By Robert Berke
“I will teach you my townspeople how to perform a funeral for you have it over a troop of artists— unless one should scour the world—you have the ground sense necessary,” Tract, a poem by William Carlos Williams.
Even after a few weeks have passed, the unexpected visit of the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince to the St. Petersburg Economic Forum still has a lot of people scratching their heads. The news is full of widespread and contradictory theories, while questions abound.
Why had the Saudis accepted an invitation from a country sanctioned by the U.S., its oldest and strongest ally? Had the Saudis chosen to abandon the U.S.? Were the crafty Saudis playing Russia off against the U.S.?
To confound matters more, why was the desert country proposing a $10 billion investment in Russian agriculture and infrastructure? Rattling everyone’s brain was the Saudi proposal to purchase some 16 nuclear plants to be developed by Russia’s state-owned nuclear monopoly, Rosatom, in a deal that, if concluded, could be worth more than $100 billion. Then there was the matter of the Saudis and Russia announcing the formation of an energy partnership between two of the largest global energy producers.
By the time the Forum ended, confusion reigned supreme.
It is still a bit early for all the pieces to neatly fit together but now, after the dust has settled somewhat, a pattern seems to be emerging that may explain the situation.
Most observers believe the Saudis are angry with the U.S. for a host of reasons, foremost amongst them are the nuclear negotiations with Iran, followed by the U.S. decision to keep arms-length distance from the conflicts in Yemen, Syria, and Iraq. Yet, few Russian analysts subscribe to the theory that the Saudis are going rogue against the U.S.
Others are playing the endless game of trying to figure out what’s going on in the minds of the Saudi King and the Russian President. It just may be that they’re looking into the wrong minds. It’s more than likely that the real puppeteer pulling all the strings is Obama. There appears to be a well-designed strategy emerging, one that has all the ear-marks of Obama’s audacity, with Putin eagerly signing on.
Strategy usually emerges in response to a problem. In this case, the problem is Obama’s growing skepticism over his adviser’s assurances that the Russian economy would soon collapse after the imposition of sanctions, further assisted by drastically falling energy prices.
U.S. Senator Feinstein, a close ally of the Administration and former Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has stated publicly that the tough-minded Russians are not likely to give in, adding that the Obama needs to send someone to talk with Putin. Other Obama supporters have made similar recommendations, including most recently, Hillary Clinton, saying that if she were President, she would keep close contact with Putin.
It’s important to note that not only has Putin’s popularity risen, but so has Obama’s, rising from the depths of defeat since the Republican Congressional victory. Now he seems to be winning everywhere, and recently has capped astonishing victories in Congressional trade agreements with overwhelming support from conservatives, who have shown little more than unremitting contempt for the President. This was followed by victories at the Supreme Court with decisions that removed legal and constitutional challenges to the President’s health program, and gay marriage.
With his confidence obviously rising, Obama seems once again to be focused on his legacy. For Obama-watchers, these are also the times when he most often turns away from his more hawkish advisors in favor of his prime peacemaker, Secretary Kerry.
In that context, a recent public statement by Kerry’s spokesman is noteworthy: “The secretary doesn’t agree with the assessment that Russia is an existential threat to the United States, nor China, quite frankly,” with Obama voicing agreement.
In a stunning, dramatic shift of U.S. policy, after an eighteen month absence, in May, the U.S. State Dept. resumed contact with Russia, with John Kerry and his staff paying a visit to the Kremlin for a private meeting with Putin and his advisors. The meeting was widely assumed to be an attempt at reducing tensions, gaining Russia’s help in Syria and Iran, while clearly refusing to give an inch on sanctions.
A few weeks after the Kerry meeting, the Saudi Prince came to St. Petersburg, with magnificent offers for the Russians. Israeli Intelligence sources claim this was a reward for backing UN sanctions on Iran.
If so, it means that the Saudis and the Gulf Kingdoms have resigned themselves to the fact that Obama has won the battle against domestic and international opponents of U.S./Iran nuclear negotiations.
Both the Saudi King and the Russian President are leading players in Obama’s dramatic re-engagement with the Middle East conflict. As one noted analyst has stated, “the Saudi-Russian rapprochement is rapidly acquiring a momentum that has the potential to reset the power dynamic in the Middle East.”
Following close upon that, there were two phone conversations between the two Presidents, Obama and Putin, two men who are known to intensely dislike each other, but who remain exceptionally powerful in affecting major change when they choose to work with each other.
As noted, Ukraine and sanctions were not discussed in the Presidents’ phone conversation nor in Kerry’s Kremlin meetings. What they reportedly discussed was cooperation to staunch the growing turmoil in the Middle East along with Russia’s much needed assistance in bringing the Iranian nuclear negotiations to a successful conclusion, in which both Kerry and Lavrov have been deeply involved. Sometime between the two phone calls, the Foreign Secretaries, Kerry and Lavrov, have now met twice, privately, reportedly to discuss Syria, while coordinating the efforts of allies.
As Syria remains one of the main concerns between the two sides, what seems to be emerging is that Putin is being brought back into negotiations as an intermediary between the main combatants, as one of the only world leaders with good relations with the Saudis, Israelis, Iranians, and Syrian Government.
Putin is also well known as an avowed enemy of jihadist terror, with Russia having suffered several horrific terrorist attacks. Before the Ukraine crisis, Putin was a leading member of the west’s negotiating team to stem Middle Eastern conflicts. It was Putin, after all, who persuaded Syrian President Assad to give up his chemical weapons, ending the certain risk of a U.S. bombardment of Syria, much to the dismay of the Gulf Kingdoms and Israel. Both President Putin and his Foreign Minister Lavrov also remain the guiding hands to Iran’s nuclear negotiations.
After the announcement in Vienna of a historic ‘breakthrough’ agreement with Iran on the nuclear issue, Iran’s Foreign Minister “…Zarif also praised the Russian idea that after a deal, it will be time to form a real counter-terrorism coalition, featuring Americans, Iranians, Russians, Chinese and Europeans — even as Putin and Obama had agreed to work together on “regional issues.”
Obama also agreed that the nuclear deal would have been impossible without Russia’s help, stating here that “Russia was a help on this,” Obama said Tuesday. “… Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the P5-plus1 members in insisting on a strong deal.”
Ironically, Russia may have been working against its energy interests in helping to resolve the Iran nuclear agreement. An Iranian nation free of sanctions could eventually become a formidable competitor to Russia’s energy business, both in Europe and Asia. The Russians are also under no illusions that eventually the Iranians will be forced to move closer to the U.S. and the EU to gain the technology and financing to rebuild and modernize their long neglected energy industry.
Putin’s task as linchpin is to assemble a coalition with the over-riding priority to bring the ghastly Syrian war to an end, thereby unravelling a conflict that has spread to Iraq and Yemen, and threatens to engulf the entire region. Russia’s close relationship with Iran is considered necessary to a successful conclusion to nuclear negotiations. Russian is also expected to provide diplomatic assistance aimed at smoothing strained relations between Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Israel, a formidable task to say the least.
It should be noted that this not the first time the Saudis have made the offer of a grand bargain to the Kremlin. In a meeting with Putin in 2013, Prince Bandar bin sultan made a similarly grand offer on the condition that Russia renounce its support for Iran and Syria’s Assad.
It was reported then that Putin flatly rejected the Saudi offer out of hand, but then there’s the inconvenient fact that went unreported in the western press, that shortly thereafter, Russia voted to support UN sanctions on Iran, as did its partner, China.
Do the Saudis see more hope for their goals now than previously? Putin has made it clear that he had no intention of throwing Iran to the wolves. As much as Iran badly needs Russia’s support, Putin’s plan for Eurasia badly needs Iran.
But as for the Syrian President, the story may be very different. Putin has publicly stated on several occasions that his support for the Syrian Government is not based upon any particular loyalty to Assad, but instead on the Kremlin’s consistent stance over the years against jihadi terror.
Some observers have interpreted these statements to mean that in any settlement with Syria, Putin considers Assad dispensable, as long as the Syrian Government can safeguard Russian interests in their country. Those interests include Russia’s naval base on the Syrian coast.
The continuing meetings of U.S., Russian, Iran, and Saudis, with the direct involvement of Obama and Putin, is creating no less than a seismic shift in Middle East policy. Chances for success? Difficult, at best, particularly, as the Iranian nuclear agreement now heads for approval from a hostile U.S. Congress, bent on the agreement’s destruction.
The crucial question here is whether Congressional opponents and their allies are opposed to specific elements in this agreement, or are they opposed to any agreement with Iran? Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu obviously favors the latter. But if the nuclear agreement is viewed as an essential part of Obama’s plan to resolve Middle-Eastern conflicts, as I think it is, than the attempt by Congress to void the agreement could seriously compromise the President’s plan.
As many of his supporters have urged, Obama is orchestrating a plan to end the Middle East conflicts, with key supporting roles played by the Russians, Saudis, and Iranians. Widespread international support is already emerging, ranging from NATO allies all the way to China, with many of these nations having suffered repeated terrorist attacks and threats.
As for Putin, he enthusiastically embraces this ambitious endeavor that may help to re-establish his leadership role in the region, and, if successful, may also earn his country a get-out-of-jail card.