While the Iran nuclear agreement (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA) is far from safe from attacks by Donald Trump, it is becoming clear that a Plan B is being put in motion. The United States is clearly a part of it, but this time Saudi Arabia is driving the agenda.
The events of the past week – the sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, the massive purge of key political, security, and business figures in Saudi Arabia, a missile heading toward Riyadh from Yemen which the Saudis called an act of war – are all part of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s (MbS) drive to consolidate power. His radical grab, which started in the spring, has dramatically altered the nature of Saudi politics, alienating many in the ruling family, breaking with established norms of quietly dealing with political rivalries within that family, and removing a system of checks on autocratic power that, though weak, were not meaningless.
It is impossible to know how all of this will end, but here are some initial thoughts:
- This is not just an internal Saudi political matter—it is going to have serious regional and global ripples.
- There is very good reason to believe that the Trump administration is a partner in this adventurism, and some strong indicators that the Netanyahu government in Israel is as well.
- At its core, as much as MbS wants to consolidate his own power, this is about upping the ante with Iran in the hopes of defeating the Saudis’ Persian rival.
The Push For Regime Change Continues
Trump’s decision not to certify Iranian compliance with the terms of the nuclear deal has not been the death knell for the JCPOA that the president and the leaders in Riyadh and Jerusalem may have hoped. The European Union stands firm behind the deal, and that has reverberated in Washington. There is a bill in the works in the Senate, informally named for the Republican Senators working on it – Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chair Bob Corker (R-TN) and Tom Cotton (R-AR) – but its contents are still unclear, and the clock is ticking.
This does not mean the deal is safe, by any means. European Union High Representative Federica Mogherini found strong Republican distaste for the deal when she came to lobby in favor of it on Tuesday. And even if the December 14 deadline for Congress to act in response to Trump’s refusal to certify passes with no action, Republicans in Congress, as well as the president, could try to shred the deal again.
But the costs have become too clear: undermining faith in any president’s future ability to negotiate, further straining ties with European allies who are already alienated by Trump, and, of course, potentially unleashing Iran’s quick march to a nuclear weapon are all going to be tough obstacles to overcome.
But there is more than one way to change a regime. The Saudis have no reason to hang their hopes for a more aggressive stance toward Iran on whether the JCPOA lives or dies. Nor does Donald Trump. For that matter, neither does Benjamin Netanyahu.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner was recently in Saudi Arabia for the third time this year, meeting with the MbS. It beggars belief that the proximity of that visit and the bold Saudi moves are mere coincidence.
If further proof is needed, Trump provided it. The day after the mass arrests, Trump called King Salman, making no mention of what by that time was already being referred to as a purge. That was, without a doubt, a tacit endorsement. Trump also tweeted a request that a public offering by ARAMCO, the Saudi oil giant, be carried out in the New York Stock Exchange after a key ARAMCO board member had been arrested the night before.
Finally, while the dust was still settling on Monday, Trump tweeted his support for the Saudi purge. All of this strongly indicates that Trump, via Kushner, was informed and gave his stamp of approval to the Saudi actions.
The Trump-MbS partnership, however, was not limited to those two players. For Israel, the main obstacles to a closer partnership with the Saudis are external to the kingdom. Although Netanyahu may well be pleased that MbS is consolidating his power, it doesn’t mean as much to him as it might to Trump, who enjoys an open and close relationship with Saudi royalty.
But the announcement by Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri that he was resigning held a great deal of interest for Israel.
Hariri’s stated reason—that he feared an assassination attempt, like the one that killed his father in 2005—is not very convincing. If he was this worried, he never would have taken the job, and the Lebanese military has stated that it is unaware of any such plot. Moreover, it is unclear what Hezbollah and Iran, whom Hariri accused of the plot, would gain from his assassination.
Hariri had just met with a key Iranian official when he was very suddenly summoned to Riyadh where he announced his resignation on Saudi TV. He has not returned to Lebanon since. The overwhelming consensus is that he was ordered to quit by the Saudis to upset the delicate political balance he was maintaining in a Lebanese government largely controlled by Hezbollah.
The Shi’a militia group, however, was working with Hariri to maintain the balance that had been struck nearly two years ago, ending years of instability and governmental paralysis. Hezbollah’s strong connection to Iran gives the Islamic Republic a strong foothold in the Levant and extended its reach beyond territory controlled by its ally in Syria, Bashar al-Assad. The Saudis are trying to change that and turn back Iran’s reach.
In an utterly unprecedented move, Israel directed its diplomats to hew absolutely to the Saudi line regarding Hariri’s resignation. As reported by Haaretz’s Barak Ravid, the diplomatic cable instructed all Israeli diplomats to parrot the Saudi view that Hariri’s resignation showed how Iran, through Hezbollah, has destabilize Lebanese politics. The diplomats were instructed to make clear to their host countries that Iran and Hezbollah must be viewed as threats and that Israel urged support for Saudi Arabia in its war with Houthi rebels in Yemen.
A missile was apparently heading from Yemen to Riyadh when it was shot down. The Saudis called this “an act of war,” a phrase with ominous potential. Although Israeli diplomats were not specifically instructed regarding that wording, they were told to stress that “the missile launch by the Houthis towards Riyadh calls for applying more pressure on Iran & Hezbollah.”
Meanwhile, the Saudis brought Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Riyadh just before the Palestinian Authority demanded full security control in the Gaza Strip, placing a major obstacle in the path of Palestinian reconciliation. Hamas, which had recently reiterated its own solidarity with Hezbollah, reacted angrily to the decision, although it always seemed likely that a reconciliation deal brokered by Egypt, given its antipathy for Hamas, was going to contain a trap for the Islamic militant group. Clearly, the Saudis are hoping to find a way to end Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian Territories so they can work more openly with Israel, and they see breaking Hamas away from Iran as a key part of that plan.
What Comes Next?
The Saudis are playing a very dangerous game. Although all the indications are that Israel and the United States are backing them, it’s not clear how far that support will go. All three countries are determined to confront Iran, almost certainly with the hope of regime change. This is a goal that cannot be stated explicitly, however, as it would certainly generate controversy in the United States and, to a lesser degree, in Israel. That could lead to political pressure that would limit options. If, however, Iran can be provoked to respond to aggression with military force, it is probable that support for a strong counter-response would grow in both countries, possibly sufficient to blunt any opposition and open up many more options, including military ones.
The Saudis need such a boost. MbS may have consolidated his power through swift and ruthless action, but his policies are not providing him with the basis for ongoing support. Yemen has turned into a quagmire and a humanitarian catastrophe, painting the Saudis, correctly, as brutal and uncaring about civilians. The attempt to isolate Qatar has not met with much success, and that act has jeopardized the future of the Gulf Cooperation Council. The Saudi-backed forces in Syria have by and large come out on the short end of battle there and have been forced to abandon their ambitions of toppling the Assad regime.
MbS needs a win. Lebanon is where he now hopes to get it. The fragile stability Lebanon has enjoyed in recent months is not likely to withstand the Saudi meddling. Hezbollah will have an opportunity now to try to bring the country together to combat “outside interference,” a line which, after a history of Syrian domination, will have considerable appeal across a wide spectrum of the Lebanese people.
Israel, for its part, has been raising the level of its own aggression against Hezbollah in Syria. Netanyahu will try to bring more international pressure to bear against the Shi’a group. The U.S. Congress recently passed new sanctions against Hezbollah as well and urged Europe to add the group to its list of terrorist groups.
Hezbollah cannot afford to give Israel an excuse to attack it. Some see this as a way for Hezbollah to regain some of its old prestige, but the actual result is more likely to be disastrous. Israel is quite capable of decimating Lebanon. Although all of Lebanon would unite in its anger toward Israel, if Hezbollah were perceived as risking Lebanese civilians, many would turn their wrath on the militia group.
Netanyahu, for his part, might like to deal a crushing blow to Iran’s Lebanese ally, but it may not be so easy. Israelis have been living in relative quiet since 2014. Many remember the 2006 war with Hezbollah, and the evacuation of much of northern Israel, and will stand against another such conflict. Hezbollah, since that time, has been careful to avoid giving Israel an excuse to bomb Lebanon again.
Trump has shown no signs of wanting to put US troops at risk. Indeed, he has handed off much of his responsibility as commander-in-chief to his generals. But if Israel is involved in serious fighting, especially if it is not going well, it is hard to say what he would do. He seems absolutely committed to regime change in Iran, even if he has not come out and said so. His uncompromising stance on Iran, combined with the fact that neoconservative heroine Nikki Haley seems to have his ear on the subject, indicates that he is willing to go as far as he feels he can.
Trump and Netanyahu must both walk a tightrope. There is a lot of opposition in the Israeli military as well as in Trump’s own cabinet to igniting a new Middle East conflict in the hopes of toppling the Iranian regime. Yet that seems to be what both men want. Perhaps they pursue such a folly to escape domestic scandals, or because they are myopically ideological, but the reasons are not important. They are on board with Saudi Arabia.
Considering MbS’ track record, this is a risky proposition at best. As Bruce Riedel of the Brooking Institution put it, “The king and his son have embraced the most virulent sectarianism in the modern kingdom’s history against Shia at home and abroad. The Saudis encouraged Lebanese Prime Minister Saed Hariri to quit his post, apparently hoping to isolate Hezbollah. Now the Saudis are saying they are at war with the group. Most likely the gambit will ricochet and benefit the Iranians and Hezbollah.”
Here in the United States, the same neoconservatives who destroyed Iraq are going to support the Saudi moves. Although they might prefer the United States to take the lead, at least diplomatically, they will settle for following the Saudis.
Israel will be less willing to simply adhere to the Saudi plan, but Netanyahu knows that Israeli adventurism against Iran is not an option. The Israeli military and intelligence communities thwarted that idea before, and that was before the nuclear deal, when it was possible to convince Israelis that Iran was an existential threat, even though it wasn’t. Netanyahu is loath to allow other countries to determine the course Israel will follow, but if Trump essentially abdicates leadership on this issue to MbS, Netanyahu will have few options.
As Riedel pointed out, that’s just what Trump has done. So, the Saudis are going to try to up the ante with Iran, first in Lebanon and Yemen, and, perhaps later, elsewhere. Even MbS must realize that a direct conflict with Iran will serve no one’s interest. But if provocations continue, that is one of the paths that might be taken, whether intentionally or not.
Saudi Arabia is now a very unstable monarchy. That could change over time, but it also could get worse. Moreover, MbS’s “bold steps” in Yemen, with Qatar, and even at home have thus far proven to be detrimental for all, including for Saudi interests. This is where the president of the United States has put not only his faith, but the fate of the entire Middle East, with repercussions that will certainly be felt in the United States. That should concern us all.