Saudi Arabia v Iran; Sunni v Shia – Zakaria GPS

Published: January 10, 2016

Editor’s Note:

A panel of specialists talked today about the confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran on the popular Sunday morning CNN foreign affairs show, “Global Public Square” with Fareed Zakaria. They included Robin Wright, a contributing writer at the New Yorker and a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center; Vali Nasr, Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; Martin Indyk, executive vice president at Brookings and former Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs; and Nawaf Obaid, a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a columnist for Al-Hayat. We’re pleased to provide their conversation here for your consideration.


Saudi Arabia versus Iran; Sunni versus Shia

What Will the Next Step Be? Will this cold war turn hot?

GPS: The Global Public Square
CNN With Host Fareed Zakaria

Introduction by Fareed Zakaria in which he discusses his view on the topic.

Mr. Zakaria referred to his op-ed in the Washington Post. [Here]

The United States shouldn’t take sides in the Sunni-Shiite struggle. But it should support Saudi Arabia in resisting Iran’s encroachments in the region. – Fareed Zakaria – January 7, 2016


[Zakaria] Let’s dig deeper into the Middle East’s cold and hot wars with a really terrific panel. Joining me here in New York, Robin Wright, a contributing writer at the New Yorker and a joint fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Woodrow Wilson Center. And Vali Nasr, the Dean of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a former top advisor at the State Department. He is also an Iranian-American.

Martin Indyk joins us from Washington today. He was Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs during the Clinton administration. He is now an executive vice president at Brookings. And in Geneva, Nawaf Obaid is a visiting fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and a columnist for Al-Hayat, an Arab newspaper. He is from Saudi Arabia.

Robin, you say that this schism is perhaps turning into one of the biggest divides in the world of Islam in fourteen centuries.

Screen grab from “Global Public Square”

[Robin Wright] I think so in terms of the scope of impact and the damage that is being done. This is something with the two rival powers that plays out politically, ideologically, strategically, ethnically, and virtually in every range.

And it’s having an extraordinary impact on the four critical peace initiatives that were supposed to be playing out this month. The effort to try to get the government and the opposition together in Syria. The effort to push the various warring factions in Yemen to a second round of peace talks, after the collapse, just recently, of the ceasefire. To help the Iraqis move militarily and politically to solve the crisis with ISIS. And of course the Iranian nuclear deal is supposed to be implemented this month.

And this timing really comes at an extraordinary moment in each one. So this is having a rippling effect across the region.

[Zakaria] Vali, do you think Saudi Arabia recognized what it was getting itself into with the execution of this Shiite cleric, which is the spark in a way, that set this fire in motion?

[Vali Nasr] At least they should have known largely because the mood in the region is very tense. There is already heightened sectarianism in Iraq, in Syria, the uprisings in Bahrain became very quickly sectarian. And of course there had been warnings, not just from Iran but from the United States that this could be the start of a wedge issue that then could polarize the already tense situation that existed.

[Zakaria] You have argued, Nawaf, that what we’re seeing in Saudi Arabia is the Saudis are taking on a much more assertive and aggressive foreign policy to defend themselves from what they see as Iran’s maneuvers and encroachment. And what they see as a kind of abandonment of Saudi Arabian, Saudi interests by the Obama administration. Is that a fair characterization of your view?

[Nawaf Obaid] That is correct. You have a lot of U.S. presence and of U.S. leadership in the region and hence you must have the most powerful of the Arab states that is still standing take on the role that is going to be able to negate and then pull back slowly Iranian presence and influence in the Arab world. That is ongoing and that is only going to increase in the next several years.

Screen grab from “Global Public Square.”

[Zakaria] Martin, what do you make of that criticism of the Obama administration? In a sense the Republicans make it as well. That if the United States were more assertive, if it were more engaged, and, many of them are saying we should be supporting our ally, Saudi Arabia, more strongly.

[Martin Indyk] After the Iran nuclear deal was done I think President Obama tried very hard with the new leadership in Saudi Arabia to get on the same page and the consequence of that was when this headstrong young leader in Saudi Arabia under King Salman, his son and also the crown prince, took Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf states into a war in Yemen instead of bothering to say, “Hold on guys, this might not be such a good idea. You’re going to get stuck in a quagmire here.” Instead we essentially went along with it. And now they are stuck. And now fifty percent of the Gulf military capability is being eaten up in a war that is causing a humanitarian crisis in Yemen. And that’s to the advantage of Iran. It’s not containing Iran. It’s really sapping Saudis and the Gulf states of their military capabilities when we need them to be active elsewhere in the region, particularly against ISIS.

So we do have an urgent need, I think, to try to get on the same page. And that requires both sides to be more engaged with each other to confront both the Iranian hegemonic ambitions and the challenge from ISIS.

[Zakaria] What do you think?

[Nasr] I agree with the statement of the problem from both Nawaf and Martin but I think that the problem, I would put it differently. I think once the United States started talking to Iran it changed the whole geo-strategy of the region. For 40 years there was a very close alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United States to contain Iran.

Now there is a breach in that alliance. The United States has decided that it is not as committed to containing Iran as Saudi Arabia would have expected.

But the problem is not containing Iran. There are too many Shias in the region. I think what we are really talking about is that Shias in Iraq, Shias in Bahrain, Shias everywhere have to accept to live under a political order that existed before the 2003 Iraq invasion.

[Zakaria] Which is a Sunni dominated order.

[Nasr] Which is a Sunni dominated.. or an order in which Iran will absolutely no influence and the Shias will have absolutely no ability to rely on Iran. We are in a situation where anytime Shias ask for anything it seems like an Iranian power play. And the dilemma the United States has, and I think Saudi Arabia has is that you might even be able to contain Iran, but you can’t contain half the population of the region. And since Iraq has woken up, there’s no going back to an order before 2003 where there would be a passive-acceptance of an American-Sunni Arab architecture that keeps Iran outside and you have the populations – minorities and majorities – the Shias will accept things as they were.

Screen grab from “Global Public Square.”

[Zakaria] Robin, you reported so extensively and wonderfully from Iran. Do you think the Iranians want to come in from the cold and become more modern? Do you think they are seeking to spread their influence through the Shia populations of the Middle East? What is Iran’s goal here?

[Wright] Iran looked at January as the month that after almost two generations that it was going to end, or to begin to end its pariah status.

With the implementation of the nuclear deal, the beginning of the lifting of sanctions and it saw relations being warmed around the world. Its place being restored. It is the largest, most populous country and it has a huge consumer base. It has enormous resources. And it was looking for the restoration of its stature. A proud civilization.

And now this crisis has begun to derail that. The Gulf countries cutting off relations. The questions being asked, “If we do warm relations, will our embassies, other embassies be ransacked in Tehran too? This is the behavior of a very mischievous regime and yet again in attacking another embassy.”

The thing that is so interesting and the reasons the ability of the outside world is limited in righting this very difficult showdown is that both countries are really in transition.

Iran is in transition in the sense that is going to elections next month that will decide the future course of the revolution. It will decide whether the balance of power will shift more to the kind of centrist line of the current president or remain as it has been in the last decade in the hands of hard liners.

Meanwhile in Saudi Arabia you have a king who has been in power a year. He is ailing. He has deferred a lot of the power to his young son. And Saudi Arabia feels.. I think both countries feel kind of vulnerable, in transition at the moment.

[Zakaria] Fascinating. Stay with us.

[Commercial Break]

[Zakaria] And we are back with Robin Wright, Vali Nasr, Martin Indyk and Nawaf Obaid.

Nawaf, let me ask you about this new order, this new ruling elite in Saudi Arabia. There are lots of people who tell me, including Saudis, that they are very worried. That the king is ailing, that the person, the defacto ruler of the country now is this 29- or 30-year old deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, who is also defense minister, who is also chairman of the ruling council of Aramco, the Saudi oil company. And he seems to have done things that people say are rash and impulsive. The war in Yemen. Much more aggressive Saudi policy in general. And some of these anti-Shia and anti-Iranian moves, depending on how you see it.

How does the new leadership in Saudi Arabia look to you?

[Obaid] When the new king came into power he was already faced with several challenges. And one of them was Yemen. So, you.. or else you have a coalition and a strategic relationship with the U.S. where you listen to ideas and policies that don’t really work or you actually take things into your own hands.

Iran is in Syria supporting a dictator that has killed 400,000 people. They’re in Iraq funding Shiite militias that have done some of the most atrocious things. So I don’t really see how we can sit down at the table or have some sort of an agreement while blaming, for example, the new deputy crown prince for irrational decisions.

He was faced with a set of factors and a set of challenges. So through this new committee that has been established they have had to make decisions and they had to go forward. Now, will they pan out. We will find out. Time will tell. But it’s not as if Saudi Arabia had the choice or the luxury to stand still and see things happening around the region which it obviously should dominate in the Arab world and wait for instructions and guidance from the U.S. which weren’t coming in the first place.

[Zakaria] We have to move on.

[Panel continues on other global issues.]

Transcript by SUSRIS

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Saudi v Iran – 2016 – SUSRIS Special Section

This Special Section contains articles, special reports, videos and more on the escalating tensions and confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran in January 2016, including Riyadh’s cutting of diplomatic ties with Tehran.

General Developments








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Opened: Jan 3, 2016