Ever since the UN Security Council imposed new sanctions on Iran last week after the country refused to stop enriching uranium, concerns have mounted over the possibility of a nuclear-type conflict in the Middle East involving the United States, Israel, Iran and perhaps a host of Arab countries including Saudi Arabia.

Whilst the descent towards war may well prove inevitable over the course of 2011, this article explores the strategic necessities of the other side of the equation; namely the question of just how bad a nuclear-armed Iran would be in what is considered the most volatile neighborhood in the world.

By far the most interesting leak that surfaced from the US cable disclosures is the repeated insistence of the Saudi king exhorting the United States to withdraw from Iraq by taking a detour through Iran. As Reuters reported on the WikiLeaks story on November 29:

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia repeatedly exhorted the United States to “cut off the head of the snake” by launching military strikes to destroy Iran’s nuclear program, according to leaked US diplomatic cables.

A copy of the cable dated April 20, 2008, was published in the New York Times web site on Sunday after being released by the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks. The classified communication between the US Embassy in Riyadh and Washington showed the Saudis feared Shi’ite Iran’s rising influence in the region, particularly in neighboring Iraq.

The United States has repeatedly said that the military option is on the table, but at the same time US military chiefs have made clear they view it as a last resort, fearing it could ignite wider conflict in the Middle East.

The April 2008 cable detailed a meeting between General David Petraeus, the top US military commander in the Middle East, and then US ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, and King Abdullah and other Saudi princes.

At the meeting, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Adel al-Jubeir “recalled the King’s frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran and so put an end to its nuclear weapons program,” the cable said.

“He told you to cut off the head of the snake,” Jubeir was reported to have said.

The sentiment broaches some obvious questions in the minds of anyone who is not beholden to the Saudi establishment or part of the George W. Bush – Dick Cheney oil coterie.

Firstly, what is the snake that King Abdullah refers to?

There are multiple possibilities about the nature of the snake. One possibility is that the king referred to the Persians, or more likely the Shi’ite masses as the snake; with Iran as its head. While this view would certainly confirm with the Saudi/Wahhabi orthodoxy in respect of Islam and its evolution over the past 1,000 years, it doesn’t make much for common ground with the United States. Americans are (presumably) neutral with respect to the different denominations of Islam, in the sense that they are already at war in two predominantly Sunni areas (northern Iraq and Afghanistan) and are embroiled in wars across Shi’ite regions in the southern part of Iraq, as well as the Reagan-era animosity towards Shi’ite Iran.

The snakes in the sands

There is something deliciously self-serving about Saudi exhortations for the US to act on Iran to prevent the rise of a new power in the Middle East, especially if the US were to step back and ask a tougher question about the role of “other snakes”.

In case that is too obtuse, what I am referring to is the “snake” of religious terrorism, and in particular the problem of disaffected youth in predominantly Sunni kingdoms such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait et al; as well as those in anarchies such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is not entirely clear that the natural enemy of such youth is necessarily the Americans; more likely, it is the established order of the Middle East, where the wealth of nations is controlled by a bunch of aging monarchies.

This snake of religious terrorism is the one that bit the US on 9/11. Most of the hijackers on September 11, 2001, were of Saudi origin and despite nominally falling under the leadership of Osama bin Laden it stands to reason that they were mainly disenchanted due to the stifling anti-democracy of Saudi Arabia and the inherent hypocrisy of Wahhabism in a country that spent most of its time kowtowing to the Americans.

Fearing the tactical nightmare of dealing with hundreds if not thousands of these disaffected youth, America and Europe chose to make the strategic blunder of supporting the crumbling monarchies as long as they attacked their own youth. This was a stupid bargain, to put it mildly.

A sustainable situation would be to engender wider regime change in the Middle East by booting out the creaking and corrupt monarchies, to be replaced progressively with Islamic leaders capable of taking a development-oriented approach to their countries. To ensure this new generation of Middle East leaders do not get overly tempted by the possibilities of attacking America or Israel, it would be necessary to have a “natural” check in the region – namely Iran.

As a nominally democratic state with a strong theological association with Shi’ite philosophy, Iran’s potential to disrupt the stale status quo in the Middle East has been well known since 1979. The US along with various Sunni kingdoms egged on Saddam Hussein in his murderous war against Iran, in itself a war of survival for the minority Sunni community of Iraq against the plural majority Shi’ite population.

The atrocities that Saddam and his henchmen visited upon the Shi’ite population in southern Iraq are well known. Iran also suffered hundreds of thousands in casualties among its civilian population; atrocities committed by the Sunni regime of Iraq for which no means of accounting was even attempted by either the Europeans or the Americans; those so-called paragons of human rights.

Australia gets it right

Contrast the Saudi stance with that of Australia, a consistent ally of the United States and the United Kingdom for the past 60 years. As Reuters reported on December 13:

Australia is at odds with its major security ally the United States over Iran, saying it is not a “rogue state” and its nuclear weapons program is for deterrence, not attack, according to US cables released by WikiLeaks. The documents, published in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, also reveal that Australia’s top security organization believes Tehran sees a “grand bargain” with the United States as its best way to ensure national security.

But the Office of National Assessments (ONA) shared Washington’s fears that Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons could lead to conventional or nuclear war, noting a conflict between Israel and Iran was the greatest challenge to Middle East stability.

The ONA was also concerned that nuclear proliferation in the Middle East may drive Southeast Asian nations to pursue their own nuclear capabilities. “It’s a mistake to think of Iran as a ‘rogue state’,” then ONA chief Peter Varghese told the United States in a briefing, according to the 2008 US diplomatic cables from Canberra. The cables said the ONA sought a balanced view of Tehran as a sophisticated diplomatic player rather than one liable to behave impulsively or irrationally.

The Australians are correct in their assessment, even if it was only made because of their fears that a nuclear conflagration in the Middle East would spark a rush towards nuclear weapons by Indonesia (the world’s largest Muslim country and a close enough neighbor to worry Australian policymakers). Whatever their motives, the Australians may have hit the nail on the head – namely, that the West should take a balanced approach to this problem.

What about Israel?

Any argument in support of Iran, though, automatically falls at the door of the hysterical pronouncements of the Iranian leadership from Israel. There is little doubt in the minds of most right-thinking Jews and Americans that given half a chance, Iran would quite literally proceed to “wipe Israel off the map” as the president of Iran proudly claimed last year.

This is a serious worry in terms of the West or anyone else engaging Iran, primarily because there doesn’t appear to be any motivation within the Iranian leadership to change attitudes towards Israel nor is there any apparent popular pressure in the country to do so. If anything, the proverbial “man on the street” is as inimical to the interests of Israel as the half-crazy leadership of Iran.

That said, there have to be other considerations too. Firstly, it is unlikely that Iran actually has the ability and, distinctly, the willingness to withstand a Jewish state counter-attack (let alone American) should it ever contemplate an attack on Israel. With over 200 nuclear bombs at its command (some estimates even say 400), Israel is no pushover when it comes to retaliation.

Secondly, one has to sit back and examine what exactly the Iranians can claim to gain by the endeavor of pursuing this goal – precious nothing. Compare that to the direct benefit of addressing their key problem, namely a decline in the production and export of oil that Iran faces on a daily basis. Other authors – including my Asia Times Online colleague Spengler – have mentioned the dire straits of the Iranian economy with its over-reliance on falling oil exports.

Putting fear and greed together, the answer to engaging Iran is surely the expansion of Iranian influence over Shi’ite oil-producing areas around the Persian Gulf. A critical examination of this aspect could well be the key to resolving both the Middle East conundrum and containing the further spread of Wahhabi terrorism globally.

Shi’ite oil

There is something of a truism in the energy industry that while Sunni states may claim ownership of oil reserves, most oil-producing areas are actually in regions populated exclusively or extensively by Shi’ite groups. For example, The Energy Bulletin published the following table in December 2008, in an article entitled “Shia Islam and oil geopolitics” by James Leigh; the table highlights the predominance of Shi’ite (Shia) populations in the regions with significant oil reserves.

The article highlights a key point:

The Gulf states of Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, have 81.3 million Shia or about 61% of the total Gulf population. Further, if we just take the Shia populations of the five nations of Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE holding 58% of world oil reserves, we see Shia make up a total of 62% of their populations. Clearly the Shia have the potential for significant influence over this whole Gulf region through their own nations and also ultimately to the world. Of course they could also wield regional and world influence through their solid representation in OPEC.

A closer look at the exclusively Arab portions of the “oil map” is disturbing to say the least for the average Sunni fanatic. A number of key oil fields in various Arab states adjoining the “Arabian” Gulf (which is of course called the “Persian” Gulf in the rest of the world) are in areas with predominantly Shi’ite populations, the principal ones being Bahrain and Al-Hasa (a region that was under Bahrain during the time of the Ottoman empire).

This then is the core of the Saudi worry about Iran. An expansion of the Shi’ite state could provoke grave unrest within Saudi Arabian borders but also limit the country’s ability to suppress dissent from its young and restless, a scenario that must provoke the greatest concern among all the crown princes as they mull the succession from King Abdullah.

Looking ahead

The prospect of a nuclear Iran certainly creates its share of worries, not the least of which is the likely expansion of a theater of war away from the Middle East towards Europe and Asia. The country’s attitudes towards Israel are also a matter of deep concern. However, if one assumes that an expansion of the Iranian military in non-conventional weapons is a certainty in an environment where the United States as a declining superpower is unable to intervene militarily, then the next best option – namely to harness this new emerging power – should certainly be examined closely.

The primary advantage of a nuclear Iran and a rising Shi’ite state would be the instability it engenders in today’s predominantly Sunni- and Wahhabi-controlled Middle East. That is not a bad thing as both America and Europe have precious little to show for their engagement of Saudi Arabia and neighboring kingdoms in the nine years since 9/11 and the West’s attempts to curtail al-Qaeda. Instead, the rise of Iran could well promote the kind of reforms that have thus far been eschewed by Arab kingdoms, and in turn create the conditions for greater stability over the long run.