Iran obsession driving Mid-East and US crazy

If there is a common denominator explaining so many recent events in the Middle East - actions by Saudi Arabia, the US, Syria, Israel and Yemen - it can be expressed in one word: Iran. Everyone has Iran's growing power and influence in the region on the mind - including Iran - and that obsession is making a lot of people crazy.

For instance, the Trump administration, like Mr Barack Obama's, actually wants to get away from the Middle East - as much as possible - but while leaving as little Iranian influence behind as possible. Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, wants to get ahead in the Middle East and reform its economy for the 21st century - while curtailing as much Iranian influence in the region as possible.

And the Iranians want to get wide - to expand their influence from Teheran to the Mediterranean - not by creating a successful and attractive development model at home that Arabs and other Muslims would want to emulate, but rather by forcing their way into Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq through local Shi'ite militias that have created states within these states.

This is generating a lot of anxiety in the Arab world, the US and Israel without enough people stepping back and thinking: So pro-Iranian militias control a bunch of bad neighbourhoods in Beirut, Sana, Damascus and Baghdad. Tell me, what is second prize? What are they really "winning"?

Iran has a richly talented population and rich Persian culture. But instead of unleashing both and enabling Iran's youth to realise their full potential - and making the country influential that way - the ayatollahs are suppressing those talents at home and unleashing the power of Shi'ite mercenaries on Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.

It's actually rather pathetic. The greatest thing that the United States and Saudi Arabia could do is to stop working each other into a lather over this Iranian "threat" and to focus on their domestic reform agendas. That would be the best revenge on Teheran.

For starters, American, European and Arab leaders should all be encouraging MBS to keep going where no Saudi leader before him has dared to go - pursuing his stated goal of reversing the religious right turn that the kingdom took in 1979, after the takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Muslim extremists. That prompted the Saudi rulers at the time to ban fun, tighten the control of the religious police over society and to much more aggressively export the most misogynist, anti-pluralistic interpretation of Islam to mosques and madrasahs across the Muslim world, tilting the whole faith community to the right.

If MBS fulfils his vow to bring Saudi Islam back to "moderation", it will surely improve the status of Muslim women, the quality of education in Muslim communities and the relationship between Muslims and other faiths. We in the West have spent tremendous sums "countering Muslim extremism". We may finally have a Saudi leader ready to do that work - from the wellspring of Islam - and it would, over time, hugely benefit Muslims and non-Muslims alike.

But for MBS to advance that agenda requires a strong, economically healthy Saudi Arabia. Alas, for now Saudi Arabia is far from that; its trajectory in recent years has been sharply downward. Most Saudis today are focused on jobs and education, not on Iran, and if MBS can fix those needs with his reform plan, it will only propel his push to moderate Saudi Islam.

Precisely because these intertwined religious and economic reform agendas are so critical, wise friends of MBS would also be offering him some tough love - by telling him that it's great to arrest thieving Saudi billionaires and throw them in the Ritz-Carlton, but it has to be done with transparency and within a rule of law - not in an arbitrary way that will hurt his legitimacy and frighten future investors. They also have to stress to him that to be an effective anti-corruption campaigner, he has to be open to criticism himself and live modestly. No more giant yachts.

On foreign policy, MBS' real friends would also tell him that while Iran has expanded its influence across the Arab world, the Saudis do not have the muscles to take it on head-on right now. The Iranians have spent 40 years developing their influence through underground networks and Shi'ite proxies.

Meanwhile, the Saudis wrote checks to Sunni militias, who never stayed bought. Or they bought big weapons systems that are useless in this age of irregular warfare - and only lead to the kind of Saudi aerial bombardments of Yemen that have led to so many civilian deaths, disease and starvation - and a costly stalemate for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia needs to end that war - now - and get out of Yemen, even if it means leaving some Iranian influence behind.

My view on Saudi Arabia today is very simple: Because it has so much deferred reform to undertake - before its oil money runs out - the biggest question is not if MBS is too brash, too brutal, too power-hungry or too imperfect. It's whether he's too late. I think not, but that is why, with all of MBS' flaws, we need to help increase his chances for success. If he can turn Jeddah into another Dubai, he will do more to increase his influence in the region and diminish Iran's than anything else he could do.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 07, 2017, with the headline 'Iran obsession driving Mid-East and US crazy'. Print Edition | Subscribe