Diario Judío México - The outrage over the missing Washington Post columnist and critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Jamal Khashoggi has seemed to have reached with the Saudi Royal Family even allegedly having considered replacing the Crown Prince… and continued. Over the course of this month long scandalous episode, two things became apparent: Khashoggi’s issue became an issue of tribalist loyalty for the critics of the Crown Prince, and his enemies had seized upon his perceived vulnerability to advance far-reaching geopolitical agenda. The Russians, for instance, have given platform to the rumormongering about the alleged level of unpopularity of the Crown Prince within his own family, seeking to portray him as helpless, lonely, and weak.
The Washington Post, in its desperation to smear the Saudis, has published an op-ed with more unsubstantiated allegations by Turkey’s President Erdogan, whose country leads the world in imprisoning journalists. Washington Post’s feigned concerned about human rights in Saudi Arabia does not, however, extend to the strange case of two Saudi sisters, found dead and duct taped in New York. Despite the fact that these deaths whiff of a possible honor killing, the editors went with a strange headline that seems to buy the police narrative that the two girls somehow bound themselves together and committed suicide after maxing out on a credit card. Indeed, the press has not covered itself in glory in the coverage of the Khashoggi situation.
They have allowed Turkish leaks to drive the narrative, showing little concern for truth or justice, and willingly publishing even the wildest stories, taking little responsibility when these tidbits from Erdogan’s table changed momentarily. Essentially, the leading Western Press, as Lee Smith writes, has become a tool of political operatives and foreign and domestic intelligence agencies with an agenda – to take down Mohammed bin Salman, and to replace him with members of the reactionary faction that was at the helm prior to his surprising rise to power. Ironically, the same people who blame the Saudi government for the alleged support for the Saudi Al Qaeda members who perpetrated the 9/11 terrorist attacks are gunning to remove the very person who pushed the faction in power at the time out. Is their agenda modernization and, however gradual, liberalization and reform of Saudi Arabia, or are they merely concerned with access to their old and well known players?
Given the role the US intelligence has played in sharing intelligence with Khoshaggi’s backer Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former intelligence chief, who is said to be critical of Mohammed bin Salman, this remains an open question. Alwaleed bin Talal, another key player in the Saudi power struggle dynamics, is likewise close with many in the American foreign policy establishment. There are rumors circulating that after embezzling money in KSA, bin Talal laundered it by opening companies and charities in the United States, and giving his American counterparts a slice of the pie. How much of bin Talal’s venture/NGO support is built on illegal financing remains to be investigated, but there is little reason to believe anyone is seriously interested in doing that. It is no wonder that Fox News and others remained strangely silent during the corruption probe which saw bin Talal briefly detained over the allegedly embezzled $100 billion – they may have been afraid of what could come out if their own role in facilitating his illicit operations in the US came to light. But given the fact that those with business links to bin Talal are on the dole, they have little reason to support Mohammed bin Salman, whose crackdown on people like bin Talal puts their own financial future at risk.
Jamal Khashoggi likewise enjoyed bin Talal’s patronage – and could have exposed the full extent of his financial improprieties and all the people who benefited from it if ever detained for serious questioning. When Khashoggi ended up with an expedited residency in the United States – not an asylum but a green card! – his friends in the intelligence community were likely behind facilitating his resettlement. As Lee Smith describes it, the intelligence community has an interest in reestablish ties with Turki Al Faisal’s former boss, the former Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef. IT is no wonder that those with ties to the old guard did everything possible to undermine Mohammed bin Salman during the course of the investigation – to the point of endangering US national security interests in the process. The numerous leaks that came from the US intelligence/national security circles advancing the Turkish narrative about Saudi non-cooperation and Mohammed bin Salman’s alleged involvement in the operation, with no evidence other than their status as anonymous members of the US intelligence community should be reason enough to question the interests and agendas of these leakers, not to mention their veracity.
They recklessly, or perhaps willfully, endangered their sources and methods of intelligence gathering, not to mention went at odds with the orders of the President, which surely did not entail premature revelations – or outright lies – during the course of an ongoing investigation, where the fate of an important US ally was at stake. That US intelligence would comment at all on the matter at such an early stage is disturbing in itself – that someone in the intelligence community would take it upon himself to decide matters of policy indicates that perhaps the United States has a far bigger internal problem to deal with than saving the Saudi leadership – it may have to clean house of moles and leakers who are at best working to advance personal agendas, even if it means endangering US security, or at worst are on the payroll of foreign interests.
Unfortunately, President Trump himself did not help matters by sending mixed signals to his Saudi counterpart. Initially he came out swinging in support of the Saudis, but as soon as Europeans started pressuring the United States to condemn and punish Saudi Arabia for Khashoggi’s death, he shifted tone and even threatened KSA. That signaled to bin Salman’s adversaries open season to take down the Crown Prince. If the United States won’t fully back him, than who will? The long knives came out with alacrity. As Jonathan Spyer writes, numerous geopolitical interests were at play; various actors with an ax to grind against Saudi Arabia stood to benefit from the weakening in their staunch adversary’s position . Not the least of the beneficiaries are Iran, Russia, Turkey, and Qatar. Rhetorically and politically, these countries leveraged the ongoing crisis to their greatest benefit, to rile up the street against the embattled prince and to boost their own image – thus helping perpetuate this odd controversy seemingly ad infinitum.
The narrative that was sold to even the most well meaning foreign policy thinkers in the United States was simple.
- Khashoggi is a dissident and a US resident.
- He deserved US protection from all harm, on the basis of his political oppositionary views.
- The Saudi Crown Prince has an almost unlimited power. He is control of most institutions in Saudi Arabia. He had to have known about what happened with Khashoggi, and had responsibility to control his own people even if he was not in any way actively involved in approving the operation. In other words, even if his underlings exceeded their authority, Mohammed bin Salman was ultimately responsible.
- He should be personally held responsible for anything that went wrong, and whatever happened to Khashoggi, it is not enough to punish the low level operatives who executed the operation. The country and its leadership should suffer some consequences at the highest level. If it does not, US is sending a signal that it is ok to be reckless and irresponsible or maliciously cruel, and that anyone who touches dissidents who also happen to be permanent US resident risks US wrath.
This narrative holds strong emotional appeal of pitting the oppressor (a powerful, wealthy, perhaps even aggressive Saudi Crown Prince) against the oppressed (a 60-year-old dissident, who was concerned about tyranny inside Saudi Arabia, championed freedom of speech, lived in the US, and wrote for US press). It is also predicated on several baseless assumptions, if not to say completely flawed premises. First of all, did Khashoggi obtain his permanent residence by honest and legitimate means? The fact that no one is exactly clear on how he got a green card within one year of arrival without applying for asylum begs the question that at the very least his value as a US resident should be scrutinized. Second, is he actually a dissident deserving of appropriate protections? Leaving aside his pro-Muslim Brotherhood views that are directly at odds with US national security interests, arguably, his position as a former government spokesman who never broke ties with his backers – bin Talal and Turki Al Faisal, suggests that he was not a «dissident» in the same sense of the word as, for instance, Raif Badawi imprisoned in Saudi Arabia. He was, in fact, quite likely a foreign spy (and without an appropriate agreement with the home country, such people do not generally enjoy US protection) , and quite possibly a traitor to his own government without also being a real asset to the United States. Let’s take a look at what is actually going on.
Turki Al Faisal, to this day, is an Ambassador at Large for the Saudi government. He is a member of the family and a political operative who is part of the KSA power structure. Bin Talal is also a member of the family, and although he does not work for the government, he is known to be involved in the internal power plays. Khashoggi had worked for Al Faisal under Mohammed bin Salman’s predecessor, and it is said that his open attacks on the current Crown Prince reflected Al Faisal’s own dislike of the new presumptive head of state. Khashoggi, although unofficial, continued representing the views of a currently employed member of the Saudi government, who, while serving said government, apparently sought to undermine it.
This is not opposition in the same sense the Democrats are in opposition to a Republican President in the United States, and have a duty to criticize him, and a legitimate political role in standing against his policies, if it makes sense to do so. Saudi Arabia does not have that structure. It is not a parliamentary/constitutional monarchy. The fact that it has internal interfamily power struggles against a sitting designated head of state is troubling. It is also their own business, and the US is not obliged to take sides in every such political dispute. However, to the extent that Turki Al Faisal or any other member of the royal family is taking action to ousts the sitting head of state or a designated successor who has certain legal authority in that capacity, these actions could be legitimately considered treacherous/seditious by the Saudi government.
A better example would be if a member of a Republican administration – for instance, an Ambassador to some country, or one of the members of the National Security Council – took it upon himself to conduct an alternative foreign policy behind the president’s back and to weaponize members of the government-funded communications vehicle to attack the president. Of course, the way the United States government would deal with anyone doing that would be much more transparent and predictable than the way Saudi Arabia dealt with anyone found to be in that capacity. And for some reason, until now, the alleged bloodthirsty tyrant Mohammed bin Salman only briefly detained his political enemies, and let them out to continue with their scheming and plotting. However, the question of whether a government of a country could legitimately arrest such people for their role in undermining the governance is fairly narrow, and the answer to that is fairly obvious and common sense. Now let’s get back to the United States.
The United States has defense and security agreements with KSA – and specifically with KSA’s head of state, whoever that happened to be at the time, and other members of the sitting government, whatever their legitimate authority happens to be. In other words, our obligations are to our ally, who is the head of state or the equivalent of a «chief executive», not to errant members of the family who happen to have some roles, and their henchmen, who are looking to take down our ally. Had Mohammed bin Salman requested the extradition of Jamal Khashoggi for questioning for his role in acting against the state, in other words, it would have been understandable if we were concerned about his treatment and said no.
However, given that’s not what happened, President Trump’s ultimate duty, if any, in this scenario, is not to Khashoggi, who arrived in the US by unclear means and with the backing of US intelligence who undermined President Trump’s own foreign policy position in the instant case, but to the ally endangered by a henchman of potentially treacherous actors in his ranks. And to the extent it would have helped Mohammed bin Salman to gain better control of his own apparatus, as his current critics accuse him of not having,. we should be helping with that instead of playing the double game of criticizing him for not having his act together, and then siding with the very people who are creating the problem just as he is trying to get his act together. That is why President Trump’s vacillating position on the matter of the Saudis has been less-than-helpful, and in fact, legitimized the positions of Mohammed bin Salman’s internal and external enemies.
Still, it is not hard to understand President Trump’s position. He has been under sustained pressure from some people in the Republican circles, from the Democrats, from members of Congress, from the media, from European allies, and from some members of the business community and intelligence/security circles with ties to Alwaleed bin Talal and Turki Al Faisal. Perhaps the foreign policy position that seems fairly obvious when outlined in written form is less clear from that vantage point when other interests appear to be colliding. Nevertheless, President Trump seemed perfectly willing to overlook significant wrongdoing by other allies, who also happened to be opposed to Saudi Arabia. Just recently, Secretary Mattis predictably called on Saudi Arabia to make peace with Qatar, attempting to use the appearance of leverage in this sensitive situation to bring about an appearance of unity in the Gulf so desirable to the White House.
However, there has been no real pressure on Qatar to end the issues which led to all this trouble to begin with. The issue of Al Jazeera remains untouched by the Administration; there has been no pressure to terminate ties between the Qatari emir and Youssef Al Qaradawi, the spiritual pillar of the Muslim Brotherhood warmly welcomed inside the country; there has been little effort to crack down on Doha’s ties to Hamas, which has used the situation to its advantage to extort all involved in the negotiations with Gaza for monthly payment in exchange for calm at the Israeli border. Worse, the administration is perfectly willing to overlook Qatar’s violation of US sanctions against Iran, which involve alleged sales of Qatari planes to the Islamic Republic (which could be converted for other needs), and an alleged role in financing Hizbullah. It likewise has not been pressured to shut down the Taliban office in Doha, which recently welcomed five new radicalized recruits from Guantanamo, who were once exchanged for the American deserter Bergdahl. The US government likewise had nothing to say to the allegation that Iran arms shipments to Hezbullah pass through Doha. Nor to the alleged Qatar recruitment of Moroccan diplomats in New York, who then recruited American Jewish influencers to act as agents of influence for Doha in Morocco and in the United States.
It would seem that if you are the «right» kind of US ally you can get away with anything. Turkey, after liberating the American pastor Andrew Brunson, had its top officials immediately taken off the Magnitsky sanctions list – even though it has at least two other US citizens in custody, and same officials are responsible for thousands of other human rights violations against various human rights defenders inside the country, not to mention vast corruption. Yet, both Republicans and Democrats are both pushing for Magnitsky sanctions against high level Saudi officials over Khashoggi – not over Raif Badawi, or any other grassroots human rights defender currently in prison, but over a foreign spy not normally entitled to any such protections. Turkey continues to enjoy US friendship and support despite playing an increasingly unhelpful role in Syria, which includes in disruptions against US other allies – Syrian Kurds, and ultimately, strengthening ISIS. Failing to take a firm position to protect the Kurds, US once again is showing that ultimately, it is strength, not virtue, that may ultimately be at the crux of the choice US makes in opting to back one ally’s termed interests over another.
If Mohammed bin Salman is perceived as sufficiently weakened by the Trump administration, it may choose to back the countries and interests that appear to be «stronger» for the time being. That paradigm may explain why, in an usual move, Israeli and Egyptian officials publicized their vocal stand in support of the Crown Prince. The US chose to send signals that some of its allies can be sacrificed or publicly undermined, if some other interests are being served. These moves come with a cost to US credibility, not just with respect to its other allies who now see that the administration cannot be trusted, but also when its military and defense interests are on the line. Secretary Pompeo’s calls for the Saudi government to stop shelling populated areas of Yemen and for a ceasefire within 30 days, immediately echoed by Theresa May and Justin Trudeau, are but one such example – which likewise came at a not coincidental but inopportune moment when Mohammed bin Salman appears to be struggling with the fallout from Khashoggi’s death, whether he is to blame for it or not.
This call is ironic, given the fact that KSA is actively working with Yemen’s legitimate government to counter the Houthi separatists, backed by Iran, who are known to hold entire populated cities hostage, and to have attacked Yemeni and Saudi civilians. To the extent, US has an interest in undermining Iran’s weaponization and training of local rebel groups in the Arab world, the signal it is currently sending is precisely the opposite. All of these developments are playing right into the hands of Russia and Iran – ironically, when Iran is significantly weakened by expectation of sanctions, loss in oil revenue, a recent Stuxnetlike computer virus attack which significantly undermined its infrastructure, and Mossad’s disruption of a planned assassination of an Ahwazi opposition leader in Denmark, which led to Denmark’s withdrawal of its ambassador from Iran, and calls for additional EU-wide sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Now seems to be the perfect time to finish off the Iranian regime, rather than reward it by sacrificing its opponent in the face of Saudi Arabia, giving a pass to its allies, like Qatar and Turkey, or going easy on the sanctions. The Trump administration, despite its recently tough rhetoric and apparent willingness to take dramatic steps to punish the ayatollahs, seems to be taking a step back on the even of the looming sanctions showdown. For instance, it has already granted waivers to 8 countries, with significant oil trade interests in Iran – supposedly, in the hope of gradual reduction, in trade, which in some cases seems to be a false hope at best. Likewise, the administration appears poised to let Iran remain in the SWIFT financial system, which will keep the Islamic Republic connected to US banking and give it a great deal of financial leeway – exactly the opposite of forcing Iran’s hand just as its roiling under the pressure from internal uprisings, opposition in Iraq, and Israeli attacks on its arms transport in Syria.
We have seen this play out before, specifically, with the Obama administration, which has turned away from the Saudis, from Egypt, and other traditional allies in the Arab world once the secretive nuclear deal talks with Iran were under way. In the past, President Trump criticized JCPOA for being a «bad deal» and boasted that he could do a lot better, and that he would be willing to engage in talks with Tehran if they had something better to offer. Furthermore, in recent months, former Secretary of State John Kerry was seen openly meeting with the Iranian regime, and asking them to wait it out until Trump is out of office, for a return to the deal. That move seemed inexplicable on Kerry’s part. What was he gaining from such pronouncements other than ridicule from the current administration? If, however, the White House is actually engaging in some backchannel conversations with the regime about the return to the table, these developments make perfect sense. Recall Obama’s «red line» in Syria, and his support for Iran-backed Morsi regime in Egypt.
At least part of the reason for such seemingly inexplicable moves were concerns that if Iranian allies were to fall, the nucler deal talks would be disrupted. The regime would certainly be displeased if Obama had intervened on behalf of Iran’s opponents. The regime tested out the Trump administration, and, seeing its commitment to withdrawal from JCPOA, decided that it would be unwise to try to play hardball when with a weakened hand, and instead, decide to go by its more traditional path of trying to outplay, outwit, and outwait its Western opponents. Playing on Trump’s obsession with destroying Obama’s legacy by the sheer appearance of being a superior dealmaker, Iran may have approached the White House behind the scenes with a promise to tone down public rhetoric against the administration and to consider including, for instance, ballistic missiles, and reduction in sponsorship of terrorism in the «bigger, better» deal the ayatollahs know President Trump and his supporters are so keen on.
The rest is history. The regime asked for a show of good faith from the administration in weaning off its oil partners gradually to make the sanctions bite less, and to keep it in the SWIFT system in exchange for key concessions. While Iran seems at the nadir financially, in reality, it continues with its sponsorship of Hezbullah, Houthis, and Hamas as if nothing has changed, and there is no evidence of willingness to stop the development of sophisticated weapons. On the contrary, recently, Iran has transferred additional advanced missiles to Hizbullah in Lebanon, where Israel has not been striking. And the US and the UN believe there is even greater evidence of Iran’s recent and continuous sponsorship of the lethal Houthi movement in Yemen, after seizing additional sophisticated weapons bearing Iran’s signature off the coast of Yemen.
Days after this action, however, Pompeo called for a ceasefire, addressing Saudi Arabia, not the Houthis. Its negotiations with Iran are likely supposed to be kept secret from Congress, from Israel, from KSA, and from other Middle Eastern allies. Israelis and Congressional leadership most likely have at least an inkling as to the possible existence of backchannel context, if not the extent of this dialogue. Perhaps they are hoping that these discussions will fail of natural and predictable causes. However, that does not explain the full extent of such public and significant concessions favoring Iran that the United States has already made without the appearance of any specific gain from Iran and its cronies.
On the other hand, Israelis may feel their hands are ties thanks to the administration’s many recent failures, including the embassy move, the crackdown on the PLO, and strongly supportive positions at the UN and in the media. Regardless, if there is any truth to these suspicions, it should be investigated and exposed. Iran’s leadership cannot be trusted to negotiate in good faith; it is likely playing games with the White House, playing off known vulnerabilities and divisions within the administration itself, as well as off President Trump’s personal concern. Existing concessions, if that is what they are, are undermining US strategic interests, and any such discussions should be fully transparent to Congress, particularly if it is to become a treaty level agreement, and take into consideration our sensitive alliance in the Middle East and beyond. So far, we have gained nothing except further undermining our allies and our interests in Yemen, while Iran has gained the satisfaction of kicking around Saudi Arabia, and enjoying the show when a divided republic is pitted against tyrannical monolithic authoritarian regimes, determined to dominate the region and to stiffle any semblance of reform and resistance to their hegemony.