An embarrassing internal feud among Saudi royals has been on public display for over two weeks. It first came to light on December 11, 2006, when Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, summoned his staff and told them that he's calling it quits. The Saudi government was so red-faced about what happened, they instructed their press not to report anything about Prince Turki's resignation for a week.
Ostensibly, the ambassador's tantrum came about when his side lost a policy dispute over how to deal with Iran — Prince Turki favored talking to the Iranians, while another royal faction, led by the national security adviser, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, advocated a military showdown with the Saudis playing second fiddle to America if there is an invasion.
I don't believe that Iran is at issue here: The Saudi royal family wants to stay in power, and it does not view Iran as a strategic threat to its rule. The chief threat arises from the jihadists — home-grown or otherwise — whom the royals correctly perceive as a pan-Middle Eastern phenomenon that is likely to grow much larger before beginning to recede. The supposed dual threats posed by Iran to America and Israel and by Shiism to the Sunni Arab order are smokescreens to confuse Western democrats and radical fundamentalists alike. Prince Bandar, who now has King Abdullah's ear, is planning to play all of the regime's threats against each other to ensure regime survival, even though it may end up hurting American interests in Iraq and careening a country like Lebanon into the abyss.
Under Prince Bandar's plan, America will attack Iran with all diplomatic, military, and intelligence means possible, and thereby become embroiled in yet another difficult project in the Middle East. Iran would have to set aside its Persian imperialist instincts while taking this blow. The jihadists, who in the post-Abu Musab al-Zarqawi era have made anti-Shiism a central tenet of their struggle, will be unleashed against the Shiites in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, thereby diverting the jihadists from pursuing their goal of overthrowing the Saudi regime.
Back in June 2005, I wrote a column titled "The Saudi Mega-Plot" that described what today is Prince Bandar's strategy. Back then, I likened this plan to what the Saudis did in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s when they supported the mujaheddin against the Soviets and managed to knock off several menacing birds with one stone: their own disgruntled home-grown Wahhabi radicals went off to die in the Hindu Kush; the "godless" communist push south was halted; the Americans were kept happy, and the Khomeini regime in Iran — seeking to lead Muslims worldwide — was upstaged.
Prince Turki, then chief of Saudi intelligence, was the architect of this Afghan Distraction. Prince Bandar was then the much-feted ambassador in Washington who oiled the American end of the deal. The plan worked out fine, and all the short-term objectives were met. One unintended long-term consequence turned out very badly for all concerned: the emergence of Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda.
Prince Bandar is still stuck in the policy world of the 1980s and 1990s, much like his close friend, the former secretary of state, James Baker, whose Iraq Study Group report was criticized in some quarters as being "old-school" and unconnected with the very changed realities of the Middle East. Whereas Prince Turki — who bore the brunt of internal and global accusations for creating the bin Laden monster — knows better from experience: One should not rush into ambitious mega-plots.
Yet Prince Bandar's plan is proceeding, and its first step is to market the Saudi regime as the defender of the Middle East's Sunnis against a Shiite and Iranian bid to take over the region. But it would be a mistake to think that the Iranians are so delusional as to believe they stand a chance of dominating the world of Islam.
Events in Lebanon and among the Palestinians have disabused the Iranian leadership, even the excitable likes of President Ahmadinejad, of the idea that they could lead the world of Islam by beating up on Israel. The Iranians are finding out, like the early Khomeinist firebrands who were hell-bent on exporting revolution, that they can be easily discredited by their Sunni rivals for who they are: heterodox Muslims. Lebanon's Hassan Nasrallah, who only a few months ago was hailed by Arabs and Muslims as a second Gamal Abdel Nasser during Hezbollah's war with Israel, slammed his turban into a glass ceiling: Sunnis in Lebanon mistrusted him as a power-hungry Shiite when he tried to use his anti-Israel stature to obtain a larger slice of the Lebanese political pie.
Furthermore, Iran realized just how short-lived Arab Sunni favor really is when the Hamas prime minister of the Palestinians, Ismail Haniya, came to Iran asking for support and money and got plenty of both, while refusing to be seen praying alongside Shiites. After giving the Friday sermon in Tehran, Haniya conducted his prayers in private. Haniya could not risk being derided by his Sunni detractors back in Gaza as a sycophant of the Shiites.
Anti-Shiism is a useful tool for the Saudis since it robs the jihadists of one of their main rallying points. And in this, the Saudis can legitimately claim to be hardcore anti-Shiites, even though they've neglected other areas of Wahhabi dogma, such as waging jihad against the West and vanquishing other milder versions of Sunni Islam. Zarqawi did not invent his anti-Shiite ideology. He borrowed heavily from material produced, financed, and propagated by the official Saudi hate-speech industry.
So it was no surprise that 38 leading Saudi clerics issued a proclamation on December 7 inciting Sunnis against Shiites in Iraq, which was followed by a fatwa dated December 17 by the leading Wahhabi religious authority alive, Sheikh Abdel-Rahman bin Nassir al-Barrak, that essentially brands all Shiites, including lay persons, as legitimate targets for Sunni hostility since they are "more dangerous" to Islam "than the Jews and the Christians." The Saudi royal family is stealing a march on the jihadists while simultaneously making itself useful for the new jihadist agenda.
A chastised Iran is surely in America's best interest and the world's too, but it should not come at the cost of sectarian bloodshed in Iraq and Lebanon. President Bush wants to enhance regional stability by promoting enlightenment and civil peace, whereas the Saudis want to protect their rule by propagating xenophobia.
Iran must be contained, and Iraq must be made to work. Accepting Prince Bandar's tactics may temporarily beat back the Iranians, but will fuel the sectarian fire in Iraq. America is trying to contain Sunni-Shiite tension in Iraq, while the Saudi-protected Wahhabi establishment spews an unending stream of hate and incitement. Saudi help in this matter isn't helpful. Prince Bandar's quick-fix should be dismissed.
Mr. Kazimi can be reached at [email protected]