The article below is NOT without factual error -- primarily the
statement that Sa'udi Arabia is "largely" Shi'i. The generally accepted
figure for the size of the Shi'i minority in the Kingdom is around 15%.
Nevertheless, the irrationality of the current US administration
toward the Middle East is such that the article is worth reading.
An unholy alliance threatening catastrophe
Our correspondent on a concerted attempt to confront Iran and Shia Islam
Most people think that the bungled invasion of Iraq, climaxing last
week with the bungled execution-assassination of Saddam Hussein, will go
down in history as the ultimate symbol of the Bush Administration’s
hubris and incompetence. They should think again. With the dawning of a
new year, the Bush-Blair partnership is working on an even more
horrendous foreign policy disaster.
unquestioning support from Downing Street, is a Middle Eastern
equivalent of the Second World War. The trigger for this all-embracing
war would be the formation of a previously unthinkable alliance between
America, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Britain, to confront Iran and the rise
of the power of Shia Islam.
The logical outcome of this “pinning back” process would be an air
strike by Israel against Iran’s nuclear facilities, combined with a
renewed Israeli military campaign against Hezbollah in Lebanon,
aggressive action by American and British soldiers to crush Iraq’s Shia
militias, while Saudi-backed Sunni terrorists undermined the
increasingly precarious pro-Iranian Government in Baghdad.
Consider the ominous events that occurred in the Middle East and
Washington over the holiday season, while most people were paying more
attention to their turkeys and Christmas stockings. The first in this
sequence of events was Tony Blair’s abrupt announcement that members of
the Saudi Royal Family accused of taking bribes from British defence
contractors would be exempted from the application of British law. To
risk a confrontation with the Saudi Royal Family, Mr Blair asserted,
would have jeopardised Britain’s security interests in Iraq and in the
war against terrorism, as well as dashing hopes of progress towards
peace between Israel and the Palestinians. This embarrassing
announcement by Mr Blair was quickly followed by his Dubai speech, in
which he called for an “arc of moderation” to “pin back” Iran’s advances
in the Middle East.
The second event, almost simultaneous with Mr Blair’s bribery
announcement, was the equally unexpected resignation of Saudi Arabia’s
Ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, on December 15. Prince
Turki has long been a key figure in the Saudi security establishment,
whose last abrupt career move occurred in the autumn of 2001, when he
suddenly resigned as liaison between the Saudi Royal Family and the
Taleban terrorists that they had been financing until just before
September 11. Turki was a leading member of a faction in the Saudi Royal
Family that has for months been advocating a more conciliatory response
towards the Shia hegemony in Iraq, including an effort to open direct
negotiations between America and Iran, as recommended by James Baker’s
Iraq Study Group. The Turki group’s main rivals in the Saudi
establishment have by contrast argued for much tougher military action
against what they called the “Christian-Shia conspiracy” created by the
US toleration of Iranian influence over Iraq.
The Saudi power struggle came into the open through an article published
in The Washington Post in mid-December, by Nawaf Obeid, a Saudi security
consultant ostensibly working for Turki, but actually closer to the
hardliners. Obeid cautioned that if American troops were withdrawn from
Iraq prematurely, in line with the Baker report’s recommendations, Saudi
Arabia would have no choice but to intervene forcibly “to stop
Iranian-backed Shi a militias from butchering Iraq’s Sunnis”. Turki
immediately fired Obeid, but shortly afterwards was himself replaced by
Within Saudi Arabia itself, meanwhile, the anti-Iranian rhetoric is
gathering strength. Take this example from al-Salafi magazine, quoted in
The New York Times: “Iran has become more dangerous than Israel itself.
The Iranian revolution has come to renew the Persian presence in our
region. This is the real clash of civilisations.”
The link between Israel and Iran in Saudi thinking brings us to the
third event in this chillingly unfestive sequence: the confrontation
over nuclear proliferation between the UN Security Council and Iran. If
Iran is now really hell-bent on developing nuclear weapons, Israel has
made it abundantly clear that it is equally hell-bent on stopping it —
whether by diplomatic or military means. Whether Israeli bombing would
in practice do serious damage to the Iranian nuclear programme is far
from clear, but there are certainly hotheads in the Israeli Government
and military establishment who are itching to try.
There is, however, one binding constraint on Israel’s freedom of action
against Iran. This is the US. It is unlikely that Israel would bomb Iran
without explicit American approval and it is certain that a US president
would stop Israel if he believed America’s national interest demanded it.
That has been the situation until recently, since America has depended
on Iranian-backed Shia politicians to prevent a total collapse of order
and a humiliating Saigon-style expulsion of American soldiers in Iraq.
Although Israel has never signed the nuclear non-proliferation treaty,
many Israeli politicians believe that they are entitled to punish Iran
for its non-compliance with the treaty. For these trigger-happy
Israelis, Iran’s backdoor influence over Washington via the Iraqi Shia
has become a nightmare. The same is true of the Saudi princes. The Saudi
Royal Family rules a largely Shia country on the basis of a fanatically
enforced state religion whose senior spokesmen denounce the Shia as
heretic scum. These feelings are entirely mutual — Iran’s mad mullahs
hate the Wahhabis every bit as much.
Thus, if there is one country in the world more worried than Israel
about an Iranian A-bomb, it is Saudi Arabia. And if there are two
countries in the world with real influence on the Bush White House, they
are Saudi Arabia and Israel. Now both these countries are telling
President Bush that he must pull the plug on Iraq’s Shia Government,
tear up the Baker report, whose most important advice was to open
diplomatic channels to Tehran, and prepare to attack Iran, either
directly or using the Israelis as a proxy. This is the basis of the
unholy alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia and America, with Mr Blair
contributing a few choice soundbites.
The anti-Iranian “arc of moderation” may seem like another meaningless
Blairism, not nearly as threatening as Mr Bush’s “axis of evil”. But
this soundbite could unleash a disaster on the Middle East, beside which
the war in Iraq would be a mere sideshow.