The well-known Saudi commentator Jamal Khashoggi’s columns are always interesting for the insights they provide into the politics of his country, given his proximity to the royal family, especially his mentor Prince Turki bin Faisal (formerly spy chief and ambassador to the United States).

This is more so today as the famous troika – Prince Saud bin Faisal (formerly foreign minister), Prince Bandar bin Sultan (former spy chief and ambassador to the US) and Prince Turki himself – do not hold any high office in the power calculus dominated by the Al Sudairis, the powerful clan that has surged in Saudi Arabia under the new King Salman bin Abdulaziz.

It is difficult to imagine Saudi foreign and security policies sans the famous troika, whom former King Abdullah had heavily depended on. Evidently, times have changed – albeit experts on Saudi politics speculate whether the change is final or will prove durable.

All that would makes Khashoggi’s latest column titled Beware of Iran utterly fascinating. He has labored essentially on a single focal point – namely, the powers-that-be in Saudi Arabia today — Salman and the newly-appointed Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef (the king’s nephew) and the Deputy Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (the king’s son) — should not trust the overtures from Tehran for reconciliation, be it over Yemen or over Syria, and should instead pursue relentlessly an all-out offensive, politically and militarily, aimed at forcing Iran to abandon its “absurd adventures” in regional politics.

On closer reading, Khashoggi appears to be addressing someone who is apparently in charge of the Saudi-led war in Yemen and may also determine the future dynamics of the Saudi-driven regime change agenda in Syria. He writes:

  • Iran is in denial as it can hardly believe what is happening around it: a huge defeat in Yemen, and the beginning of defeat in Syria… Iran needs a shock to wake up and smell the coffee. Yemen is the first of these shocks.
  • Decisiveness is a must for Iran to wake up. Operation Decisive Storm or Renewal of Hope must continue and expand, as most of the Islamic world has had enough of Tehran’s absurd adventures… Tehran will change as there are faint voices that have had enough of war and myths, and want Iran to be another Turkey.

The troika of Faisal, Bandar and Turki would nod in complete agreement. Indeed, this has been the Saudi policy toward Iran. The underlying uneasiness in the article seems to be that the Iranians might try to get through to the new leadership in Riyadh with proposals for a reconciliation — either directly or indirectly via Oman or Egypt.

At issue here is the political personality of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Nayef [MBN] who is known to be a favorite interlocutor for Washington and who may adopt a pragmatic approach, relatively speaking, to the region and whose tough stand on terrorism “could facilitate collaboration with the United States and with Iran if a nuclear agreement is reached… [and] could also be well situated to play a pivotal role in helping settle regional conflicts” – to quote Emile Nakhleh at the Council on Foreign Relations, a veteran CIA hand on the Middle East and political Islam, who has known and interacted with Nayef over the years.

Nakhleh wrote in a riveting piece recently entitled Looking Two Steps Ahead into Saudi Arabia’s Future:

  • I discerned several characteristics in MBN that could help him as a future king of Saudi Arabia to nudge the country forward and perhaps usher in a period of real reform. He has a sophisticated knowledge of the root causes of terrorism and radicalization and how to combat them. He also has a pragmatic approach to regional politics, especially Iran’s role as a regional power, and the linkage between regional stability and Saudi security.
  • Regionally, MBN realizes that Gulf stability is integral to Saudi security. For Gulf security to endure, he will have to accept Iran as a significant Gulf power and search for ways to develop a mutually beneficial partnership with his Persian neighbor.
  • Based on MBN’s knowledge of the region and of the terrorist threat to his country, the chances of instituting real political and religious reform during his future reign are 60-40 at best… As a prerequisite for success, he will have to consolidate his power vis a vis the conservative and powerful elements within the royal family. Most importantly, he will have to overcome the opposition of the religious establishment… His success could be historic. But his failure would be catastrophic for the future of Saudi Arabia.
  • The United States should also pay close attention to MBN’s chances of success and should tacitly encourage him to move forward with courage.

Interestingly, “Beware of Iran” appears days before President Barack Obama’s summit meeting with Salman and other GCC leaders at Washington and Camp David next Monday where Obama hopes to convince his skeptical audience from the Persian Gulf that a US-Iranian normalization is ultimately for their good.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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