In January, I was interviewed by the conservative Iranian publication Javan about the shifting balance of power in the Levant and Persian Gulf. We looked at Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Russia and the many moving parts of US foreign policy. The interview was published today, one month later, in Farsi here.
I must note that Javan edited my response to one part of the interview, which is why I am publishing the full version in English here (western media edits, in my personal experience, are far more brutal). A big thank you from me to Ali Etemadi for the opportunity to be heard in major Iranian media. [S.N]
Q: How are regional geopolitical shifts developing in the areas of competition between Iran and Saudi Arabia? What are the arenas in which Iran and Saudi Arabia have a competition?
SN: Nations generally compete in the areas of economy, geopolitical influence, military strength and the ability to project their power. As such, I don’t really see much of an apples-to-apples comparison between Iran and Saudi Arabia – at least, not in terms of real and self-realized capabilities. Both states are rich in energy resources and have used this rentier wealth to advance their national goals, albeit with vastly differing results. Iran’s economy is focused on diversification away from the energy sector, developing self-sufficiencies and becoming a net exporter – Saudi Arabia is import-focused. Iran spends $15 billion per annum on its military – compared to Saudi’s $80 billion – yet has one of the most competent military forces in the region and builds its own hardware. The Iranian political system is constitution-based, diverse, and representative, with loudly competing political blocs that come with their own media and constituencies. The Saudi monarchy is based entirely on the rule of one family, with no meaningful elections or contesting political bodies, and little freedom of expression in the media. In terms of power projection, Iran favors the soft power tools of diplomacy, trade, and alliance-building based on common worldviews/objectives, whereas the Saudis have expanded their influence far and wide by funding the introduction of Wahhabi doctrine in schools, mosques, media and other institutions globally – and by blatantly buying the loyalty of allies.
Today, we can see clearly how Iran and Saudi Arabia’s nation-building approaches have affected the success of their geopolitical strategies. Both states have experienced existential fears and threats in recent years, and their respective alliances have now confronted each other on a few battlefields. Today, Iran is in ascendency within West Asia whereas even powerful Saudi allies like the United States are questioning the longevity of the Saudi regime and state. Iran has approached the matter of its strategic depth carefully and built alliances with partners that genuinely share the common values of independence, self-determination and resistance against imperialism. The Saudis, on the other hand, have forged their external alliances with hegemony or dominance as the primary objective – irrespective of the divergent interests and values of allies. There really is little contest – one side is going from strength to strength in the region, whilst the other flails about with unreliable alliances, propped up by petrodollars and all the strategic brilliance of a sledgehammer.
Q: Do you think that the last 5 years of developments in Middle East has made a game change in the regional balance of power? If so, which side does it favor?
SN: Absolutely. The so-called ‘Arab Spring’ really hastened the arrival of a seismic shift in the regional balance of power. When they first kicked off, the uprisings were exclusively taking place in Arab states led by western proxy governments. One and all, these were nations where there was little or no connection between populations and their governments. Then suddenly, the uprisings veered toward two unlikely candidates – Libya and Syria. Say what you want about Mummer Gaddhafi and Bashar al-Assad, but they both represented very independent and defiant foreign policy worldviews – ones that resonated heavily with their populations. In that sense, the connection between populace and government was intact – unlike, say, Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, where uprisings were well underway or starting to boil in early 2011.
Regime-change in Libya almost happened too quickly for people to understand what was really going on. But in Syria, as months stretched into years, the two geopolitical blocs in the region – let’s call them the neocolonial (US) and post-colonial (Iran) blocs for now – came into direct and prolonged confrontation. Syria became an existential fight for elements of both blocs, which drew in two great powers, Russia and China, that had until now stood on the sidelines of Mideast power struggles. This is when the game changed entirely. Not only did Russia and China put their arms around the Resistance Axis in the region, but that action in itself moved us from a unipolar world into a multilateral one. It broke the hold the United States had enjoyed since the end of the Cold War on the global community, it removed the ability for the US to use the UN Security Council as a rubber stamp for its military adventurism, it created an opening for a new international political and economic order in which middle states could carve out new directions.
Of course the Middle East balance of power shifted alongside these global developments. We are by no means out of the woods yet, and the old order still dominates somewhat, but just a few years ago we could not have imagined that the US would bypass its traditional allies Israel and Saudi Arabia to avidly pursue a nuclear agreement with Iran that would propel the Islamic Republic to the big table, where it is now being relied on as the one rational, stable player in the region that can put out the most dangerous fires. Could you even write that script five years ago?
Q: Some Iranians believe that despite the advantages in the field, Iran doesn’t use all its capacities in the areas of media war and public opinion? What’s your point of view about that?
SN: For all the talk about Iranian ‘propaganda’ in the west, Iran is really dreadful at this. The word ‘propaganda’ has taken on very negative connotations – mostly because governments lie so much – but all it really means is the dissemination of information from a particular viewpoint to shape understanding in order to achieve consensus. Clearly, over the past few decades, Iran has failed to propagate its value propositions successfully, as it has been vilified globally, with little or no understanding of the state’s actual intentions. Iran’s adversaries do the propaganda thing very, very well, and it is a real failing of the Islamic Republic that it does not understand the absolute importance of savvy communications as a cornerstone of its national security strategies. In the west, they not only understand the value of communications, they employ it aggressively in the form of ‘information warfare.’ All their recent military interventions begin first with ‘scene-setting’ that prepares and grooms the public into accepting – and even supporting – whatever battle lies ahead.
I would like to see Iranians and Arabs begin to invest in public diplomacy more proactively, but not just to emulate what the west does. Part of the Iranian problem is that they are active participants in the West’s ‘discourse’ about this region – Iranians are the ‘rejectionists’ in that discourse, and they actually strengthen it by ‘rejecting’ it. The Resistance Axis and its allies need to begin afresh by developing homegrown narratives that reflect their own political, economic and social priorities. Don’t participate in the west’s telling of OUR story – let’s construct our own. The west will immediately reject our goals, our vision, our version of the narrative – for a change, they will become the ‘rejectionists’ in our game. In this region, we need to take control over our own narratives before someone else comes in to fill that void. This needs to be a national security priority – not an afterthought by a communication staff member.
Q: Do you think Saudi Arabia’s aggressive actions against Iran are in coordination with the United States? Or do you think, as some believe, Riyadh is acting on its own without Washington’s consent?
SN: The Saudis and Americans have been in business together for decades because they share an interest in dominating this region – and as different as they are, they have struck a bargain not to get mired in these differences. Riyadh has acted as a convenient regional fig leaf and cheerleader for US objectives throughout the Middle East, and since Afghanistan, has provided the Americans with money and foot soldiers to wage its wars in this region. But we did start seeing some divergences in interests around 2012 in Syria. The quick ‘Libya model’ of intervention in Arab uprisings wasn’t taking hold in Syria, and the Saudis, under the direction of the newly-rehabilitated Prince Bandar bin Sultan, launched an escalation of political violence that threatened to spill well beyond Syria’s borders. The US, which happily used this kind of Saudi-backed violence in Afghanistan and Iraq, suddenly became wary of uncontrolled chaos on Israel’s borders, and so it began looking for an exit of sorts. Which is when the Obama administration secretly reached out to the Ahmadinejad government and waved a series of incentives to jump-start nuclear talks in earnest.
I think the United States is not uniform in its thinking about the Middle East – there are multiple centers of influence in Washington alone. I also think the US – unlike its European counterparts – is far enough away from this region that it can afford to play multiple strategies at once. Yes, the American interests have diverged from the Saudis, but there is still a big field in which the two can and will play. They are at one on the issues of Israel, regional hegemony, containing Iranian influence, trading in weaponry, destroying the Resistance, and so forth. But these are not necessarily existential things for the Americans – while they have become so for the Saudis. So, on Yemen, for instance, let’s imagine for a moment that the Obama administration was not so keen about Riyadh’s military intervention. But on the other hand, this would be an opportunity to sell more weapons, gain another ‘card’ against the Iranians in Syria, heighten Shia-Sunni tensions throughout the region, etc. Washington doesn’t think too hard about the dangers of playing two games at once. They seek advantages and they ‘manage’ conflict – there’s no real urgency to actually resolve the problems as long as they can be ‘contained.’ But now there is too much conflict in too many places and they can see their Saudi ally is over-extended and unable to achieve its goals. They understand too that Riyadh – in it zealousness – could not only blow up the whole region, but could also disintegrate in that heat, which would take out a major US ally and create disastrous consequences for all its proxy monarchies in the region.
I suspect we will continue to see a divergence in interests between the two allies, although we have not really yet seen it become publicly contentious yet. Behind the scenes, I am certain that the Saudis are taking actions which make the Americans uncomfortable. I also suspect that the Americans are wary about drawing too many red lines for Saudi behaviors as this may trigger even worse actions from an increasingly unhinged Riyadh. For sure it is a very delicate time between the two allies right now.
Q: Despite the fact that western officials (Germany’s Federal Intelligence Service) confessed about Saudi Arabia’s destabilizing foreign policy, it seems the west is still deliberately ignoring the fact and supporting Saudi Arabia. To what extent is the West prepared to cover for the Saudis?
SN: It doesn’t really help that the Saudis have become this belligerent at the same time western economies have stagnated. Even if the US – or the UK and France, for the matter – decided to try to rein in Saudi actions, would they do so at the expense of ‘economy?’ The Saudi defense budget is straining toward a robust $100 billion per year – will the west ignore that in favor of ‘principle?’ These countries have demonstrated that they choose interests over values every time, and I don’t think that will change today.
But the expansion of the jihadist and extremist threat has become a huge problem at the same time as the west is facing down multiple crippling issues of economy, refugees, potential EU disintegration, loss of popular legitimacy, etc. I do think they will draw a line on Saudi actions at some point. It may be a sly, calculated line, however. Look at Syria today, for instance – Washington has basically handed the Syrian ‘solution’ over to the Russians and Iranians. The nuclear deal helped with that. It allowed for the US and Iran to operate in the same military theaters (Syria and Iraq) without the danger of being goaded into a direct confrontation by Israel and Saudi Arabia. Look how quiet the US has been about the massive Syrian-Russian-Iranian gains against militants in the past few months. Meanwhile, Washington’s coalition launches only a handful of airstrikes and pretends it is still active in that military theater. This is perhaps how the US will extricate itself from complications in the region without facing any confrontations with their Saudi ally – or losing out on some much-needed petrodollars. They can have their cake and eat it too.
Q: One of the most important developments in Syria is the direct participation of Russia in coordination with Iran. To what extent has the alliance of Tehran and Moscow been able to achieve its objectives? What challenges does this alliance face?
SN: Despite the fact that the Russians and Iranians have both been on the receiving end of US hostilities, it really has been the Syrian crisis that has brought the two countries together in a constructive way. From what we hear, they have been working closely at the highest levels in Syria’s military command centers, and are instrumental in developing the ground strategies there. It is expected that the synergies learned in the field will translate into common objectives elsewhere: the development of a new multipolar order, oil and gas policy, pipelines and economy, defense cooperation, establishment of global institutions under new frameworks, and so forth.
They are clearly able to work efficiently together – Russian airpower has been well-coordinated with the ground efforts of the Syrian army, the Iranians, Hezbollah and other fighting forces to wrest back key territory in the north and west of Syria, now moving into southern fronts too. And all this in just a few short months.
On the political front we are also seeing a growing consensus between Iran and Russia – both countries are in agreement on the inclusion of President Assad in a national unity government, the centrality of elections in determining Syria’s political future, defeating terrorism on the ground, inhibiting the transit of jihadists through the Turkish border, working in tandem with neighboring Lebanon, Iraq and Jordan to stem the extremism, protecting minorities in these areas, halting global financial assistance to terrorists – among other goals. Importantly, during contentious Syria negotiations, Russia and Iran have together managed to hold their ground on these vital issues – in part because they are no longer doing so alone.
A few months ago, these two critical Syrian allies were working on common goals from different corners. Today, we are seeing them work from the same room, in lockstep. I suspect over the course of this year, we are going to see coordination and cooperation improve inside Syria – it will be vital to gain more and more military ground in order to achieve a favorable political settlement, if one is even possible.
Al-Masdar Podcast – A Talk With Sharmine Narwani
In this week’s podcast, Brad Blankenship converses with Sharmine Narwani on the subjects of the Syrian peace talks and the role of the Kurds. Sharmine is a distinguished writer, analyst, and commentator covering the geopolitics of the Middle East.