Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course
Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course

Can Saudi Arabia Reform Itself?

The Saudi regime faces one of the more difficult phases in its history. Fearful of change, accustomed to a system in which it holds enormous power and privileges, the ruling family may consider any serious reform a risk not worth taking.

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Executive Summary

The Saudi regime faces one of the more difficult phases in its history. Fearful of change, accustomed to a system in which it holds enormous power and privileges, the ruling family may consider any serious reform a risk not worth taking. The irony is that a program of change offers the most likely path to stability, and the greatest risk would come from doing nothing at all.

The Saudi regime's U.S. ally is angry at its perceived complacency with Islamic extremism while its domestic constituency increasingly resents its perceived subservience to Washington. It needs to address internal and external pressures for reform without alienating the conservative religious leadership on which its legitimacy depends. Severe socio-economic problems include rising unemployment and poverty in a context of galloping population growth. And all this before the country awoke to the emergence of an armed, militant group within its borders that has unleashed a wave of violence intended to shatter confidence in the regime, its economic prosperity, and its stability.

Under such trying circumstances, the regime might conclude that the safest approach is to crack down on the more violent militants while essentially clinging to the political status quo. Security forces have had some success, arresting hundreds of suspected extremists, killing many others including the presumed leader of al-Qaeda in the Kingdom, and confiscating weapons and bomb-making material. Most citizens -- even those opposed to the regime -- appear repulsed by the militants' methods. The regime is not on the brink of collapse or the country on the verge of civil war. In this context, the argument that a political opening unnecessarily risks giving voice and influence to extremist forces is appealing. However, adoption of such a conservative approach would ultimately be a self-defeating strategy.

The rise of radical Islamism in Saudi Arabia has many and complex causes -- most recently including the U.S. posture in the region, epitomised by the invasion of Iraq and neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- but the closed nature of the political system and skewed resource distribution certainly count among them. The militants, in other words, did not appear in a vacuum. Their roots are deep in Saudi history and an environment that has stifled pluralism, prevented the organisation of social and political interests and nurtured intolerance. That the groups engaged in terrorist violence have little interest in free elections or greater political participation for Saudi citizens is self-evident. But just as surely they capitalise on the erosion of regime legitimacy to recruit new volunteers.

There have been some initial encouraging signs that at least part of the royal family understands this. Since the 11 September 2001 attacks in the U.S., in which Saudi militants were heavily involved, an intense internal debate has been underway. An informal reform lobby of liberals, progressive Islamists, nationalists, and Shiites has begun to press for change, offering a vision that is a non-violent alternative, consistent with Islam, home grown and respectful of the al-Saud's unifying role. In response, the government has acknowledged the need for political, social and educational reform and begun grappling with what that would entail. By sponsoring National Dialogue sessions, promising partial local elections, easing (though far from lifting) press censorship, and establishing a committee to review school curricula, the regime apparently signalled openness to at least some reform. So far, however, this has principally been in words. In addition, while asserting determination to reform, the regime has arrested and harassed reformers, limited public debate and blocked initiatives it does not control.

Notably, the political reform agenda -- initially triggered in some degree by the growing threat of extremism -- appears to have been at least temporarily set aside since that threat took on a violent form. This is short-sighted. Security measures to curb extremist militancy are the first line of defence, but dealing with longer-term challenges and keeping violent opposition marginal requires repair to a legitimacy that has been severely battered by the closed and arbitrary nature of the political system, the concentrated power and wealth of the royal family, and the record of financial corruption and profligacy of many of its members. This necessitates broadening public space, giving more citizens a voice and a stake in the system, allowing them to organise freely, strengthening political institutions such as the Majlis al-Shura, creating a sense of accountability and cracking down on corruption. The recent violent attacks ought not be used as a pretext to deviate from reform but as an imperative reason to accelerate it.

Reform will not come easily or without risk. Saudi Arabia is a highly conservative society where religion plays a central role in framing political discourse for rulers and opponents alike and is a potent tool of legitimisation. As they fight an Islamist insurgency led by al-Qaeda, which seeks to discredit them on the same religious grounds from which they draw their legitimacy, the al-Saud cannot afford to alienate traditional allies in the religious establishment. Nor can they carelessly tread on the sensibilities of the popular independent preachers who criticise them for their alliance with the U.S. and corruption, but oppose the jihadi groups attacking the Kingdom. The challenge is to marginalise the violent forces without alienating the broader conservative constituency. Some reforms -- curbs on the power of Wahhabi clerics, major changes in the status of women -- most urgently desired by the West are least likely to be carried out soon. This is largely a problem of the regime's own making, the product of decades of accommodation to ultra-conservative views in the educational and social spheres. But to insist that it rapidly unmake it would underestimate how extensively a puritanical brand of Islam has permeated society.

The broader question is whether the Saudi regime and an ageing leadership facing the issue of succession are capable of the necessary vision, let alone implementing it.

Cairo/Brussels, 14 July 2004

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln (CVN 72) breaks away from the fast combat support ship USNS Arctic (T-AOE 8) after an underway replenishment-at-sea in the Mediterranean Sea in this 29 April 2019. U.S. Navy. U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Garrett LaBarge

Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course

A series of escalations in both word and deed have raised fears of U.S.-Iranian military confrontation, either direct or by proxy. It is urgent that cooler heads prevail – in European capitals as in Tehran and Washington – to head off the threat of a disastrous war.

For the past year, relations between the U.S. and Iran have brought to mind a slow-motion train wreck. Of late, the pace has dangerously accelerated, and tensions could soon lead to a catastrophic collision. A crash is not inevitable, but it could well occur – deliberately or as a product of miscalculation – unless both parties and outside actors take urgent steps to slow way down or switch to another track.

On 12 May, four oil tankers off the coast of Fujaira, a port in the United Arab Emirates on the Gulf of Oman, were hit by apparent sabotage. Two days later, drones attacked two oil pumping stations along the East-West pipeline in Saudi Arabia between the capital Riyadh and the port city of Yanbu. These two separate events may or may not be linked, may or may not involve Iran, and may or may not provoke a response. But, coming against a backdrop of significant escalation between Washington and Tehran, they represent ominous warning signs.

In the past few weeks, the Trump administration has doubled down on its efforts to strangle Iran’s economy. Not content with having unilaterally withdrawn from the 2015 nuclear deal, it is now pushing to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero. It has designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organisation. It has also started to flex its military muscle by deploying warships, bomber jets and missile defence batteries to the Middle East to counter unspecified “Iranian threats”.

Tehran has not remained passive. It has labelled U.S. forces in the region as terrorists; downgraded its compliance with the nuclear deal, warning of further steps unless the deal’s remaining parties deliver tangible economic benefits; threatened to shut the Strait of Hormuz, a chokepoint for the global oil and gas trade; and pledged to retaliate against any attack upon its assets or interests. Without offering proof, U.S. officials claim that Iran has also given licence to its regional proxies to target U.S. interests, suggesting that such an attack could occur in Iraq or one of the Gulf monarchies allied to Washington. In a worrying move, on 15 May it ordered the departure of non-essential U.S. personnel from Iraq.

Escalation comes easily; de-escalation is a much taller order, especially in the absence of direct channels of communication that can pre-empt misunderstandings or miscalculations.

All this ratcheting-up of tension was entirely predictable, and most of it is entirely provoked by the U.S. With Iran having increasingly less to lose as a result of U.S. sanctions, which are eating away at its already weak economy, it was virtually bound to become less risk-averse in the nuclear realm and more aggressive in the region. For months now, the more hardline elements of the Islamic Republic have been urging the leadership to impose a cost on the U.S. in order to deter it from stepping up sanctions and to show that, if the U.S. could hurt Iran, so too could Tehran wound Washington.

Click here to browse the Iran-U.S. Trigger List, our interactive map and early warning tool tracking flashpoints between the two countries. 

Perhaps these actions are a prelude to negotiations: the U.S. is exerting “maximum pressure”, it says, to bring a more compliant Iran back to the table; in like manner, should Tehran conclude that it has no choice but to reach a new deal with Washington in order to relieve unsustainable economic strain, it will want to enter such talks with a stronger hand. Resuming its nuclear activities, making its presence felt in the region, and disrupting Saudi or Emirati oil exports could all be ways of enhancing its bargaining power. But if these manoeuvres are a diplomatic game, it is a dangerous one: either side could misinterpret the other’s intentions. Any Iranian move could easily lead to U.S. and/or Israeli strikes which, in turn, could lead to an Iranian counter-response. Or vice versa. Escalation comes easily; de-escalation is a much taller order, especially in the absence of direct channels of communication that can pre-empt misunderstandings or miscalculations.

In short, whether or not Tehran was directly or indirectly behind the recent attacks (the Huthis in Yemen claimed responsibility for the attacks in Saudi Arabia; the earlier offshore incident has gone unclaimed; Iran has denied any connection to the incidents and called for an investigation), and whether or not Washington is manufacturing accusations to justify a spike in military activity, all the ingredients for an escalation are present. Even assuming that neither side seeks war, growing friction at all the flashpoints between the two sides (see our Trigger List early-warning platform) mean that intentions may not suffice to prevent it. The consequences could be calamitous for states and peoples in the immediate region, but also for the international economy, given its high dependence on the free flow of oil from the Gulf.

Iran should reciprocate by returning into full compliance with the nuclear deal.

It is not too late to avert this outcome. Key to de-escalation will be the ability of the remaining parties to the nuclear deal to give Iran an economic reprieve. In particular, Europe could shed its reluctance to indirectly import Iranian oil in partnership with Russia and China. If Russia swaps oil with Iran and China continues to import Iranian crude, the transactions would generate credit that the parties could inject into Europe’s special purpose financial vehicle (Instex), allowing Iran to engage in trade with these countries without access to the U.S.- dominated global financial system. These countries could also provide Iran with development aid to repair and renew its infrastructure. With Europe demonstrating willingness to go the extra mile, Iran should reciprocate by returning into full compliance with the nuclear deal. It also should exhibit restraint on the regional front and refrain from steps – direct or taken through partners – that could provoke its foes.

As for President Donald Trump, he faces a choice. Everything about his 2016 presidential campaign pointed in the direction of avoiding another costly and unnecessary military entanglement in the Middle East. So, too, does much about the vows he has made to his constituency since entering office. But everything about his administration’s policy toward Iran points in a strikingly different direction: toward war, by design or mistake. He says he wants the U.S. and Iran to talk. Yet he should know that the Islamic Republic will not start a dialogue if it feels it has a gun to its head; it will respond to perceived aggression in like manner, and that response could in turn engender an uncontrollable downward spiral. A back-channel dialogue eventually may be possible, but for that the U.S. ought to tone down its rhetoric and offer the Iranian leadership an off-ramp, for example by signalling its preparedness to put aside its maximalist demands and to find a mutually acceptable compromise.

President Trump might think that time is on his side, as sanctions continue to take their toll on the Iranian economy. But the wait-and-see period may have reached the end of its natural life. A crisis that he may not want but that some of his advisers may not mind lies just around the corner. It is past time for cooler heads to prevail and for all to move decisively to take the trains off collision course.