Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi royal who seems to own most everything there is to own -- a chunk of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, a piece of Twitter, all of Paris’s George V Hotel, the Savoy in London, and a Boeing 747 for his personal use -- was sitting in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago the other evening (he and Bill Gates own most of Four Seasons Holdings), offering up the view -- the view of an experienced negotiator from the Middle East -- that U.S. President Barack Obama is outmatched by the Islamic Republic of Iran.
“There’s no confidence in the Obama administration doing the right thing with Iran,” he told me, with a directness that would make Benjamin Netanyahu blush. “We’re really concerned -- Israel, Saudi Arabia, the Middle East countries -- about this.”
It is quite something for a Saudi royal to state baldly that his country is part of a tacit alliance with Israel, but Saudi leaders, like Israel’s leaders, are frantic with worry that an overeager Obama will accede to Iran’s desire to become a threshold state, one whose nuclear program is so advanced that it would only need several weeks to assemble a deliverable weapon. Alwaleed, like Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, believes that Iran, in its ongoing negotiations with the world’s major powers, will pocket whatever sanctions relief it gets without committing to ending its nuclear program. “Why are they offering relief?” he asked. “Keep the pressure on. Sanctions are what brought about the negotiations to begin with! Why not keep the pressure up?”
Obama, Alwaleed says, is a man who is in desperate political straits and needs a victory -- any victory -- to right his presidency. “Obama is in so much of a rush to have a deal with Iran,” he said. “He wants anything. He’s so wounded. It’s very scary. Look, the 2014 elections are going to begin. Within two months they’re going to start campaigning. Thirty-nine members of his own party in the House have already moved away from him on Obamacare. That’s scary for him.”
Alwaleed believes a stronger president would have the willpower to say no to a flawed deal with Iran. Like the Israelis, the Saudis believe a flawed deal is one in which Iran isn’t forced to put its nuclear program in reverse, by shuttering facilities and mothballing centrifuges. (Alwaleed is not a Saudi government official, but he often floats trial balloons on behalf of the members of his family who rule his country, and they consider him free to make impolitic statements they believe but cannot publicly endorse).
“This has been going on for 30 years plus, since the Iranian revolution in 1979,” he continued. “And his people bragged about the first call between President Obama and President Rouhani. But what does a call mean? It’s nothing.” He went on to condemn Obama for folding when confronted with proof that Syria, Iran’s proxy, used chemical weapons against civilians. Obama had previously warned Syria not to cross the red line he drew on the deployment of chemical weapons.
“When he put that red line out, and the red line was crossed, he blinks,” he said, going on to suggest that Obama is mistaken to believe that Syria will, in fact, ship out all of its chemical weapons, as it has agreed to do. “You think the chemicals are going to come out, one hundred percent? Come on. Even if he lets them go, the same people who produced them before will produce them again.” When Obama “blinked,” Alwaleed suggested, the Arabs came to the conclusion that he would not stand up to Iran, either.
Alwaleed suggested that it may ultimately be the Iranian leadership itself that saves the day, by rejecting a compromise offer it sees as unacceptably tough -- but one that Iran’s Israeli and Arab adversaries see as unacceptably accommodating. “You and I both know that the real power is with Khamenei” -- Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Iranian supreme leader -- “and not President Rouhani. There are two theories, one that that Rouhani sincerely wants to negotiate but he can’t give up this program, and the second theory, which is -- come on, give me a break, they don’t want to do this. Either way, Khamenei is the real ruler.” He went on, “We just saw Khamenei issue an announcement saying to his own negotiators that before they go and talk they shouldn’t cross his own red lines.”
If the negotiations don’t succeed -- and clearly, Alwaleed sees no chance of success -- then what? Anti-proliferation by force? I asked him if he thought the Arab states would actually back an Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, if this terrible option should come to pass.
“Publicly, they would be against it,” he said. “Privately, they would love it.”
What about at the level of the so-called Arab street?
“The Sunnis will love it,” he said, referring to the dominant branch of Islam, to which most Arab Muslims adhere. “The Sunni Muslim is very much anti-Shiite, and very much anti-, anti-, anti-Iran,” he said.
You’re sure they loathe Iran more than they loathe Israel?
“Look, Iran is a huge threat, historically speaking," he said. "The Persian empire was always against the Muslim Arab empire, especially against the Sunnis. The threat is from Persia, not from Israel. This was a great empire ruling the whole neighborhood. I’ll tell you something -- they are in Bahrain, they are in Iraq, they are in Syria, they are with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, which is Sunni, in Gaza. They are intruding into these areas. King Abdullah of Jordan had a good statement on this -- he said that a Shiite crescent begins from Iran, through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and goes down to Palestine, to Hamas.”
Alwaleed, who spent much of our time together criticizing Obama, also reserved some criticism for Saudi Arabia’s Jewish ally. He said that if Netanyahu would make advances in the peace process with Palestinians, he would help marginalize Iran. “If you want to weaken Iran’s position in the Arab world, you should have peace with the Palestinians. This would help move Iran away from this issue. This is the heart of it. Hezbollah will not go away, but they will be weakened.”
This last piece of analysis made good sense to me. As for the rest of his analysis? It is easy to write-off Saudi fears of Iranian regional domination as part of an internecine Muslim struggle that is ultimately immaterial to the core national security interests of the U.S. On the other hand, countries that have had long and bitter experience with Iran might have something to teach American negotiators as they strive for a deal.