Opinion

Ian Bremmer

Why Saudi Arabia and the U.S. don’t see eye to eye in the Middle East

Ian Bremmer
Dec 30, 2013 15:42 UTC

Give credit to Vladimir Putin and his New York Times op-ed on Syria for sparking a new tactic for foreign leaders hoping to influence American public opinion. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabian political elites have followed Putin’s lead, using American outlets to express their distaste with the West’s foreign policy, particularly with regard to Syria and Iran. In comments to the Wall Street Journal, prominent Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal decried the United States for cutting a preliminary deal with Iran on its nuclear program without giving the Saudis a seat at the table, and for Washington’s unwillingness to oppose Assad in the wake of the atrocities he’s committed. Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Britain followed with an op-ed in the New York Times entitled “Saudi Arabia Will Go It Alone.” The Saudis are clearly upholding the vow made by intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan back in October to undergo a “major shift” away from the United States.

In light of the recent actions of the Obama administration, many allies are also frustrated and confused, and even hedging their bets in reaction to the United States’ increasingly unpredictable foreign policy. But of all the disappointed countries, none is more so than Saudi Arabia — and with good reason. That’s because the two countries have shared interests historically — but not core values — and those interests have recently diverged.

First, America’s track record in the Middle East in recent years has sowed distrust. The relationship began to deteriorate with the United States’ initial response to the Arab Spring, where its perceived pro-democratic stance stood at odds with the Saudi ruling elite. After Washington stood behind the elections that installed a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and then spoke out against the Egyptian army’s attempt to remove President Mohammad Morsi, the Saudi royals were left to wonder where Washington would stand if similar unrest broke out on their soil.

Second, while the oil trade has historically aligned U.S.-Saudi interests, the unconventional energy breakthrough in North America is calling this into question. The United States and Canada are utilizing hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling techniques, leading to a surge in domestic energy production. That development leaves America significantly less dependent on oil from the Middle East, and contributes to the U.S.’ shifting interests and increasing disengagement in the region. Not only does Saudi Arabia lose influence in Washington — many of the top American executives in the oil industry were their best conduits — but it also puts the Saudis on the wrong end of this long-term trend toward increasing global energy supply.

To say that oil is an integral part of Saudi Arabia’s economy is a gross understatement. Oil still accounts for 45 percent of Saudi GDP, 80 percent of budget revenue, and 90 percent of exports. In the months ahead, new oil supply is expected to outstrip new demand, largely on the back of improvements in output in Iraq and Libya. By the end of the first quarter of 2014, Saudi Arabia will likely have to reduce production to keep prices stable. And the trend toward more supply doesn’t take into account the potential for a comprehensive Iranian nuclear deal that would begin to ease sanctions and allow more Iranian crude to reach global markets.

Is this the end of the Iran status quo?

Ian Bremmer
Oct 25, 2013 14:22 UTC

Amidst the rubble of cynicism in Washington and the international community, there’s been one sign of hope for American foreign policy: the West’s negotiations with Iran regarding its nuclear program. Remarkably, things seem to be shifting: diplomats have emerged from the latest round of negotiations emitting good vibes. The West’s crippling sanctions, led by the U.S., have worked.

But before we discuss what’s in flux, let’s recap what the status quo has been: the West, dubious of Iran’s vow that it is only investing in nuclear research and enrichment for energy and medical reasons, has set up a system of sanctions meant to choke the Iranian economy. The United States and Israel have tried to postpone Iran’s progress behind the scenes: the most significant example was 2010’s Stuxnet computer worm that damaged Iranian nuclear enrichment infrastructure. Meanwhile, Iran has responded with a stubborn march toward nuclear breakout capacity, and little willingness to negotiate. The sanctions, however, have begun to take a significant toll: sanctions have more than halved Iran’s crude exports since they tightened in mid-2012, cutting budget revenues by at least $35 billion a year. In Iran, we’ve seen massive inflation and black market demand for dollars.

To date, the range of possible outcomes have looked like a bell curve. We had a small, “fat tail” risk of the situation deteriorating and military strikes against Iran occurring (led by some combination of the United States and Israel). On the other end of the spectrum, we had an incredibly slim chance of a breakthrough deal that could peacefully keep Iran from going nuclear. The status quo — tightening sanctions and Iran’s slow movement toward nuclear breakout capacity — was the overwhelmingly likely occurrence.

Iran is America’s real Middle East priority

Ian Bremmer
Sep 6, 2013 19:18 UTC

While we’ve been distracted by a flurry of intelligence releases on Syria’s chemical weapons strikes — and the ongoing saga over the United States’ response — many have overlooked another intelligence report pertaining to weapons of mass destruction with severe implications for America’s red lines and credibility in the Middle East.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, the world’s nuclear watchdog, reported that “Iran plans to test about 1,000 advanced uranium enrichment centrifuges it has completed installing.” As Iran’s enrichment capabilities increase, its breakout time — how long Iran would need to rapidly amass enough highly-enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon — is dropping considerably. In the next year or two, Iran’s breakout time could drop to about 10 days: too short of a window for the United States to reliably respond before Iran could secure enough material for a bomb.

America’s next step in Syria is inextricably linked to the situation in Iran. The U.S. government’s biggest national security concern in the region is an Iranian regime with potential access to nuclear weapons. A nuclear Iran would destabilize the region, shock oil prices, and threaten U.S. allies. Longer term, it’s harder to map out the implications, but they aren’t pretty. A nuclear Iran could trigger a domino effect among Middle Eastern countries; should another Arab Spring occur, a failed state with a nuclear weapons cache is a frightening prospect.

The new Iranian president’s restrained power

Ian Bremmer
Jun 19, 2013 20:56 UTC

This past weekend, centrist candidate Hassan Rohani won the Iranian presidential election by a landslide. Rohani beat the two perceived front-runners who were hand-selected conservative loyalists to supreme leader Ali Khamenei — and he did it with an outright majority, bypassing an expected run-off. According to the interior ministry, turnout topped 72 percent — a level that the United States hasn’t attained in a century

During the campaign, Rohani declared, “We will open all the locks which have been fastened upon people’s lives.” But while Rohani’s sweeping victory comes as a big surprise, it’s no shock to the system in Iran. Don’t expect Rohani to open the locks fastened upon Iranian policy. He simply doesn’t hold the keys.

All major decisions on foreign policy go through the Ayatollah. In Iran, the president doesn’t have the last word on the most important security matters, like the nuclear program and Syria. Sanctions will remain in place for the foreseeable future, putting a ceiling on the near-term economic improvements that Rohani can implement. Lastly, even if Rohani did have free rein, he would not upend the system. He is a consummate insider, working his way up within the Iranian establishment: he ran Iran’s national security council for almost two decades, spent three years as the top nuclear negotiator, and he maintains the trust of the clerics. He campaigned as a moderate, not a reformer.

Getting away with it while the world’s cop is off duty

Ian Bremmer
Oct 1, 2012 13:30 UTC

As the world convened at the U.N. General Assembly last week, the willingness of the Obama administration to risk blood and treasure promoting democracy abroad was on full display: Barack Obama gave a stirring speech defending American values and asking other democracies to adopt them. But Obama’s rhetoric doesn’t tell the whole story. He didn’t deliver his speech until after an appearance on a daytime chat show, in obvious support of his re-election campaign.

Many foreign policy experts have criticized Obama for wasting time with Barbara and Whoopi on The View when he could’ve been engaging with foreign leaders on the East Side of Manhattan. But the experts’ takeaway from Obama’s priorities last week is no different than it has been from the administration’s response to months of civil war in Syria, the teeter-tottering of Libya, the reluctance to pose a credible military threat for Iran and the refusal to engage in the Middle East peace process.

The U.S. is willing to do less on the world stage than it has since the onset of World War Two. In the long term, this reset of foreign policy and military initiatives may yield the country a peace dividend. In the short term, there are three international issues where the situation on the ground is deteriorating rapidly and where, in the past, a U.S. president might have intervened. Let’s look at them:

Video: Israel is painting President Obama into a corner on Iran

Reuters Staff
Mar 19, 2012 21:21 UTC

Iran’s nuclear brinkmanship is leaving President Obama with few options: push Iran too hard, and energy prices rise. Do too little, and leave Israel in danger. Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer explains how the U.S. can contain the Iran threat. Part 2.

  YouTube Preview Image

Video: President Obama’s flawed Iran policy

Reuters Staff
Mar 16, 2012 14:55 UTC

Iran’s taunting the West, Israel’s rattling its sword, and gas prices are rising. All that puts President Obama’s future at risk, Eurasia Group President Ian Bremmer tells Chrystia Freeland. Part 1: YouTube Preview Image

Obama’s Iran dilemma could be a game changer

Ian Bremmer
Mar 9, 2012 18:30 UTC

Could it be that the international sanctions against Iran are hurting the Obama administration more than Iran itself? The argument over whether sanctions ever work is an age-old and never-ending debate, and to be clear, that’s not the one I’m trying to have in this column. But I do think it’s worth examining the negatives of Obama’s Iran policy, especially because it is likely to play out during this election season.

Let’s start with the background: Iran’s recent parliamentary elections went off without a hitch. No major protests (see: Russia), no violence, barely a blip in the Western media. Turnout on voting day was surprisingly high, even for the Islamist republic. That has a little to do with the fact that government is actually quite factionalized in Iran — Khamenei versus Ahmadinejad, yes, but also all sorts of high and midlevel bureaucrats — and each faction worked hard to drive turnout, to be able to pass the hot potato of blame should the election have gone poorly. Well, the election didn’t go poorly at all, and suddenly Iran’s government looks more legitimate, internally and externally, than it has in years. Reformists in Iran also picked up a large number of seats, and Iran has everything it did before the election — real economic wealth, a social safety net and huge oil resources that it can sell to every country that doesn’t adhere to the sanctions, of which there are plenty.

That’s the country Barack Obama has to keep in a box to win the election, which is to say one that doesn’t exactly look deplorable to large parts of the global community — like Russia, China, nearly all of Africa and even much of the Middle East. The Iranians won’t be easy to demonize, and to get the sanctions lifted, they are even making concessions to the Europeans, suggesting in talks they’d be amenable to restarting inspections. They’ll play the razor’s edge, even as the uncertainty in the oil market and fear of a shock — like an attack by the U.S. or Israel — steadily drives up the price of oil around the globe.

The truth about Israel’s rumored strike on Iran

Ian Bremmer
Feb 9, 2012 17:39 UTC

At a time when President Obama has moved troops out of Iraq and is moving them out of Afghanistan, it’s looking increasingly like our worries in the Middle East are far from over. Maybe it’s not unprecedented, but it’s highly unusual for a sitting secretary of defense to worry in print (to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius) that Israel could launch a strike against Iran as early as this spring. The point of the Israeli attack, according to Ignatius and Panetta, would be to stop Iran before it begins building a nuclear bomb. The U.S. is saying that it would find such a move foolhardy, and yet also reassuring both the Israeli and American publics that it is committed to Israel’s security.

But it’s probably not Israel’s true intention to strike Iran anyway.

According to Ignatius and many others, the Israelis, led by Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, believe that waiting for the U.S. to strike Iran is an unwise stance. That’s because the U.S.’s threshold for sufficient proof of a nearly finished or completed Iranian nuclear weapon is likely much higher than that of Israel. If such proof came to light, only the U.S. at that point would have the capacity to take out the leadership in Tehran singlehandedly. But such an operation would create a leadership vacuum and leave whoever was running Iran with the bomb. Right now, Israel feels that it can make a dent with its own operation, heading off Iran’s bomb-making before it becomes an issue only the U.S. can deal with. But the window for that option is rapidly closing.

Despite Panetta’s public warnings, and despite Israel’s sudden silence (which many are taking as a sign that it’s gearing up internally for such a mission as this one), an attack on Iran isn’t as likely to occur in the spring as Washington or Tel Aviv would have us believe. That’s because even though new U.S. sanctions on the country went into effect this week, the real test of Iran’s economic fortitude will come around July 1, when the European Union’s gradual introduction of a ban on oil from the country takes full effect. Unfortunately, even those sanctions are unlikely to do much to deter Iran, as India, China and African nations will likely continue to buy much of Iran’s oil production, and they will gain some concessions on price due to the artificially limited market. Nevertheless, Israel will presumably wait to see what happens.

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