Council on Foreign Relations President Haass on Saudi-US Relations

Published: January 8, 2016

Editor’s Note:

The escalation in the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran as a result of the events of January 2nd and the severing by Riyadh of diplomatic relations with Tehran, against the backdrop of worsening regional turmoil, has brought a deluge of reports and commentary on Saudi Arabia. [See our “Media Report”] Among the comments expressed in American media was yesterday’s exchange on the cable network channel MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” television show — a daily, three-hour conversation among pundits, journalists, thought leaders and news makers.

Richard Haass, a frequent contributor to the show and President of the Council on Foreign Relations was asked about Saudi Arabia’s relations with Iran and with the United States, responding to a letter to the editor of The New York Times. He also commented on the question of dropping oil prices on the world market. Here for your consideration is a transcript of his succinct comments on this topics.


Richard Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations Comments on Saudi-Iran Relations, US-Saudi Relations, and Related Issues

Morning Joe Television Show
January 7, 2016

[Excerpt from remarks on international developments]

[Host: Willie Geist] Richard, let me jump to Iran and Saudi Arabia. Obviously their relationship torn apart even further by the execution of the cleric there last week.

Just now a story crossing the wires that Iran is accusing the Saudis fighting in Yemen of bombing the Iranian embassy inside Yemen.

[Richard Haass] A bad development.

[Geist] What does that mean?

[Haass] Well, until that happened I would have said that if you asked me the question two hours ago, I would have said the worst this is likely to get is a proxy war. And one way another they push one another’s buttons by supporting, say, in the case of Iran, Shia populations around the region.


This has now introduced the potential direct element between an Iran and Saudi Arabia. I’m not saying it’s going to go there. I don’t want to be alarmist. But I do think now this has opened the possibility of something more direct between them. This is not a good thing.

[Geist] Fighting in Yemen, directly?

[Haass] Directly there or conceivably elsewhere. Once you start fighting directly it’s hard to keep it geographically confined.

[Host: Mika Brzezinski] So here’s a letter to the editor from Victor Goode to The New York Times. It says this:

“What are American interests in this region? Who determined them, and why have they not been shared with the American people? We get energy from the Saudis and also used to buy significant amounts of oil from Iran. With the current glut of oil in the market we have never been a stronger position to press the Saudis for democratic reform but we don’t. The only plausible answer is that they continue to buy enormous quantities of American weapons and get support from that lobby. They also continue to invest tens of billions of their petro-dollars in Western banks. So despite all our talk about human rights and democracy it appears that our interests are being dictated by the arms industry and Wall Street, both of which have had a lock on the White House and Congress.”

What do you think?

[Haasss] Not a lot. That’s actually… It’s just dead wrong.

[Brzezinski] Why?

[Haass] The Saudis are still producing ten million barrels a day.

[Host: Joe Scarborough] A lot of Americans… He’s a professor at a local college here. A lot of Americans, though, think that about the Saudis.


[Haass] Sure. People have often thought that U.S. foreign policy is somehow dictated by commercial interests, whether it’s arms sales or having access to invest in oil. The fact is, it’s not. It’s a factor, but it’s a minor factor.

Saudi Arabia is still one of the keys to the global economy. If those ten million barrels of oil are somehow taken off the world economy, suddenly the price of oil would be five times what it is now.

[Scarborough] So, Richard, can I ask you this question? Why in the world would the Saudis not tighten up the oil supply when they’re in an economic crisis? Tighten it. Make the price of a barrel go up to sixty or seventy?

[Haass] Because they are worried that if they take one or two million barrels off a day somebody else will step in. So rather than the price going up the only real effect will be they lose market share. There’s simply… In a funny sort of way there’s no OPEC anymore. They don’t have any confidence in any of their neighbors.

By the way, the other interests we have in the Middle East. We obviously have an interest that terrorists not set up shop there. We have interests that nuclear weapons and nuclear materials not proliferate or not get into the wrong hands. We have special, I believe, obligations to Israel.

So even though…

[Scarborough] So you’re basically saying about this letter, it’s not about petro-dollars, it’s not about selling arms.

[Haass] No. It’s still a strategic area of the Middle East.

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