Time for the Saudis to Act
Whereas the Iraq war has not achieved any of its stated objectives, it has dramatically and irreversibly changed the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East, ushering in new conflicts that may rage for decades. The war has handed Iran an historic windfall, and it has given rise to its long-historic ambitions to dominate the region and establish Persian hegemony while pursuing nuclear weapons to assert its ambitions. New, and until recently perhaps unthinkable, alliances may now be forged, especially between Israel and the leading Sunni Gulf states to confront the emerging threat that looms ominously high over the entire region.
For the majority of the Arab Sunni states, especially Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the Iranian-Iraqi Shiite axis is a threat to their political survival. Although they believe that America will come to their aid in case of an imminent Iranian threat, these states do not believe that the current U.S. policy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons will succeed. Once Iran is in possession of such arms, it will be further emboldened to actively undermine any Arab regime refusing to give into its dictates. A nuclear Iran will continue to expand its subversive activities by providing financial and military assistance, including training, to any militant Islamic group, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, prepared to confront Israel and challenge the Arab states. This reality explains why the Saudis were openly critical of Hezbollah's unprovoked attack on Israel that precipitated the Lebanon war and their disappointment in Israel's failure to crush it. That said, the Arab Sunni states still view Israel as a nuclear power the ultimate balance to Iran in the region and probably the only country that can effectively blunt or deter Iran's adventurism.
Israel, which has been threatened by Iran explicitly and repeatedly, is also looking to buttress its position regionally, but it can do so only if it dedicates itself to Arab-Israeli peace and thus embraces, at least in general terms, the Saudi initiative. (In March 2003, at an Arab League summit in Beirut, Lebanon, the Saudis basically offered Israel a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace with normal relations in exchange for the return of the territories captured in the 1967 war.) The emergence of a common enemy to Israel and the Arab Sunni states in the form of Iranian-led Shiite axis has dramatically changed the dynamic of the Arab Israeli conflict. Of all the Arab states, Saudi Arabia has the greatest stake in how the conflict between this axis and the Sunni Arab states is managed over the next few years. There are three critical initiatives the Saudis must undertake:
First, they must use their considerable influence in Washington to bring about a change in the administration's Syrian policy that will also encourage Israel to restart peace negotiations with Damascus over the Golan Heights. The goal would be to lure Syria out of the Shiite orbit, which could effectively reduce Iran's meddling without aggravating the Arab-Israeli conflict. Moreover, extricating Syria from Iran's belly and rejoining it to the Sunni fold are critical to the fight between the Sunni and the Shiite camps. In return, the Saudis can help the Bush administration end Damascus's regional marginalization, while also providing Syria with substantial economic assistance. Syria's moderation and its willingness to engage must be demonstrated by taking some action, such as exiling Hamas' political Guru Kaled Mashal and closing down in Damascus the offices of extremist groups such as the Islamic Jihad.
Second, Saudi Arabia must initiate (if not continue) direct secret talks with Israel to determine commonalities between both nations regarding the Saudi initiative and to identify major stumbling blocks. Critical issues like final borders, Palestinian refugees, the future of Jerusalem, and even the general parameters of a Palestinian state, could then be discussed in a non-acrimonious atmosphere and without public pressure, both allowing for positive results. After it is established that differences can be narrowed, other Arab states, notably Egypt and Jordan, could enter the negotiating process.
Third, the secret talks may reveal that prospects for agreement are good because of the compelling new political reality. The Saudis should then take the lead in calling for a Middle-East international peace conference, preferably in Riyadh. An Israeli delegation actually visiting Riyadh will create its own political dynamic that is sure to reverberate throughout the region. The involvement of other major powers including the U.S, EU, China and Russia in the conference will lend credence and legitimacy, and may bring pressure to produce a workable framework for peace. Direct and indirect U.S. involvement inside and outside the Saudi initiatives remain pivotal to any progress.
None of the above policy initiatives would have been conceivable only six months ago. But the Lebanon war, the raging Israeli-Palestinian violence, the galvanization of the Jihad movement regionally and globally, the intensified Shiite-Sunni conflict, and Iran's nuclear threats have made them not only conceivable but imperative.