Defying escalating rhetoric that Iran is “gobbling up the Middle East,” President Obama told the New York Times recently that “the biggest threat” to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states may not come from Iran, but “from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.” Yet, displaying how deeply mired in Washington hype his administration remains, Obama has called on GCC leaders to parade with him at Camp David this week as if Iran is their biggest threat.
Saudi King Salman has refused to join in this spectacle, underscoring that, in foreign policy, friendship and interest should not be conflated. Obama, by contrast, studiously overlooks this reality that, today, U.S. and Saudi interests on a number of key issues not only diverge, but conflict. By refusing to deal with GCC states on the basis of interest, rather than friendship, Obama actually helps some of them continue pursuing policies deeply damaging to U.S. interests.
However much GCC elites evoke specters of Iranian “aggressiveness”—framed either in essentialist caricatures of “Persian expansionism” or depictions of the Islamic Republic’s allegedly radical Shi’a sectarianism—Iran is not the source of their insecurity. In reality, GCC leaders have felt existentially threatened since the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq upended a regional order based on Sunni Arab autocracies linked, in various ways, to Washington.
Saudis and the IS
With U.S. encouragement, Saudi Arabia and other GCC states had supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein financially in the 1980s, as he pursued aggressive war (including extensive chemical weapons use) against Iran. While Saddam eventually threatened GCC states, his overthrow in 2003 created major challenges for some of them, especially Saudi Arabia. Riyadh could not endorse a more representative post-Saddam Iraqi polity that would, by definition, empower Shi’a, make Sunnis a permanent minority, and boost Iran’s influence. So, the Saudis urged militant Sunni jihadis—of a sort they had long supported, some of whom had created and remained involved with al-Qa’ida—to go to Iraq and help Sunni tribal militias and remnants of Saddam’s army destabilize the new Iraqi state, including by attacking U.S. occupation forces.
This trifecta of former members of Saddam’s military, Iraqi Sunni fighters, and foreign jihadis would eventually give rise to the political/military/religious phenomenon now known as the Islamic State. In the meantime, GCC anxiety over the erosion of a regional order based on pro-U.S. Sunni autocracies grew more acute as, from 2011, demands mounted in overwhelmingly Sunni Arab societies for expanded political participation and protection from—not collusion with—a U.S. “war on terror” that has killed hundreds of thousands of Sunni Muslims. In this context, the “threat” to the GCC from today’s Iran is not that it is “Persian” or Shi’a, but that it is simultaneously Islamic and republican—that it seeks to integrate principles and institutions of Islamic governance with participatory politics and elections while maintaining a strong commitment to foreign policy independence.
Paving the way for jihadis
GCC leaders are relatively unconcerned about reform calls from secular liberals, judging (rightly) that this agenda elicits limited support in Arab societies. But they worry deeply about Sunni movements, like the Muslim Brotherhood, willing to compete for power in elections. For GCC rulers, these groups are profoundly threatening, for if Muslim-majority Arab publics can elect Islamic governments, the historically most potent argument for monarchy in Arabia—that it is essential to propagating true Islam—goes out the window. To forestall this, Riyadh and its partners have declared the Brothers “terrorists” in GCC jurisdictions, and have worked to quash them around the region—as with Saudi and Emirati backing for the July 2013 coup against Egypt’s elected Brotherhood government.
By undermining the Brothers as a vehicle for expanding Sunni political engagement, Saudi Arabia and its allies leave jihadi groups like al-Qa’ida and the Islamic State as the only options for Sunni Arabs dissatisfied with the status quo. They make things worse by building up violent jihadis as alternatives to the Brothers—in Libya, Syria, and, now, Yemen—with Washington’s collaboration, and with disastrous humanitarian and political consequences.
What has unfolded in Libya since 2011—the state’s destruction, civil war, a U.S. ambassador’s murder, and incubation of a major jihadi hub that had not existed before—is hardly due to Iranian perfidy. It is the result of a military campaign, led by America and Saudi Arabia, to bring down the Qadhafi government—and, in the process, show that it wasn’t only pro-Western autocrats who were vulnerable to overthrow. Many of this campaign’s devastating effects flow from Riyadh’s use of the Libya war to revive jihadi cadres worn down by years of fighting U.S. forces in Iraq—cadres the Saudis then deployed in Syria.
Saudi intervention ensured that jihadis—many non-Syrian—would dominate Syrian opposition ranks, undercutting any potential role for the Brotherhood in leading anti-Assad forces. It also turned what began in Syria as indigenously generated protests over particular grievances into a heavily militarized (and illegal) campaign against the recognized government of a UN member state—but with a popular base too small either to bring down that government or to negotiate a settlement with it. It is Saudi policy—not Iran’s support for Syria’s government against an externally-fueled insurgency that, as Syrian oppositionists themselves admit, couldn’t defeat him at the ballot box—that is responsible for Syria’s agony.
Cost of reckless strategy
The most glaringly negative consequence of Riyadh’s posture toward both post-Saddam Iraq and the Arab Awakening has been the Islamic State’s explosive ascendance, marked by impressive territorial gains in both Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State’s proclamation of a religiously legitimate caliphate represents a much bigger problem for Saudi Arabia than for the United States. Yet, while Riyadh has ostensibly joined Washington’s anti-Islamic State “coalition,” it is doubling down on its jihadi proxy strategy. After using the al-Qa’ida-affiliated Jabhat an-Nusra to destroy non-jihadi opposition forces in Syria, Riyadh has persuaded Qatar and Turkey—previously the Syrian Brotherhood’s biggest backers— to help it promote a new, Jabhat an-Nusra-led jihadi alliance that recently captured a major Syrian city. In Yemen, Saudi airstrikes have helped al-Qa’ida make territorial gains—and to eclipse even further the Brotherhood’s Yemeni affiliates.
Saudi Arabia pursues these policies—however risky (even reckless) they seem to outsiders—because decision-makers in Riyadh judge that they maximize the ruling family’s chances of holding onto power. The United States, for its part, should continue cooperating with Saudi Arabia where U.S. and Saudi interests overlap. But U.S. interests also require that Washington undertake strategically-grounded diplomacy with all major regional players—including, above all, a rising Iran. And Washington certainly should be able to confront the Saudis and others in the GCC when they pursue policies contrary to U.S. interests. Like too many of his predecessors, Obama has yet to learn how to do this.
Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett are co-authors of Going to Tehran: Why America Must Accept the Islamic Republic of Iran; both served as Middle East experts in the U.S. government under Presidents George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. Flynt is professor of international affairs at Penn State; Hillary is a visiting scholar at Georgetown University.