Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Saudis to Obama Administration: We’re Scared of Iran and You’re Going Too Slow

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By Barry Rubin

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s trip to the Persian Gulf is generally being portrayed as a success in the media with the New York Times, for example, saying she “may have made some headway” in getting the Saudis to support sanctions.

Headway? They were supporting sanctions a year ago.

In fact, a genuine note of desperation crept into the press conference given by Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal. In front of Clinton he said:

“Sanctions are a long-term solution,” he said. “But we see the issue in the shorter term, maybe because we are closer to the threat. So we need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution.”

[Fun fact: The Times and Wall Street Journal got the quote but the official State Department transcript didn’t. In that document, Faisal’s words make no sense. I don’t think this is on purpose but it is amusing that the State Department botched the most important thing Faisal said.]

What does Faisal’s statement signify? It means: You are going to slow, Iran is still going to get nuclear weapons, we’re right next door, what are you going to do about it real fast? Remember that the Saudis are very conservative and cautious. For Faisal to stand next to Clinton and voice such a sharp criticism—no matter how indirectly phrased—is like some ordinary foreign minister screaming for help.

One idea Clinton might have presented is for Saudi Arabia to guarantee China’s oil supply if it pushes for sanctions and Iran gets angry at Beijing. Like a lot of Obama foreign policy it sounds clever but does nothing. Even if the Saudis would do such a thin why should the Chinese take a risk for which they'll get nothing more in return. Besides, they don't just buy oil from Iran, they profit from developing fields in partnership with Iran. A new China-Iran oil deal has just been announced while the Chinese are also building a huge oil refinery there which would make Iran less vulnerable to foreign sanctions.

In analyzing Iran itself, Clinton pointed to increasing power by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) over the regime, saying that Iran is moving toward a military dictatorship. If so, of course, engagement won’t work.

Why did she use the phrase "military dictatorship"? Presumably this justifies focusing the sanctions against the supposed military that is taking over--the IRGC. Also it is a way of backing the opposition.

Thus, in an amusing, relatively new talking point, Clinton contrasted the “bad” current Islamic Republic of Iran with the good old days under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Yes, she said that the regime today is “a far cry from the Islamic Republic that had elections and different points of view within the leadership circle. That is part of the reason that we are so concerned with what we are seeing going on there.”

Yes, of course, this is being done to appeal to the dissident movement, led by people who were once part of the regime then and have been tossed out. It makes some sense tactically. But it is rather strange to see the Obama Administration in effect praising a regime that held Americans hostages for so long and was the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism for decades.

Still, I wonder if she went beyond her talking points. After all, if the regime is as bad as she says, how can one make a deal with it? Is this carelessness, sloppy thinking or more evidence that there are two factions in the Obama Administration. After all, Clinton said on her previous visit to the Persian Gulf that she didn't expect engagement with Iran would work.

Indeed, other administration officials do seem more cautious about bashing the Iranian regime, though they are more willing to do so than a month ago.

But Clinton and the others agree with the type of sanctions to be imposed on Iran which is really a disastrous error. As Clinton noted, the administration is setting sanctions aimed at IRGC-controlled businesses. Even if these sanctions are adopted by the UN Security Council every month they will merely tickle the wallets of IRGC commanders rather than have any real effect on the economy. In other words, even before the Obama Administration starts bargaining we know the sanctions will be worthless, and so does the regime in Tehran.

Meanwhile the silliness continues for the administration in dealing with Iran:

--National Security Advisor James Jones stated that these sanctions are going to be so tough they may bring down the regime: "Not mild sanctions. These are very tough sanctions. A combination of those things [sanctions plus internal opposition] could well trigger a regime change -- it's possible." Nobody in Iran’s regime or in the region take such nonsense seriously. It’s wishful thinking, not serious strategy.

--Jones added: "Russia is supportive and is on board, and has been a steady friend and ally on this with president Obama." Either this is wishful thinking or if Russia is supporting the proposed sanctions it is a sign of how weak they are. (And also on the Russia point, see below for a sharp contradiction from Moscow to what Jones said.)

--Meanwhile Vice-President Joe Biden claimed, "I believe we'll get the support of China to continue to impose sanctions on Iran to isolate them, to make it clear that in fact they cannot move forward," More wishful thinking. Just repeating this for months on end doesn’t make it so. Again, no serious observer of Chinese interests, policies, and statements could believe such a thing.

--The Washington Post continues to make a lot of sense, calling in an editorial for real sanctions on Iran by supporting Congress’s proposal (why don’t the other mass media or Obama administration officials ever mention this?) to cut off Iran’s gas supplies.

--Russia’s National Security Council announces that Moscow will go forward on the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, which would go a long way to building the regime’s confidence and protecting its nuclear installations from any future military attack. It should be noted that such statements have been made before and not implemented. Indeed, I don't think Russia is going to sell the missiles now.

Yet this kind of behavior, along with other steps Moscow is taking and its apparent refusal to support any serious sanctions, is scarcely a show of how Russia is a “steady friend and ally” of Obama to make such a statement at this time.

But then that makes sense since to be praised by the Obama administration it helps to be an enemy of U.S. interests. Iran's regime has had to work really hard to get off that list, but perhaps only temporarily?

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley), and The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan). His new edited books include Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict and Crisis; Guide to Islamist Movements; Conflict and Insurgency in the Middle East; and The Muslim Brotherhood. To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books. To see or subscribe to his blog, Rubin Reports.

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