The Middle East–The Persian Illusion

The Middle East: The Persian Illusion

Shashank Joshi, June 2011

The World Today, Volume 67, Number 6

A spectre is haunting the Persian Gulf – the spectre of Persia. The era of the Gulf’s most iconic bête noire, Saudi born and raised Osama bin Laden, has drawn to a close. But outsiders persistently underestimate the degree to which it is a state – the Islamic republic of Iran – rather than a non-state group, al Qaeda, which today captures the strategic attention of those in the corridors of power in Riyadh, Manama, and Amman.

Dangling a few hundred kilometres above the Gulf states, like a geopolitical Sword of Damocles, post-revolutionary Iran has long been the principal strategic concern for the sheikdoms and emirates on the other side of the water.

And yet, the strenuous efforts to place Iran at the heart of pro-democracy uprisings reveal a more cynical and selfserving effort at threat inflation, distracting attention from the unavoidable reform agenda dodged for so long by the Gulf autocracies.

Of course, the Iranian threat is not without pedigree. After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the export of revolution – sudur inquilab – was adopted as official policy. Even after its Office for Global Revolution closed in the late 1980s, Tehran was abetting (mainly, but not exclusively, Shia) armed movements in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, and elsewhere.

Saudi Arabia responded in kind by backing the Taliban in Afghanistan, Sunni militias in revolutionary Lebanon, and extremist parties in Pakistan, to mention but a few. Saudi state institutions disseminated a retrograde and radical interpretation of Islam – its Wahhabi variant – around the world drawing, from the 1970s, on their extraordinary oil wealth. Both these sets of actions were largely destabilising and often subversive of nascent democratic currents.

Then, in the five years after 9/11, Iran found not only that two long-standing adversaries – the Taliban in Afghanistan, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq – had been eliminated by the United States, but also that its ally Hezbollah had been emboldened and aggrandised by an urban war with Israel. Iran’s regional clout was at a high, though no one was quite clear on whether this ‘clout’ was usable. Moreover, its opaque nuclear programme raised the troubling question of whether, like Pakistan with its support for Lashkar-e-Taiba and other jihadi groups, Iran might soon possess a nuclear shield behind which it could safely wield the instrument of proxy militants.

It is therefore unsurprising that states like Bahrain and Saudi Arabia are seemingly convinced that pro-democracy protesters are Iranian fifth columnists, less interested in basic rights for downtrodden Shias than in clerical rule and Iranian hegemony over Arab lands. It is even less surprising that western observers have bought this line, and are muted in their criticism for the de facto Saudi occupation. After all, Iran claimed Bahrain as its own territory for many years, and has been locked in a pseudo-sectarian cold war with the wider Saudi-led bloc.

But the truth is likely to be less sinister. Firstly, Bahraini protesters agitated not for the overthrow of minority Sunni rule, but for their fair treatment within existing political structures. Their demands for political liberalisation were predicated on the royal family’s own pretensions to reform, which have stalled or regressed in the past five years.

In 2002, the king tore up the results of an earlier referendum and introduced his own constitution that gave greater power to the forty appointed parliamentarians rather than their forty elected colleagues. In the interim, widely accepted allegations of torture and arbitrary detention have been rife.

During this crisis, it was the regime’s use of often indiscriminate violence, divisive sectarian rhetoric, and imported Sunni mercenaries that transformed a restrained and cross-sectarian protest movement into something more unruly, with a distinctly anti-Sunni inflection. The Bahraini and Saudi monarchies know this, but are obviously unwilling to articulate that their violent techniques are aimed at the perpetuation of their rule rather than national security.

Secondly, the effort by the Saudi and Bahraini monarchies to slander the protesters as Iranian stooges was a disturbing echo of early modern Europe’s obsession with ‘Popish plots’ concocted by subversive Catholic minorities.

In fact, most Bahraini Shias are Arabs and have little interest in serving Iran’s regional ambitions. Iran responded to the Saudi injection of troops into Bahrain by withdrawing its ambassador and urging ‘resistance’, but this was of little relevance or interest to nationalist protesters, many of whom had constructively worked within Bahrain’s progressively enfeebled parliament and had set out with a gradualist, not radical, agenda. Al-Wefaq, the paramount Shia political grouping, formed in the aftermath of an anti-Shia crackdown in the 1990s, has worked inside Bahrain’s parliament for five years despite continuous gerrymandering and repression. Many Shia groups have also noted the example of Lebanon, where Iran had helped Hezbollah shatter that country’s institutions, as a cautionary tale.

Thirdly, the Iraq war ought to chasten western policymakers about the dangers of threat inflation. It can undercut efforts at engagement, harden already rigid differences in perception, and induce reckless and disproportionate policy responses. This does not require appeasement, but does require identifying between actual and amorphous threats.

A sign of how low the threshold for alarm has fallen is the reaction to Iran’s transparently diversionary effort to send two warships through the Suez Canal for the first time since 1979. Aside from undertaking a perfectly legal journey, neither they nor Iran’s creaking navy present any conceivable military or intelligence threat to Israel or Gulf states. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s regime acted not from strength, but weakness. Yet regional powers, both Arab and Israeli, unwisely rose to the taunt, and expressed dark and implausible visions of encirclement.

None of this is to deny that Iran is likely, willing, and probably able to foment some degree of violence inside Bahrain and its anxious neighbours, if it was determined to do so. It is prudent to warn off Iran, given its history of intervention and impetuous diplomacy.

But what is more likely to render aggrieved Shia groups receptive to Iranian meddling: peaceful dialogue and meaningful reform, or bitter sectarian accusations and crushing violence?

The Saudi-led effort to vilify essentially moderate demonstrators will, in the long-term, radicalise these groups, harden confessional fault-lines, and thereby produce the very Iranian backlash on which these policies are conditioned.

Shashank Joshi is a doctoral student of International Relations at Harvard University and is an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute.


Russia Joins Libya Wolf Pack–Syria Is Next

Moscow Welcomes Libyan Opposition Leader

by Staff Reporter

( and OfficialWire)

OfficialWire News Bureau

Moscow recognizes the Libyan Transitional National Council as the legitimate overseer of the future of the country, the Russian foreign minister said Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after meeting with Libyan opposition member Abdel Rahman Shalgam the transitional group was lobbying for influence in Libya’s future.

“The Transitional National Council does not seek to be recognized as the only legitimate representative of the Libyan people but wants to be seen as a legitimate partner in negotiations on Libya’s future,” the foreign minister was quoted by the state-run news agency RIA Novosti as saying.

Moscow abstained from votes at the U.N. Security Council that authorized military force in Libya. London has reached out to the transitional council and Washington is said to be hosting an office for the opposition group but stopped short of formal recognition.

The U.S. role in enforcing the U.N.-mandated military intervention in Libya is controversial. Critics of U.S. President Barack Obama said his administration overstepped its authority by committed military assets to the conflict.

“There are serious costs to your administration’s failure to appropriately engage Congress on these important matters,” warned U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

U.S. Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz., however, introduced a bipartisan measure that expresses support for Obama’s decisions on the Libyan conflict.

Dubious Reports of Major “Al-CIA-da” Concentration In Pakistan’s Tribal Region

Foreign fighters massing in Pakistan tribal region to launch attacks in Afghanistan

Foreign fighters are massing in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas as they prepare to launch attacks across the border on international troops in Afghanistan, according to an al-Qaeda member captured by Nato.

Foreign fighters massing in Pakistan tribal region to launch attacks in Afghanistan

Rob Crilly

By Rob Crilly, Islamabad

The Moroccan man, who was captured earlier this month, has told interrogators how he helped fighters enter Afghanistan.

“After his capture the facilitator provided details about his personal travel from Germany,” said a statement from the International Security Assistance Force.

“He also observed foreigners from many countries converging inPakistan to conduct attacks against coalition forces in Afghanistan.” Ten insurgents died during the exchange of fire. Passports from France, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were found among the bodies.

The unnamed captive, who had been living in Germany, described travelling through Iran and Pakistan – a well-known route for foreign fighters to reach Afghanistan.

His evidence of foreigners arriving will increase fears that the death of Osama bin Laden – killed by American special forces in Pakistan on May 2 – will provoke a backlash against international forces in Afghanistan.

At any one time the US military estimates there are about 100 al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan.

So far Pakistan has borne the brunt of the revenge attacks. On Wednesday, a car bomb demolished a police station in Peshawar, killing five people, the latest in a bloody string of bombings in Pakistan since the al-Qaeda leader was shot dead.

Pakistan’s mountainous regions along the border are out of reach of the 130,000 coalition troops in Afghanistan and are known as havens for al-Qaeda linked groups, providing bases for cross-border attacks.

The US has repeatedly asked the Pakistan military to launch operations in North Waziristan in order to protect troops in Afghanistan.

However, Pakistan has so far refused saying its forces are overstretched elsewhere although suspicions remain that Islamabad retains links to militant groups that it once nurtured in their fight against Soviet occupation.

Instead, the CIA runs a secret programme of drone strikes to target terrorist suspects.

As many as 20 Britons are thought to be among the recruits at training camps.

Indian Expert On the Hidden Meaning of Abbottabad

Indian Expert: Pakistan Hit Bin Laden

Abhishek Raghunath and S. Srinivasan

Pakistan might gain a strategic edge in South Asia as quid pro quo for its covert role in the killing of Osama bin Laden. India must move quickly to nullify it, strategic affairs expert Sundeep Waslekar tells us.

How do you see the relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan changing?
This [killing of Osama bin Laden] is clearly a deal between the U.S. and Pakistan. What we don’t know are the terms of the deal. And until we know the terms of the deal, we will not be able to make any kind of evaluation of what has happened and a forecast of what will happen, both in terms of a bilateral relationship between the U.S. and Pakistan and also in terms of its wider implications for South Asia, particularly India and Afghanistan. I am not sure whether we will ever know the terms of the deal. This may remain one of the best-guarded secrets in geopolitics.

America got bin Laden and it is vacating Afghanistan slowly. Does it need Pakistan at all now?
Pakistan has been a close ally of the U.S. since the 1950s and at that time there was no al-Qaeda and no Osama bin Laden. In fact, Osama bin Laden was a product of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship and not the other way around. The death of bin Laden may have a certain impact on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship but it doesn’t take away the fundamentals that have built this relationship since the 1950s.

The U.S.-Pakistan relationship has been strained recently. How do you see it now?
The point is that their relationship has been very close. Despite the cordiality, there has always been a strain. Both cordiality and strain are contradictory but consistent characteristics of the U.S.-Pakistan relationship. I wouldn’t take the recent strain very seriously. Bin Laden was found in a house which is a kilometer from the [Kakul] Pakistan military academy. This has been described by various experts as the equivalent of Sandhurst and West Point which are the leading military academies in the U.K. and U.S. It was a house which was very noticeable. It was a house with high walls, barbed wires and no Internet or telephone connection. So a large haveli which is being covered in this way and which has got security guards would be very conspicuous.

The circumstantial evidence shows that the Pakistan government, particularly the Pakistani military, was aware of the precise whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Whether they have arranged his stay there is something we don’t know. And it is quite possible that if they have been aware, they have played some role in his protection. And the decision to kill Osama bin Laden was a political decision taken by Pakistan after being aware of his existence for several years. It’s also likely that the safe house was provided to him so close to the military academy precisely for protection, so that no one would come and attack him there.

What price will Pakistan extract from the U.S. for this decision?
That is something we don’t know. Pakistan has two main strategic concerns: India and Afghanistan. And obviously, any Pakistani ruler who tries to extract a price will do it with regards to India and Afghanistan. With regards to Afghanistan, it’s a lot clearer. This incident provides a justification for the U.S. to reduce its military presence and also advise NATO to do the same. Once their presence is reduced, it would be very easy for Pakistani military to deploy its stooges, whether they are the Taliban or any other forces, in Kabul. Basically, Pakistan would get a much greater say in the Afghan power structure. The U.S. may not withdraw from Afghanistan completely because it has a lot of strategic value but it will withdraw substantially. But once the U.S. leaves, Pakistan will get a certain degree of control in Kabul and that gives it a strategic edge against India. And that could be a deal that doesn’t have to hurt India directly. [But it will hurt us indirectly]. Pakistan’s second security concern is India. The U.S. could pressure India for talks on something like Kashmir. We don’t know for sure.

What’s the future of al-Qaeda and the Taliban?
The history of every terrorist organization in recent times shows that whenever the head of the organization is killed, the organization diminishes more or less. For example, when Prabhakaran was killed, the LTTE was also over.

In al-Qaeda’s case, it is even easier. In 2001, its strength was around 1,000 which had come down to 100 in any case. It has been emasculated. But that is not saying much. I believe what the Pakistani military has done is that they have reduced the strategic value of al-Qaeda and they have in proportion increased the strategic value of Lashkar-e-Tayyaba. And Lashkar has emerged as the new al-Qaeda.

So al-Qaeda being eliminated doesn’t really affect anybody except in its symbolic value. Much of al-Qaeda’s role in the last two years has been taken over by an organization called Pakistan Taliban. What you have is organizations that have succeeded al-Qaeda rather than a succession in al-Qaeda.

Is the sense of safety that people are feeling now misplaced?
The ability to inflict a large attack like one comparable to 9/11 is perhaps not there. But the ability to inflict small attacks would be there with many organizations. Terrorism that affects common people will continue but something that affects the honor of large states in the West, for the time being, would not be there. Until Lashkar-e-Tayyaba makes up its mind if it wants to confine itself to the Indian sub-continent. That is the big question: Whether Lashkar-e-Tayyaba will confine itself to South Asia or go beyond it?

a diplomatic strategy which should begin now to protect moderate forces in Afghanistan and to garner international support around it. And that approach, even the Americans won’t be able to ignore completely despite the promises they might have made to Pakistan. You don’t depend on the U.S. completely. I think this is where India should really reach out to Europe.

For the medium term, we should consolidate our relationship with Central Asian republics. Therefore, Pakistan’s influence cannot extend beyond the Western side. We have a military base in Tajikistan. One of the most important strategic moves that India can make is to bolster its military base in Tajikistan and make a public statement about it. That will give a signal that we are there to protect Afghanistan and that no one should take Afghanistan for granted.

Sundeep Waslekar is president, Strategic Foresight Group.

This article appears in the May 20 issue of Forbes India, a Forbes Media licensee.

Will the Saudis Kill the Arab Spring?

Will the Saudis Kill the Arab Spring?

"Change" logo

Illustration by Ryan Waller

By Vali Nasr

Vali Nasr is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University. From 2009 to 2010, he was an advisor to the U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke.

In his speech last week on the Middle East, President Barack Obamaleft little doubt that America stands with the people of the region in their demand for change. This puts the U.S. on a collision course with Saudi Arabia.

The kingdom has emerged as the leader of a new rejectionist front that is determined to defeat popular demand for reform. One would have expected Iran to lead such a front, but instead it is America’s closest Arab ally in the region that is seeking to defeat our policy. Though the president made no mention of Saudi Arabia in his speech, in the near term, dealing with the kingdom is the biggest challenge facing the U.S. in the Middle East.

Saudi rulers have made clear that they find U.S. support for democracy naive and dangerous, an existential threat to the monarchies of the Persian Gulf. If the U.S. supports democracy, the Saudis are signaling, it can no longer count on its special bond with Riyadh (read: oil).

The Saudi threat is intended to present U.S. policymakers with a choice between U.S. values and U.S. interests. The idea is that either Washington stays the course, supporting the Arab people’s demands for reform, and risks a rift with Saudi Arabia, or it protects that relationship and loses the rest of the Middle East.

In fact, the choice between U.S. values and interests is a false choice, as the president made clear in his speech. Now, American policy has to reflect this truth. So far, Washington has tried to placate the Saudis. It is time we challenged their words and deeds, instead.

Tectonic Shift

It’s no surprise that the tectonic shift in Arab politics, a popular revolt calling for reform, openness and accountability, worries the Saudi monarchy. The kingdom, like the rest of the Arab world, has a young population that wants jobs, freedom and a say in politics. Thirty-nine percent of Saudis ages 20 to 24 are unemployed. Having watched Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down amid protests in which Egyptian youths played a key role, Saudi King Abdullah announced $35 billion in new social benefits to head off demands for reform at home. That bought the monarchy time, but too many dominoes are falling in its direction to allow for complacency. Violent protests on Saudi Arabia’s borders, inside Bahrain and Yemen, have been particularly troubling.

From the outset, Riyadh encouraged every Arab ruler to resist reform. The more Washington embraced the Arab Spring, the more Riyadh worried. Saudi rulers took particular exception to Washington’s call for Mubarak to resign, and when the U.S. urged reform in Bahrain, they saw U.S. policy as a direct threat to them.

Encouraging Dialog

Washington had encouraged Bahrain’s king, Hamad ibn Isa al- Khalifa, to enter into dialog with the opposition there, and American diplomats were directly involved in mediating talks. An agreement was almost at hand when Riyadh took the rare step of undermining U.S. policy. Saudi rulers persuaded Bahrain to scuttle the talks and bring in troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to suppress the protests.

The weak excuse for this clumsy crackdown was that Iran was orchestrating the protests and Iranian expansionism had to be stopped in its tracks. A local protest inspired by popular demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt was transformed into a regional conflict. The Saudi strategy was clear: shift the focus from democracy to the bogeyman, Iran.

Emboldened by the outcome in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia has mounted a regional strategy to defeat the Arab Spring. Riyadh has called for expansion of the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of Arab countries that are oil-producing and sit on the Persian Gulf, to include Jordan and Morocco, which qualify on neither count.

Mollifying Protesters

The expansion would transform the GCC into the Arab world’s club of monarchies. Membership would provide cash-strapped Jordan and Morocco ample financial resources to mollify angry protesters. In return, they would have to abandon reform and be prepared to lend their more serious militaries to put down protests should they erupt again in Gulf states.

Saudi Arabia’s new posture is a serious challenge to U.S. policy. Conceding to Saudi demands will put America on the wrong side of a widely popular historical transformation in the region, and thus will only hurt U.S. interests in the long run. Bahrain’s heavy-handed suppression of protests has already dented American standing in the region.

Having Saudi Arabia deliberately ratchet up tensions with Iran is also risky. The Persian Gulfmonarchies don’t have the military muscle to back their aggressive policy toward Iran. Their credibility depends on U.S. support. And if baiting Iran escalates tensions in the Gulf, U.S. interests and the sheer size of its military presence there will inevitably put the U.S. in the middle of the conflict.

Confronting the Challenge

For all these reasons, the U.S. needs to confront the Saudi challenge head-on. Failure to do so will hurt our standing in the region and alienate public opinion there, which will only benefit Iran.

The U.S. should assert its leadership role in the Middle East. It should make clear that, our close ties to Saudi Arabia notwithstanding, we will be as vigilant in pushing for reform in Bahrain as in Libya or Syria. Washington should be prepared to act if the monarchy in Bahrain doesn’t end its crackdown and start a meaningful dialog with the opposition. We should also make clear to Jordan and Morocco that America supports their reform initiatives and won’t look favorably on reversing course.

It’s true that we rely on the GCC for oil, but there will be no interruption in the flow of oil if we disagree with the Gulf states. Their livelihood depends on oil; to profit from it, they must sell it. Moreover, the GCC countries need us to protect their security, as was made amply clear in both wars with Iraq. What should concern us, then, is not the Saudi threats but rather how the people of the Middle East will judge our policies at this critical juncture in their history.

(Vali Nasr is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this column: Vali Nasr at

To contact the editor responsible for this column: Lisa Beyer at