By Brett Daniel Shehadey
Special Correspondent for In Homeland Security
As if the stakes weren’t high enough in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia put out a feeler in the media regarding its desire to obtain nuclear weapons from Pakistan. This is in response of Iran’s long ambitions for nuclear weapons, the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran and Saudi Arabia’s deep-rooted discontent and distrust of both the talks and Iranian sincerity of stalling or abandoning those efforts.
From the Saudi perspective, Tehran is building a nuclear weapon in a secret facility that is not and will not be on the map for inspections. They are also using the talks to lift the sanctions. Lastly, they are wreaking havoc in the Middle East and to Riyadh, Iran is worse than ISIS.
Since 2009, the Saudis have in various ways warned that if Iran crosses the line, they had access to nuclear missiles through a variety of sources. Importantly, Saudi Arabia has its own red-line threshold for Iran’s nuclear ambitions. At the time, these often off-the-wall comments were good enough for them to warn Tehran and later discourage them that should the P5+1 talks fail or the Iranians employ a strategy of deceit and duplicity, the Saudis will instantly have nuclear weapons from their ally Pakistan.
A number of changes have precipitated in raising the stakes: First, the death of King Abdullah. The new monarch, King Salman, has shown himself to be far more assertive in the region and feels estranged from the West. He saw a more passive Abdullah fail to elicit a firm commitment from the Americans in Syria and on the nuclear issue. With Syria, the Saudis were in position and ready to strike but Washington backed down and accepted a largely successful chemical weapons ban by leaving Assad in power. Iran also got another ingredient that it wanted through prolonged nuclear talks with world leaders (the U.S., the UK, Russia, France, China and Germany). Here, Iran ingratiated itself nicely with the West and is currently seeking to remove economic sanctions by June. To the Saudis it is all just the perfect ploy.
The second major event could be the block of stalemate in Syria, which helps Iran. Assad is still in power and ISIS is thriving with its transnational terrorist enterprise. The stalemate follows major setbacks in Iraq as well, with ISIS gains taking Mosul, Tikrit and Ramadi. Although Tikrit was recently taken back, there is now greater Iranian activity through militias and the politics of both countries. Most importantly, the Saudis have overexaggerated the role of Tehran in the Yemeni civil war and underestimated the workings of the former longtime dictator and ally of Saddam Hussein—President Ali Abdullah Saleh—also the man who engineered the Yemeni democracy protests and then slaughtered hundreds of them.
Saleh was eventually forced to relinquish power to his Vice President at the pressure and behest of the Saudis, his people and other international players. The Houthi takeover was a shock in that it went from protest to coup but the Saudi-backed government of Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi was weakened by a loss of the strongman, continuous war on two fronts between Shia Houthi and al-Qaida in the South, a poor economy, rampant abuse, corruption and ethno-religious discrimination. The Saudis want to reinstall Hadi, the right-hand man of the butcher, President Saleh. So it is no great wonder the Houthis wanted him out too and placed him under house arrest; however the Houthis have proven to be worse for stability and are tearing the country apart with the help of Saudi-led air raids.
The third major break for Riyadh was the feeling of necessity and last resort to strategically steer the Middle East military coalition away from U.S. leadership. GCC Sunni states began testing the waters for airstrikes of their own even before Yemen’s government fell. Close Saudi Arabian partner, the United Arab Emirates conducted covert airstrikes with Egypt in Libya last August, attacking the violent extremists there. But the Sunni military coalition came to its peak in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia led 11 Sunni majority states in heavy and sustained airstrikes in Yemen since late March of this year. This was just after the U.S. had disengaged itself diplomatically from Sana’a, through anther exodus following its embassy in Libya. The U.S. did not offer or participate in the attacks and gave the impression that it was caught unaware; deciding instead to supply the Saudis with intelligence.
Across the map, Riyadh is redirecting its efforts from ISIS to Iran. For Iraq, the U.S. supplied and trained national army is cutting and running from the enemy and crumbling before the world’s eye. In its place is more control from Iran and more Iranian backed militias. For Syria, Iran still holds sway. The Saudis have sided with Turkey in order to remove President Bashar al Assad from power.
Riyadh is no longer waiting for Washington but is willing to draw its ‘partner’ into the messy fog of regionwide political instability. The meeting that should have seen two heads of state, the King and the president, together, has been a blatant rebuke to the White House from Riyadh; without love. They plan to send the heir to the throne and defense minister to the president’s summit. The U.S.-Sunni alliance has fallen beyond repair.
Anything that Riyadh demands now, especially in their current state of mind, would not be in the interest of the U.S. This does not mean need to entail a future relationship of abandonment but caution and constraint; especially in their present military operations; such as cluster bombing. Washington still has a deal to close with Iran on nuclear weapons that will, in spite of assurances by the president mid-May that the U.S. would use force to defend Saudi Arabia if attacked, derail any Saudi perceptions of trustworthiness and commitment. As the Sunni states distant themselves from the West, Iran edges closer, diplomatically.
As far as nuclear proliferation in the Middle East, the U.S. must partner with the U.N. and demand a nuclear weapon free zone in the Middle East. They must act as a superpower as well as a dominion of international powers and develop a hasty trust with Saudi Arabia and Iran. The U.N. is holding talks May 28 in regard to Yemen but the date could not get here soon enough and the U.S. and its allies have a lot of work to do to get the Saudis and Iranians to the table before then.
Shadowing the Iranian cargo ship with military escorts using the Iwo Jima is a responsible precaution but U.S. defense officials have warned that the Iranians could have humanitarian supplies or international observers aboard, waiting to pin an attempted search and seizure or confrontation at sea unnecessarily. On the other hand, this could also be a weapons resupply. The U.S. has encouraged Iran to port humanitarian supplies at the U.N. station in Djibouti. Iran has given mixed signals, first stating publically that they intend to port in Yemen ignoring and bypassing the U.N. and then through their state run news deciding to go to Djibouti. Either way, it is a bad development for the U.S. more than the Saudi-coalition, who are already involved directly in the conflict.
Best Political Options for the U.S.: Stay out of it militarily.
Immediately demand, press and hold talks in the U.N. between the Sunni GCC states and Iran to diplomatically rebalance over the crisis in Yemen and what is presently seeing a military/paramilitary rebalancing between states and proxies in regional cold war context.
The U.S. must kick-start an international diplomatic effort with key global players. Getting at them at the table will be the hard part. Once there, both states should hash out a formal truce with terms that outline and discourage negative and hostile actions or at the very least table the nuclear cross talk.
Washington must demand that neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia pursue nuclear weapon development or procurement programs with the backing of the international community.
Other states need to speak out but these two regional players need Russia, China and Europe on their backs diplomatically too as well as the other Middle Eastern states involved.
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