The level of turmoil in the Middle East is greater than at any other time in my nearly fifty years of watching this region. Amid this perfect storm comes the most dramatic shift in Saudi policy since at least World War II—marking a critical turning point in Saudi Arabia’s relations with its historical protector, the United States, and with its neighbors in the Middle East. The Saudi regime’s insistence on seeing threats to the Kingdom in fundamentally sectarian terms—Sunni vs. Shia—will put it increasingly at odds with its American patrons and could lead the Middle East into a conflict comparable to Europe’s Thirty Years War, a continent-wide civil war over religion that decimated an entire culture.
Driving the Saudi strategy is fear of Iranian regional hegemony. This wariness of Iran is nothing new, but, since the early days of the Clinton administration, Saudi Arabia has been able to rely on Washington to contain Iran. The United States surrounded Iran with its bases and troops, and imposed ever-increasing economic punishment on the Iranian revolutionary state. This policy began after the George H.W. Bush administration completed its brilliant military victory over Saddam Hussein’s forces, and as the Soviet Union was collapsing, leaving the United States as the sole military power in the Persian Gulf.
The Clinton administration had briefly considered balancing Iran or Iraq against the other as a way to maintain a degree of regional stability and to protect the smaller, oil-rich Arab states on the southern side of the Gulf. Policy of this sort had prevailed for the two decades prior to the Persian Gulf War. However, Martin Indyk, chief of Middle East policy at Clinton’s National Security Council, formally rejected this policy and announced a new “dual containment” policy. With Iraq boxed in by UN sanctions, and Iran nearly prostrate after eight years of war with Iraq, the United States had the “means to counter both the Iraqi and Iranian regimes,” declared Indyk. Now, he said, “we don’t need to rely on one to balance the other.”
The U.S. attempt to contain Iraq effectively ended when the Iraq War began. But the United States continued its containment strategy with Iran. This U.S. task became more difficult after the George W. Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and scattered the Taliban, Iran’s worst enemy to the east, and then attacked Saddam Hussein, Iran’s worst enemy to the west, and replaced him with a Shia government that was friendly to Iran. Although Iran’s contribution to this process was minimal, it became almost overnight the most influential state in the Persian Gulf. Iran’s regional influence continued to expand even as the United States applied ever-heavier sanctions.
Importantly, the US installation of a Shia government in Iraq also gave credence to the notion of an ongoing Iranian takeover of the Middle East and to the explanation of much of the turmoil that followed as a sectarian war inflamed by Iran. This perception has likely fed into Saudi Arabia’s momentous strategic reassessment.
President Obama is in the process of replacing the policy of containment with a policy of limited engagement with Iran. In effect, the United States has indicated that it will no longer be responsible for keeping Iran in “a box,” to use the metaphor Madeleine Albright applied to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. This policy shift has attracted vociferous opposition from almost every regional state, from Israel to Saudi Arabia. Countries in the region long ago grew accustomed to the U.S. acting as the regional sheriff, single-handedly ensuring that Iran remained isolated, politically neutralized and under pressure.
The Sunni Arab states of the region, ironically, adopted the rhetoric of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warning that Iran was actively seeking development of a nuclear weapon and that would potentially represent a threat to any state that opposed Iran’s actions in the region. Partly in response to such concerns, the United States pursued negotiations to cut off Iranian access to a nuclear weapon. To the surprise of almost everyone, that effort resulted in a detailed preliminary agreement in November 2013 and a formal declaration of the parameters of a final agreement in Lausanne on April 2, 2015. The drafting of the final agreement is well underway.
Although this prospective agreement would dramatically reduce the likelihood of Iran developing a nuclear weapon, the reaction to it from Israel and the Arab Gulf states has been close to hysteria. This reaction strongly suggests that the underlying concern of the Gulf states, and of Israel, was not really the danger of Iranian nuclear weapons, but rather the threat of Iran’s burgeoning political influence in the region, from Iraq to Syria to Lebanon and lately even to impoverished Yemen. Apparently the fear was that the relief from sanctions, along with Iran’s demonstration of skill in negotiating an agreement with the most powerful nations on earth, would enhance Iran’s political influence throughout the region.
Israel’s security elite has for the most part rejected Prime Minister Netanyahu’s cries of imminent peril, and the top Arab leaders of the Gulf apparently found reassurance in their recent meeting with President Obama at the White House and Camp David. In reality, neither the Arabs nor Israel has any practical alternative to alliance with the United States. Still, resistance to Obama’s policy shift remains very powerful in the U.S. Congress, in the Israeli leadership and in a skeptical Sunni Arab world that sees its interests and regional influence at risk in the face of an ascendant Iran.
Given the specter of a rising Iran, and a US shift from a policy of containment to partial engagement, it’s not surprising that Saudi Arabia would re-evaluate its foreign policy. But the speed of the strategic shift, and its magnitude, have been stunning.
For many decades, Saudi Arabia had played the classic role of a weak state with a single compelling resource—oil money. It cultivated powerful protectors and used its influence behind the scenes to promote outcomes that it could not hope to produce on its own. Saudi caution was legendary, and with a very few prominent exceptions it avoided taking the lead or putting itself out in front of controversial policies.
Indeed, the United States and many other countries owe a great deal to the sober and conscientious policies that Saudi Arabia has followed, particularly with regard to all-important oil policies. I’m sure that every serious Middle East observer could find examples of what they would regard as Saudi missteps or missed opportunities. But what other authoritarian state in that troubled region would you chose to manage a pool of resources with profound effect on every person and every economy in the world?
That quiet diligence appears to be vanishing after a change at the helm—the succession to the throne of King Salman and his installation of a notably young array of deputies and ministers. Within only the first three months of his reign, the new king has transformed the structure of the Saudi government and has resolved what most Saudi watchers considered the most complicated issue facing the Kingdom—how to make the leap from the old generation (the sons of the founding king) to the next generation. For the past 83 years, the Saudi crown has been passed from brother to brother rather than from father to son. King Salman, at 79, will likely be the last of his generation to rule.
The new crown prince, the King’s nephew Mohammed bin Nayef, is fifty-five and the deputy crown prince—the King’s favorite son Mohammed bin Salman—is about thirty. These two not only command the line of succession but also, via two new super-committees, are in charge of virtually every major institution in the Kingdom (with the key exception of the National Guard). The younger generation has gone almost instantly from being princes-in-waiting to controlling the main elements of power in the Kingdom.
With that power, the new regime almost immediately launched a military initiative in Yemen that will likely come back to haunt it and may set in motion forces that threaten its very survival. Saudi Arabia spends more per capita on its military and security forces than virtually any other country in the world, but that very expensive instrument had seldom been put to the test. The decision to build an international coalition and launch a full-fledged air campaign in Yemen against the Houthi rebels was a remarkable departure.
This initiative is intriguing in more than one way. First, the controversial decision was taken with no apparent consensus building or even consultation within the Royal Family. So were other critical decisions. (The replacement of the previous Crown Prince was accomplished and announced in the middle of the night.) No one doubts the King’s authority to deploy force, but such a critical decision in the past would have been at least shared with other key members of the sprawling Royal Family.
There are also questions about military strategy. The Houthis are a tribal militia in collaboration with some segments of the Yemeni armed forces. The wisdom of trying to defeat such a group by bombing is dubious. As the United States learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, there is no substitute for ground forces when it comes to taking and holding territory. But Saudi Arabia has discovered that neither of its principal coalition partners—Egypt and Pakistan—was willing to commit ground forces, further evidence that this campaign was hastily conceived.
Sadly, and perhaps predictably, the most significant accomplishment of weeks of bombing has been the destruction of civilian infrastructure, the deaths of many innocent people, and the creation of a massive humanitarian crisis in one of the poorest countries in the world. The Houthis control more territory today than they did at the start of the campaign, and the level of brutality in the conflict has grown rapidly. In humanitarian terms, Yemen is the new Syria.
The objective of the Saudi campaign seems to be to show strength against Iran wherever its hand appears, even if that hand’s actual influence is unclear. Iran does support the Houthis, but that does not necessarily translate into control, and Iran is reported to have counseled the Houthis against overthrowing the Yemeni government, only to be ignored.
Already this attempt to counter a perceived Iranian threat has come at a cost to Saudi Arabia’s security, strengthening its enemy Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). With US counterinsurgency operations against AQAP having waned amid the chaos in Yemen, the Houthis are the main bulwark against AQAP. And with the Houthis under siege by the Saudi alliance, AQAP has managed to gain control of a southern regional capital in Yemen.
All of this suggests that Saudi Arabia now places the threat of Iran’s growing political influence, and its association with non-Sunni minorities, above the threat of radical Sunni Islamism as manifest in Al Qaeda, ISIL, and other groups. Further evidence of this unarticulated doctrine can be found in Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to assist the U.S. coalition fighting ISIL in Iraq on the grounds that this would strengthen the hand of a Shia government in Baghdad that is friendly to Iran.
Of course, the past year isn’t the first time Saudis have indicated that they fear Iran more than they fear radical Sunni Islamism. For several years now the Kingdom has supported radical Sunnis in Syria who are fighting to overthrow an Iranian ally, Bashar al-Assad. But this prioritization of the Shia over the Sunni threat now has region-wide manifestations and, in Yemen, features the open use of Saudi military force. We seem to be entering a new era.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to place the political threat from Iran above the actual military and ideological threat from radical Sunni Islamism is questionable at best. Both Al Qaeda and the self-styled Caliph of the Islamic State have openly proclaimed their intent to overthrow the corrupt Saudi royal family and take control of the two holy places—Mecca and Medina—that define the Islamic credentials of Saudi rule. Indeed only last week ISIL claimed responsibility for the bombing of a Shiite mosque in eastern Saudi Arabia that killed more than 20 people.
This threat from radical Sunni Islamism is the only credible external threat to Saudi independence and territorial integrity. No other movement, state or institution in the Middle East has undertaken anything remotely like this concerted anti-Saudi campaign. The Iranian regime has never evinced an aspiration to destabilize, much less attack, Saudi Arabia or any other Sunni state. Iran’s horrific eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s came in response to an outright invasion by Saddam Hussein, explicitly supported and funded by Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies.
Today, Saudi Arabia, together with Qatar and Turkey, is supporting and funding radical Sunni Islamists in Syria (Nusra Front and other al-Qaeda affiliates). This effort may well achieve its goal of overthrowing the Assad regime, or at least carve out a mini Sunni state within Syria, but the result would be to empower a vicious and uncontrollable coalition of extremists whose policies make them essentially indistinguishable from ISIL. Deposing Assad will not end the Syrian civil war; it will simply reverse the players, turning many current regime supporters into insurgents while fueling a contest for supremacy among the Al-Qaeda militias and ISIL.
The world is rightly appalled at Assad’s indiscriminate use of chlorine gas and barrel bombs, but there is no reason to believe that an ISIL-like replacement government (or rival governments) in Syria would be more humane or show greater restraint. And Syria’s conflicts on its borders—particularly with Lebanon and Iraq, but also potentially with Turkey, Jordan and Israel—would not subside once radical Islamist forces were entrenched in Syrian territory.
Just as US and Saudi support for the mujahideen in Afghanistan came back to haunt America in the form of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, those who have been encouraging Al-Qaeda affiliates in Syria will not be immune to the inevitable blowback. It is an illusion to believe that these groups can be contained or controlled by their paymasters and arms suppliers.
Perhaps most worrying of all, some influential Saudis are envisioning a much wider campaign against Iran if not, indeed, against the Shia more broadly. Veteran Saudi columnist Jamal al-Khashoggi has called for a Saudi jihad that “expels sectarian Iran from our world,” takes the Afghan mujahedeen as a model, and pursues “dialogue with moderate forces in Al-Qaeda such as Al-Nusra Front.” And former Saudi Intelligence chief Prince Bandar told a senior British security official, with regard to the Shia, “more than a billion Sunnis have simply had enough of them.”
Antipathy toward Persians and Shia is nothing new in Saudi Arabia or other lands where the austere Wahhabi doctrine is preached and practiced. However, that has not prevented private social interaction and intermarriage among Sunnis and Shia over the centuries, and it has even permitted political cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Iran on occasion. The new Saudi leadership, by casting its policies in starkly sectarian terms, appears to be burning those bridges. They will be very difficult to rebuild.
The United States seems tempted to lend support to these new Saudi policies—or at least to look the other way—in an effort to win support for the prospective nuclear agreement with Iran. This may seem to be an acceptable price to pay for short term political goals. But that is an illusion. The sectarian hatreds being unleashed today in the Middle East will not simply vanish when they cease to be convenient. This is a long game, and the countries involved need to understand that the consequences of their actions will be felt for generations.
Gary Sick, a scholar at Columbia University, served on the National Security Council under presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan and was the principal White House aide for Iran during the Iranian Revolution and the hostage crisis. This article was published in collaboration with POLITICO Magazine.