Has Riyadh Officially Called an End to Its Kabuki Dance with Iran?

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman

On occasion, monumental events occur in history resonating globally. When they happen, historians—to signify their importance—call them “shots heard ‘round the world.”

Just such shot occurred July 9th but failed to attract the attention of a world too easily distracted.

Ever since Prophet Muhammad’s death, Muslims have been divided along sectarian lines—Sunni versus Shiite. Each views the other, not as fellow Muslims, but apostates failing to adhere to true Islam.

Today, both sects boast their own champions—for the Sunnis, it is Saudi Arabia; for the vastly outnumbered (nine-to-one) Shiites, Iran.

For most the 20th century, sectarian differences were put aside to focus on a common enemy—Israel. This quickly changed in 1979 when President Jimmy Carter helped establish the first Islamic state—Iran. Its mullahs sought to establish a regional Shia caliphate.

While relations between Riyadh and Tehran have since deteriorated, a “stealth kabuki dance” allowed sectarian interests to be pressed by proxies. The dance has had highs (Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 visit to Riyadh) and lows (Iran’s 2011 plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador to the U.S.).

A constant factor keeping these two betta fish at bay has been Riyadh’s strong U.S. alliance. It influenced the level of Tehran’s aggression.

Since coming to power, the mullahs have been playing Shia monopoly, winning “properties” in the Middle East to spread influence regionally. Its monopoly board claims include Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, with efforts to spread its influence as well in Libya, Yemen, Palestinian territories and Bahrain.

The Saudi-U.S. shadow has always remained a source of concern for the mullahs. Thus, the key to neutralizing Riyadh has turned on testing the alliance’s strength. Every American president since 1979 has kept it strong — except Barack Obama. As Obama put distance between Washington and Riyadh, Tehran moved expeditiously to further isolate Saudi influence.

The mullahs, further inspired by negotiating a nuclear deal with Washington weighted in their favor, found—for the first time—Riyadh falling outside America’s protective umbrella.

As the U.S.-Saudi alliance weakened, Iran became more aggressive. While this aggression in places such as Yemen has led to both Saudi and Iranian casualties, the diplomatic kabuki dance continued.

The dance appeared to end abruptly on July 9.

It occurred in a town just north of Paris at an anti-mullah conference held by an Iranian opposition group—the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI). The group has hosted such conferences annually for years to promote regime change in Tehran.

While some controversy surrounds NCRI, it seems to have abandoned its once questionable past tactics to establish legitimacy for itself.

Accordingly, a wide-range of international representation attended. U.S. attendees included former bipartisan political and military leaders.

But the event’s stellar moment came in former Saudi Ambassador to the U.S., Prince Turki Al-Faisal’s speech.

Over 100,000 attendees became euphoric as Turki spoke. Saudi diplomats normally craft messages very carefully—but Turki proved unusually blunt. He stunned the audience saying his government supported Iranian regime change—a “fight… (that) will reach its goal sooner or later.” In essence, Riyadh was issuing a tacit declaration of war against Tehran!

Turki was not alone in his declaration. Twelve other Arab country representatives voiced similar sentiments.

Interestingly, the Iranians—who for eight years, initially cautiously but lately more blatantly, have challenged America’s power in the region—exhibited uncharacteristic silence.

We will have to see whether, during the months ahead, the mullahs seek to continue the dance. Undoubtedly, they want to see if Saudi Arabia was simply engaging in a cheerleading role for NCRI or was actually seeking to become team coach with such a declaration.

Recognizing the Islamic extremist ideology it helped fund for decades has now come back to bite and the U.S. protective umbrella is being withdrawn, Riyadh has hustled to establish a regional alliance—a coalition of 34, mostly Muslim, nations. While the initial motivation may have been Sunni extremist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, the coalition’s unity also recognizes the increasing threat of a soon-to-be nuclear-armed Iran.

This threat is serious enough the coalition may now even have its own nuclear capability. Riyadh has long had an agreement in place with Pakistan to provide it with nukes should the geopolitical situation justify it. In the wake of Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran which paves the way for Tehran to have its own weapons legally in ten years or illegally sooner, it may well be Saudi Arabia has already accepted delivery of Pakistani nukes.

Interestingly, Obama—first taking office in time to receive an unearned Nobel Peace Prize while vowing to create a nuclear free world—has only increased the danger of nuclear war.

For seven decades, the U.S.-Saudi partnership maintained stability in the Middle East. As Obama foolishly disengaged from that strong alliance, the mullahs began filling the vacuum. They have done so, fueling conflict after conflict in the region. Initially, keeping a low profile, it used proxies. However, sensing a lack of U.S. resolve, Tehran now brazenly commits its own forces to the battlefields of its perceived “future” caliphate.

Fear can create strange bedfellows. The 20th century enemy of all Arab states in the region, Israel, is sharing intelligence and technology with Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Fear also has coalition members realizing a commitment of ground forces against ISIS and Iran’s proxies may ultimately become necessary.

With Obama abdicating our role as a U.S.-Saudi allied force stabilizer in the Middle East, it will become incumbent upon the Saudis to make good on their declaration to the NCRI. They not only will have to coach the effort, they may also have to field part of the coalition team to turn back ISIS and Iranian advances.

It will be up to our next president to re-establish stability out of the turmoil Obama has wrought in the Middle East. That will be a tall order—and one not likely achieved before thousands more lives have been lost.

Lt. Colonel James G. Zumwalt, USMC (Ret.), is a retired Marine infantry officer who served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf war. He is the author of “Bare Feet, Iron Will–Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam’s Battlefields,” “Living the Juche Lie: North Korea’s Kim Dynasty” and “Doomsday: Iran–The Clock is Ticking.” He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.


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