Friday, June 22, 2012

The Saudi endgame for Iran (it isn't everyone else's)

"... From the vantage point of the House of Saud, none of these scenarios of change is attractive. They all leave a religious and geopolitical enemy intact with considerable power, resources, and potential. Saudi Arabia does not have the ability to destroy Iran. Its lavishly funded military is mainly for show and its effort to get Iraq to do the job back in the eighties failed badly. Israel can hit Iranian targets repeatedly but not with devastating effect. The US of course can but is balking at the undertaking and in any case might not want to create more instability in the region. 
Saudi Arabia, then, will likely seek a three-tiered policy of protracted weakening of Iran. First, Iran will be hit by continuing sanctions, by lower oil prices from boosts in Saudi production, and by currency manipulation that makes Iranian imports all the more costly. Second, Iran will continue to be struck by assassinations and bombings and perhaps by periodic air strikes by Israel and the US - perhaps with token participation by planes from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. 
Third, Iran will endure insurgent movements, supported from without, aimed at drawing off resources and threatening the territorial integrity of the country. Specifically, the Kurds in the northwest, the Baluchs in the southeast, and the Arabs in the western province of Khuzestan will be encouraged to resist, rebel, and otherwise oppose the regime and its IRGC enforcers. 
Such efforts have been tried before, from Wilhelm Wassmuss's efforts to lead pro-German tribal revolts during World War I to Saddam's efforts to bring the Khuzestani Arabs to the Arab side. None has met with great success. 
Again, the Saudis are unable to destroy Iran, nor can they get anyone to do it for them. Protracted weakening of Iran is, however, nearer to its reach and it can make Saudi Arabia the only significant power in the Gulf - one that other Gulf states will fall in line with even more readily than they are today. 
The strategy, like any such effort in world affairs, has problems. First, low oil prices from increased Saudi output hurt not only Iran but all oil producers. This is especially true of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, which have doled out immense amounts of oil revenue to keep their populaces content. Generous disbursements of oil revenues constitute a principal basis of state legitimacy, and cutting back on state largesse is not without risks. 
Second, states do not always use new power and hegemony wisely. All too often they act foolishly, arrogantly, and belligerently - to the dismay of other states in and out of the region. Saudi Arabia lording over the Gulf might become the newest case in point. 
Third, encouraging terrorism and insurgency inside Iran could of course lead to Iranian repayments-in-kind inside Sunni states. All of them have appreciable Shi'ite population; some have Shi'ite majorities. In all cases, the Shi'ites are increasingly restive over lower status and limited opportunities. Minorities on both sides of the conflict may become problematic. 
Curiously, Saudi oil reserves are concentrated in a Shi'ite region and Iran's are in an Arab region. Surely, the gods of geology and geopolitics have a sense of mischief."

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