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  • Writer's pictureRichard Murff

Israel, Saudi Arabia & Iran

Plans within plans within plans...

If you’ve ever had the pleasure of getting stuck in a debate in the Middle East, you quickly figure that what you think is a relatively straight-forward dialogue is, in fact shell game being played on a 4-level chess board: The contract is never quite finalized, the side deals are never ntirely clear, and the conversation always has room for one more windy oration.  The really offensive part is that are seem so baffled that Westerners keep falling for it.

As Barnett Rubin, former Senior Advisor to the US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, pointed out in a commentary in War on the Rocks, when a European delegate accused Iran of supplying arms to the Taliban, the Iranian diplomat played both indignant and dumb, replying “How could Iran supply aid to its sworn enemy?” It was a very Iranian thing to say. Not quite a denial, but it did shed light on some 25 centuries of plans within plans…within more plans…

Rubin replied, “Iranians were not such a simple-minded people that they could have only one enemy or one policy at a time.” He was right about that.

US foreign policy relies primarily on the fact that America can throw cash at every problem and when that fails, buy the world’s biggest hammer: A device ill-suited for shifting through layers. Since the rise of the Ottomans, Iran has had neither the money nor the hammer to make itself obvious by force. So it developed a policy more akin to a chronometer – with gears that appearto be moving in multiple opposing directions drive three different faces ticking away on three different tacks. It’s hard to see what is driving the gears until you see the whole thing in its entirely. Sometimes not even then, 2,500 years is a long time to perfect a technique.

Revolutionary groups, though, tend to get ahead of themselves in a way that watch gears don’t. Iran has likely lost some control over its carefully laid plans – and this is everyone’s problem.  Diplomacy in a conflict as ham-handed as what is currently unfolding in the region is a long bet on a good day.

Even the militias seem to know that they’ve gone too far, and that might have been only by accident. That one-way attack drone probably only got through because another two-way US drone was heading back to camp, so the automatic aerial defenses were down. Given Khatib Hezbollah’s stammering response to their “success” the whole thing appears to be garden-variety happenstance. Still, it needed a response from the US and, as lively as it was, has yet to prove a deterrent. On Sunday the Islamic Resistance on Iraq – of which Khatib Hezbollah is a part – struck a US camp in Syria on Sunday, killing six Kurdish soldiers.  


When dealing with multiple dials spinning independently – or a formless quagmire – the first step would be to break the thing down into its component parts. So, working backwards from the obvious endgame, here we go:



No one but Israel’s hard-right “extreme settlers” and the Palestinian jihadists actually think current crisis can end in anything other than a two-state arrangement. Unfortunately, it’s a hard-right coalition that is keeping the Binyamin Netanyahu in power won’t accept this, and neither will Hamas’ leadership. Pretty much the rest of the world knows that there is no way out of the current mess but a Palestinian state. And truculence at the top is generally biddable.



The key to achieving a two-state solution is mediation is the real involvement by the Saudis Arabia. The Palestinians trust them and it is ins both Israel and Saudi Arabia to normalize relations; it is just good for business. Normalization would allow the Saudis to sideline Hamas without the usual blowback – because you can’t launch an infitada against Mecca.  Then give direction and support to a fledgling Palestinian state.



To get Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, there needs to be a cease fire. And given how long it takes the wheels of diplomacy to turn, the longer the better. There will also need to be a US Saudi Defense agreement that keeps Tehran in line but keeps Washington’s fingerprints off the gears.



For a cease fire to hold, Hamas needs to release the hostages. As of this writing, Hamas has responded to a cease-fire deal offered but negotiators, but the details of the response have not been made public.


We give the whole thing a 50/50 chance – not great but it’s better than nothing.


America is a country based on contract law. Washington has never really learned how to play this Eastern game, and probably never will. What it has learned is that it doesn’t want to play anymore, and that is a step in the right direction. The Middle East must sort out its own problems.

The Sunni Arab states are fully aware that Iran’s goal is Islamic revolution throughout the Muslim world and then beyond – with Shi’a Iran as the unquestioned leader. Almost from the founding of the Islamic Republic, Iran’s Quds force has existed solely to use military means to spread chaos outside of its borders. The US led invasion of Iraq aggravated the existing situation by removing Iran’s greatest physical threat.

If a full hostage release and reasonably lengthy cease-fire can be achieved, Israel and Saudi Arabia may be able to normalize relations, giving MBS, the de facto Saudi leader a chance to step in as modernizing peacemaker while further isolating Iran.  Normalization is popular in Israel, as well. Within the government its only real resistance coming from the deeply unpopular hard-right coalition who know that it must lead a two-state solution.

As for the Uncle Sam – a defense treaty with Saudi Arabia would sweeten the deal on all sides, while allowing Washington to keep its distance. And for Yahweh/Allah/God’s sake, let’s stop talking about “nation building.”



This article was adapted from Pothole of the Gods: On Holy War, Fake News and Other Ill-Advised Ideas. Available in updated paperback version this spring.



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