US policy in the Middle East took an interesting turn this week. On the right side, US decided to support the Iraqi attack on ISIS held portions of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town. The US Air Force launched precision air attacks thereby assisting Shiite militias backed directly by Iran. This positions US directly against the aims of Saudi Arabia & other Sunni Countries that are proclaimed as US “allies”.
On the left side, US provided important logistical support to Saudi Arabia & its coalition of Sunni countries in their new attack on Houthis of Yemen, a Shiite community that had risen against a Sunni government supported by Saudi Arabia. The Sunni president ran away from Yemen and the Houthis won a big victory. So Saudi Arabia & other Sunni countries began a military intervention.
So on the right side, America is actively involved on the side of Iraq-Iran and against the interests of Saudi Arabia & Gulf Sunni countries while on the left side, America is now actively involved on the side of Saudi Arabia & Sunni countries against the interests of Iran. And yes, America is simultaneously engaged in furious negotiations to get a “nuclear” deal with Iran.
This spectacle was a godsend to the critics of the Obama Administration. The Neocons went to the proverbial town in their attacks on the Administration. Previous inane statements from the White House about Yemen being a success for American counterinsurgency efforts didn’t help either.
These critics are either dumb or feigning dumbness in their partisan interest. We think that, either by luck or by smarts, the Obama Administration has finally stumbled upon the right tactical posture in the Mideast.
1. Local vs. Global
America is a global superpower and has global interests. Even in a sphere like the Middle East, American interests are globally oriented and regionally spanned. In contrast, every other country or coalition of countries in the Mideast has strictly local objectives. So it is but natural for America to have allied interests with one set of countries on one side and simultaneously have adversarial interests with the same set of countries on the other side. This makes “allies” like Saudi Arabia de facto adversaries on one side and makes “foes” like Iran de facto allies on the other side.
It is imperative to understand that the expanse from Damascus to Kabul, from Cairo to Ankara is one integrated theater with smaller regional sub-theaters in which America has different interests & objectives. This is a great game that has been played for 1,400 years and will continue to be played long after America leaves the theater. But as long as America is the dominant global superpower, it has enormously strategic objectives in this broad theater, objectives that require different “alliversaries” and “foellis” in each sub-theater.
This Alliversaries vs. Foellis concept is inconvenient for two-minute Television fights or for the current hyper-partisan environment. But it is absolutely critical to American success in this vast regional theater.
2. Paramount American Objectives in the Persian Gulf
Two objectives currently transcend all others from the American point of view:
- Prevent Mideast from going nuclear, the first step of which is to prevent Iran from going nuclear,
- Decimate ISIS.
Everything else is subordinate to these two. The first objective is congruent to the objectives of Saudi Arabia, Gulf Countries, Egypt and Turkey. The second is congruent to the objectives of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. The first is NOT against the core interests of Iran and the second is NOT against the core interests of Sunni countries.
This broad strategic framework makes America acceptable to all these regimes and enables America to play different & seemingly contrary roles simultaneously. Frankly, the Obama Administration seems to have lucked into this role. But like Napoleon, we prefer lucky Administrations than smart ones, especially those who convinced of their smarts.
3. The Right Side & the Left
Look at any map of the Persian Gulf. As you look at it, the right side contains Syria, Iraq, Iran & then Afghanistan. The left side is the Arabian Peninsula. Broadly speaking, the right side is currently dominated by Shias & anchored by Iran while the left side is dominated by Sunnis anchored by Saudi Arabia. Middle East is semi-stable as long as each side “stays” on its side of the gulf.
The strategic imperative for Iran is keeping Iraq & by extension Syria in its sphere. This is the Shiite belt that protects Iran from Arabs. The strategic imperative for Saudi Arabia & Gulf countries is to keep the left side free of Iran. These suit America just fine. This geographical rivalry between these two relatively weak powers is an ideal environment for a semi-stable Mideast. If you notice, the Obama Administration has lucked into supporting this semi-stability by backing Iran-Iraq against ISIS on the right side and by supporting Saudi Arabia & GCC on the left side.
ISIS, besides its global appeal among Sunni Muslims & its barbarism, threatened the stability of the right side by splitting off Syria from Shia Iraq and by threatening core Shia Iraq itself. This is utterly unacceptable to Iran and hence the deep involvement of Iran & Iran-backed Shiite militias in the fight against ISIS. The Obama Administration has belatedly recognized this and now, at least tacitly, considers Iran-Hezbollah backed Assad’s Syria as necessary to stability & fight against ISIS.
Saudi Arabia, America’s key “ally”, never accepted the Shia-dominated government of Iraq and set about nurturing, funding, & supporting Sunni jihadis in the Sunni areas of Iraq. Saudi Arabia & its Gulf partners wanted a Sunni regime in Syria and were instrumental in nurturing, funding, & supporting the Sunni jihadis in Syria. Read what Leslie Gelb, founder & chairman-emeritus of Council of Foreign Relations wrote in June 2014:
- “who has been financing the terrorists, the jihadis? Who’s been giving them money and arms? It’s come principally from three places, from three of our—I put this in quotes—“allies,” from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar. The fact is they have been funding the very people who threaten our friends and allies, and ourselves. We’ve got to crack down on them.”
The reality is that Saudi Arabia is really an “alliversary” of America – an ally on the left side of the Gulf and an adversary on the right side.
Iran has had its own forays on the left side of the gulf. The most visible overreach was Bahrain in early 2011, what we then termed the Start of the Real Battle in the Middle East. Nothing is more strategic to Saudi Arabia than control of Bahrain by the minority “royal” Sunni regime. Saudi Arabia reacted with military force and crushed the Shia protests. Iran at that time was at the top of its game and they overreached. Since then, Iran has been playing a cautious but determined covert game on its own side of the gulf.
4. Overreach by Saudi Arabia
Remember Iran’s condition in January, 2013?
- “Today, Iran is much weaker and in probably its worst position of the past 10 years. The Assad regime in Syria, its loyal ally and the seat of Iran’s strategic expansion, is in an existential crisis. … The Iraqi regime is now facing the beginning of a Sunni insurgency, the type that engulfed US forces in Iraq. Iran now faces the re-emergence of Al Qaida, its mortal enemy, in both Syria and Iraq.”
What Iran got was not re-emergence of Al Qaida, but the emergence of a more dangerous, virulent & stronger enemy – ISIS. But, truth being stranger than fiction, the mortal threat of ISIS actually galvanized the right side of the Persian Gulf to fight ISIS under the leadership of Iran. And the World supported the Iran-led fight against ISIS.
Look at Iran today, just two years from its nadir in January 2013. The entire left side of the Gulf is petrified of Iran and its widening influence on their side of the Gulf.
It is this fear & their intensely emotional hatred of Iran that provoked Saudi Arabia to launch air attacks on the Houthi movement in Yemen. The specter of the Houthi movement being a part of an Iranian initiative is purely a straw man, a Gulf of Tonkin type excuse. Yes, the Houthis received funding & support from Iran but the fight of the Houthis is purely a domestic Yemeni fight. And the previous President of Yemen who used to be supported by Saudi Arabia has now joined the fight of the Houthis. This is an internal civil war that can be fought to its logical fatigue without any major repurcussions on Saudi Arabia & the rest of the region. .
Saudi Arabia knows Houthis well and they know Yemen. They know that Houthis are not really an arm of Iran and that Houthis can be managed by the stratagem that Saudi Arabia understands well – the use of Saudi money to buy tolerable behavior by Houthis. But the new King of Saudi Arabia has not done that. Perhaps due to his hatred of Iran, perhaps to show his manhood, King Salman put together a Sunni coalition and attacked the Houthis through air killing some of their top leadership and civilians. Saudi Arabia has also announced plans for a ground invasion of Yemen and massed 150,000 troops on the border.
Saudi Arabia may also be playing for a different result. By raising the stakes so high and by so publicly blaming Iran, Saudi Arabia might be trying to scuttle the US-Iran nuclear deal just as Netanyahu has been trying to do via his links with Republicans in the Congress. We hope that’s all Saudi Arabia is trying to do.
Because sending Saudi army into Yemen is an enormous overreach that can backfire very badly on Saudi Arabia. Getting back coffins of young soldiers tends to make citizens less supportive of the government as even Putin found out last year. The specter of the Saudi Army getting bogged down in a Yemeni quagmire, suffering casualties and committing atrocities on Yemeni Shias will do grave harm to Saudi Arabia.
Combine this with the aggressive overreach by Saudi Arabia to lower the price of oil to punish Iran & Russia, to damage if not destroy US shale oil industry and you get the image of a frightened, emotional, and reckless regime simply hitting out in all directions.
Saudi Arabia needs to cool down and become more circumspect & deliberate in its actions. Only one country in the world can help Saudi Arabia cool down and that is America. It was a good idea for the Obama Administration to provide logistics support to the Saudi Air force in Yemen and Saudi Arabia was grateful for this assistance. This should help the Obama Administration in helping the Saudis get some emotional balance. After all, stability of Saudi Arabia is the third most important objective for America in the Persian Gulf.
5. From the Left Field or an Optionality Opportunity?
Folks, what follows below is simply a seemingly crazy out of the left field type conjecture. So far, nothing of real importance has happened in Yemen or done by Saudi Arabia. Frankly, Iran must be happy to see Saudis blow their cool and potentially get caught in a Yemeni quagmire. But neither Iran nor any other middle east player can change the stakes in this game big time. Nor will any one because of the overwhelming presence of the US Navy in the Mideast.
But think about waking up one morning and reading that a missile or two has landed on Saudi oil fields (located in the south closer to north Yemen). What will this do to Oil prices and what fear will this send across the Mideast & the world? Just one Saudi oil field being shut down for a very short period of time will alter oil price scenario analysis for good. But no one in the Mideast could do this. Iran would be a beneficiary but Iran would suffer an enormous blowback if they did this. And Iran is a covert player not a crazy dice thrower. So who could possibly even think of changing the game so radically?
Can you think of a player who has the ability to deliver missiles to Houthis in Yemen to retaliate against Saudi Arabia, a player whose own country has been hurt badly by Saudi Arabia? Can you think of a player who can do so and strengthen his own economy & benefit his people from the jump in oil prices? Can you think of a player who is convinced that America is trying to get regime change in his country, a player who is determined to retaliate against America? Can you think of a player whose country is immune to attack from America?
There is only one player like that who could possibly think of the Yemen mess as an opportunity to strike a very low-cost blow against Saudi Arabia & America. No prize for guessing who. This, in global macro, is a trade with mucho optionality – very low cost, very low probability of success, but a humongous reward if it works.
Let us be clear. There is virtually zero chance that even this player would do something as crazy as this at this stage. But the optionality of this possibility is intriguing isn’t it?
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