Host: Peter Lavelle
Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow, Middle East Institute
Pete Hoekstra, Shillman Senior Fellow, Investigative Project on Terrorism; former
chairman, U.S. House Intelligence Committee; author
Mohammad Marandi, Associate Professor, University of Tehran
Lavelle: Hello and welcome to Cross Talk, where all things are considered. I'm Peter Lavelle. Saudi Arabia's foreign and domestic policies are becoming much more aggressive, even deadly. What is driving Riyadh's agendas? The Saudis appear to desire a greater and more independent role in the Middle East. Where does the Kingdom's most powerful backer – Washington – stand? And what about fighting the Islamic State?
To cross talk Saudi Arabia, I'm joined by my guests, Pete Hoekstra in Washington. He is the Shillman Senior Fellow with the Investigative Project on Terrorism, as well as a former chairman of the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, and author of Architects of Disaster. Also in Washington we have Alex Vatanka. He is a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute. And in Tehran, we cross to Mohammad Marandi. He's an associate professor at the University of Tehran.
Alright, gentlemen, Cross Talk rules in effect. That means you can jump in any time you want, and I very much encourage it. Mohammad, I want to go to Tehran first, Mohammad, this mass execution over the weekend in Saudi Arabia and the execution of a prominent cleric, a Shiite cleric, it just has to be nothing less than a vast provocation on the part of Saudi Arabia, because the implications of which, which we'll talk about on this program, are quite vast. And the way I look at it, it looks like a hubristic blunder on the part of Riyadh. What's your take?
Marandi: Well I think there are number of issues here. One is that the Saudis would like to create sectarian tensions and to make this look like a Shia-Sunni divide, so that they can carry the mantle of the Sunnis. But in reality, the view from Tehran at least, is that this is a Wahhabi versus everyone else divide, and that the Saudis are pursuing a Wahhabi ideology that dislikes anything other than Wahhabism. They not only look at non-Wahhabis – Shias, Sufis, Christians, and Druze, and seculars, as people who are beneath them, but they even look at mainstream religious Sunnis as their inferior and people who are not of the right faith. And we also see, for example, that Saudi Arabia across the region has enhanced the Wahhabi ideology and across the world through billions of dollars of investment every year. The second issue is that, the feeling here in Tehran, is that because of the crisis, or the multiple crises, that the Saudis are facing across the region – in Syria, in Iraq, and their failed war in Yemen, the dead-end in the occupation of Bahrain, and also the economic crisis that is gradually growing in Saudi Arabia – they want to divert attention away from problems at home, the divisions within the Saudi family, and also to show people that they can execute big names with impunity, and people [crosstalk over few words] and obey the leadership.
Lavelle: It's very interesting. Peter, if I can go to you in Washington, one of the interesting things over the last few weeks and months is that the Saudi regime has threatened to sue anyone that compares it to ISIS, but you know with this mass beheading over the weekend, it certainly looks a lot like ISIS. I mean, this is something that has to be seen in some ways as a PR disaster for them because that's something they don't like to be compared to. Go ahead Pete, in Washington.
Hoekstra: Sure, I don't think that the comparison to ISIS is very relevant at all. It may be this event may cause some problems for Saudi Arabia in the short term. There's no doubt that over the last number of years the relationship between the Obama administration and the regime in Saudi Arabia has deteriorated, but the basic relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia is going to continue to be a strong relationship. There are strong military connections, there are strong intelligence connections, there are strong relations on foreign relations. Again, this is a result of the Obama administration's policies in coddling up to Iran that's causing a tremendous amount of uncertainty in Saudi Arabia and other parts of the Middle East. It is not a fundamental shift in U.S. policy towards the Middle East. What you're going to see is Saudi is going to play a more independent role over the next 12 to 14 months until the United States swears in a new administration.
Lavelle: Okay, Alex, that's an interesting take right there. I mean but isn't Saudi Arabia trying to limit Washington's options here? I mean isn't it much better for Washington to have better relations with the major players in the Middle East instead of being held hostage, like it looks [like] Riyadh really wants to do, is to make the U.S. choose? I mean it's wag the dog here. Go ahead, Alex.
Vatanka: Well one thing I'd say about you know choosing, it wasn't the Iranian nuclear agreement of July of this year that really gave the Saudis, you know, reasons to think about their relations with the United States. I think we have to go back to early 2011, and then in Saudi minds the fact the United States didn't do anything to keep Hosni Mubarak in power, that was a wake-up call for the Saudis. And I think ever since then they've been second-guessing themselves and certainly having less and less trust in this Obama administration. But your point, Peter, about, you know, is it wise for the Saudis to create a situation where the United States has to choose? It would be, from my vantage point, impossible to see how the United States wants, a) to see more sectarianism in the Middle East, and secondarily, to choose one side in that conflict. I mean if the hope in Riyadh is that this killing of Sheikh Nimr will create more sectarianism in the region and forces the United States to choose the Saudis at the end of the day, I think that's a very high risk strategy, and I don't the United States is in the business of choosing sides.
Lavelle: Well you know but Alex, does it bother you that the administration didn't condemn the execution of that cleric? It didn't, it walked away from that. It would not condemn it. Why is the United States in bed with people like this? I mean you know toppling of the Mubarak regime, okay, okay, that was part of the democratic process, or the beginning of one, in Egypt there. No, Saudi Arabic wants the United States to choose dictators, like they are, dictators in Riyadh. Go ahead, Alex, before I go to Tehran.
Vatanka: Sure, very quickly, to what Pete said before, look, the relations between Saudi Arabia and the United States, I mean this is a relationship that goes back to [the] Second World War. It will take a lot more for it just to simply unravel, unless there's a revolution of sorts either in Riyadh or in Washington, and that's not going to happen. So I think you know, yes, in terms of condemning –
Lavelle: Well, yeah but I mean one of the things that could happen here, there's another level, if I can go to Tehran here, and it's the Saudis want to scuttle any possibility of ending this Syrian civil war. Now, I know that Washington speaks with many different tongues here. It's hard to trust Secretary Kerry after he ends a meeting with somebody, because he always changes his mind by the time he gets off the airplane. But there is something going on that's the inner process. Again, the Saudis want to scuttle that. Go ahead, Mohammad.
Marandi: Well, I would like to remind your viewers that the United States has in the past pursued policies that were quite sectarian, when General Flynn admitted last year, and I think that was the revelation of the year, when he admitted that in early on in the conflict in Syria, U.S. allies in the region were supporting the extremists, and that the extremists were the dominant opposition force, and that the United States made a willful decision to support these extremists that were al-Qaida, and at that time of course ISIL was al-Qaida in Iraq. The United States did choose extremists. So it's not as if the United States has not followed that path before. But I think what is really important is that regardless of exactly what the United States is doing now, and I think the United States has a very confused policy in this part of the world, but I think that Saudi Arabia is becoming increasingly isolated across the globe. Russia, China, non-Western countries, have become increasingly critical of Saudi Arabia and Turkey because of their support for extremists. Remember, the Wahhabi ideology is the ideology of ISIL, al-Qaida, the Taliban, Boko Haram, the terrorists in Lebanon and Paris and across the world nowadays. But even in Europe we see that the mood has shifted, especially after the Paris attacks and after the wave of refugees into Europe. Indeed, the deputy chancellor of Germany warned the Saudis to stop spreading their extremist ideology of Wahhabism. So the mood is changing. And there is also, there are an increasing a number of people in the United States who are critical. And – but the United States government at the moment still continues to support Saudi Arabia. They supported Saudi aggression in Yemen, the war on the Yemeni people, which is going on for almost a year, and people are being slaughtered, and a siege has been created where people cannot access food; Bahrain is under occupation; and, of course, Saudi policy and Turkish policy in Syria continue to be supported by the United States. But, popular opinion across the world, and I think many governments, except for a few like the United States, they are turning rapidly away from Saudi Arabia and the extremism which it represents.
Lavelle: Let me go to Pete here in Washington, D.C. We just heard that you know Iran is finding itself, I'm sorry – Saudi Arabia is finding itself more and more isolated – how do you see that? Because it looks like the regime is very unstable. It's lashing out at its neighbors here; it has a failed war in the south against Yemen; again, oil prices very important here, I mean the Saudis want to drive it down so far that it's actually hurt itself here. This doesn't look like a regime that's very stable. It has a lot, it has ambitious agendas. It doesn't know how to achieve them. And they're doing a lot of contradictory things at the same time. Go ahead Pete in Washington.
Hoekstra: Yeah, I think what you're looking at here is, you know Alex was exactly right, a pivotal moment in the Middle East was when the United States backed away from Mubarak. And really the strategy of the Obama administration has been very consistent. From the day that it came in they said – we are going to look at the Middle East differently. From their perspective, they believe that they could engage with the more radical elements in the Middle East, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, and that by engaging with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Muslim Brotherhood would change their behavior, that they would embrace democracy and elections in Egypt; that didn't happen. The Obama administration embraced radical elements in overthrowing Gadhafi, expecting –
Hoekstra: – a more stable, democratic regime in Libya; –
Lavelle: Yeah, they destroyed Libya, didn't they?
Hoekstra: – that has not happened. You know –
Lavelle: They destroyed Libya in the name of democracy, didn't they?
Hoekstra: They sure did, and that's what my book is all about. They chose badly, I think, in engaging with Iran. You know, what we're seeing is that the Obama administration reached out in good faith hoping that by engaging with Iran they would see Iran behave differently in the Middle East, but Iran continues to foster and fund –
Lavelle: Alright, we're going to –
Hoekstra: – radical elements, terrorist elements –
Lavelle: – go to a short break, gentlemen. When we come back from our short break here, we'll go to Tehran and respond to that. Stay with RT.
Lavelle: Welcome back to Cross Talk, where all things are considered. I'm Peter Lavelle. To remind you, we're discussing recent events in Saudi Arabia and Iran's reaction.
Okay, and I'd like to go back to Tehran here. Just before we went to the break though we had, we heard about Iran, and this is very typical in Western media – Iran's bad behavior, and that if it, you know if you use the stick the right way, Iran will behave. Okay, people that watch this program know how I feel about that. I'd like to go Mohammad there in Tehran. You're there, why don't you react to that?
Marandi: Well I think it's quite clear, at least from the perspective of Tehran, that that United States is the country that's played a destructive role in this region. From the beginning, for example, in the case of Syria, Iran supported Syrian independence, its sovereignty, and it advocated reforms in Syria, but it was very much against the civil war and the violence that was being supported by neighboring countries, and because the Iranians knew from the very start that they were extremists behind this. And now and later on, as I said earlier, General Flynn, the highest intelligence officer in the U.S. military, admitted the same thing, that it was the extremists indeed that were behind the bulk of the violence, and it was U.S. allies that were supporting him, and that it was the United States that was supporting its allies. Or in the case of Yemen, the Saudis used Iran as an excuse to invade and destroy and demolish the infrastructure of one of the poorest countries in the world. Yemen has been suffering for almost a year now. The United States has supported this aggression. And they use Iran as an excuse to get away with anything over there. Right now over half of the population is on the verge of starvation, and there's no talk about it. When the Saudis occupied Bahrain, Iran did nothing. In fact, the Bahraini regime set up a commission to see the role, what was the role of Iran, and even that commission admitted that Iran had done nothing. Yet, when the Saudis occupied the country, the United States again supported Saudi Arabia. If it wasn't for Iran – Iraq, Syria – would have collapsed to extremists like ISIL. Yet, the United States it has the audacity to blame Iran, whereas the United States hasn't even condemned the murder of a cleric in Saudi Arabia, who was never violent and never called for violence. But on the other hand, just a couple of weeks ago, Zahran Alloush, the head of the Jaysh al-Islam terrorist organization in Syria, when he was killed either by Russian or Syrian jets, the United States and the Soviets expressed regret at his death. And he not only supported Osama bin Laden, not only did he say that we are allies of al-Qaida, but he also said, 'We will crush the heads of the minorities in Syria.' Yet, this is the sort of stance that the United States takes alongside Saudi Arabia. But I think the Americans really have to start rethinking their policy. The fact that the Saudis are lashing out shows that something is wrong at home, there are divisions within the royal family, central - people in the Iranian Central Bank who are in contact with their European counterparts say that the budget deficit in Saudi Arabia is more than double what they're admitting. So I think the Americans have to start thinking seriously about the future of this region.
Lavelle: Okay, Alex, you want to respond to what we just heard there?
Hoekstra: There is no doubt that –
Lavelle: Okay, Pete, jump in, it's Okay, Pete, jump in, go ahead.
Hoekstra: Yeah, there's no doubt that America is reconsidering its policies in the Middle East. The difference here is we're not reconsidering the policies in the executive branch. The Obama administration policies are set for the next 12 months, as long as he's still in office. He's going to do everything to make sure that this agreement with Iran continues moving forward; he's going to continue working with what many of us consider are the more radical elements on the Sunni side. And, but there's a great divide between this president and the executive branch and the U.S. Congress. Congress is much more concerned about the Iran agreement than what the executive branch is. Congress has much more, much greater misgivings about the behavior of this president in Egypt, Libya and Syria. And you know with the United States pulling back and engaging with some of these more radical elements, clearly there's been a vacuum created, the whole Middle East is much more unstable –
Lavelle: Oh yeah.
Hoekstra: – than what it was. And the next president, when he or she takes office in 12 or 13 months is going to be handed a much bigger mess in the Middle East than what this president was handed in January of 2009. We do need to come back and develop a more bipartisan long-term approach to the Middle East, because what we've done has not worked.
Lavelle: Okay, Alex, I agree with that, that I mean Saudi Arabia is just not a reliable partner. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the United States has just, you know, tied itself to this really, really quite bizarre regime. I mean you don't get the negative reporting about Saudi Arabia all that much in the United States, but you do in Europe and other places. You know, you have Wolf Blitzer on CNN saying maybe Saudi Arabia needs a nuclear weapon now to protect itself from Iran. I mean this is getting to be lunacy here. It's not the Obama administration; it's a whole part of society in the United States has been taught to hate Tehran for 40 years. Go ahead, Alex.
Vatanka: Well, to be honest, Peter, the Iranian side has done plenty to fuel the fire here in terms of you know, I don't want to go back to the slogans of 'Death to America,' but it's only recent years under President Rouhani we've seen a change in Iran's behavior, in terms of where he wants to go in terms of its foreign policy, less of a revolutionary state, and (UI word) trying to be part of the solution to the region's many problems. And speaking of President Rouhani, here is the guy who is arguably the biggest victim of what happened here over the weekend in Tehran. Look, I can guarantee you Foreign Minister Javad Zarif from President Rouhani did not sanction the ransacking of the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, somebody else in Iran decided to do that, and they too had a domestic agenda, to undermine the moderate forces that want to bring Iran back from the cold. And by going into this embassy, and it seems like climbing walls has become a part-time profession for part of the Iranian security forces, by doing that they undermine their own country's foreign policy agenda, as it's been set by President Rouhani. I think that is a tragedy, because Hassan Rouhani came to office very clearly saying he wanted to build bridges with Saudi Arabia. I give you this much, Saudi Arabia has not accepted that Iranian offer. And I think that's a big criticism that can be leveled against Saudi Arabia.
Lavelle: Okay, that's absolutely true there. I don't see the hand being returned. Again, Mohammad, bad behavior from Iran, please respond. That word is really amazing; it's always connected to the country of Iran. Go ahead.
Marandi: Yeah, a few people threw rocks and they set fire to parts of a building that was empty, and Iran is now the aggressor. President Rouhani of course –
Lavelle: Condemned it.
Marandi: – criticized the storming of the embassy and condemned it, and so did the Revolutionary Guards, and so did the police, and so did the speaker of Parliament, everyone was angry about this and no one condoned it. And but I think it's obvious that the people –
Vatanka: But Mohammed, I'm sorry, when the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November of –
Lavelle: Go ahead, Alex, go ahead.
Vatanka: I'm sorry, Mohammad, I just want to say when the Iranian Embassy in Beirut in November of 2013 was attacked by terrorists, Iran expected and Iran got some, plenty of, sympathy. And that's what people were expecting from the Iranian side, when an embassy of a foreign power.
Marandi: No, actually that's not true, because –
Lavelle: Mohammad, go ahead.
Marandi: Yeah, well that's not exactly true. The people who attacked the Iranian Embassy and killed 20-some people in Beirut, they were extremist Wahhabi groups that had links to Saudi intelligence. So the Saudis, and just a few months ago the government, the Intelligence Ministry in Iran, said that two Iranians that were murdered in front of a mosque in (UI word), in the city of (UI word) in Tehran, afterwards when they captured the extremists that carried out the attacks, the Ministry of Intelligence in Iran said that they have links with Saudi Arabia. So the Saudis are very busy supporting extremists in Iran, across the region. And as I said, the links are the ideology itself. And the school books of Saudi Arabia, which speak about Shias and others being, and anyone who is not Wahhabi, being non-Muslim, and that non-Muslims can be killed because, for a host of different reasons.
So I don't think it's, it's sort of like how the United States during the Iran-Iraq War, or the revolution, when they would speak about the embassy takeover, they forget to remember that the embassy takeover was a result of the United States giving refuge to the Shah, for two years of supporting SAVAK in Iran; the United States forgets that it supported Saddam Hussein, gave him chemical weapons. Yet, the Iranians, of course President Rouhani is looking for rapprochement with any country that is willing to behave reasonably towards Iran, and that is true with Saudi Arabia. Yet, even under the previous administration of Mr. Ahmadinejad, the Iranian foreign minister went to Saudi Arabia, the Saudi foreign minister never came back. In this administration the government tried the same, but the Saudis did not respond. People in Iran are angry. Those people who stormed the embassy, remember that just a few months ago, even though it was completely wrong what they did, but remember that just a few months ago, almost 600 people were murdered, were killed, because of Saudi incompetence during the pilgrimage. And the Saudis not only did they not apologize, they never even expressed remorse at the death of the Iranians. Of course there were thousands of people killed as a result. But the Iranians they never broke off relations with Saudi Arabia after that happened. So I don't think the Saudis have any excuse.
Marandi: They murdered an innocent person, they [crosstalk over word or words] –
Hoekstra: Mohammed, – .
Marandi: – supporting extremists across the board; and the blame must be directed towards the Saudis.
Lavelle: Pete in, on D.C., jump in, go ahead.
Hoekstra: Yeah, I was going to say, Mohammad, congratulations. I mean you're clearly pitting this as a decision between you know the United States having to choose from an Iranian standpoint about allying itself with, or be on the side of, Iran, or being on the side of Saudi Arabia. I can tell you where the United States is going to be after 40 years of experience with Iran and its nuclear program and those types of things. Forced in that kind of predicament, the vast majority of the United States, maybe not this administration, but most of the rest of this country is going to side with Saudi Arabia. [Lavelle laughs.] There is no doubt that Iran and Saudi have made mistakes over the last 40 years –
Marandi: Yeah, same people who brought you 9/11.
Hoekstra: – [crosstalk over word] Iran out there as –
Lavelle: Go ahead, Mohammad, last word, real quick.
Marandi: Yeah, well that's the problem of the United States. The United States is, by supporting this regime that promotes a very extreme ideology that has nothing to do with mainstream Islam Sunni or Shi'a, the United States is itself is to blame for what happened in Paris; the United States is to blame itself for what happened in 9/11. When you chose horrible dictatorial and extremist partners, the chickens will come home to roost. And that is the sad reality of U.S. foreign policy.
Lavelle: Okay, on that note gentlemen we've run out of time. Many thanks to my guests from Washington and in Tehran, and thanks to our viewers for watching us here at RT. See you next time. And remember, Cross Talk rules.