I have been staring incredulously at my TV screen these past few hours as the story of Iran’s alleged assassination attempt of a Saudi diplomat in Washington unfolds in dramatic increments.
Reporters keep repeating the theme “like out of a Hollywood script” as they eke out increasingly unlikely details about this “terror” plot.
My immediate thoughts? Ah. So this is how Washington intends to overrule objections to its $120 billion in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and other Arab dictatorships of the Persian Gulf.
Forget Hollywood. If I channeled the worst of Washington’s Mideast policymakers, past and present — say, a John Bolton and a Dennis Ross — I could have written this story myself. A modern-day Wag the Dog if you will — the 1997 Dustin Hoffman/Robert De Niro black comedy in which a Hollywood producer helps Washington fabricate a war-on-celluloid in order to divert attention from a presidential sex scandal.
It so happens that I am in the midst of writing a revealing piece about a US military effort to test narratives about what unites and divides Arabs and Iranians. (Watch my blog for this in the next few days)
The most interesting aspect of this military-sponsored exercise is the timing — it took place less than three months after the onset of the Arab revolts that swept the Mideast.
Very quickly after the uprisings began, it became obvious that Iran stood to gain a geopolitical advantage if pro-US despots fell and Arab populations turned against the status quo which has long favored Washington goals: Israeli regional hegemony, unfettered access to cheap oil, the marginalization of political Islam . . . and now, the sale of hundreds of billions of dollars of weapons to the US’s remaining autocratic allies.
It also very quickly became apparent that selling the $120 billion worth of armaments — half of which are intended for the Saudis (Saudi Arabia: $67 billion, UAE: $35-40 billion, Oman: $12 billion, Kuwait: $7 billion) — to repressive regimes was going to be extremely difficult in the face of our public stances on democracy and human rights.
Weapons sales would be particularly difficult in the case of Saudi Arabia, by far the most repressive regime in the wider Middle East and North Africa, and ironically, America’s closest Arab ally.
Saudi Arabia’s position in the region today is so poor that it holds the distinction of being labeled the “Counter-Revolution” state for its aggressive attempts to roll back these popular revolts. The Saudis spirited away to safety Tunisian dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali after his ousting, fought with Washington over its dwindling support of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, rolled troops into Bahrain to violently quell protests, poured money into the coffers of corrupt monarchs from Jordan to Morocco, and are backing the immensely unpopular Yemeni president Ali Abdullah Saleh against all odds.
So, how could the US fulfill those previously-approved weapon sales to Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf-Cooperation Council (GCC) autocracies without taking a global bashing?
Easy stuff: manufacture an “Iranian” threat and make the image-challenged Saudis look like victims desperately in need of protection.
Washington excels at divide-and-rule narratives, and leads its Mideast allies in sowing discord between Shia and Sunni, Arabs and Iranians and Islamists and secularists. Our favourite bogeyman bar none is the “Iranian, Shiite, Islamist” one, and we parade it around to great effect when we need an extra card to bulldoze through any reasoned policy challenges.
This “news” story on the alleged Iranian plot to kill a Saudi official is no different. But let’s collectively decide to scrutinize this one in a way we never did with the Iraq WMD allegations or the yellowcake uranium fabrication.
Tonight I found myself anticipating details of the case before the news anchor had even announced them. Where would Ross-Bolton, I thought, go with this story? The ideal scenario would be to create narratives quickly and decisively and flood the media marketplace with those impressions.
The goal: 1) to swing popular Arab opinion away from Iran and its allies, and 2) to stack domestic and international opinion in favor of the pending US arms deals.
Ross-Bolton would have thoroughly approved of the details of this assassination plot. Firstly, it takes place in the United States and not the logistically-simpler Middle East, which provides rational cover for Washington to lead a new international jihad against the Iranians.
Secondly, it features the bizarre Mexico connection, an immediately obvious attempt to draw in Hezbollah, which we allege is involved in “terrorist” operations and drug smuggling south of our border — when actually, we are just trying to find a way to halt financial contributions from wealthy Lebanese-origin Latin Americans to Hezbollah, a group that also offers widespread social services to many Lebanese civilians — hospitals, schools, infrastructure and the like. US policymakers must be exceedingly frustrated that nobody actually buys these stories — Israel, Canada, the US and the Netherlands are still the only nations to categorize the Lebanese resistance group as a terrorist organization.
And finally, a Ross-Bolton personal touch: the assassination plot apparently also includes discussion of blowing up the Israeli embassy in Washington, gaining both sympathy points for the Jewish state at a time when it is becoming a pariah, and ensuring that the mindlessly pro-Israel US Congress will jump on board any and all efforts to nail the Iranians and reward the Saudis.
No questions asked.
Anyway, do enjoy the drama and keep an eye on how this spins out. Prepare for those “difficult” arms sales to breeze through. I will shortly publish my piece on the US military’s efforts to shine a spotlight on Arab-Iranian divisions — I think it will provide the requisite backdrop to explain why we find ourselves watching Hollywood at the top of the news hour today.
Sharmine Narwani, Senior Associate, St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. This article was first published in her blog Mideast Shuffle on 12 October 2011; it is reproduced here for non-profit educational purposes. Follow Sharmine Narwani on Twitter: <twitter.com/#!/snarwani>. Become her Facebook fan at <www.facebook.com/pages/Sharmine-Narwani-Writer/106821526031251>.
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