Given the millennium old hostility between the Arabs and the Persians, deep mutual suspicion and antagonism between Saudi Arabia and Iran is viewed as fairly routine in world capitals; a poignant confirmation of which was the WikiLeaks disclosure of the Saudi rulers urging the US to “cut off the head of the snake”!
Even when both countries were close allies of the United States, their deep mutual mistrust could hardly be camouflaged by their common dependence on the US security umbrella. But it was of course, the Islamic Revolution, which not only shattered America’s carefully crafted strategic fabric for the area, but transformed its ‘regional policeman’ into its sworn enemy.
But nothing could have prepared anyone for recent US claims of an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador in Washington. Even by the standards of weird behaviour common to many intelligence agencies, the American accusation appears not in keeping with Tehran’s track record. That the Iranians would hire an American-Iranian used-car salesman and a Mexican drug cartel member to carry out this bizarre plot, raises a host of questions. Admittedly, Tehran’s pronouncements have occasionally sounded strange, but its leaders have demonstrated great pragmatism and realism, as evident from their reaction to the American invasion of Iraq and earlier to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
Its timing too, has led experts and even retired intelligence officials to stress that having weathered the worst pressures from the US, especially on its nuclear programme, why would Iran provide the US former with an excuse to ratchet up pressure on her? Recent developments in the region, especially Iran’s increased influence in Iraq and Lebanon, while bastions of Sunni power such as Egypt and Bahrain are confronted by increasing domestic turmoil, make such a plot inexplicable. Some, however, have pointed out that US, Israeli and Saudi efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear programme (including reported Saudi involvement in the Iranian nuclear scientist Shahram Amiri’s defection to the US in 2009) may have prompted elements in Iran’s intelligence agencies to approve this rogue operation. Nevertheless, as the American scholar, Valy Nasr commented: “It is a high risk, low yield manoeuvre and doing it on US soil would be even more baffling”. Even CIA veteran, Ray Cline, was constrained to warn that “whoever concocted this tale wanted to precipitate a major crisis between Iran and the US”, and then asked “which government in the Middle East would like to see those relations take a big step towards military confrontation”.
What is, however, worrying is the manner in which US leaders, including Vice President Joe Biden and even President Barack Obama have stepped in to pronounce on a matter which is still in the early stages of investigation. Biden’s warning of “serious consequences”, Obama calling the plot “a flagrant violation” of international law and US legislators declaring it an “an act of war” not only against Saudi Arabia but against Israel, have set alarm bells ringing.
Regrettably, it appears that we may be witnessing the most dramatic escalation in tension between the US and Iran in years. In such a situation, it is incumbent on countries that wish to see peace in the region, to counsel restrain on all sides. Unless they agree to take immediate measures to de-escalate, they could be locking themselves in untenable positions from where a pull-back may appear much too humiliating. One can only hope that President Obama demonstrates leadership qualities — admittedly in short supply — and is not swayed by either re-election considerations or pressures of the neocons, to re-enact the sordid drama played in the UN Security Council when Secretary Collin Powell was literally duped into claiming that the US had irrefutable evidence of Iraq’s nuclear weapon programme, which was later used by the Bush Administration as the casus belli to launch an armed invasion of Iraq. Are we seeing the opening scenes of a similar horror movie?
Published in The Express Tribune, October 19th, 2011.
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