Ever since the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on Iran last week
after the country refused to stop enriching uranium, concerns have mounted over
the possibility of a nuclear-type conflict in the Middle East involving the
United States, Israel, Iran and perhaps a host of Arab countries including
Whilst the descent towards war may well prove inevitable over the course of
2011, this article explores the strategic necessities of the other side of the
equation; namely the question of just how
bad a nuclear-armed Iran would be in what is considered the most volatile
neighborhood in the world.
By far the most interesting leak that surfaced from the US cable disclosures is
the repeated insistence of the Saudi king exhorting the United States to
withdraw from Iraq by taking a detour through Iran. As Reuters reported on the
WikiLeaks story on November 29:
King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia
repeatedly exhorted the United States to "cut off the head of the snake" by
launching military strikes to destroy Iran's nuclear program, according to
leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.
A copy of the cable dated April 20, 2008, was published in the New York Times
web site on Sunday after being released by the whistleblowing web site
WikiLeaks. The classified communication between the US Embassy in Riyadh and
Washington showed the Saudis feared Shi'ite Iran's rising influence in the
region, particularly in neighboring Iraq.
The United States has repeatedly said that the military option is on the table,
but at the same time US military chiefs have made clear they view it as a last
resort, fearing it could ignite wider conflict in the Middle East.
The April 2008 cable detailed a meeting between General David Petraeus, the top
US military commander in the Middle East, and then US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan
Crocker, and King Abdullah and other Saudi princes.
At the meeting, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir
"recalled the King's frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put
an end to its nuclear weapons program," the cable said.
"He told you to cut off the head of the snake," Jubeir was reported to have
The sentiment broaches some obvious questions in the minds of anyone who is not
beholden to the Saudi establishment or part of the George W Bush - Dick Cheney
Firstly, what is the snake that King Abdullah refers to?
There are multiple possibilities about the nature of the snake. One possibility
is that the king referred to the Persians, or more likely the Shi'ite masses as
the snake; with Iran as its head. While this view would certainly confirm with
the Saudi/Wahhabi orthodoxy in respect of Islam and its evolution over the past
1,000 years, it doesn't make much for common ground with the United States.
Americans are (presumably) neutral with respect to the different denominations
of Islam, in the sense that they are already at war in two predominantly Sunni
areas (northern Iraq and Afghanistan) and are embroiled in wars across Shi'ite
regions in the southern part of Iraq, as well as the Reagan-era animosity
towards Shi'ite Iran.
The snakes in the sands
There is something deliciously self-serving about Saudi exhortations for the US
to act on Iran to prevent the rise of a new power in the Middle East,
especially if the US were to step back and ask a tougher question about the
role of "other snakes".
In case that is too obtuse, what I am referring to is the "snake" of religious
terrorism, and in particular the problem of disaffected youth in predominantly
Sunni kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait et al; as well as those in
anarchies such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is not entirely clear that
the natural enemy of such youth is necessarily the Americans; more likely, it
is the established order of the Middle East, where the wealth of nations is
controlled by a bunch of aging monarchies.
This snake of religious terrorism is the one that bit the US on 9/11. Most of
the hijackers on September 11, 2001, were of Saudi origin and despite nominally
falling under the leadership of Osama bin Laden it stands to reason that they
were mainly disenchanted due to the stifling anti-democracy of Saudi Arabia and
the inherent hypocrisy of Wahhabism in a country that spent most of its time
kowtowing to the Americans.
Fearing the tactical nightmare of dealing with hundreds if not thousands of
these disaffected youth, America and Europe chose to make the strategic blunder
of supporting the crumbling monarchies as long as they attacked their own
youth. This was a stupid bargain, to put it mildly.
A sustainable situation would be to engender wider regime change in the Middle
East by booting out the creaking and corrupt monarchies, to be replaced
progressively with Islamic leaders capable of taking a development-oriented
approach to their countries. To ensure this new generation of Middle East
leaders do not get overly tempted by the possibilities of attacking America or
Israel, it would be necessary to have a "natural" check in the region - namely
As a nominally democratic state with a strong theological association with
Shi'ite philosophy, Iran's potential to disrupt the stale status quo in the
Middle East has been well known since 1979. The US along with various Sunni
kingdoms egged on Saddam Hussein in his murderous war against Iran, in itself a
war of survival for the minority Sunni community of Iraq against the plural
majority Shi'ite population.
The atrocities that Saddam and his henchmen visited upon the Shi'ite population
in southern Iraq are well known. Iran also suffered hundreds of thousands in
casualties among its civilian population; atrocities committed by the Sunni
regime of Iraq for which no means of accounting was even attempted by either
the Europeans or the Americans; those so-called paragons of human rights.
Australia gets it right
Contrast the Saudi stance with that of Australia, a consistent ally of the
United States and the United Kingdom for the past 60 years. As Reuters reported
on December 13:
Australia is at odds with its major security ally the
United States over Iran, saying it is not a "rogue state" and its nuclear
weapons program is for deterrence, not attack, according to US cables released
by WikiLeaks. The documents, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday,
also reveal that Australia's top security organization believes Tehran sees a
"grand bargain" with the United States as its best way to ensure national
But the Office of National Assessments (ONA) shared Washington's fears that
Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to conventional or nuclear war,
noting a conflict between Israel and Iran was the greatest challenge to Middle
The ONA was also concerned that nuclear proliferation in the Middle East may
drive Southeast Asian nations to pursue their own nuclear capabilities. "It's a
mistake to think of Iran as a 'rogue state'," then ONA chief Peter Varghese
told the United States in a briefing, according to the 2008 US diplomatic
cables from Canberra. The cables said the ONA sought a balanced view of Tehran
as a sophisticated diplomatic player rather than one liable to behave
impulsively or irrationally.
The Australians are correct in
their assessment, even if it was only made because of their fears that a
nuclear conflagration in the Middle East would spark a rush towards nuclear
weapons by Indonesia (the world's largest Muslim country and a close enough
neighbor to worry Australian policymakers). Whatever their motives, the
Australians may have hit the nail on the head - namely, that the West should
take a balanced approach to this problem.
What about Israel?
Any argument in support of Iran, though, automatically falls at the door of the
hysterical pronouncements of the Iranian leadership from Israel. There is
little doubt in the minds of most right-thinking Jews and Americans that given
half a chance, Iran would quite literally proceed to "wipe Israel off the map"
as the president of Iran proudly claimed last year.
This is a serious worry in terms of the West or anyone else engaging Iran,
primarily because there doesn't appear to be any motivation within the Iranian
leadership to change attitudes towards Israel nor is there any apparent popular
pressure in the country to do so. If anything, the proverbial "man on the
street" is as inimical to the interests of Israel as the half-crazy leadership
That said, there have to be other considerations too. Firstly, it is unlikely
that Iran actually has the ability and, distinctly, the willingness to
withstand a Jewish state counter-attack (let alone American) should it ever
contemplate an attack on Israel. With over 200 nuclear bombs at its command
(some estimates even say 400), Israel is no pushover when it comes to
Secondly, one has to sit back and examine what exactly the Iranians can claim
to gain by the endeavor of pursuing this goal - precious nothing. Compare that
to the direct benefit of addressing their key problem, namely a decline in the
production and export of oil that Iran faces on a daily basis. Other authors -
including my Asia Times Online colleague Spengler - have mentioned the dire
straits of the Iranian economy with its over-reliance on falling oil exports.
Putting fear and greed together, the answer to engaging Iran is surely the
expansion of Iranian influence over Shi'ite oil-producing areas around the
Persian Gulf. A critical examination of this aspect could well be the key to
resolving both the Middle East conundrum and containing the further spread of
Wahhabi terrorism globally.
There is something of a truism in the energy industry that while Sunni states
may claim ownership of oil reserves, most oil-producing areas are actually in
regions populated exclusively or extensively by Shi'ite groups. For example,
The Energy Bulletin published the following table in December 2008, in an
article entitled "Shia Islam and oil geopolitics" by James Leigh; the table
highlights the predominance of Shi'ite (Shia) populations in the regions with
significant oil reserves.
The article highlights a key point:
The Gulf states of Bahrain, Iran,
Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, have 81.3 million Shia or
about 61% of the total Gulf population. Further, if we just take the Shia
populations of the five nations of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the
UAE holding 58% of world oil reserves, we see Shia make up a total of 62% of
their populations. Clearly the Shia have the potential for significant
influence over this whole Gulf region through their own nations and also
ultimately to the world. Of course they could also wield regional and world
influence through their solid representation in OPEC.
look at the exclusively Arab portions of the "oil map" is disturbing to say the
least for the average Sunni fanatic. A number of key oil fields in various Arab
states adjoining the "Arabian" Gulf (which is of course called the "Persian"
Gulf in the rest of the world) are in areas with predominantly Shi'ite
populations, the principal ones being Bahrain and Al-Hasa (a region that was
under Bahrain during the time of the Ottoman empire).
This then is the core of the Saudi worry about Iran. An expansion of the
Shi'ite state could provoke grave unrest within Saudi Arabian borders but also
limit the country's ability to suppress dissent from its young and restless, a
scenario that must provoke the greatest concern among all the crown princes as
they mull the succession from King Abdullah.
The prospect of a nuclear Iran certainly creates its share of worries, not the
least of which is the likely expansion of a theater of war away from the Middle
East towards Europe and Asia. The country's attitudes towards Israel are also a
matter of deep concern. However, if one assumes that an expansion of the
Iranian military in non-conventional weapons is a certainty in an environment
where the United States as a declining superpower is unable to intervene
militarily, then the next best option - namely to harness this new emerging
power - should certainly be examined closely.
The primary advantage of a nuclear Iran and a rising Shi'ite state would be the
instability it engenders in today's predominantly Sunni- and Wahhabi-controlled
Middle East. That is not a bad thing as both America and Europe have precious
little to show for their engagement of Saudi Arabia and neighboring kingdoms in
the nine years since 9/11 and the West's attempts to curtail al-Qaeda. Instead,
the rise of Iran could well promote the kind of reforms that have thus far been
eschewed by Arab kingdoms, and in turn create the conditions for greater
stability over the long run.