Do We Really Want a Unipolar Middle East?

As we’ve all been reading tea leaves about whether and when Israel will attack Iran, I’ve come to suspect we’re ignoring an equally important story. That is, to what degree is our post-Arab Spring policy in the Middle East serving Saudi Arabia’s purposes of aiming to obliterate the Shia–Iranian–pole of influence and not just our typical responsiveness to Israeli demands? And to what degree is that a catastrophic mistake of a magnitude equal to our mistake in invading Iraq (and to what degree is the plan an effort to recover from our loss in Iraq)?

I hope to raise this question more fully in a series of posts, but first some caveats and hypotheses. First, the caveats. I’m obviously not an expert in this field. I speak none of the languages in question. I think current events in the Middle East are more obscure than even they normally are. And I’m not sure my hypotheses are right. For all those reasons, I readily welcome being told I’m an idiot on this front by those with more expertise.

My hypotheses? Dick Cheney invaded Iraq as a middle term strategy to sustain US hegemony as the world transitions into peak oil. The strategy failed, miserably. On top of that failure, we’re faced with the crumbling of our old strategy in the wake of the Arab Spring. As a result, we’re pursuing (either deliberately or through lack of reflection) a strategy of making the Sunni pole–Saudi Arabia–even more powerful. And yet we’re doing this, bizarrely, at the same time we claim to be fighting a war against mostly Sunni terrorism. As such, the strategy seems as stupid as–and in many ways a repeat of–withdrawing troops from Afghanistan to fight in Iraq.

My thoughts on this have really solidified as I read two Bruce Riedel pieces–this recent column and one from last August. The recent one is so breathtakingly logically faulty as to merit mapping out Riedel’s argument–that Iran and Al Qaeda are likely to ally for an attack this summer–closely (note that Riedel’s argument is a response to Israeli spin in European papers about the Iranian threat).

  • Al Qaeda and Hezbollah had contacts prior to 9/11 and some of the hijackers took advantage of known Iranian documentation practices of not stamping passports to co-transit Iran
  • Al Qaeda terrorists we claim have cooperated fully have insisted there was no operational relationship between Iran and al Qaeda
  • Al Qaeda has frequently targeted Shiites
  • Al Qaeda has recently backed Syrian rebels while Iran has always been a key Bashar al-Assad backer


So despite their animosity, al Qaeda, Iran, and Hizbullah can probably also find new places to quietly cooperate, if only passively.


In short, al Qaeda and Iran still hate each other, but they could find common cause to fight America and Britain. [my emphasis]

Having made a solid argument that al Qaeda and Iran won’t cooperate, but then used that argument to conclude they might, he goes on to explain how they might do so.

  • Iran will try to retaliate for Israeli and US pressure on it
  • Al Qaeda might turn to Iran as its next safe haven

So Riedel presents an astoundingly illogical argument (Iran and Al Qaeda really haven’t cooperated and they hate each other and therefore they might). He then says Iran wants to retaliate (he doesn’t even mention al Qaeda in that paragraph), yet neglects to mention that even in its purported attempts to retaliate (the Scary Iran Plot and the recent magnet bombs), the plots have been characterized by incompetence rather than the professionalism of Hezbollah. And he says al Qaeda might turn to Iran as its next safe haven, even though we know it has turned to Yemen and Somalia and other locations in Africa.

But the nuttiest part of this Riedel column is the way he clearly maps Iran and Al Qaeda on separate sides of the next interim conflict, Syria, but then says that’s a sign they’ll cooperate.

Now consider Riedel’s column from last August, when he apparently still adhered to basic rules of logic.

After months of protests and regime violence, King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, one of the last absolute monarchs in the world, has called on Syria’s embattled president, Bashar al-Assad, to stop the “killing machine” repressing his own people and accept at least some of the demands of Syrians calling for an end to Assad’s decade old dictatorship.


The Saudis sense a strategic opportunity has opened in Syria, a unique chance to deal a mortal blow to one of their enemies, the Shia terror group Hezbollah, and a serious blow to their regional adversary Iran. Since Israel’s foolish invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Syrian regime of Hafez and Bashar Assad has been Iran’s key partner in creating Hezbollah, arming it to the teeth with thousands of rockets and missiles and sending it to create terror throughout the region.


Riyadh worries that Assad will be replaced by chaos, but it has now come to the conclusion the risk is worth the price. If the Assad regime is destroyed, so too will Syrian support for Hezbollah be destroyed. If a new regime emerges that reflects the will of Syria’s majority-Sunni population, it can become a base for destabilizing the Hezbollah-dominated government in Beirut. The power balance in the Levant could be tilted decisively against Hezbollah and undercut Iranian regional influence.

Back in August, Riedel very clearly laid out how the Saudis believed an overthrow of Assad would strengthen their power. But now that Al Qaeda has explicitly backed Syrian rebels, Riedel somehow sees a potential Iranian-Al Qaeda alliance in the offing.

All of which amounts to the same kind of argument Dick Cheney made to justify the Iraq War: he made unsupported claims that Iraq had ties to al Qaeda’s terrorism (going so far as to have another Middle Eastern ally, Egypt, torture al Qaeda affiliate Ibn Sheikh al-Libi so as to invent such ties). All the while ignoring that if any nation-state (aside from Taliban-led Afghanistan) backed al Qaeda, it was Saudi Arabia (and Saudi Arabia remains the biggest source of (private) financing for Sunni terrorists).

So now, for all the very good reasons to oppose Assad and want him gone, we’re back on the same side as the Saudis and the terrorists, even while trying to establish the case that in spite of the evidence to the contrary al Qaeda and Iran have become one.

Thus far, it looks to be a thoroughly successful attempt not just to project certain risks on Iran, but also to distract from the much greater terrorist and proliferation risk from Saudi Arabia and its ally Pakistan.

25 replies
  1. jerryy says:

    disclaimer: I am not an expert either.

    The Saudi pole of influence is a very very ‘conservative’ branch of Islam (like other religions, there are quite a few branches) the Saudi thinking is similar to the very very conservative religious groups politically active here in the US — they are in a position to make their view dominant.

    Drop a note to Juan Cole, he does a lot in this area and maybe can give you a quick explanation of the distinctions. The Saudi folks are not big fans of Rumi.

  2. Petrocelli says:

    Cheney’s strategy failed, according to some but was a resounding success as far as his real intentions.

    These actions are to weaken AQ in the region, so that the Taliban will sign on to a peace deal and share the profit$ of Afghanistan vast resources without fear of AQ usurping that power.

  3. emptywheel says:

    @Petrocelli: I’m talking Iraq, not Afghanistan.

    Iraq pointedly left the US out of bidding on oil contracts of late. It is pushing us and our 10,000 person Embassy to the side, in favor of Iranian influence.

    And China has been picking up contracts in Afghanistan.

    If this is about mineral wealth (and that was part of, but only part of my argument), then it’s a failure.

  4. DonS says:

    The anti-Iran trajectory of Israel and Saudi Arabia has seemed to breed some apparent incongruities — if one takes Israel’s virtual demand for hegemony in the region at face value. The US has obviously backed and armed both despite incongruities — so at a minimum you know the US shadow government is up to it’s ears involved. Beyond that, postulating any old bizarre theory that doesn’t pass the logic test seems to be quite ok from the point of view of the MSM who file it all under “gotta get the terrists and bad Arabs and protect Israel yadda yadda”. The aim, after all, is endless war. I say that with only partial cynicism.

    I used to look to Steve Clemons to elaborate on these things, though he often has a infuriating sense of caution that seems aimed at protecting his insider status. These days, however, he seems less and less interested in being a point person for such analysis.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @DonS: Agree–those incongruities are one of the things I was trying to get at. We’re focused primarily on the Israeli side of things, but I’m not sure the Saudis aren’t playing their cards better than the Israelis.

  6. Bob Schacht says:

    The Saudi may be Sunni, but they’re Wahhabi Sunni. The Wahhabi are a particularly conservative type of Sunni. I’m not sure what difference that makes, but it does matter.

    Remember also that the Saudi are Keepers of Mecca, and play host to the annual Hajj. Once one has made the pilgrimage, you earn the right to be addressed as “Hajji” for the rest of your life.

    So, for these reasons, the Saudi are not likely to think well of hot-heads, whether Sunni or Shi’a. And they are likely worried about instability in Syria more than who comes out on top. Syria is heading towards a protracted civil war right now, and that must worry the Saudi princes.

    Bob in AZ

  7. MHChesnut says:

    I’m less of an expert in the Middle East than you, ew, but I agree that the Sunni/Shiite power struggle is pertinent, and may even be integral, to what’s happening now with the not-so-subtle ramp-up to overt military action against Iran.

    What role/roles do you think Yemen, Egypt, and the UAE might play in this scenario (if any), down the road a bit? And what about Iraq a year from now? It seems abundantly clear to me, despite the administration’s professed dedication to the sanctions/diplomacy masquerade, that it’s just a matter of time before overt military action against Iran occurs. In that context, what are the limits on the Obama Administration’s ability to pressure Afghanistan and/or Pakistan to come to some kind of detente, in the interest of preventing a (overt or covert) Pakistani alliance with Iran?

  8. scribe says:

    What of the report in the last week or so that outed an agreement between Pakistan and Saudi, in which the Pakistanis will sell the Saudis nukes in the event the Iranians get one? And that the Pakistanis and Saudis consider themselves “as one”, at least on this issue.

    As if the US was not already acting as the military arm of the Saudi government.

  9. MadDog says:

    All of the good guys are now on the same side against Syria.

    The US.
    The Israelis.
    The Saudis.
    And al Qaeda.

    Wait a minute! And al Qaeda? On the same side as the US?

    I guess we can call off the Global War on Terror now.

    The above was written purely tongue-in-cheek (if you can’t tell), so now I’ll retreat to seriousness in regards to Riedel’s latest farce.

    It is probably obvious to a four year old that Riedel pines for war against Iran regardless of reason or the consequences, and has childishly decided now to conflate any and all US bogeymen with Iran in the hopes that this might scare convince those here in the US with questions about the sanity, much less wisdom, of attacking Iran into somehow ignoring reality, closing their eyes and then helping the Israelis to pull the trigger.

    Will Riedel’s tactics work with some of our citizens? There is certainly a large segment of Americans who will swallow this whole regardless of how it looks, smells or tastes.

    Onward Christian…Jewish…Sunni Muslim Soldiers!

  10. emptywheel says:

    @Bob Schacht: Uh, the reason so many Saudis support AQ is bc of that Wahhabi tradition. That’s part of the problem. As with the ISI/AQ relationship, it certainly used to be (and to some degree still is) unclear where the Wahhabi/AQ ties end. Add in the way the Saudis have long used their intelligence on AQ as a leverage point over the west (using it, for example, to get the Brits to end the investigation into BAE, which after all was ultimately an investigation into Saudi Arabia’s covert op slush fund), and I’m not sure the Saudis aren’t playing a more elaborate game of the kind Ali Abdullah Saleh is playing: using the counterterrorism cooperation to make sure we need them, partly by ensuring it continues to exist.

  11. rugger9 says:

    @emptywheel: #3
    Including some royals with close connections to Shrub. The thing to remember about Iraq is that it is a battleground between Shia [Mookie’s Mahdi Army being chief among the troublemakers], Sunni [including more than a few Baathists] and the Kurds [who are Sunni but don’t like the Arabs very much]. The sectarian stuff has been going on for almost 1400 years [no kidding], and the level of distrust is such that the ONLY way Iran and AQ join forces is in response to an external threat.

    Jerryy’s right about Juan Cole, he does have the most coherent analysis of the region and understands the nuances. Why idiots like Riedel will never be held accountable for the blood they cause to be shed [and Bolton, Condi, Darth, Kristol, Wolfie, Rummy, et al] never ceases to baffle me, except THEY aren’t going to be killed for the oil companies, nor their kids.

  12. emptywheel says:

    @MHChesnut: It looks like we’ve screwed teh pooch w/Yemen (partly w/Saudi help), by backing Saleh to the extent we have (and he was never a good CT partner–recall that Nashiri wanted him to testify so he’d admit how close he was to OBL in 2000). W/Egypt, it seems we were going to tolerate SCAF to continue along the way of Mubarak, at least until they started prosecuting Ray LaHood’s son. And keep in mind some changes w/the Palestinians, which seems a Saudi op, which seems to have been pushed in part bc Mubarak wasn’t there anymore to keep Gaza in check.

  13. emptywheel says:

    @scribe: Right.

    The Saudis were going to get nukes from Pakistan in any case if they ever wanted it. They largely paid for Pakistani nukes the first time around.

  14. rugger9 says:

    @Bob Schacht: #7
    The Wahhabi being conservative means they wish to inflict their “pure” religious thought in all parts of the world, but for now the ME. This is the consequence of having Mecca, and why Shrub pulled the US out of Saudi Arabian bases, cutting and running after the 9/11/01 attacks. OBL’s issue [recall he was our ally against the Soviets in Afghanistan] was the American infidels defiling the land of Mecca and Medina.

    As a Christian fanatic context, think Santorum or the out-of-touch Catholic Bishops.

  15. DonS says:

    Wasn’t Cole an early supporter of the invasion of Iraq?

    Does anyone besides me have the feeling that it’s Bibi who is calling the shots, not Obama? Certainly, if Israel pulls the trigger, can anyone see Obama not falling right in line?

  16. rugger9 says:

    @emptywheel: #13
    Not just Yemen, the entire region, and that is what makes the PRC interest and trade deals so ominous in the long run. The USA is getting wedged out.

    CW there is that the USA was a wholly owned subsidiary of Likud in about every discussion there has been. And, unfortunately the perception these days appears to be accurate, look at the coddling of Bibi against any consequences for his radicalism, violations of treaty obligations, and humanitarian obligations with respect to the UN. There’s also lots of US intervention into UN activity targeting Israel, some justified [i.e. 244 and the Arab attempts to destroy it] and some not really [Palestinian flotillas, particularly the Turkish one, or the “settlements” that violate Oslo].

    You can’t cut deals with people you don’t trust, and the Arab view is that we aren’t trustworthy.

  17. MadDog says:

    Via Elisabeth Bumiller of the NYT:

    “Iran Raid Seen as a Huge Task for Israeli Jets

    Should Israel decide to launch a strike on Iran, its pilots would have to fly more than 1,000 miles across unfriendly airspace, refuel in the air en route, fight off Iran’s air defenses, attack multiple underground sites simultaneously — and use at least 100 planes.

    That is the assessment of American defense officials and military analysts close to the Pentagon, who say that an Israeli attack meant to set back Iran’s nuclear program would be a huge and highly complex operation. They describe it as far different from Israel’s “surgical” strikes on a nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 and Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.

    “All the pundits who talk about ‘Oh, yeah, bomb Iran,’ it ain’t going to be that easy,” said Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, who retired last year as the Air Force’s top intelligence official and who planned the American air campaigns in 2001 in Afghanistan and in the 1991 Gulf War…”

    I suspect that a goodly number of both American and Israeli military folks believe that Israel can’t do all that much damage to Iran and will suffer significant Air Force losses.

    I further suspect that a goodly number of both American and Israeli folks believe that if an Israeli strike does take place, another facet of Israel’s intentions are to goad the Iranians into to striking back at the US, Israel’s primary backer, in order to draw the US into the fight and then have the US do what the Israelis can’t.

    Can you say “used and abused”? I thought you could.

  18. PeasantParty says:

    The Saudi connection is a thought I have had before. However, I think Reidel is banging war drums for US readers. You know that NeoCon plan of terror across the globe and we go get it wherever it may be stuff. AQ in Iran will be the excuse for the US to jump in and fight Isreal’s war of hate.

    This is so much stuff in so many directions at once. Usually, when there is a whole bunch of crap circling in a pot at once the most simple answer to the problem works. Open the drain and let it disappear or flush. I think we are clearing the drain here by bringing the discussion of who and why to light.

  19. GulfCoastPirate says:

    @MadDog: What happens if the US is in contact with the Iranians and lets them know that if there is no attack on the US then the US doesn’t get involved in any dispute between Israel and Iran?

    What’s everyone’s best guess on the ramifications of an Israeli attack on Iran? If the NYT article is true and the Israelis can’t do that much damage Iran’s best move may be to do nothing other than the obligatory self defense during the attack. Israel would be shown to be much weaker than their behavior would suggest. Does this failure force Obama to intercede to restore Isreal’s status as the regional bully?

  20. DonS says:

    In the real world:

    Israel starts the fight, regardless of whether it can finish it.

    The US intervenes, regardless of whether Iran poses a threat to the US or actually commits some aggression (e.g., on US interests, say in Iraq). The US will gin up some phony reason, some false flag attack, some ‘moral commitment’; some WMD-like lie.

    If Israel attacks before the US election, the above scenario is a done deal. If after, it’s still a high likelihood, with Congress forcing the issue if needed.

    One cannot note all the Iran-demonizing media hype in the US without seeing the obvious trajectory. Iran’s actual inability to pose a conventional threat of retaliation, and certainly not a nuclear one, is irrelevant to the hysteria mongers.

    Fareed Zzcharia makes a pretty good case debunking Israel’s cry of uniqueness and existential fear of nuclear attack, comparing it to the US-Soviet tension in the 50’s:

  21. Bob Schacht says:


    I further suspect that a goodly number of both American and Israeli folks believe that if an Israeli strike does take place, another facet of Israel’s intentions are to goad the Iranians into to striking back at the US, Israel’s primary backer, in order to draw the US into the fight and then have the US do what the Israelis can’t.

    I figure that Israel doesn’t think it needs 100 attack planes to do the job. About a dozen should be enough to mess things up enough, not to goad Iran into striking back at the US, but to draw us into the fight. All it would take is one Iranian missile landing in Israel. Israel knows that we’re in an election year, and the Republicans are all (except for Ron Paul) eager to start a new war against Iran, and are itching to campaign against Obama as “soft on Iran.” Are we into a new version of Wag the Dog? Different plot, though, as in this case it would not be Obama ponying up an unnecessary war, but Israel and the Republicans forcing him to do it.

    Bob in AZ

  22. jo6pac says:

    Wasn’t Cole an early supporter of the invasion of Iraq?

    Yes and a few other wars please remember he also meets with the cia. He is better than little tommy friedman of the flat earth clan. There are plenty of other that live there and I’ll try and post them later today or send the list EW

  23. DonS says:


    I know you didn’t ask me but your hypothetical –“What happens if the US is in contact with the Iranians and lets them know that if there is no attack on the US then the US doesn’t get involved in any dispute between Israel and Iran? — reveals a quest that is understandable. My thought is 1) that train left the station a long time ago. US fingerprints are de facto all over Israeli belligerence, from arming them, to explicit and tacit diplomatic support. 2) reverse the scenario and ask yourself if it’s credible: i.e., the US, or Israel, sustains an unprovoked military attack and we expect an a priori behind the scenes deal not to retaliate to control the fall out. Not likely from either internal Iranian political pressures pov, nor in terms of external perceptions of Iran’s resolve by the rest of the world.

    Your hyothetical of course precedes that we live in a world where the US and Israel pretty much control their own destiny and can shape geostrategic events any way they choose. That used to be the case moreso than it is today, but where things really get patheic is realizing the extent to which Israeli strategy seems to have almost a direct hand on the trigger of leveraging US power. Look at the number of Israelis, dual citizens and sympathizers of Israel who have participated in Israel’s military and diplomatic apparatus, and have intimate connections on the Hill and in the WH: both repub and dem. Not to even mention AIPAC.

    It’s no coincidence. The NYT story citing (that belligerent fool) Robb’s recommending the US expedite super bunker busters in the same breath as he tries to pretend it’s not a direct path to attack gives a real flavor to what US intentions and actions are. We get our way in the world largely because we have the biggest stick, not because we are respected as fair and peaceful, IMO.

    Finally, though not directly related to your question, I laugh at how Bumiller, or the headline writer, uses the word “Task” to describe a putative, unrpvoked Israeli air campaign. How very sterile and technical. Not at all like war, with blood, innocents, ‘collateral damage’, etc. Only the bad guys cause wars that are actually messy and wreak unimaginable damage.

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