The Axis of Fear

Who do the Saudis fear more, expansionist Iranians or incompetent Americans?

King Abdullah

Vice President Al Gore traveled to Saudi Arabia in 1998 with a message for Iranian President Mohammed Khatami. Just a couple of weeks earlier, in an interview with CNN, the moderate Khatami had called for a dialogue among civilizations. The Clinton administration, eager to de-escalate the tensions between Washington and Tehran, wanted to use the Saudis as a back channel through which it could talk with the Iranian president without the interference of the mullahs.

It didn’t work. Khatami was caught in an internal political battle with the hard-liners in his country, and the year of hope—American wrestlers competed in Iran in 1998—ended with no real achievement. But the Saudis kept trying to advance their relations with Tehran, because they are most alarmed about the prospect of a hostile Iran and most frightened of the possible consequences of instability in the Middle East.

The Bush administration is now counting on the Saudis to help contain Iran. That’s one reason we don’t hear much these days about democratization and political reform—or criticism of the Saudis, an authoritarian regime that provided most of the manpower for the 9/11 suicide missions. What we hear from American policy-makers is a conciliatory message aimed at the “moderate Sunni regimes”—Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan. Supposedly, those regimes are tasked with the mission of countering the “Shiite extremists”—namely Iran and its allies, organizations like Hezbollah, and states like Syria.

As the tensions marking the Sunni-Shiite divide grow, U.S. officials have high hopes that these Sunni-led countries will lend a hand. With their help, Washington would like to contain Iran, advance the peace process with Israel, reform the Palestinian Authority, isolate Syria, and rehabilitate Lebanon. Perhaps fear of Iranian expansionism will achieve what time and persuasion didn’t do. The Bush team has worked closely with the Saudis over the last couple of months, consulting with them on issues ranging from how to approach Iraq (do not pull out, the king cautioned them) to the search for a way to break the impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Americans urged Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to include a positive reference to the so-called “Saudi plan” for Middle East peace in an important speech he made two months ago. They asked the Saudi king to give more material support to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. They actually thought that this alliance of fear—that is, the fear of the growing Iranian influence—might help them to bring about peace.

On paper, it seems logical, but the theory has one flaw the administration can’t seem to understand: The Saudis don’t really trust America. Nor, of course, does Tehran. Three days ago, in Munich, Germany, an Iranian official blamed the United States for the current Middle East flux. “The [U.S.] policy of denial, isolation, adventurism, sanctions can only serve instability in our region,” said Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani.

Everybody noticed that he was echoing the criticism made a day earlier by President Vladimir Putin of Russia—but some quietly admitted that Larijani was also reflecting a common sentiment among many so-called U.S. allies in the Arab world, the Saudis among them. “They have no confidence that the Americans will be able to clean up this mess they created,” an Arab diplomat recently told me. Thus, the “moderate” countries—branded “responsible regimes” by administration officials—may take their “responsibility” more seriously than the Bush team would like.

Just take a look at the most recent example: The Saudis, initially with Washington’s blessing, brought together the two Palestinian adversary groups, Hamas and Fatah, striking a deal to create a national unity government that will make U.S. policy more difficult to implement.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says in every interview that the administration has no intention of attacking Iran by force. The president, she says, “absolutely believes” that countering Iranian overreach “can be done through diplomacy.” Yesterday, as the administration revealed some details related to Iranian intervention in Iraq, it seemed that some Democrats don’t believe she is sincere about that. The Saudis, however, apparently take her on her word. They use diplomacy to achieve their ultimate goal, whether or not it pleases Washington.

So, the continuing isolation of Hamas, which seemed all but certain after another Middle East “Quartet” meeting in Washington 10 days ago, is now challenged—and by the actions of a U.S. ally. The Saudis see the Palestinian agreement as a way to block Iranian influence in the Palestinian territories. Hamas might be extreme, they say, but it’s also a Sunni organization, and the Saudis will be ready to serve as its savior, as long as it prevents Iran from playing that role. And there is a similar pattern of Saudi diplomatic independence in the talks they are conducting with Iran over the future of Lebanon.

Any side effect of such talks—namely, the possible interference with the goals of the Bush team and the annoyance of the administration—is a sad but also inevitable result of the new “moderate Arab” policy. It also reveals how the “the axis of fear” perceives the current state of affairs: The Iranians might be scary, but at least for now, the American display of incompetence is even more frightening.