“Open up a small channel with Iran in case it is needed given the unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy,” Hossein Askari, who served as special advisor to Saudi finance minister, tells the Tehran Times.
Following is the text of the interview:
Q: The Lebanese newspaper Al-Banna disclosed that Saudi Arabia had expressed willingness to negotiate with Iran after the Aramco oil facility incident, but it was ultimately the Americans who prevented Riyadh from fulfilling its demand. How effective do you think America is in affecting such decisions in Riyadh?
A: Historically, Saudi Arabia would never think about negotiating with Iran before two conditions were met. The King was convinced that Iran was not bent on overthrowing the Al-Sauds, a paranoia that has poisoned rapprochement between the two countries. And second, America’s concurrence about a dialogue with Iran as the Kingdom is totally dependent on the United States for its self-defense. After the Iran Nuclear deal in 2015 (JCPOA), the Al-Sauds had second thoughts about relying on American support. Could they continue to depend on the United States? But when Trump became president and after his trip to Saudi Arabia, the Al-Sauds became emboldened. They felt they could do anything in the region because Trump had their back. But after the Aramco incident, when Trump did not retaliate against Iran for its alleged role, the Al-Sauds became weak in their needs. They had second thoughts. They were willing to hedge their bets. I don’t know, but I think the U.S. did not want any dialogue that would weaken its hands in dealing with Iran in the future.
Q: In your opinion, what groups within Saudi Arabia are in favor of dialogue with Iran, and what groups oppose this? In general, the question is whether internal disputes within Saudi Arabia itself determine whether or not to negotiate with Iran.
A: I think the issue is within the Al-Saud tribe. They don’t listen to other voices in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi public wants peace, less military expenditures and less foreign adventures in places such as Yemen or Syria. The Al-Sauds have to be convinced that Iran has no designs on their rule and will not work with anyone or any group in Saudi Arabia to change the ruling structure in Saudi Arabia. Until then, something that is impossible to predict as relations and events can change, it will rely on the United States the best it can and even secretly secure Israeli support.
Q: Saudi Arabia has aligned with Washington in pursuit of U.S. maximum pressure campaign toward Iran. But after the Aramco attack and the lack of serious U.S. support for Saudi Arabia, Riyadh found that its problems with Iran had to be resolved bilaterally. Do you agree with this assessment?
A: Yes, bilaterally but with full U.S. backing to reach a global security arrangement for the entire Middle East region.
Q: In your opinion, which foreign countries oppose the normalization of Iran- Saudi relations and benefit more from the current situation?
A: The countries that benefit are clear. First, the United States. Because of the conflict, it sells arms to Saudi Arabia and has preferred access to Saudi Arabia for selling everything else, goods and services, that the country imports. U.S. financial institutions are major beneficiaries of managing Saudi assets. But also don’t forget the benefits to lobbyists and consultants of turmoil in the Persian Gulf. The second country that benefits is Israel. I believe it has found a secret channel to Saudi Arabia, affording Israel a useful wedge to use against Iran and extract indirect Arab support in its suppression of Palestinian rights. Russia and China are afforded a role to exploit opportunities for influence in the region.
Q: Some media reported that the Americans had informed the Riyadh authorities that the Iranian system was in dire straits after the demonstrations in Iraq, Lebanon and Iran began and there was no need to negotiate. If this is true, why is Saudi Arabia fully defining its foreign policy towards Iran, despite the lack of American support for the Aramco attack?
A: U.S. hawks, such as Bolton and the Israeli lobby, are all the time touting the imminent collapse of the government in Iran if just a little more pressure is brought to bear. Always, a little bit more. I don’t see any collapse of Iranian cooperation in Iraq or Lebanon. The one thing that has gotten worse for Iran is its economy. And even this seems to have stabilized. Still for the longer run, the migration of talent from Iran to Europe, North America and Australia spells further trouble ahead. But even if I am wrong and the Iranian system is in dire straits, the Saudis see Trump as unpredictable and fear who might be the next American President. A Bernie sanders would scare the Al-Sauds to no end. They want to slowly hedge their bets. Open up a small channel with Iran in case it is needed given the unpredictability of U.S. foreign policy.