Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

09 May 2014

Iran and Saudi Arabia: A Poor Choice of Friends


[This essay is a companion and conclusion to a recent essay on the House of Saud.]

Introduction: a lack of introspection
Comparing Iran with Saudi Arabia
Terrorism and responsibility for it
The heavy hand of history
Conclusion: hope in Geneva
Recent confirmation
Priorities, priorities!

Introduction: a lack of introspection

We Yanks have a few big failings. Perhaps the worst is a failure to introspect—a failure to come to terms with our failures, to understand them, and to correct them, or at least to avoid repeating them. In failing to examine our failures, we fail to improve ourselves.

In individuals, that habit can subvert an entire life. In nations—especially ones as influential and powerful as ours—it can spell catastrophe and/or lead to decline.

The golden example of introspection today is Germany. No nation on Earth has done more to admit, confess, accept, examine, remember, and atone for its sins. Modern Germany teaches its schoolchildren and foreign tourists about them and maintains somber monuments to them.

There is nothing modern Germany can do to erase its terrible Nazi aggression or undo the Holocaust. But it can do better now, and it is. And because part of the impetus for its aggression came from a quest for energy, it is doing more, on a per-capita basis, than any other nation to get the energy it needs from inexhaustible and universally available resources: sun and wind.

We Yanks have done some introspection, although still far too little, about Vietnam. As a military adventure, our war there was a total disaster. We got nothing; we lost. In the process, we despoiled large parts of Southeast Asia with Agent Orange (a defoliant), mines, and unexploded ordnance. We killed or displaced hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians. Continuing that senseless war for over a decade (after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution that made it officially a “war”) was perhaps the biggest sin in our national history beyond slavery at home.

Outside our Catholic Churches and synagogues, we Yanks have practically abolished shame and guilt. But if we still feel any, we should spare some for Vietnam. With force of every horrible weapon save nuclear ones, we tried to occupy and control that nation on a premise, the so-called “domino effect,” that proved to be not only false, but a paranoid fantasy.

As a nation that presumes to high moral achievement, we ought to seek other opportunities for introspection as well. And we ought to focus, in particular, on current global trouble spots.

Comparing Iran with Saudi Arabia

And so we come to Iran and Saudi Arabia. We Yanks are sworn enemies to one but close friends with the other.

You can still find videos of Dubya walking hand in hand with the late Saudi King Abdullah. In contrast, you don’t need a Google search to find evidence of our enmity toward Iran. It’s all around us, in the propaganda that bombards us every day. It’s in the air we breathe.

Does this choice of friends make sense? Let’s ignore history for a moment and just analyze the two nations today.

Iran is a modern nation. Just last summer, it had free elections, among the most impressive (in both process and result) ever to occur in the Middle East, at least outside Israel. The results of those elections—the moderates now in elective office—have been sitting across the negotiating table from us trying to end our senseless Little Cold War.

In contrast, anything resembling democracy under the House of Saud remains half-hearted or a sham. The royal family still rules absolutely, with an iron fist in a velvet glove. Other ethnic Saudis, however talented, are but hired hands and second-class citizens. The vast majority of the work force, mostly Indian and Filipino immigrants, labors under conditions of indentured servitude approaching slavery. Most women can’t drive and can’t work. They can’t even leave their homes without a male relative.

So much for politics and liberty. Now let’s look at business and commerce.

Iran has a dynamic, innovative, commercial society, much like ours. It has enough technical talent to presume to build nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons, despite our and Israeli sabotage and hacking. It has developed its own guided missiles. Think what Iran could accomplish by devoting all that scientific and engineering talent to peaceful, commercial ends.

In contrast, have you ever heard of anything in industry, science or engineering that any Saudi ever developed? Without our Yankee and some European engineering, the House of Saud’s oil industry would be like Venezuela’s. Iran has developed its own oil industry without such extensive Western help.

Then there’s the question of cultural exchange. Back in the sixties and seventies, before the Shah got nasty and Iranians threw him out, we had Iranian students studying here in droves. They were smart, diligent and successful. Their generation of students is now reaching positions in power of in Iran.

Today Iranian immigrants, nearly all Jewish, populate large parts of Los Angeles. They are well educated and well off. Although Jewish, they are also still Iranian; they still speak Farsi.

In the early nineties, I once saw an Iranian doctor in Beverly Hills, while seeking antibiotics to cure what turned out to be strep throat. His office was open on Sunday, so I thought at first he was a Muslim. But he had Hebrew credentials and religious icons on his office walls. His last name, if memory serves, was Mossadegh, the same as that of the duly-elected Iranian prime minister that our CIA and the Brits’ spooks deposed in 1953, but no relation (more on this point below).

The point here is not just that we’ve got lots of peaceful Iranian refugees. For all our faults, we Yanks still accept war-weary, huddled masses from all over the world. The point is that, despite all our enmity, there are American-trained Iranians in increasingly high positions in Iran, and many well-educated and prosperous Iranians here at home. This massive and natural cultural exchange could, and should, serve as a basis for quick rapprochement.

In contrast, have you ever seen, known or even read about a Saudi here in the US who wasn’t a Prince, a Prince’s hireling or apologist, an extremist or a terrorist? I haven’t, and I read widely.

One last point on cultural exchange. Back when we and Iran were friends, Iranian students came here to learn from us Yanks. They came to be educated in engineering, math, science, business and medicine: the arts of living practically.

In contrast, the proud Saudi Princes came here to teach us. It was Prince Bandar who gave Dubya his crash course in foreign policy during his first presidential election campaign. The results of that instruction are plain to see, in rubble, suffering and destruction all around the Middle East and South Asia.

Terrorism and responsibility for it

And so we come to the nub of the matter: terrorism.

For all the angst and worry about terrorism in the West, we Yanks have neglected a stark, simple and highly significant fact. Virtually all major acts of Islamist terrorism have been acts of Sunnis, not Shiites.

This has been true throughout the history of modern Islamist terrorism. It was true of the very first airline hijackings in the 1970s, committed by Sunni Palestinian terrorists. It was true of the attack on the Cole, and the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Tanzania in 1998. It was true of the 9/11 catastrophe. And it has been true, to my knowledge, of every major terrorist attack throughout the world, ever since, including the attacks in Russia at Beslan and Moscow’s Nord-Ost Theater and the Boston Marathon bombing.

There is only one possible exception: Hezbollah. This organization, labeled terrorists by us Yanks, is based in Lebanon. It gets funding and weapons from Iran. It’s a Shiite group, which is why it is fighting so heavily, and so successfully, against Al Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist groups in Syria.

But if you look beyond labels, and beyond Lebanon, Hezbollah is different. It’s much more a political and military organization, in the traditional sense of those terms, than an ungovernable band of terrorists.

Watch what they do, not what they say. Hezbollah’s legions don’t lob rockets into Israel, at random, to terrorize civilians. Rockets like that come from Sunni Gaza, not Shiite Hezbollah territory.

Rockets from Hezbollah-controlled territory come at times when Israel and Hezbollah are in a virtual state of war, as in 2008-09. Then they come in droves. They still kill civilians, but they are more like the German dirigible bombings of London in World War I, or the V-2 bombings in World War II, or our Yankee firebombing of Dresden and Tokyo or nuking of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They are part of warfare, throwbacks to the last century’s catastrophic notion of “total war,” not random attacks with no apparent reason but sowing terror.

If you’re the Israeli parent of a child killed by a Hezbollah rocket, should you care? Probably not. But if you’re a pol in Israel or the West, you should care very much.

Why is this so? Because Hezbollah is both a political party and a disciplined military organization. It’s the only enemy that ever fought Israel’s army to a standstill, as it did in 2006. Together with Assad’s forces, it defeated the Al Qaeda forces fighting Assad near the Lebanese border last year. It’s not an amorphous collection of fanatics, but a state within a state. As such, it can be dealt with, by political and, if necessary, military means.

If you accept this distinction between Hezbollah, which Iran supports, and the random acts of terrorism that have troubled large parts of the world for four decades, you come to a surprising and interesting conclusion. The vast bulk of Islamist terrorism, if not its totality (in both magnitude and impact), comes from Sunnis, not Shiites.

Iran, the great Shiite power, is little at fault. What fault it has is minor and incidental.

So who or what is responsible? Do you have to ask?

For decades now, the House of Saud has sponsored, funded and encouraged Sunni terrorists all around the world. It does so indirectly, but openly, by funding the numerous madrassas that teach young Muslim boys only the Qur’an, extremism and hate, and no useful skills. (This was the subject of my most recent essay.) It does so covertly and indirectly by funding various Islamic “charities” that funnel money into Sunni terrorist groups.

Why do the Saudi Princes do this? If you are supremely cynical, you might say they do it for revenge against the West, which has occupied, brutalized and dictated to their part of the world for a over century, all in the name of oil. Maybe the Saudi Princes, every time a terrorist blows up a Western monument or icon, killing innocent people, raise glasses of illicit un-Islamic Western whisky in a furtive toast.

But I can’t square this dark vision with reality. I don’t think the Saudi Princes are that diabolical.

The problem, at base, is much simpler. Saudi Arabia is not a modern nation. It’s a medieval hereditary monarchy like North Korea’s. The Saudi Princes have had to learn a bit of modern economics in order to survive and prosper in the Age of Oil, and they have done that well.

They’ve agreed to make their huge oil reserves available to the world, on the free global market. They let Western engineers bring Western technology in to extract the oil efficiently and well. Then they sit back and revel in Yanukovych-like luxury, using a small part of their obscene wealth to buy off their dissatisfied subjects. They don’t think much beyond keeping the oil flowing, the income coming, and their many enemies at bay.

At base, they are nothing more than primitive princes, driven by raw self-interest and tribalism. Behind the closed doors of their palaces and European mansions, they wear Western clothes, drink Western booze, scoff at Islam and ignore its customs. In public, in their homeland, they wear tribal garb and support Islam and its “charities,” many of which funnel money to terrorists. They are the epitome of many-faced autocrats, a type of leader that the West left behind not long after Shakespeare’s time, and that even China is purging now. (Bo Xilai is one.)

These are the folks from whom Dubya got his brief instruction in foreign policy. No wonder his response to 9/11 was so inept!

But a reckoning is coming. Although the vast Saudi oil reserves are not running out quite yet, production is leveling off and soon may start declining. We Yanks have shale oil, which we are teaching others how to get. Germany and China are making Herculean efforts to exploit alternative sources of energy. We Yanks, Europe, Russia, and China are competing mightily to find all the oil that hasn’t been found yet, especially in the Artic and Africa.

Soon Saudi oil will be less important. The Saudis’ economic clout is falling and doomed to fall further yet.

At the same time, the world is slowly becoming aware of how much trouble the House of Saud has caused, and how much damage it has done, throughout the Middle East and South Asia. If you were to rank the big Middle-Eastern powers as trouble-makers, Saudi Arabia would lead the pack by a large margin. Iran would come in second, and Israel third. Turkey and Egypt would come in last, as nations properly focused on their own internal development (and Turkey on joining the EU), rather than controlling or injuring others, or grabbing their land.

So if we had to choose between Iran and Saudi Arabia for a friend today, we would pick Iran. Or we might keep a respectful distance from both. The only possible rational basis for doing otherwise would be the relative sizes of oil reserves.

Yet today every oil producer—even sorry Venezuela—has every incentive to sell whatever oil it has on the global market at a market price. What other rational choice is there? So picking the less capable and modern nation as a friend and partner for oil alone would be a bad choice. If would be particularly bad to agree to defend a backward nation in whose government, policies and culture we have little faith; that would just be asking for trouble.

The Heavy Hand of History

So why, oh why, are we Yanks such close friends with this backward, medieval monarchy—by far the leading (but most subtle) troublemaker in a delicate and troublesome part of the world? Why are we not friends, instead, with an ancient nation, a once great and rising power, increasingly modern, well-educated and capable, with what is now the region’s third most advanced democracy, after Israel’s and Turkey’s?

To find answers beyond oil, we must turn to history. We Yanks are not friends with Iran because of a terrible mistake we made almost exactly half a century ago. It’s a mistake that we have kept hidden and unacknowledged, even among ourselves. But it’s one we must face now. Introspection is useful even when it comes late.

I’ve devoted much ink on this blog to that history, and I won’t repeat it here. Suffice it to state the bare, salient facts.

In 1953, Iran was a parliamentary democracy, the most advanced in the Middle East. (Israel was barely a nation.) Its duly elected Prime Minister, Mohammed Mossadegh, decided to nationalize Western oil companies. Our CIA, together with the Brits’ spooks, managed to incite a coup, depose him, and install the Shah (Mohammad Reza Pahlavi) as Iran’s ruler.

We Yanks did not stop with that clear and needless injury to Iran’s nascent democracy. We followed it with insult. Some eight years later, when the House of Saud nationalized their own foreign oil companies, we did nothing. We let them. And to twist the knife, we let the nation with the bigger oil reserves nationalize them with impunity.

Even that’s not all. We made a Faustian bargain with the medieval Saudi monarchy: you keep the oil flowing, to free international markets, and you can keep your throne. We’ll even support you with money and weapons. And so we turned a blind eye as the House of Saud continued to repress its people and began fostering extremism and terrorism throughout the Islamic world, everywhere but at home.

At first, the Shah wasn’t such a bad dictator. But soon he followed Lord Acton’s prescription. He became increasingly arbitrary and brutal. His secret police, the dreaded Savak, began to mimic their counterparts behind the Iron Curtain. We Yanks acquiesced and supported the Shah with money, weapons and military training. He had become a cruel tyrant, but he was our tyrant.

The next mistake was Iran’s. Its people overthrew the Shah, which they had every right and reason to do. The 1979 Islamic Revolution wasn’t bloodless, but it was nearly so. Unfortunately, Islam was the only political power in Iran strong enough to depose the Shah, so Islamic extremists came to power as the Shah departed. They took our and Canada’s diplomats hostage and held them for 444 days.

Although Iran eventually released the hostages unharmed, this act of Islamic effrontery did not sit well with us Yanks. So we incited Iraq’s Saddam to attack Iran, for no other apparent reason. We gave Saddam, whom we later invaded Iraq to depose, money and weapons to support his invasion.

Eight years later, an estimated million Iranians and Iraqis lay dead, but the borders of the two nations had not changed. Our national pride had succeeding in helping kill off the flower of a generation of Iranian (and Iraqi!) youth, while accomplishing nothing else. What we did accomplish was to make Iranians hate us and give them millions of battle-hardened combat veterans.

This terrible move of ours was motivated by pride and malice, without a hint of intelligent policy. Our inciting and supporting this catastrophic war against Iran may have been the second-greatest foreign-policy sin in our national history, after Vietnam.

Conclusion: hope in Geneva

The rest is recent history. Iran started working toward nuclear weapons, and Israel got terrified. We Yanks led an oil boycott, which has ruined Iran’s economy. Miraculously, in spite of (or perhaps because of) consistent foreign oppression, Iranians elected moderates last summer, in a free and fair election, and the process of bargaining has begun.

After our costly and wearing efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, with at best ambiguous results, the whole world knows that we Yanks are in no mood to support another impulsive and needless invasion. So Iran doesn’t need nuclear weapons to deter us Yanks from invading Iran. Our own recent, sad experience deters us.

As for the Israelis, despite all their bravado and their capable weapons, they are living afraid inside their fortress. They are in no mood to invade anyone; they are just waiting and hoping that their neighbors will see reason and make peace, occasionally making furtive land grabs.

So there’s lot more at stake, in the Geneva talks that resume next month, than Israel’s paranoia and Iranian and our Yankee pride. There’s the chance for us Yanks to begin to rectify a horrible sin, which we have prolonged and deepened for half a century. There’s a chance for Iran to bring its proud and ancient culture and its capable people back from the darkness of ostracism into the light of global civilization, where they belong.

Friendship will take time, perhaps decades. But it must begin by reducing hostility, halting mutual demonization, and lowering the level of bellicose propaganda on both sides. The present harsh enmity between Iran and the US was a ghastly mistake from the very beginning, for which we Yanks must take chief blame.

We must begin to end it now. And we must begin while there are still numerous people in both Iran and the US who remember how it was when our two nations were friends.

Ukraine’s current situation reminds us of the darkness. It shows how pride, suspicion, paranoia and demonization can combine with stupidity to make our species its own worst enemy. But there is still hope, at least for us vis-á-vis Iran.

Iran has risen like a phoenix to become a democracy again, after half a century of foreign-imposed tyranny and resulting turmoil. Its current elected leaders are moderate, and the Ayatollah (perhaps begrudgingly) approves. We Yanks have a moderate and thoughtful president who, toward the end of his second and last term, has great leeway to do what is right.

We also have an indefatigable Secretary of State who not only knows what is right but knows the cost of war and doing wrong from personal experience (in Vietnam). The Iranian negotiators, too, have seen the cost of needless war; they are all of the right age. A chance like this may never come again.

Together, in Geneva, the diplomats can turn the tide of history. Like King Midas, they can convert the lead of pointless and destructive enmity into the gold of reluctant cooperation and eventual friendship. They can point the way to a century that, if they succeed, could be our species’ most promising yet. The alternative is too terrible to contemplate.

Recent Confirmation

After forty years of Sunni terrorism sponsored directly or indirectly by the House of Saud, confirmation of the foregoing view is hardly necessary. But recent confirmation there is. In a review of a recent book (The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014, by Carlotta Gall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2014), The Economist describes, among other things, how Pakistan’s security service (ISI) used madrassas as training bases for suicide bombers in its tribal struggles with Pakistan’s neighbors.

Here, in The Economist’s summary of the author’s analysis (based on a decade of reporting from the region), is how the system worked:
“The author shows how the ISI provides havens for the Taliban and directs them to attack Western forces. In Pakistan they develop suicide-bombing techniques and raise soldiers from madrassas. Each school has a talent-spotter paid to recruit students for militant outfits, who are referred to derisively by Pakistan’s army as ‘potato soldiers.’”
Who finances these schools for terrorists, the cannon fodder of our “ally” Pakistan? Do you have to ask?

Pakistan is a poor country, largely dependent for military strength on our Yankee largesse. Presumably our green-eyeshade folk have done at least a minimally competent job of seeing that the billions we give Pakistan don’t get funneled into schools for hate. So where else could the money come from but Saudi Arabia?

Priorities, Priorities!

The President just made a week-long trip to kick off his “pivot” to Asia and, in the process, help ward off hostilities between China and its neighbors. Ukraine has morphed from a low simmer to a seething cauldron of inter-ethnic hate, as Russophiles in Odessa were locked in a building and then immolated inside it, apparently by neo-Nazi extremists, using atrocious tactics familiar from a century ago. Assad is winning in Syria, so much so that we’re starting to give vetted rebels shoulder-fired anti-tank weapons. Netanyahu is in a huff about the latest “accord” between Hamas and the PLO, so the Israeli-Palestianian peace talks are dead in the water, at least for now. Myanmar has ethnic troubles, and Nigeria can’t seem to protect its girls from bands of roving thugs.

So what’s an harassed and overtired diplomat like Kerry to do? The answer is simple. Begin rapprochement with Iran, and some other things could fall into place. Iran might push Assad to the bargaining table, with a little help our from shoulder-fired anti-aircraft weapons in rebel hands. Further down the line, Iran might help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, rather than impede any solution.

Iran’s leaders have said some pretty nasty things about Israel. But watch what they do, not what they say. They just want to be safe. In Syria and Lebanon, they are building buffers against the turmoil to their south and west. In Iraq, they are fighting to keep Al Qaeda and the Sunni terrorism that is destroying that nation at bay. Their national interest in Iraq coincides substantially with ours.

Solve the nuclear puzzle and begin to cooperate with Iran, and a whole lot of heretofore impossible things become possible. Nowhere else on Earth does diplomacy have such promising prospects so close at hand. So Kerry and his crew should get some sleep, read their briefing papers twice or three times, and prepare for the resumption of talks with Iran next month. Driving yourself crazy trying to do everything at once, and accomplishing little or nothing, are earmarks of amateurs.

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