Finding Allies in a World of Shadows

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

September 28, 2001

A week ago, Americans applauded President Bush’s clarity of vision when he declared, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” But in the Middle East, more complex calculations are playing out.

While Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has made it clear that Iran won’t be part of our coalition, Iran is not signing up with the Taliban either. This is because the Sunni fundamentalist Taliban have long been antagonistic to the Shiite fundamentalists in neighboring Iran. Across the Persian Gulf, Saudi Arabia is willing to be part of our coalition, and in an important move has broken diplomatic relations with the Taliban. But the Saudis want to avoid direct association with any military action against the Taliban, and therefore are uncomfortable with our use of their military facilities for that purpose.

Even though these two key states don’t fit clearly into President Bush’s division of countries into those that are with us and those that are not, we can still benefit from them.

In the case of Iran, we should not want that country in our coalition. The State Department has found Iran to be the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism. Iran’s terror network of intelligence services, Revolutionary Guards and the Lebanese-based Hezbollah clearly shows global reach. This network is connected to a number of attacks, including the truck-bomb killing of 19 American soldiers at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996 and suicide bombings in Israel. But we can’t confront Iran at the moment because we would lose the support of its Arab neighbors and Europe.

Nonetheless, we have leverage with Iran because it fears our military action, which might trigger a flood of refugees into Iran, produce a pro-Western regime in Afghanistan and leave an even greater American military presence on Iran’s borders.

We can use this leverage to develop a tacit understanding by which Iran would remain neutral when we act against Afghanistan. We would have to reassure the Iranians that we are aware of their interests and are not targeting them—though we do expect them to restrain Hezbollah and Palestine Islamic Jihad and not to interfere with our mission. They must also understand that there will be consequences, even if delayed, if they sponsor further terrorist acts.

As for Saudi Arabia, our military coordination will also need to be tacit. The Saudi royal family well understands that the United States is its ultimate source of protection and that a weakened United States weakens its security, too. Nonetheless, Saudi Arabia needs to avoid any overt association with American military action, which will surely be portrayed by Islamic extremists as a war on Islam.

The royal family’s uneasy situation arises because Saudi Arabia plays a special role in Islam—the king is the custodian of the two holy mosques of Mecca and Medina—and because the regime depends on the homegrown, puritanical Wahabi sect of Sunni Islam to maintain its legitimacy. Hence, Saudi Arabia has always preferred to accommodate rather than confront Islamic radicalism.

It was easier for King Fahd to play a prominent role in the United States-led war against a secular Iraq than it would be for Crown Prince Abdullah to be seen to be participating in a United States-led offensive against the Taliban. The military cooperation we secure from the Saudis therefore will need to be presented as defensive measures to protect the holy kingdom.

Where the Saudis must assist us overtly, however, is in countering the hostility that is already emerging in the Arab and Islamic world even before military engagement gets under way. For too long, Islamic regimes have tolerated terrorism against civilians. Because of their influence, the Saudis need to make the case loudly and repeatedly to the Islamic world that the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon were anti-Islamic acts. There is nothing in the Koran to justify suicide bombings or the taking of innocent lives.

The Saudis have made a brave beginning in their public justification for breaking relations with the Taliban by emphasizing that they had armed and encouraged criminals who caused “harm to Islam and besmirched the name of Muslims everywhere.” The Saudis must also set the standard throughout the Persian Gulf by ending private funding of extremism through Muslim charities.

Politics in the gulf have long been conducted in the shadows. We can find ways to take advantage of this reality as we insist that these nations no longer ignore or sponsor terrorism while we pay the price in American lives.