Saudi solutions for political reform
Saudi solutions for political reform
Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course
Taking the U.S. and Iran Off Collision Course

Saudi solutions for political reform

Although you wouldn't know it from their smiling faces in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," Saudi Arabia's rulers are going through one of the most trying times in their history.

The Saudi regime is caught between a U.S. ally angry at its perceived complacency with Islamic extremism and a local population increasingly resentful of its perceived subservience to Washington. It must address internal and external pressures for social reform--such as modernizing its education system and curbing intolerance--without alienating the conservative religious leadership on which its legitimacy depends.

Rising unemployment, an ill-adapted educational system and anachronistic economic structures, especially when contrasted with the profligate lifestyles of thousands of princes, are undermining the regime's support base. And all this, mind you, before a country that sits atop a quarter of the world's oil reserves awoke to the emergence of an armed militant group within its borders.

Under such circumstances, the regime might be tempted to conclude that the safest approach is to crack down on the more violent militants while clinging to the political status quo. Security forces have encountered some success, arresting hundreds of suspected extremists, killing many others, and confiscating weapons and bombmaking material. Contrary to the ominous forecasts of some, the regime is not on the brink of collapse nor the country on the verge of civil war. Why then, one might ask, take the risk of changes that threaten to alienate religious conservatives and, to the extent they open up the political system, threaten to give them greater influence?

The answer is straightforward: The rise of radical Islamism in Saudi Arabia has many complex causes--most recently U.S. policies in the region, such as the invasion of Iraq and neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The closed nature of Saudi Arabia's political system and skewed resource distributions to its citizens also remain a problem.

The militants did not appear in a vacuum. Their roots run deep in Saudi history and in an environment that has stifled pluralism, prevented the organization of social and political interests and nurtured intolerance.

That groups engaged in terrorist violence have little interest in free elections, or greater political participation for Saudi citizens, is perfectly self-evident. But just as surely, they capitalize on the erosion of the regime's legitimacy to recruit new volunteers.

There have been some signs that some in the royal family understand this. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the U.S., in which Saudi militants were heavily involved, triggered an intense internal debate.

In response, the Saudi government has acknowledged the need for political, social and educational reform and has taken limited steps in that direction. So far, however, many of its actions have belied its words, as reformers have been arrested and harassed, public debate limited and initiatives the regime does not control blocked.

But a stand-still strategy would be short-sighted. Security measures to curb extremist militancy are the first line of defense, but dealing with longer-term challenges and keeping violent opposition marginal require 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. Recent violent attacks ought not be used as a pretext to deviate from reform but as an imperative reason to accelerate it.

Not any reform will do, and it most likely will not resemble what many have clamored for in the often uninformed frenzy of Saudi-bashing that took place in the United States after Sept. 11. Saudi Arabia has to tread carefully to marginalize 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 most likely to inflame passions and therefore are least liable to be carried out soon. That this is largely a problem of the regime's own making--the product of decades of accommodation to ultraconservative views--is beyond dispute. But it is a problem nonetheless, and to ignore it would be to underestimate how thoroughly a puritanical brand of Islam has permeated society.

Instead, emphasis should be on reform issues that garner the greatest consensus: broadening civic and political participation, empowering state institutions, gradually disassociating the royal family from the responsibility of day-to-day government, and curbing regime abuses and corruption. An informal lobby of liberals, Shiites and, importantly, progressive Islamists has rallied around these themes, offering a vision that is a non-violent alternative, consistent with Islam, homegrown and respectful of the ruling family's unifying role.

Indeed, while violent Islamists have grabbed the most headlines, a more promising phenomenon has gone widely unnoticed, namely the emergence of moderate and enlightened Islamists as the driving forces pushing for political reform.

There are serious doubts about whether an aging leadership facing an impending succession is, in fact, capable of formulating the necessary vision, let alone implementing it. Fearful of change and attached to a status quo in which it enjoys unchecked power and enormous privileges, the ruling family may consider such changes a risk not worth taking. The irony is that political reform offers the most likely path to stability, and the greatest risk would come from doing nothing at all.

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.

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