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Shifting strategies

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Obama’s upcoming visit to Riyadh will do little to ease Saudi concerns over the new course of American foreign policy

Tony Badran

Tony Badran

By Tony Badran, Now

 

President Obama will head to Saudi Arabia in a few days on a highly anticipated visit. There’s been much discussion about what Obama will say to the Saudis. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns even gave a talk last month on US-Gulf relations, which observers saw as a preview of the talking points Obama will carry with him to Riyadh. But a few weeks before his trip, the US president has already publicly telegraphed his message to the Saudi leadership: If they were hoping to get a commitment to the endurance of the decades-old American order in the Gulf, they have another thing coming. Obama has made it known that change is coming and the Saudis had better get used to it.

Obama made his comments in an interview with journalist Jeffrey Goldberg earlier this month. However, what grabbed the headlines were Obama’s remarks about Israel. Coming as they did as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was en route to meet him at the White House, Obama’s comments were viewed as a pre-emptive slap in Israel’s face. But Israel wasn’t the only traditional ally to get a downgrade. The Saudis, too, got their share.

“I think change is always scary,” Obama said, before proceeding to explain that what America’s Arab allies once took for granted is no more. “I think there was a comfort with a United States that was comfortable with an existing order and the existing alignments, and was an implacable foe of Iran.” The US-backed regional order has been predicated on an American-led status quo camp that stood against revisionist states that sought to undermine and replace it. Since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been, and continues to be, a leading revisionist state against the US-led order. This paradigm, Obama is now openly telling the Saudis, is history. And they should get with the programme: “What I’ve been saying to our partners in the region is, ‘We’ve got to respond and adapt to change.’”

Part of the change is in how Obama views Iran as well as in how he defines US priorities in region. The White House has made it known that it sees Sunni extremism as the real problem. In recent weeks, the Saudis have taken several measures in line with Obama’s priorities, and have adopted a public anti-terrorism posture. Perhaps Riyadh hopes that by showing itself a reliable partner that shares the White House’s primary concerns it will get the US to reciprocate.

But if the Saudis believe that Obama has any inclination to counter the Iranians, then they haven’t fully grasped the US president’s message. For one, Obama made clear that he considers Iranian “misbehaviour,” short of owning a nuclear weapon, to be “manageable.” This is because according to Obama, unlike Sunni extremists, the Iranians are “strategic, and they’re not impulsive.” Sunni extremists are not state actors. In contrast, the Iranians “have a worldview, and they see their interests, and they respond to costs and benefits.” In other words, whereas Sunni extremists must be fought, Iran’s revolutionary rulers are to be engaged and incentivised to integrate into the international community, “even if that takes a decade or 15 years or 20 years.”

And so, both Iran’s supposed “moderates” as well as its “extremists” get preferential treatment from Obama. The “moderates” are held up as evidence that, as Obama put it, “they are capable of changing.” And the deal that the White House is negotiating with the Iranians will, Obama argued, strengthen “those trends and voices inside Iran.” But at the same time, there shouldn’t be any confrontational posture with or pressure on Iran, because the so-called “moderates” in Tehran still have to “respond to their own hardliners,” who happen to be in charge.

It bears remembering though that nowhere in the Sunni Arab states is there any apparatus that resembles the Qods Force. The Force, which is led by the second most influential man in Iran, is a formal state apparatus tasked with creating and supporting military and terrorist movements abroad with the explicit purpose of exercising direct influence in other countries. As Lee Smith put it, “Iranian-backed extremism is an index of the strength and coherence of a ruling regime that uses terror to advance its interests.”

Yet, far from actively countering the Qods Force in the region, the US has effectively partnered with its assets in Lebanon and Iraq. Iran’s extremists, in other words, are regarded as forces of stability against Sunni extremists, who, unlike their Iranian counterparts, are agents of chaos, and not “strategic” actors who respond to incentives. That is to say, both Iran’s supposed “moderates” as well as its “extremists” get to be US partners.

For this reason, it is hardly surprising that when Israel pointed to the Iranian arms shipment it intercepted last week as a reminder of the regime’s true nature, it was met with the cricket chirps of American indifference. That episode, too, should drive the point home in Riyadh that nothing the Iranians do at this point will make the White House reconsider its policy shift. As such, the Saudis will get a pat on the back from Obama for their anti-terrorism policy, and they might even hear sweet talk about being partners against extremism. But on Iran, Obama’s message is loud and clear: the old order and alignments are gone. Adapt to change.

 

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

This article has originally been published on Now.


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