Two Op/eds: 1)Tehran 2)Riyadh


The Costs of Iran’s Political Pageantry

Karim Sadjadpour

“You know the thing about Iran,” a European Ambassador in Tehran once lamented to me. “It has such a rich culture, a grand history, wonderful people. The cuisine is sophisticated and the scenery is breathtaking. It’s got incredible poets, musicians and filmmakers. Beautiful art and architecture…But it’s cursed with such lousy politicians.”

I was reminded of these words when watching the pageantry of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this morning, announcing that 15 British sailors held captive in Iran would be “pardoned” as an Easter “gift” to the British people in a gesture of magnanimity from “the great Iranian nation.”

Hardliners in Tehran are certain to perceive the entire incident as a diplomatic victory. After all, Iran publicly humiliated its long-time nemesis Britain, and won the release of an Iranian diplomat who had been detained in Iraq.

But at what cost?

From the diplomatic perspective, Tehran may feel like it has chastened the Europeans to think twice before working in concert with the U.S., but in fact they’ve likely achieved the opposite effect. Instead of splitting the international coalition assembled against them by weaning the Europeans away from the Americans—a strategy which Iran successfully employed during the era of reformist President Mohammed Khatami—Iran has further eroded European confidence that there exists a mature Iranian leadership amenable to diplomatic compromise.

And what effect will this have on the moribund Iranian economy, the regime’s Achilles heel? Is the multi-national corporation looking for investment opportunities in the Middle East going to go to Iran or Dubai? Is the international energy firm going to look to sign lucrative natural gas contracts with Iran or Qatar? Are the European tourists who were looking to visit the Middle East this year going to journey to Iran or Egypt?

Iranian hardliners similarly proclaimed victory after the 444 day hostage crisis in 1979 which humiliated the Carter administration. While three decades later the hostage crisis is a blip in the history of the United States, Iran continues to pay for it in terms of a soiled international reputation, political and economic isolation, and vastly unfulfilled potential.

And what about the Iranian people, whom president Ahmadinejad professes to speak for? Ahmadinejad’s entire campaign platform was about compassion for the common man and putting the oil money on people’s dinner tables. But they have been diminished to a mere footnote during his presidency, amidst the bustle about uranium enrichment, centrifuges, holocaust denial, and now British sailors.

Before announcing the release of the sailors, Ahmadinejad felt compelled to lecture the West on gender sensitivity, asking why the UK would send Faye Turney, a mother, on such a compromising mission. “Why don’t they respect the values of families in the West?” he asked. “Why is there no respect for motherhood, affection?”

His remarks come one month after a few dozen Iranian women were arrested and/or beaten while peacefully assembling against laws which, among other things, permit stoning women to death if they are convicted of adultery and deny women equal rights in divorce, custody and inheritance. I’m sure the double standard was lost on him.

In characteristic fashion, Iran’s leadership is consumed by short-term tactics at the expense of long-term strategy. In the short term, Iran thumbed its nose at the West and put a smile on the face of millions around the world—especially in the Islamic world—who abhor Western policies in the Middle East.

But once the dust has settled in Tehran, more sober Iranian officials will come to realize that Iran has only increased the time and distance it will need to travel until it can reintegrate itself into the international community and assume its rightful position as a respected member of the league of nations.

Karim Sadjadpour recently joined the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace after serving four years as the chief Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group based in Tehran and Washington, D.C. A leading researcher on Iran, Sadjadpour has conducted dozens of interviews with senior Iranian officials, and hundreds across Iranian society. He is a regular contributor to BBC World TV and radio, CNN and National Public Radio, and has written in the Washington Post, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, and New Republic.


Saudi Balancing Act

Karen Elliott House

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia–For all the oil riches of his desert kingdom, King Abdullah arguably has one of the world’s worst jobs. The octogenarian ruler, who only 18 months ago inherited the dynastic throne, is besieged by internal and external challenges. Sectarian chaos in Iraq, messianic militancy in Iran and the diminishing clout in the Middle East of its longtime U.S. ally all pose threats from without. Religious extremism, youth unemployment and princely corruption threaten from within.

It is a sign of how intense–and potentially fatal to the ruling regime–those pressures are that King Abdullah opened the Arab Summit meeting here last Friday by lashing out at U.S. troops in Iraq as an “illegitimate foreign occupation.” But the pressure also explains why Saudi Arabia has a ruler who actually is trying to grapple with challenges to the kingdom his father founded 75 years ago. On the one hand, the elderly king is opening up an unprecedented internal public dialogue on sensitive issues ranging from religious extremism to the role of women to ease pressure from middle-class Saudis. On the other hand, in a kingdom that historically limited its international role to pulling strings in the shadows, he has engaged in active and open regional and international diplomacy.


The king’s initiatives are all the more surprising given his own history. King Abdullah has no formal education. His government experience for most of the past 50 years consisted of heading the kingdom’s National Guard. For most of the past decade as Crown Prince and regent for his infirm elder brother, King Fahd, Abdullah contented himself largely with presiding over a static and stagnant government. Among his earliest moves upon finally taking the throne, the king called together the most senior princes to admonish them that the family’s retention of power required greater unity and integrity than had been evident in the lost decade of Fahd’s fading rule. More significantly, Abdullah imposed for the first time ever an orderly process for selecting future kings.

Rather than passing the crown from aging brother to aging brother among the surviving sons of founding ruler Abdul Aziz ibn Saud, the next king will be Crown Prince Sultan and his crown prince will be chosen by a formal vote among the 36 sons of Abdul Aziz who are either living or have a living son to represent them. This plebiscite among princes obviously falls far short of democracy, but it has reassured the country that there is an orderly process to transition from the sons of Abdul Aziz, the youngest of whom is now 63, to the next generation.

On a broader level the king has lifted the traditional tight lid on public discussion of controversial issues and has encouraged a series of nationally televised dialogues on such touchy issues as extremism, education and the role of women. The long tame Saudi press has been unleashed to write about taboo topics like crime, drug use and violence against women and is beginning even to tiptoe into the sensitive issue of princely corruption. Saudi Arabia still lacks anything approaching a representative parliament, but the hand-picked members of the Majlis Ash Shura have been expanded under King Abdullah and are at least discussing, though not deciding, sensitive domestic issues. And, on the religious front, he is talking a new language of tolerance that appeals to the restive middle class even at the risk of alienating religious extremists.

None of these moves would make King Abdullah a progressive in any other society, but in Saudi Arabia they have given him an unprecedented measure of public support. The fact that his initiatives have led to very little substantive change so far is widely blamed on what are seen as reactionary relations, especially his brother, Prince Naif, who heads the Ministry of Interior, and on the religious establishment. “I am hopeful with King Abdullah more change is on the way,” says Tawfiq al-Saif, a member of the minority Shia sect and one of several Shia leaders with whom King Abdullah has opened a dialogue. “The people around him are more open. But we need to institutionalize change, not have it be a personal thing that comes and goes.”

Internationally, the king’s earliest focus was on trying to repair the damage done to U.S.-Saudi relations when, on Sept. 11, 2001, 15 Saudi extremists and four others attacked the U.S., and by the wider perception that Saudi Arabia has exported Islamic extremism. Royal diplomacy over the past 18 months had substantially patched up the bilateral relationship with the Bush administration, which dropped talk of the need for democracy in Saudi Arabia, though the king’s remarks at the Arab Summit aren’t likely to go over well in the White House. Changing the kingdom’s image among the American public will take far more effort. As one Saudi official says bleakly, “There is no way to change the image of Saudi Arabia without changing the image of Islam.”

Saudi Arabia’s other diplomatic priorities are to convince nations with regional influence that Sunni-Shia sectarian strife must be stopped at Iraq’s borders, that Iranian militancy must be contained, and that the Sunni Arab world, of which Saudi Arabia is a part, must be supported in the self-interest of the West.

In short, Saudi Arabia wants to preserve the regional status quo even as it is aware that Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its influence in Iraq make that unlikely. From the Saudi perspective, Iraq already is largely under Iranian domination and nothing the U.S. is likely to do will change that. Iran, in the private view of senior Saudi officials, is an impoverished country, radicalized by Shia extremists and now led by a madman, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is intimidating regional and Western nations. Serious senior Saudis truly believe Mr. Ahmadinejad seeks nuclear weapons to create an apocalyptic event that he believes would bring the “final days” and the return of the Twelfth Imam, whom Shia Muslims believe has been alive but concealed since 874. His return, they believe, will herald the defeat of the enemies of Shia Islam, which include not only Christians and Jews but also Sunni Muslims.


The genuine fear of Mr. Ahmadinejad is also tinged with a certain jealousy since Iran has rapidly replaced Saudi Arabia as the perceived benefactor of the Palestinians through its support of violent Hezbollah and Hamas proxies. It galls the Saudis that they have $1 billion in prospective aid to the Palestinians sitting in escrow awaiting Hamas’ acceptance of Israel’s right to exist while the Iranians can thumb their nose at Israel and buy Palestinian affections for a tiny fraction of that largesse.

“These are Arabs,” says Prince Saud al-Faisal, the kingdom’s foreign minister. “Iran can help achieve peace but not interfere or impose its own policy. This is a test of will between us and them.”

Most Saudis one encounters here seem to see the U.S. as a fading presence in the region–worn down by its painful experience in Iraq, divided at home, and lacking the national unity necessary to sustain its historic great power role. The ruling regime is historically and inextricably linked to its U.S. ally but is beginning to hedge its bets by improving ties with Russia, China, India and other powers. “We want to get to a point where China, Russia, the U.S. and Europe all have an interest in stability in the gulf so it is no one’s sphere of influence and all need to work together to guarantee stability in order to protect their own economic security,” says one senior official.

Despite all the effort to broaden its diplomatic circle of allies, both Saudi officials and ordinary citizens with whom one talks are fixated on the Iranian threat and on whether or not the U.S. will launch a military strike to try to destroy, or at least retard, Iran’s nuclear programs. During dinner in a tent outside Riyadh with members of a Young Saudi Leaders group, the topic comes up over and over. The general tenor of the evening is that the U.S. has horribly “botched” Iraq and this could encourage young Saudi extremists to be drawn to Iraq to fight the U.S. and return, radicalized, to threaten Saudi Arabia, or that sectarian strife will spill into Saudi Arabia where the oil-rich Eastern province is dominated by Shias.

It is clear this group doesn’t want a nuclear Iran nor a U.S. strike to prevent it. “You Americans should stay out of our region,” one young man angrily asserts. “You divided Korea, Vietnam and now Iraq. Please just go.” Says another more realistic Saudi: “We face two evils. If the U.S. strikes Iran it is terrible for us and if Iran gets nuclear weapons it is terrible for us.” The Saudis, as always, are better at fretting and finger pointing than at taking decisive action. And the king and his regime, notwithstanding their new realism and openness, are much better at seeing problems than solving them.


To the Saudis success lies in balancing competing pressures to preserve the status quo not in staking out risky new directions. There still is little sign that the kingdom has the courage of its own concerns. The regime talks about Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and Israel having common strategic interests in the Middle East, including containing extremist forces in the region and blocking Iranian domination. But as yet they haven’t stepped up to join Egypt and Jordan in recognizing Israel. For all the concern about U.S. failure in Iraq, the oil rich kingdom isn’t helping U.S. taxpayers foot the bill for a war whose outcome is at least as important to Saudi Arabia as the U.S. For all the fears about Iranian domination of the region, the Saudi response beyond multiple levels of dialogue, is to hope that the U.S. solves the problem.

Still, whether one views Saudi Arabia as a largely loyal U.S. ally, as an increasingly reluctant dependent or as a country haltingly seeking an independent position in this dangerous region, the U.S. continues to have a profound interest in Saudi stability. In a part of the world where America has few friends and many enemies, King Abdullah is a last best hope for the U.S. as well as the Saudis. What will follow him, regardless of whether there is an orderly succession, almost certainly will be less to America’s liking.

Ms. House, former publisher of The Wall Street Journal, won a Pulitzer prize for her coverage of the Middle East.



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