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Gause: Saudis 'Very Anxious' to Hear Bush Views on Iran

Interviewee: F. Gregory Gause III, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Vermont
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 11, 2008

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F. Gregory Gause III, a leading expert on Saudi Arabia, says Saudi officials are “anxious” to hear President Bush’s views on Iran during his forthcoming visit. He says Saudi leaders share the Bush administration’s call for containing Iran but are nervous about any direct U.S.-Iran confrontation. Gause also says the Saudis would like to see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki deposed in Iraq, because of his perceived close ties to Iran, and replaced by more secular, former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi.

President Bush has concluded the Israeli-Palestinian part of his weeklong Middle East trip. How are the Arab states that he’s visiting, as well as other Arab states, going to respond to Bush’s visit to Israel and to Ramallah on the West Bank where he outlined some views on an eventual peace accord?

We have to distinguish between public opinion and media reaction and the government reaction. The public opinion/media reaction is going to be fairly negative because of President Bush’s low standing in the region and the cynicism–especially in the Arab media–of American promises on Arab-Israeli peace process issues. The governments might be a little bit more interested in what happened because the president laid out in a very public way–I think for the first time for an American president in public–what the parameters of a two-state solution should be. President Clinton laid them out, but in confidential diplomatic conversations among the parties.

Can you just outline what these “parameters” are?

The president talked about, basically, a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank with some territorial swaps with Israel. This means that almost all the West Bank would be brought together and not cut apart by bypass roads or Israeli settlement blocs that would disconnect parts of the West Bank. That state would also include Gaza, of course. The right of return for Palestinian refugees from the 1948 War would have to be finessed through compensation and other means, but there couldn’t be an absolute right of return for all Palestinians back into the state of Israel. The only other major issue that he really didn’t speak of in detail was Jerusalem.

Which of course is the toughest issue, isn’t it?

I actually think that Jerusalem is maybe not the toughest issue. Right of return, which stems from a 1948 UN General Assembly Resolution, might be the toughest politically, on the Palestinian side. Politically on the Israeli side, it may be Jerusalem.

I noticed one other thing: Bush talked not about the pre-1967 borders, which is the customary point of reference, but about adjusting the 1949 cease-fire borders. Is there much difference?

No, not really. If you talk about the green line—what divided what was Jordan, and the state of Israel between 1949 and 1967—I don’t think there was a huge difference. There are some minor issues around [the Golan Heights], but that’s a whole different negotiation with Syria. I don’t think they’re hugely different. But it’s interesting that he chose that term, and that must mean that there are some details there that we may not know.

Let’s talk about the Saudi reaction. They’re the key player, in Bush’s mind, in the Arab world. We have had a hot and cold relationship with the Saudis for years now. They did go to the Annapolis Middle East peace conference at the end of November [2007]. Is this trip a return favor, or are the Saudis not necessarily looking forward to this visit?

The Saudis are always happy to receive an American president because, despite the problems in the relationship, this is still their key security relationship. Now, the Saudis have different things on the agenda than the Arab-Israeli issue, although they care about that and want to see America push the process forward. For the Saudis, the immediate issues are Iraq and Iran. And certainly the second theme of President Bush’s visit is maintaining containment of Iran even after the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that said that the Iranians had suspended their nuclear weapons program in 2003. The Saudis will be very anxious to hear what President Bush has to say about Iran because the Saudis share the American view that Iran is a threat and has to be contained. But they’re very nervous about a direct U.S.-Iranian confrontation because they think they’d be on the front line of that.

Let’s get into this, because after all the Saudis hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran during the recent Hajj, right?

Right.

Was that highly unusual?

No, Ahmadinejad had actually been in Riyadh earlier in 2007. The Saudis are playing a sophisticated game here. They see Iran as a rising power in the region—in Iraq, in Lebanon, and among Palestinians. They fear that Iran [the major Shiite power] will be the ultimate beneficiary of the Iraq war [because of Iraq’s large Shiite population] and so they do want to contain them. But they want to contain and embrace at the same time. They don’t want a direct confrontation with Iran. They had those direct confrontations during the Ayatollah Khomeini period during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s and they didn’t like it.

Would they like the United States to engage more with the Iranians on the diplomatic side?

To the extent that there’s a fear that the Bush administration might even after the NIE be pursuing a confrontational policy, yes, they want more engagement. But the Saudis are in a situation that is much like the position of our NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] allies during the Cold War. During the Cold War, the NATO allies were afraid if U.S.-Soviet relations became bellicose they would be the battlefield. But they were also afraid if U.S.-Soviet relations were too friendly their interests would be sold out. The Saudis would like to have a peaceful but wary U.S.-Iranian relationship.

I guess the Saudis must have been a little baffled at all the publicity Washington gave this reported encounter between three U.S. Navy ships and Iranian speedboats in the Strait of Hormuz.

The Saudi foreign minister basically went public and said, “We hope that nothing comes of this.” Now, I don’t know the details, one hears all sorts of different stories about what actually happened. But it is interesting this occurred right before the president arrived carrying the message that Iran is still a dangerous actor that has to be contained.

Now, on Iraq, are the Saudis and the other Gulf state leaders pleased that the surge in Iraq has produced some results?

At the end of 2006 when the Baker-Hamilton report on Iraq was released, the Saudis feared that we were going to up and go. They don’t like the Iraq war and they don’t like the results that it has brought about. But they were very worried that if we just left, Iran would completely dominate the new Iraqi state. And so, they very publicly at the end of 2006 called for the United States, as the Saudi ambassador put it, “not to leave Iraq before you’ve fixed it.” But the most interesting development in 2007 from the Saudi point of view is the rise of the Awakening Councils, the tribal and other Sunni groups uniting against al-Qaeda and cooperating with the United States. We don’t have much evidence on this because the Saudis are secretive about such things, but I’m pretty confident that the Saudis have encouraged this with their influence and with their money. And those Awakening Councils are kind of the natural extension of Saudi influence into Iraq.

So in a way, the Saudis and the Iranians have a little proxy conflict going on?

They certainly have a proxy contest for influence. But at least on the Saudi side I think they are willing to acknowledge that Iraqi Shiites are the demographic weight in Iraq and they are going to be the dominant part of the government. What they worry about is that the Sunnis will be cut out completely and that the Iraqi Shiites who are in the government will be clients of Iran. And they look at Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki as basically a client of Iran.

There’s considerable, continuous speculation about Maliki being ousted. Is anything happening?

There were efforts in early 2007, by Ayad Allawi, the former prime minister, who heads up this small nonsectarian nationalist list which has about 8 percent of the seats of the parliament, to try to put together an alternative government. But by the Iraqi constitution you need a two-thirds vote to do that. So it’s hard.

Clearly patience for political change is running out. Politically, that’s really the only hot issue now in the United States—why the surge hasn’t produced political results.

Right, but Maliki’s most important ally right now is George Bush. This is consistent with his administration’s policy from earlier efforts to put together an alternative parliamentary coalition in Iraq. The president and the administration don’t think it’s a good idea [to oust Maliki].

They’re afraid it would be too unsettling?

Yeah, I mean the president seems to be very much a guy who deals with personalities. And it seems he’s gotten comfortable with Maliki.

And in Bahrain and the UAE [United Arab Emirates], do you expect anything special?

He’s going to give a talk in the UAE about democracy.

It will be very interesting to see what he says. Because there is a consensus now both among Middle East watchers here in the United States and in the region that the democracy push from the administration of 2004-2005 is now over, scared off after the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections. And it will just be interesting to see whether the president changes or nuances his rhetoric on democracy, or whether he maintains that soaring rhetoric of 2004-2005 which the administration really has not followed through on.

What do you think they should do?

I’m not a big advocate of democracy promotion in the Middle East in the Arab world. It’s worked well for us in Turkey so far, but it hasn’t worked so well in the Arab world. We get Hamas winning elections, the Muslim Brotherhood doing well in Egypt. We get sectarian religion parties dominating the Arab vote in Iraq. Right now, democratic openings in the Arab world mean victories for Islamists.

And the end of free elections?

Yes.

Some of these Islamist groups might just be talking democracy to get to power. Some of them might actually be committed to it. But whether they’re real democrats or just mouthing it, we know that they would pursue foreign policy goals on Arab-Israeli questions and in bilateral relationships with us that wouldn’t please the United States.

If the Saudis could, how would they bring the Iraq war to an end?

They’d bring the Iraq war to an end with Ayad Allawi as prime minister. He’s a good Shiite, but he’s not a client of Iran and he’s not a sectarian religious figure. And Allawi’s government would bring in lots of Sunnis. Politically, I’m not sure that could be pulled off. But that’s what they would like.

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