F. Gregory Gause III, a leading Saudi Arabia expert, says the intensified Saudi diplomacy of recent weeks has been largely aimed at containing Iranian influence in the Middle East. Citing Lebanon and the Palestinian peace process as examples, Gause says the Saudis are trying “a sophisticated way to limit Iranian influence in places where the Iranians seem to be getting stronger.”
Saudi Arabia seems very active these days diplomatically. King Abdullah has met with the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Saudis have more or less put together an informal alliance of other Sunni majority states in the region. And they have even reportedly met with Israelis. What’s going on here?
The Saudis are playing a delicate balancing game. On the one hand, they want to contain Iranian influence. There’s not much they can do in Iraq right now. But certainly at the peripheries of Iranian influence they’re trying to roll it back. On the other hand, they don’t want an open confrontation with Iran. They remember the 1980s when Ayatollah Khomeini was castigating them and the Iran-Iraq war was going on. That wasn’t a comfortable time for them. The Saudis are playing a pretty nuanced balance-of-power game. Bring the Iranians in, talk to them, try to make deals with them where deals can be made, say perhaps in Lebanon, but at the same time, try to—in a sophisticated way—limit Iranian influence in places where the Iranians seem to be getting stronger.
Is this apart from the U.S. efforts in the Security Council on suspending Iran’s nuclear program?
It’s parallel. There’s nothing the Saudis can do about Iranian nuclear stuff except signal that if the Iranians go nuclear, they’ll consider going nuclear too. And they’ve made those signals. However, the Saudis can work in the region to try to constrain and contain Iranian influence, particularly in Arab contexts, in Lebanon and among Palestinians—not so much in Iraq these days. Their approach to Iran is parallel to the United States’ efforts but not exactly the same. The Saudis are more reluctant to confront Iran directly than many people in Washington are.
On Lebanon, it has seemed to be a lot quieter recently. Hezbollah was threatening to bring down the government in Lebanon. Do you think that these talks the Saudis had with the Iranians helped calm it down?
There’s clearly something going on in Lebanon. There’s now talk across the divide between the government and the opposition forces led by Hezbollah. Whether it’s going to actually lead to some kind of solution, that’s up in the air because Syria’s involved in that too. One of the major issues, of course, is this international tribunal on the killing of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as well as a number of other Lebanese figures. The Syrians are against that because it will probably implicate some people in the Syrian government. But the Saudis are working very hard to try to get that done because if they can be the power broker in Lebanon, it will reduce Iranian influence in Lebanon—in that Hezbollah would be working through Saudi Arabia to deal with the government—and it will reduce the chances of some kind of blowup in Lebanon that could spread and perhaps draw the Israelis in, as in last summer.
Talking about the Israelis, high on the agenda right now is this Saudi peace plan that was offered after 9/11 by then Crown Prince Abdullah, now King Abdullah, which calls for a return to the pre-1967 [War] borders for peace. The Israelis, under U.S. prodding, have shown some interest in this. This is going to be reapproved at an Arab League meeting?
Yes. It’s going to come up again at the Arab League summit, which is next week in Riyadh, but I don’t think it’s going to be a major thing. I think they’re just going to reaffirm their support for the peace plan. You know, the details of that plan are a nonstarter. They’re a step backward from where the [Ehud] Barak government and [Yasir] Arafat were in 2000 and early 2001. It’s more of an atmospheric thing. I don’t think it’s going to be a basis for any kind of forward movement on the Arab-Israeli peace process.
The Saudis brokered the meeting between Hamas and Fatah, which has led now to the apparent formation of a new Palestinian government. Is this a big deal for the Saudis?
It is a big deal for the Saudis, but in relation to Iran more than in relation to the peace process. Hamas had been increasingly reliant on Iran, politically and financially. And the Saudis are trying to bring Hamas back into their fold, as it were. So for the Saudis, the bigger goal there was to cut Iran out, and if the cost of that is a Hamas-Fatah deal that the Israelis don’t like and the Americans don’t like, and doesn’t really advance the peace process, well, so be it. The Iranians have had their wings clipped.
And that’s the deal on this Palestinian government. One can look at the new Palestinian government and say, “Well, they didn’t explicitly accept Israel’s right to exist, and thus the West and Israel aren’t going to deal with them and shouldn’t deal with them,” That seems to be the American and Israeli position. One could also look at the personnel in the government: the new foreign minister, Ziyad Abu Amr, and the new finance minister, Salam Fayyad, both of whom are pretty moderate and have worked with Western institutions and Western countries before, and one could say, “Maybe we should engage these guys.” It’s an open question. One could almost do a “good cop, bad cop” on this and have the Europeans engage and the Americans hold back.
Do you have any information about these reported meetings between Saudis and Israelis?
I don’t have any kind of private information on that. I have no doubt they occur.
This is by Prince Bandar, the former ambassador to the United States?
Yes. This wouldn’t be the first time that Prince Bandar had met with Israeli officials.
Oh, I see. I didn’t realize he had been doing this.
Yes. He actually was pretty open when he was ambassador in Washington about trying to facilitate contacts between the American Jewish community and Saudi officials. It’s a short step from there to meet with actual, real live Israelis. His reputation certainly in the region is someone who’s willing to have those kinds of meetings. And it fit very much into the fear in Saudi Arabia about Iranian influence and the general American push to try to organize some kind of regional front. It fits into new Saudi activism in Lebanon, because obviously the Israelis are an interested party in what goes on in Lebanon. And the Palestinians too. So it fits in a lot of ways, it just makes a lot of sense. The number of sources who have reported this is pretty substantial.
On overall U.S.-Saudi relations, how would you describe them right now?
I’d say they’re pretty good. Certainly the crisis of 9/11 has basically been put in the past. There’s cooperation on the security front, and on the war on terrorism issues, [ but] perhaps not so much as people in the United States would like, particularly on financing issues—the private money coming out of Saudi Arabia funding groups, whether in Iraq or al-Qaeda affiliates.
The United States would like to see a more active Saudi role there, but there is cooperation. There’s a general agreement on trying to limit Iranian influence. But there are differences of opinion. That’s clear on the Palestinian issue, with the Saudis basically being the godfathers of this new Palestinian government. There are differences of opinion on how to deal with Iran down the road. The Saudis fear direct confrontation because they fear they’ll be the ones on the front line when the Iranians retaliate, whereas people in the U.S. government would be more likely to contemplate a confrontation with Iran. But relations between the United States and Saudi Arabia aren’t too bad right now. OPEC [Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries] hasn’t cut its production, so basically the Saudis are saying, “We’ll keep production where it is,” and they can live with oil prices in the fifty-dollar-per-barrel range rather than up toward seventy dollars [per barrel].
Talk a bit about the Saudi role, or lack of, in Iraq. Do they have any influence on the Sunnis in Iraq?
I’m quite struck by how passive Saudi Arabia has been on the Iraqi front since the war. They were really caught in a dilemma. On the one hand, they didn’t like the way things were going. They didn’t like the increasing Shiite influence in Iraq. They didn’t like the Iranian influence in Iraq. On the other hand, they’re not going to actively support people who are killing Americans. Because that would severely damage their relationship with their major security partner, the United States. And also, they have their own problem with these al-Qaeda types at home. They’re much more wary than they were when we both were helping to fund the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union. The Saudi government is much more leery of this Salafi jihadist Sunni opposition in Iraq. I don’t doubt at all that there are private sources in Saudi Arabia who are helping to fund the Iraqi insurgency, and of course, Saudis are involved as recruits in the insurgency, fighting against the United States.
But the government has been pretty passive. Now, that doesn’t mean they don’t have influence with Iraqi personalities. They undoubtedly have contacts with tribal figures, Sunni and Shiite probably, but definitely Sunni. But it doesn’t seem like they’re exercised the kind of influence that they’ve exercised in Lebanon or among the Palestinians.
And I guess the latest developments have, in effect, fulfilled your Foreign Affairs article of a few years ago, saying the U.S. policy of promoting democracy in the region wasn’t necessarily a good thing?
Well, the administration’s largely backed away from the democracy push. You still hear that rhetoric, but I don’t see any practical application of pressure to Egypt or to Jordan or to Saudi Arabia. In Egypt and Jordan we’ve seen reversions from the more open political environment of the Egyptian election in 2005. In Jordan we’ve seen a steady whittling away of political freedoms. In Saudi Arabia there’s been no movement since the municipal elections. And you just don’t hear anybody in the administration talking about that anymore.