Note: This is the second of a three-blog series discussing the desired outcome of the Khashoggi saga to Erdogan, Trump, and Muhammad bin Salman.
After days of flip-flopping, Trump finally admitted that Jamal Khashoggi is dead. He also confirmed the intelligence reports that orders to lure Khashoggi back to Riyadh came from a ‘high-level’ government official.
Rather than being specific and pinning the blame on Crown Prince, who controls the defense and intelligence operations of the Kingdom, he left his ‘high-level’ comment open to interpretation.
Maybe he meant MBS, could have meant his brother and Saudi ambassador to the US, Khalid bin Salman who left amidst reports that the US sought answers from him on Khashoggi’s death, or he could have referred to someone close to the Royal Court.
As absurd as the ‘someone close to the Royal Court’ idea seems, it is the most likely to be adopted by the US. Saudi Arabia is too valuable a pawn to sacrifice in this game of regional control. The (perceived though not real) US interest lies in containing Iran while keeping the oil prices stable. To this end, Trump shredded the Iran nuclear deal and subjected Iran to the travel ban.
The reason given for opposing Iran is their support to Shite militias even though Sunnis commit 70% of all terrorism in the world. Due to Iran’s funding to Hezbollah, the US sanctioned the head of Iran’s state bank. While the head of Saudi central bank is lauded even though the Saudis sent hundreds of millions of dollars to ISIS.
Iran and Saudi Arabia both have appalling human rights records. They both sow discord in the region for supremacy. Having said that, it is the Saudis that threaten American standing in the region, not the Iranians.
During the Arab spring of 2011, Saudi Arabia tried to preserve the old order while the US (seemingly but not exactly) supported the democracy. Saudis helped topple the democratic government of Egypt that Obama stood by even though later he refused to call the military coup a coup just so he could keep funding them.
Iran’s position during that time didn’t change much and neither did the US’ stance against it. What used to be a geo-strategic issue has now turned into a matter of defiance of the American will.
Despite sanctions, Iran hasn’t imploded as the US wanted. Rather it has sent home a message to many a nation that one can resist American pressure successfully.
This is what Cuba did and Vietnam tried to do. With regards to the latter, it is now known that more than communism, the US wanted to eradicate the ‘virus’. Internal documents show that all that mattered was to kill the notion that one can successfully defy the American will.
Iran is on the same path. So regardless of who the current or the next President is, the US policy toward Iran is unlikely to change unless Americans send Ron Paul or Bernie Sanders to the White House.
It has taken Trump a long time to set the stage to sanction Iran. If MBS is implicated, all that would go to waste and Trump might have to start over to garner support even from Washington think-tanks, many of whom already oppose Iran but also dislike MBS.
Trump wouldn’t let it all go over Khashoggi’s murder. By rebuking MBS, he would be severing ties with the new Saudi administration. King Salman gave MBS a free pass to do whatever the hell he wanted in the name of austerity and fighting corruption.
If Salman chooses a new Crown Prince, he will look weak. It will give Saudi conservatives a chance to criticize the King, exactly the kind of thing that led to the Grand Mosque Seizure in 1979.
Plus there isn’t anyone who can replace MBS, he has already eliminated them thereby securing his position politically.
So MBS will likely remain the Crown Prince. Trump wouldn’t directly implicate him as seen from his ‘high-level’ comment. The Saudis shouldn’t be too vexed with Trump’s words. They would welcome anything short of an outright censure of MBS.
The most likely outcome is that the Saudis and Trump would identify someone close to MBS and claim that it was a rogue operation. They might say that MBS did not know anything about it thus we cannot charge him. So someone close to MBS would receive sanctions, maybe even spend a few years in a Saudi prison.
In return, Saudis would help bring the oil prices down as Iranian sanctions take effect. The lower oil prices will not only help the international markets already under pressure from the last two weeks’ sell-off but also help the Republicans up for elections in midterms.
Previous blog in the series: How Erdogan Wishes to End the Khashoggi Saga