[Even the Saudis do not have the refining capacity to supply gasoline for the world, or possibly even to service their own growing needs (SEE: Oil-Rich Middle-East Running Low on Gas: Analyst).]
“Saudi Arabia in particular faces a growing shortage of oil products: Without new refining capacity we forecast the Kingdom will import 248 billion liters of gasoline and diesel this decade at a cost of 170 billion dollars.”
The grim portent was served by Prince Turki al-Faisal, who warned that the Saudis could flood the international oil markets to bring down the price of crude unless Tehran halted its controversial nuclear program.
“Iran is very vulnerable in the oil sector, and it’s there that more could be done to squeeze the current government,” “The Wall Street Journal” quoted Faisal — a senior member of the Saudi royal family — as telling a private gathering of United States and British military officers in June.
Saudi Arabia, he went on, was ready to replace Iran in the international oil market — thus depriving Tehran of the vital revenues it needs to keep its fragile economy afloat and to fund its uranium-enrichment activities, which Riyadh and the West suspect is a front for building a nuclear bomb.
“To put this into perspective, Saudi Arabia has so much [spare] production capacity — nearly 4 million barrels per day — that we could almost instantly replace all of Iran’s oil production,” Faisal said.
Faisal once headed Saudi Arabia’s intelligence agency but now holds no official government office. Saudi officials have said his comments were made purely in a private capacity.
Yet they articulated the hostilities between the two neighbors, which have grown during this year’s Arab Spring, a period in which Saudi troops deployed in Bahrain to help snuff out a Shi’ite revolt that Riyadh claims — despite Iranian denials — has been fomented by Tehran.
Iranian students participate in a demonstration to oppose the presence of Saudi troops in Bahrain, outside the Saudi Embassy in Tehran on May 3.
And according to Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian commentator with the Israel-based Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company, Faisal Turki was also illustrating Saudi Arabia’s assumed role of being the spearhead of an economic attack on Iran.
“The Saudis are now heading an international campaign to weaken Iran’s economy and to stop the nuclear program. Whereas the Americans are the ones that are imposing sanctions on different parts of the economy,” Javedanfar says, “the Saudi are the ones who are basically going for the jugular.
“They are going for Iran’s oil industry by going to Iran’s customers, such as India and saying, ‘Don’t buy oil from Iran; you can buy oil from us and we can basically give it to you at a better price.’ They want to flood the market to bring the price of oil down. They know that Iran is vulnerable because 80 percent of the country’s income comes from oil.”
Iran, which currently holds the presidency of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), hit back angrily.
“Iran will stop any move designed to play with oil prices through production hikes,” the country’s caretaker oil minister, Mohammad Aliabadi, said after Faisal’s comments were made public.
The Iranians already blocked a Saudi effort to increase production at the last OPEC meeting in Vienna on June 8.
Indulging In Hyperbole
Yet while there is general agreement that Iran’s overreliance on oil revenues is an Achilles heel, not everyone is convinced that Riyadh’s threat would have the effect of crippling Islamic regime economically.
Kamran Dadkhah, associate professor of economics at Northeastern University in Boston, says Saudi Arabia — despite being OPEC’s biggest oil producer — is indulging in hyperbole by believing it can bring Iran to its knees.
“Saudi Arabia is, indeed, the only OPEC member with spare capacity and excess capacity and financial resources to manipulate the oil markets,” Dadkhah says. “But to bankrupt Iran through this process is a wrong statement.
“If you flood the market with oil, OK, the price of oil will come down. [But the] Iranians will sell at a lower price. Iran has sold at $9 a barrel at times, and there is no reason that it is the Iranian oil that will be replaced. It may be some other oil producer that has to cut down on their supply because the price has come down or even [whose] customers will be replaced.”
Moreover, according to Dadkhah, Iran could afford to fund its nuclear program with oil prices much lower than the $108.19 a barrel of Brent crude was fetching on June 28.
“Iran doesn’t need all the money it is getting now just to go with the nuclear program,” he says. “Even a part of it would be enough to finance that.”
Countering Faisal’s threat is Iran’s retaliatory capability. It is, as Dadkhah points out, capable of causing “mischief” in response to any hardships imposed on it, not least by encouraging restiveness among Shi’a populations in Arab Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia itself. As a last resort, Tehran also has the option of firing at oil tankers passing through the Gulf and of sabotaging oil and gas pipelines.
Such considerations are unlikely to have been lost on the Saudis — meaning Faisal’s remarks probably carried a strong element of psychological warfare.
Gerd Nonneman, professor of Gulf studies at Exeter University in England, believes the comments were intended as a display of Saudi Arabia’s potential power which, in practice, the kingdom’s ruling dynasty would be reluctant to use.
“[Flooding the market] is not quite a nuclear option,” Nonneman says, “but [Saudi Arabia] really puts itself out there. I think they also wouldn’t simply want to be doing a free favor to the U.S. and the West without being taken seriously otherwise. So I think it’s a balancing game. They were considering upping their production very significantly. In fact, they are going to up it by at least half-a-million barrels a day. Whether they were going to go further, that would expose them further in a number of ways. That’s why Prince Turki, rather than any official, was used to put this idea out there. It’s a kind of trial balloon.”
In a UK speech, Prince Turki al-Faisal outlines Saudi Arabia’s concerns relating to the Arab spring, its foreign policies and Iran....
After an anecdote about how Franklin D Roosevelt was told by a naked Winston Churchill that nothing between them or their countries should be hidden, Turki warmed to his theme: “A Saudi national security doctrine for the next decade.”
For the next half an hour, the veteran diplomat, a former ambassador to Washington and tipped to be the next foreign minister in Riyadh, entertained his audience to a sweeping survey of his country’s concerns in a region seized by momentous changes. Like Churchill, Turki said, the kingdom “had nothing to hide”.
Even if they wanted to, the leaders of the desert kingdom would have difficulty concealing their concern at the stunning developments across the Arab world. Few – excepting the vast revenues pouring in from oil selling at around $100 a barrel for much of the year – have brought much relief to Riyadh.
Chief among the challenges, from the perspective of the Saudi royal rulers, are the difficulties of preserving stability in the region when local autocracies that have lasted for decades are falling one after another; of preserving security when the resultant chaos provides opportunities to all kinds of groups deemed enemies; of maintaining good relations with the west; and, perhaps most importantly of all, of ensuring that Iran, the bigger but poorer historic regional and religious rival just across the Gulf from Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, does not emerge as the winner as the upheavals of the Arab spring continue into the summer.
“The [Saudi king], crown prince and government cannot ignore the Arab situations, we live the Arab situation and hope stability returns,” the al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted Prince Nayef, the second in line to the throne and minister of the interior, as saying in Riyadh last week.
The prince, known as a conservative, went on to add that the possibility “of interference to prolong the chaos and killing between the sons of the Arab people … could not be discounted”.
Iran, a majority Shia state committed to a rigorous and highly politicised Islamist ideology, remains at the heart of such fears in Saudi Arabia, a predominantly Sunni state ruled by the al-Saud family since its foundation in 1932. Recent moves such as the Saudi-inspired invitation to Morocco and Jordan, both Sunni monarchies, to join the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a group of Sunni autocratic states, are seen by analysts as part of Riyadh’s effort to bolster defences against Tehran. So too is the deployment of Saudi troops under the umbrella of the GCC to Bahrain, where largely Shia demonstrators took to the streets to demand greater democratic rights from the Sunni rulers.
One fear in Riyadh is that the 15% or so of Saudi citizens who are Shia – and who largely live in the oil-rich eastern province – might mobilise in response to an Iranian call to arms.
“It is a kind of ideological struggle,” said a Ministry of Interior official.
Describing Iran as a “paper tiger” because of its “dysfunctional government … whose hold on power is only possible if it is able, as it barely is now, to maintain a level of economic prosperity that is just enough to pacify its people”, Turki, according to a copy of his speech at RAF Molesworth obtained by the Guardian, said the rival state nonetheless had “steel claws”, which were “effective tools … to interfere in other countries”.
This Tehran did with “destructive” consequences in countries with very large Shia communities such as Iraq, which Turki said was taking a “sectarian, Iranian-influenced direction”, as well as states with smaller ones such as Kuwait and Lebanon. Until Iraq changed course, the former intelligence chief warned, Riyadh would not write off Baghdad’s $20bn (£12.5bn) debts or send an ambassador.
More worryingly for western diplomats was Turki’s implicit threat that if Iran looked close to obtaining nuclear weapons, Saudi Arabia would follow suit, threatening a nuclear war between the two powers. “Iran [developing] a nuclear weapon would compel Saudi Arabia … to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences,” Turki said.
A senior adviser told the Guardian that it was “inconceivable that there would be a day when Iran had a nuclear weapon and Saudi Arabia did not”.
“If they successfully pursue a military programme, we will have to follow suit,” he said. For the moment, however, the prince told his audience, “sanctions [against Iran] are working” and military strikes would be “counterproductive”.
One alternative, Turki told his audience, would be to “squeeze” Iran by undermining its profits from oil, explaining that this was something the Saudis, with new spare pumping capacity and deep pockets, were ideally positioned to do.
Money has long been a key foreign policy tool for Saudi Arabia. Turki’s speech reveals the extent to which the kingdom is relying on its wealth to buy goodwill and support allies. In Lebanon, to counter Syrian influence and the Shia Hezbollah movement, the kingdom has spent $2.5bn (£1.6bn) since 2006.
Several billion more will reach the Palestinians, either directly or via the Palestinian Authority, Turki said. Then there is the $4bn (£2.5bn) in unconditional “grants, loans and deposits to Egypt’s emerging government”, which “stand in stark comparison to the conditional loans that the US and Europe have promised”.
This was an indication of the “contrast in values between the kingdom and its western allies”, the prince said.
The aim of such expenditure – only a fraction of the state’s $550bn (£343bn) reserves – is to minimise any potential ill-will towards Saudi Arabia among populations who have deposed rulers backed previously by Riyadh.
“The calculation in Riyadh is very simple: you cannot stop the Arab spring so the question is how to accommodate the new reality on the ground. So far there is no hostility to the Saudis in Tunisia, Egypt or elsewhere, popular or political,” said Dr Mustafa Alani, from the Gulf Research Centre, Dubai.
One difficult issue is that of the “unwanted house guests”. Saudi Arabia has a long tradition of offering a comfortable retirement home to ex-dictators, and two of the deposed leaders – Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen – are now in the kingdom. Ben Ali is reported to have been housed in a villa on the Red Sea coast. Saleh is in a luxury hospital receiving treatment for wounds caused by the bomb that forced his flight from the country he ruled for 21 years as president, and is now under pressure from his hosts to retire permanently.
Other regional rulers are being gently pressured to ease crackdowns, in part in response to western outcry over human-rights abuses, one official said.
Yemen, however, remains a major security concern to the Saudis, who worry about the presence of Islamic militants and Shia rebels who, again, they view as proxies of Iran.
“It is very important to make sure Yemen is stable and secure and without any internal struggle,” said one Interior Ministry official.
In his speech in the UK, Turki worried that Yemen’s more remote areas had become a safe haven for terrorism comparable to Pakistan’s tribal areas.
Along with money, religion too has been used as a weapon of Saudi foreign policy. Since 1986, Saudi kings have used the title of custodian of the two holy mosques – Mecca and Medina – and “as such [the kingdom] feels itself the eminent leader of the wider Muslim world”, said Turki. Iran challenges this claim.
One key western concern has long been the export of rigorous and sometimes intolerant strands of Islam. Between the 1979 Iranian revolution and the 9/11 attacks, this was seen as a key part of Saudi foreign policy. It also served to placate clerical establishment internally. In the last decade, a major effort has been made to cut back funding for extremism abroad. The results, government spokesmen admit, are sometimes mixed.
Senior Saudi charity officials told the Guardian that their work was not only “non-political” but also avoided any attempt to spread Wahhabism, as the puritanical Saudi strands of Islamic practice are often known, too.
“We follow the wishes of local communities and never get involved in politics. We are a purely humanitarian organisation, said Dr Saleh al-Wohaibi, the secretary-general of the World Assembly of Muslim Youth (Wamy), a Riyadh-based NGO engaged in relief work and development assistance across the Islamic world, which has been accused of funding extremism.
However, al-Wohaibi confirmed Wamy had built thousands of religious schools in countries such as Pakistan. Since 9/11, he said, donations from within Saudi Arabia had reduced considerably.
At mosques in Riyadh last week, religious students said they hoped to travel overseas as soon as possible. “It is our duty to help other countries all over the world to improve their practice of Islam and [to improve] the image of Saudi Arabia,” said Abdalillah al’Ajmi, 18, after evening prayers at the al-Rajhi mosque in Riyadh.
In his speech at Molesworth, Turki simply referred to Islam playing “a central … role” in ensuring Saudi security in the years to come. “Saudi Arabia is … the birthplace of Islam …. Iran portrays itself as the leader of not just the Shia world but of all Muslim revolutionaries interested in standing up to the west,” he said.
A Saudi bomb?
Prince Turki al-Faisal’s remarks reflect alarm at the progress of Iran’s nuclear programme and eroding confidence in the protective umbrella of Saudi Arabia’s longstanding ally, America.
In 2003, as its forces got bogged down in Iraq and the US began to look vulnerable, the Saudi government laid out three alternatives for itself: build its own bomb, shelter under someone else’s, or agree a Middle East nuclear-free zone. Tentative talks on a zone are underway with a view to a UN-chaired conference next year, but few observers believe Israel would surrender its nuclear arsenal or that Iran would halt its programme.
As for its own weapon, Saudi Arabia has declared it will spend $300bn on 16 nuclear reactors, for which it is about to open bids. But they would be turnkey projects with safeguards making it almost impossible to use the fuel to make weapons.
Building a Saudi bomb would require starting a uranium enrichment programme from scratch. Even with unlimited resources that would take years.
In the short term, Saudi Arabia could look to other states. Since the Arab spring, the monarchy has become disillusioned with Washington’s capacity to defend it. Instead, it may see its best option for a rapid response (to an Iran nuclear test, for example) as Pakistan. Saudi Arabia is reported to have an “option” on Pakistan’s nuclear capability, in return for financing Pakistan for decades.
And the US would find it hard to stop such destabilizing nuclear co-operation. Its influence with both the Pakistanis and the Saudis has frayed considerably.
Armed conflict, too, can take several forms, and these are not mutually exclusive. The preferred solution for the West is that the Iranian regime is overthrown from within; the threat of war also hangs, however, while the Islamic Republic maneuvers adeptly and guns for a regional reshuffle according to its own tastes.
In the past days and weeks, the two sides have been flexing their military muscles and issuing veiled threats. This week, Iran started a massive 10-day military exercise, code named "Great Prophet 6". It tested a new radar system, new fortified underground missile silos, and ground-to-ground missiles that could reach all parts of the Middle East, alongside various other technological achievements.
Western diplomats responded with alarm. "Iran has also been carrying out covert ballistic missile tests on rocket launchers, including testing of missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload in contravention of UN resolution 1929," British Foreign Secretary William Hague told the BBC .
Iran promptly denied the allegation, but Hague's announcement is significant, particularly as it comes on the heels of an Iranian announcement that it will triple its stash of uranium enriched to the level of 20% U-235 by the end of the year.
"Though uranium enriched to this level is intended mostly to fuel Tehran's small nuclear research reactor, which produces medical isotopes," explains Israeli analyst Yossi Melman, "it also bolsters the knowledge of Iranian nuclear experts and their ability to control all stages of enrichment - including to a level of 93%, which enables the production of fissile material used in making a nuclear weapon."
According to Melman, the greatest danger is that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and a few other key Iranian officials ascribe to messianic beliefs that condition the coming of the Mahdi (Messiah in Shi'ite Islam) on "a huge proportion of the world's population be[ing] annihilated in a great war". Nuclear weapons would seem chillingly well-suited to use as a tool to save the world in this scenario.
This argument, however, seems extreme, even alarmist, and a majority of Western analysts hold the view that the Iranian regime is ultimately rational. Some have even pointed out that Iranian policy in the Middle East has been more coherent in the past decade than that of the United States. As a Chatham House report famously put it back in 2006, "While the US has been playing poker in the region, Iran has been playing chess."
On the chess-like field of Realpolitik, too, the tensions are steadily escalating, and Iran poses a major strategic threat to the policies of the United States and its allies. The former circumstance was highlighted by the Iranian announcement last month that it had shared information with Russia on two advanced American drones that it claimed to have shot down earlier this year. While there is nothing surprising in the action itself, such cooperation is usually kept quiet, and the announcement came at a sensitive time, ostensibly as a message of defiance.
Some speculate that Iran may be preparing to respond militarily to any Western intervention in the domestic troubles of its ally Syria. If such an intervention materializes, it would presumably come in the next weeks and months.
Others, such as Asia Times Online's M K Bhadrakumar, point out Iran's recent overtures with Pakistan and Afghanistan. Bhadrakumar writes of a recent top-level "conference on terrorism" between the heads of the three states:
At this point in time, the varying degrees of antipathy felt toward the US on the part of Pakistan and Afghanistan on the one hand and Iran's inveterate standoff with the US on the other give impetus to the three neighboring countries drawing closer ... Pakistan is a major Sunni country and Iran's interest lies in ensuring that it does not become part of the Saudi-led alliance against Iran in the Middle East. Iran can flaunt its friendship with Pakistan to expose the Saudi campaign to whip up the phobia of a Shi'ite-Sunni schism in the Middle East today by way of branding Tehran as the leader of the Shi'ite camp and rallying the Sunni Arab opinion .
Iran, on the other hand, worries that the US might extend its presence in Iraq, and is doing its best to accelerate the American departure. According to a number of reports, a recent increase in violence in the country is orchestrated by Iran, with the following message for the Americans: "Don't stay. Reconsider. "
This situation could easily spin out of control and deteriorate into a full-blown war, especially considering that all the other fronts between the two sides are heated as well. Proxy attacks on US forces, if proven, could easily serve as a casus belli against Iran.
Meanwhile, reports have it, the United States and its allies are quietly piling up forces in the region. There seems to be no critical mass just yet (from what is known, there are two American aircraft carriers close to Iranian shores; conventional wisdom has it that the United States usually attacks such big targets with at least three), but the trends are worrisome.
Debka, an Israeli intelligence-analysis site that is known for publishing both rumors and legitimate intelligence leaks, offers the following assessment:
Last week, Iranian warships and submarines deployed in the Red Sea tracked the movements of two big US aircraft carriers, the USS Enterprise and USS George H W Bush, which crossed each other in the Bab el-Mandeb Strait on June 21 heading in opposite directions through this strategic chokepoint between the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean ... Strategists in Tehran see danger in these crisscross movements by US war fleets.
According to our military sources, the Enterprise, which is older, slower and has less fire power than the Bush, was moved to the Mediterranean because there it is supported by American air bases scattered across western and central Europe, whereas the Bush was consigned to waters opposite Iranian shores because it is virtually a single-vessel fighting machine capable of operating without support.
At this stage, the buildup seems to be intended more as a message than as preparations for an imminent attack. The preferred scenario for the Americans is that the Iranian regime (alongside its allies in Syria and Lebanon) fractures from within, collapsing in the process its foreign-policy stance and halting its external expansion.
There are some signs that this may happen. In the past months, the internal power struggle between Ahmadinejad and Iran's supreme ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has intensified. Also the Iranian position in Syria has deteriorated somewhat, together with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's legitimacy.
A couple of months ago, a crisis erupted between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei, and many speculated that the president might be forced to resign . Several top Ahmadinejad aides were arrested. Subsequently, the tensions subsided somewhat, and the president's men were released, but a week later reports surfaced that another one of his close confidantes, former Iranian deputy foreign minister Mohammad Sharif Malekzadeh, had been arrested . Apparently, the crisis continues.
It is possible, even likely, that Western influence is covertly working to deepen the cracks; yet the problem with this strategy is that the Iranian regime is fully aware of it, and may be emphasizing the theatrics to keep its opponents in check. This is true both internationally and domestically, where the so-called Green movement (the self-proclaimed democratic opposition) is split on its course .
The fate of the Syrian regime is also far from clear yet. If Assad survives, he will have done so with heavy Iranian assistance, and may well be forced further into the Iranian embrace. Thus, while he would be weakened himself, at least in the short term he would be more likely to conduct Iranian policies (in the past, he has often tried to hold his own course).
In other words, the Iranian regime may turn out to be a superior chess player to Western leaders, always staying one step ahead as it races toward its goals. This creates the very real danger that the US and its allies may have to make hard choices in the near future about using the military muscle they have been flexing.
In Israel, the tone of discussions is gradually shifting from pre-emptive attack to deterrence. A number of Israeli analysts have recently advanced the argument that the Jewish state needs to boost its deterrence and to keep the pre-emptive strike option for the hypothetical moment right before Iran chooses to use (rather than to acquire) nuclear weapons. Boosting the deterrence is generally understood to mean acquiring new submarines (boosting the alleged second-strike capability), missile defenses and advanced airplanes.
Still, Israeli leaders, alongside a few key observers, refuse to rule out the possibility of an imminent Israeli strike against the Iranian nuclear program, and continue to argue that Iran poses an existential threat to the Jewish state. Israel has been known to project contradictory intentions before surprise military operations in the past, and the fact that its government is keeping a stiff upper lip, much more so than a year ago, can be interpreted as a warning sign.
Saudi Arabia has also fallen relatively silent in the past weeks, as it quietly tries to maneuver in the crises in Yemen and Syria. In some ways, this also looks like a silence before a storm: Syria, in particular, as likely as Iraq to serve as a trigger for any potential showdown between the US and Iran.
If the Assad regime falls (perhaps with some foreign assistance), the entire Iranian deterrence axis featuring Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas would be gravely threatened. Thus, Iran may well be provoked into action, and even if this action is limited (for example, in Iraq), it could easily spiral into a war.
In general, the confrontation seems to be approaching its climax, and some kind of action to change the status quo seems inevitable. This action could be covert (a mixture of sabotage, diplomatic maneuvering and regime change from the inside in key countries), or it can be overt (war).
Its consequences may be felt immediately, or over time. At both extremes of the theoretical analysis stand the possibilities of a complete collapse of the Iranian regime and its allies and of a rout of the American-led alliance and the emergence of Iran as a regional hegemon.
Both of these options, however, are relatively unlikely; decisive military victory, especially in the highly codified modern form of warfare, has largely remained elusive, and its pursuit bears some resemblance to messianic logic.
What is more likely to happen is a significant upset in the geostrategic balance that would bring about some sort of a temporary accommodation, be it shorter or longer-lasting. Currently, its precise terms are almost impossible to forecast, while the debates over who has one will begin only after those terms emerge.