Our guest author is Matthew M. Reed, a Middle East specialist at Foreign Reports, Inc., a consulting firm in Washington, DC. More of his commentary can be found at Al Ajnabee, where he writes about the new Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own.
If the accusations are true, the Saudi-Iranian cold war could have exploded at the Saudi Embassy in Foggy Bottom. The authenticity of the plot matters little at the moment because Saudi Arabia and others are now acting on the assumption that assertions made by Eric Holder are airtight. No doubt what we’ll get over the next few days is an American-centric view: experts will argue more about how the U.S. should handle the provocation since, if realized, it could have resulted in scores of dead Americans. Unlike the U.S., however, Saudi Arabia can harness international sympathy in the wake of the plot, use unique leverage it enjoys as custodians of the holy places, and—if they wish—the Saudis can even consider escalation. Other creative options might also be considered.
The Saudis will enjoy a measure of international sympathy in the short-term because of Adel al Jubeir’s reputation and the brazenness of the plot. The Saudi response has yet to crystallize but official statements from Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal are growing tougher by the day. First, the obvious: it’s entirely possible that Riyadh will suspend ties with Tehran and recall their ambassador in the coming weeks. If this path is pursued, Saudi Arabia would be smart to line up its friends in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to do the same. However, recalling the Saudi ambassador to Iran will not be enough. They must arrange a more significant statement.
King Abdullah would be wise to approach Pakistan (a long-time Saudi ally) and Turkey, which is eclipsing Iran by every measure, and convince these two countries to at least downgrade ties with the Islamic Republic. The GCC is not good enough in this case because any posturing will be seen as a natural consequence of Sunni-Shia, Arab-Persian suspicions; the outrage, if it is to be wielded, must stretch beyond the Gulf so that is truly legitimate. It’s also worth noting that the Saudis must own accusations made by the FBI and push more details out into the open. Secrecy, in this case, can only harm the allegations because they are so incredible. Withdrawals must be legitimized by evidence if they want to mobilize others.
Demanding a serious investigation from Iranian authorities would be a good start. Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, suggested this weekend that his country was “ready to examine” evidence in keeping with their responsibilities as a signatory to the Convention on the Protection and Punishment of Crimes against Internationally Protected Persons; President Ahmadinejad, meanwhile, claims Iran will not investigate. But Riyadh and Washington should encourage an investigation and if Iranian authorities fail to pursue those responsible, the International Court of Justice could be employed. The Saudis have already “requested the UN secretary general… inform the Secretary Council of the heinous conspiracy to assassinate the Saudi ambassador.”
Then there are unique options available to Saudi Arabia, which oversees the annual pilgrimage to Mecca. According to Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Tehran, Muhammad bin Abbas al Kilabi, the Saudi embassy is prepared to issue 94,000 Hajj visas for Iranian pilgrims, as the Hajj begins in just over a week. If indeed the Saudis are convinced of the merits of the plot, the visas could be denied or the numbers constrained. This wouldn’t be the first time: in 1987, Iranian-engineered riots in the holy city of Mecca forced the Saudis to suspend relations and pilgrimage from Iran for two years. This option might also be under review at the moment.
As for escalation, the plot to kill one of the king’s closest advisors could very well make covert action more appealing, as Bashar al Assad—Syria’s tyrant and Iran’s only true ally—struggles to crush a popular uprising. Investing in the Syrian revolution would be a relatively cheap tit-for-tat move with big consequences for the region generally, Syria specifically, and Iran especially. WikiLeaks reports that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki once accused the Saudis of “funding a Sunni army” in 2008. Finding and arming a similar outfit in Syria would be relatively easy.
Now might be the time for creative measures too and if the Saudis want to push back on Iranian intrigue they could finally send an ambassador to Baghdad. The Saudis have yet to open an embassy there for many reasons: first, is the debatable cost and benefit of establishing an office; second, security remains a concern; and finally, distrust is a major obstacle, as the Iraqi government has edged closer to Iran recently on matters like the Bahraini intervention and the Syrian uprising, both of which are saturated with sectarianism.
But even the announcement that the Saudis are considering opening an embassy would send a strong signal. During the same meeting in which Maliki complained about Saudi Arabia sponsoring Sunni armies, he told Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus that Iraq welcomed “relations with the Saudis and we do not want tensions, but neither do we want to be seen as weak. We are not begging for a relationship with them. We want a relationship of equals,” he said. A Saudi presence on the ground could force Iran to compete for influence rather than simply accumulate it.
War or military action is not an option in this case. But a response is coming. Look for Riyadh to use both traditional and unique means of pressuring their long-time rival.