The United States and Saudi Arabia seem to be readying for war against Iran, writes Yassamine Mather
Mohammed bin Salman: meeting the troops
Anyone following recent developments in the Middle East will be aware that the war of words between Iran and Saudi Arabia has entered a new stage that could lead to a perilous situation.
Some have argued that the chain of events started with US secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s visit to Riyadh, when he told Saudi leaders to clean up their act, distance themselves from traditional allies, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and show themselves to be ‘more progressive’ Islamists than their arch-rivals, Iran’s Islamic Republic. This appeared to spur on the Saudi kingdom to take bolder and more aggressive steps against Iran.
What we are now witnessing might be the consequences. First came the ‘instructions’ to liberalise restrictions on women. Even before Tillerson’s visit Saudi authorities had announced in late September that it would allow women to drive. There were clear economic reasons behind this decision, but it was also motivated by crown prince Mohammed bin Salman’s attempt to appear as a ‘reformist’. Soon after the secretary of state’s visit came the announcement that Saudi authorities will ease the restrictions on women spectators in sports stadiums. This posed a direct challenge to Iran, where there is an ongoing campaign - at times led by the daughter of former president Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, Faezeh Hashemi - calling on the authorities to allow women to watch football and other sports.
No-one knows how all this ‘liberalisation’ will go down with Saudi or Sunni clerics in the region, who, after all, are the source of inspiration of many jihadist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, al Qa’eda, Islamic State and al Nusra - the unpredictable reaction of conservatives in Saudi Arabia always provokes concern about ‘stability’ in the region.
However, none of this matched the sensation caused when Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri resigned on November 4 during a trip to Saudi Arabia, claiming his life was in danger. This created a leadership vacuum in an already politically fractured country.
Hariri accused Iran of meddling in the region, causing “devastation and chaos”, adding: “Iran controls the region and the decision-making in both Syria and Iraq. I want to tell Iran and its followers that it will lose in its interventions in the internal affairs of Arab countries.” On November 5 Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed that this was not the Hariri he knew - he had been “taken hostage” by the Saudis and forced to make the statement.
Lebanon’s Christian president Michel Aoun said he would not accept Hariri’s resignation until he returned to Lebanon and explained his reasons. Clearly he is as surprised as anyone else with this sudden turn of events. According to the notorious Saudi web gossip known as ‘Mujtahidd’, writing on Twitter,
The main reason for summoning [Hariri] back to Riyadh is to hold him captive with the rest of the detained princes and businessmen, to blackmail him and force him to bring back the funds he has abroad, particularly those not linked to Lebanon.
The statement he read was written for him. He was not convinced about it, neither in terms of content nor in terms of submitting his resignation from Riyadh. For how is it possible for a political leader to announce his resignation from another country’s capital?1
A good part of Hariri’s wealth came from the ownership of a Riyadh construction company, Saudi Oger, and he actually holds a Saudi passport despite his top post in Lebanon. In July this year the firm closed down and there are rumours that the family is now bankrupt.
Their financial backers, the Saudi royals, were not happy with Hariri’s recent political moves, such as assigning a Lebanese ambassador to Syria, which was seen as legitimising the Assad regime; and a few days before his appearance on Saudi TV to announce his resignation, Hariri had met a certain Ali Akbar Velayati in Beirut. Velayati is a top advisor to Iran supreme leader Ali Khamenei. It is believed that the Saudis summoned Hariri to Riyadh - some say they even sent a plane to collect him.
The resignation was to provoke a constitutional crisis in Lebanon. There will now be new elections, which some hope will see the end of Hezbollah as a partner in the government, freeing the hand of Donald Trump to impose sanctions on the party’s leaders.
The timing of all this cannot be pure coincidence. Only a few days earlier, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who was in Britain for the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the Balfour declaration, had used a Chatham House speech to quote former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who said that Iran was “a cause, not a country”. It was “devouring one nation after another either directly or by proxy.” Iran had “come into the Syrian war to ‘Lebanonise’ Syria economically and militarily”.2
The existence of a US-sponsored Israeli-Saudi alliance for regime change in Iran had been crystal-clear since Trump’s visit to the Middle East in May, but the process seems to have gathered momentum in the last two weeks. One thing that could have provoked a reaction on the part of Trump and the Saudis was Putin’s visit to Tehran last week. The Russian president signed a €30 billion deal - part of a strategic energy agreement - with Iran, met the supreme leader and reassured him and president Hassan Rouhani that he would continue to support Iran in the Syrian conflict, including ‘economic reconstruction’.
All this prompted the Saudis to up their efforts, along with the US and Israel, to impose regime change on Iran. Soon after Hariri’s ‘resignation’, a rocket was fired from Yemen (probably by pro-Iran forces, although not necessarily with Tehran’s approval), prompting yet another crisis, with both Saudi and US officials blaming Tehran for the attack. The same day came the news of the major shake-up among Saudi royals.
Apparently during his visit to the Middle East, Tillerson had warned the Saudis about their association with a plethora of jihadist groups. Apparently he told them that the supporters of regime change in Iran ought not to be seen as more backward than Iran’s Shia clerics when it came to the social position of women. That would explain both the recent ‘reforms’ and the surprising - some would say dangerous - events now taking place.
On November 3 the Saudis arrested 11 princes on suspicion of corruption. What they have in common are alleged connections with Qatar (a country Saudi Arabia claims is a sponsor of ‘terrorist groups’ - truly a case of the kettle calling the pot black). One of those arrested (and currently being held in a five-star hotel) is prince al-Waleed bin Talal, whose investments include stakes in News Corp, Citigroup, Apple, Time Warner and Twitter. However, the multi-billionaire is not a fan of Donald Trump. Back in December 2015 he tweeted: “You are a disgrace not only to the GOP, but to all America. Withdraw from the US presidential race, as you will never win.” There is speculation that he is now paying the price for that tweet, but a more credible reason is that, as one of the world’s richest men, he was in a position to finance a rebellion against king Salman al Saud and prince Abdullah.
Senior ministers were also arrested on November 5, including prince Mitaab bin Abdullah, the head of the National Guard,3 and Adel Faqih, the economy minister. Another prince, Mansour bin Muqrin, the deputy governor of Asir province, was killed when his aircraft came down near Abha late on Sunday. The removal of Mitaab bin Abdullah, the favourite son of the late king Abdullah, was yet another move intended to strengthen the position of crown prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Trump tweeted that he approved of these “anti-corruption measures”, reinforcing the idea that Saudi operations were initiated by Tillerson with the backing of the president. But a comment by Daniel Shapiro in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, headed ‘Is Saudi Arabia pushing Israel into war with Hezbollah and Iran?’, sums up concerns in sections of Israeli political circles:
What connects Lebanese PM Saad Hariri’s sudden resignation and Hezbollah’s assassination threat with Saudi Arabia and Israel? It’s all about Iran. But Israel must not be manoeuvred by an impatient Riyadh into a premature confrontation.
Irrespective of who is pushing whom, the situation is deteriorating day by day. According to Jake Novak, writing on the CNBC website on November 6:
Since the crackdown began on Saturday, the Saudis have considerably ramped up their accusatory rhetoric towards their neighbours. First, the kingdom squarely blamed Iran for a missile attack on Riyadh from Yemen that was thwarted by the US-made Patriot anti-missile system. The Saudis called that attack “direct military aggression by the Iranian regime” that may be considered an act of war. Second, the Saudis accused Lebanon of - figuratively at least - declaring “war” against it because of aggression from Hezbollah. That statement spurred even Saudi ally and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to publicly urge for calm.4
What the Saudi royals, Trump and Netanyahu fail to realise is that all these threats are actually strengthening the position of the Islamic regime. Tehran’s Shia rulers thrive on crises - they love to appear as victims of world conspiracies and this time sections of the Israeli and US media appear to agree that there is some coordination in what on the surface appear to be unrelated events. For those of us who want the overthrow of the Islamic Republic to be undertaken by the peoples of Iran themselves, these are hardly progressive developments l
3. The National Guard was originally designed to be a counter-coup force to defend the royal family from revolutionary plots in the regular army. It is deployed in the capital and holy cities, as well as along the borders.