are treated. Countries don’t–and shouldn’t–have to always agree, but they do need to be honest about what they do agree and disagree on. Here is where the public needs to insist that the Bush administration correct its narrative, acknowledge Iran’s (and Saudi Arabia’s) interests, and step off the road to war on which it seems to have embarked. And if, in the next 24 months, policymakers are unsure who is a friend and who is not, they might, for starters, ask Hajj Hassan Sbeiti.
Col. Dan Smith is a military affairs analyst for Foreign Policy In Focus , a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation. Email at email@example.com.
By Col. DAN SMITH