The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have been close allies for decades, weathering their differences along the way. But that bond has come under increasing strain as the U.S. moves toward better relations with Iran. A feud between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni rulers and Iran erupted over the weekend when the Saudi kingdom executed a prominent Shiite cleric. In response, protesters in Iran set fire to the Saudi embassy. Middle east analysts say the feud threatens stability in the region as well as upcoming peace talks on Syria – and it places the U.S. in a difficult position. Diane and her guests discuss Saudi Arabia and Iran – and the future of U.S. relations with the two nations.
- Vali Nasr Dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a former senior Obama administration adviser
- David Sanger National security correspondent, The New York Times; author, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power"
- Hisham Melhem Columnist, Al Arabiya News Channel; correspondent for Lebanon's Annahar daily newspaper
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. A feud between Saudi Arabia and Iran has sparked concerns around the world about the potential geopolitical fallout. This follows Saudi Arabia's execution of a popular Shiite cleric which enraged Iran and lead to the severing of diplomatic ties. Caught in the middle is the U.S., a long time Saudi ally now in a complex courtship with Iran.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio to talk about the Saudi/Iran feud and implications for the U.S. and the world, Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and a former senior Obama administration advisor, David Sanger of the New York Times and Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya TV. I do invite you to be part of the program. Give us a call at 800-433-8850.
MS. DIANE REHMSend us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to all of you. Happy New Year.
MR. HISHAM MELHEMHappy New Year.
MR. DAVID SANGERHappy New Year.
MR. VALI NASRHappy New Year to you, Diane.
REHMGood to see you all. David Sanger, before we talk about Saudi Arabia, there are stories this morning that North Korea has detonated a hydrogen bomb. What evidence is there and if it was so, how significant?
SANGERWell, first of all, a reminder that even as we focus on the Middle East, which is occupied, most of our attentions in 2015, there are other parts of the world that also require significant attention and this was, in many ways, a cry out from the North Koreans to say, hey, remember us? So the North Korean set off a nuclear test last night our time, middle of the day Wednesday their time.
REHMRegistering 5.1 on the Richter scale.
SANGERRichter scale, which is going to become an important statistic in a minute as we try to understand the question of whether this was really a hydrogen bomb. It would be their fourth test. They did their first one in 2006 in the middle of the Bush administration, something to remember because you're going to hear candidates in the next few days say that it was, you know, Barack Obama that allowed the North Koreans to go nuclear.
SANGERIt happened actually first in the Bush administration. There have been three tests now in the Obama time, the first one in 2009. And at that moment, President Obama made a sort of pretty critical decision. He said, you know, the North Korean nuclear program's in the rearview mirror. There's almost nothing we can do to stop these guys from building more nuclear weapons so let's focus on Iran. And that plays directly into what we'll be discussing during most of the rest of the hour.
SANGERBut the North Koreans, as a result, used what the Obama administration calls strategic patience to move ahead and both expand the numbers in their arsenal. They may have upwards of 20 nuclear weapons by the end of this year by some accounts and maybe 50 by 2020. Those numbers are all a little bit hard to go figure out. They've increased the capacity of their missiles and now they say that they are increasing the size of the explosion.
SANGERNow, that 5.1 early reading of the seismic reading would suggest that this probably was not a hydrogen bomb and building a hydrogen bomb, which is basically a two-stage bomb, you first have a fission explosion and then a fusion explosion, is quite an engineering feat. It took the United States until 1952 to do this, seven years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Many countries lie about when they've gotten to a hydrogen bomb and it's very possible that what the North Koreans did here was just boost an ordinary bomb, put a little tritium into it and call it a hydrogen bomb.
SANGERWe won't know that for some time, if we ever know it.
REHMAnd the UN Security Council is expected to take this up today. What kind of actions might they take?
SANGERNothing that will make the slightest bit of difference to the North Koreans. I mean, this is the most sanctioned country on earth. They have been sanctioned since the end of the Korean War. If Barack Obama leaves office on January 20, 2017, and Kim Jung-Un is still in office, the Kim family will have made it through 12 presidential administrations. That's a pretty good record. So one more UN resolution condemning them is not likely to ruin their day.
REHMVali Nasr, do you want to add to anything David said?
NASRWell, the only thing to watch is what kind of an implication it has for the way Iran looks at the implementation going forward and how we might react to what happened in North Korea in terms of how we assess Iran's progress going forward. But I think David's point is very interesting, that what we're seeing that since we've announced the pivot to Asia in 2009/2010, there's a very interesting dynamic between what happens in the Middle East and what happens in Asia.
NASRI remember when Asian countries looked at the red line in Syria as a very clear indication that perhaps the United States will not have resolve to stand up to China or North Korea either. And I'm sure that, you know, it obviously demands of us to have a much broader just strategic perspective than just focusing on regions.
REHMFinal question, what about North Korea's neighbors, China, South Korea, Japan? What are they saying?
SANGERWell, the South Koreans and the Japanese predictably condemned all this. Interestingly, so did the Chinese. The question isn't whether the Chinese don't want a nuclear North Korea. They don't want one. They think the North Koreans are as crazy as we think they are. They're worried that if the North Koreans set off some test and don't have full control of it, guess where the radioactive cloud blows, right over their territory.
SANGERThat said, they're not willing to push the North Koreans to collapse and they're not willing to go do it because they know that when the North Koreans collapse, the South Koreans move right into the territory. They come right up to the Chinese border with their American friends and the Chinese want that even less than they want a bunch of crazies with a nuclear weapon living just off their border.
REHMDavid Sanger of the New York Times and now we turn to Saudi Arabia. Vali Nasr, explain what took place briefly in Saudi Arabia Saturday and why the execution of this particular Shiite cleric inflamed tensions.
NASRWell, this particular Shiite cleric was accused of encouraging an uprising against the Saudi monarchy during the Arab Spring when we also had tumult in Bahrain, in Egypt, in Tunisia. He was arrested and tried for sedition, although -- and he was accused by the police, although unconvincingly, of having fired at them. But by and large, his biggest crime was encouraging an uprising against authoritarian regime.
NASRThe Saudis cast this not as a demand for political reform or justice, but as a sectarian act on behalf of the Iranian government as meddling in Saudi Arabia's domestic affairs. Saudis could have executed him a year from now. They could have not executed him. They could've postponed this. The deliberately did this act at this time because they wanted to send a message to the United States, to Iran, to the Sunnis in the region, to their own population, a message that -- of resolve of Saudi Arabia is the principle power standing up to Iran.
NASRThey also wanted to provoke Iran, perhaps to take an act that would then muddy the waters with Washington, but also that would confirm the Shia/Sunni issue. I know that people often accuse Iran of being sectarian and Iran does have sectarian policies, but sectarianism, right now, benefits Saudi Arabia because they tell their own population, oil prices go down, you're in trouble. The United States, you know, may be looking elsewhere. Whatever troubles there are, you need to rally to the flag because there are Shiites breathing down our neck in Yemen and there are Shiites backed by Iran right here in our eastern province.
NASRAnd it's us versus them. In an us versus them environment, they calculate there are more Sunnis in the world than there are Shias. This would limit Iran. So this was a very deliberate strategy and I also think the Saudis have learned this tactic of, you know, throwing a ball and then the United States plays catch. So, you know, they go into Yemen and they expect us to back them up. They execute this cleric and they expect the United States would support whatever action they take.
NASRSo I think it was a deliberate provocative act of changing the game, changing the structure and dynamic in the region, which I think they thought was not going in their direction. Iran is back in the tent. It's collaborating with the U.S. in fight against ISIS in Iraq, was invited to Vienna by John Kerry to participate in the peace talks. None of this, the Saudis like and so they wanted to change the conversation.
REHMHisham Melhem, how do you see it?
MELHEMI think this is a stern Saudi message to the Sunni radicals in Saudi Arabia and in the region just as it is a stern message against Shia dissent within the kingdom and a strong message to Iran. By the way, Nimr Baqir al-Nimr is not only called for insurrection against the Saudi family, he called for the succession of the eastern part of the kingdom where most of the Shiites of Saudi Arabia live. This, for the Saudi regime -- government has been totally unacceptable.
MELHEMBut what is more important is the context in which this tension is taking place and if you want, we can talk about that later.
REHMWe'll talk about that after we take a short break. Hisham Melhem of al-Arabiya, David Sanger of the New York Times, Vali Nasr of Johns Hopkins School of International Studies.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about Saudi Arabia's execution of a very important person and the reactions of Iran to really ransack the Saudi Arabian embassy in Tehran. Hisham, before the break you were about to get into what you see as the reasons for all this tension and why it's so important.
MELHEMI think there are many reasons for the execution in terms of timing, but as I said, mostly it's a stern message because only four of the executed ones were Shiite. The majority were Sunni extremists who were charged and condemned because of their involvement either in acts of violence or encouragement of acts of violence within the kingdom.
REHMSo we should say there were actually 47 people executed.
MELHEMExactly. Most of them were Sunni radicals. Only four are Shiite, including Nimr al-Nimr, who was seen as a dissident and not as a maji and not as an intellectual, not as a major ayatollah. That said, the context is what is worrisome. The Saudis feel that they are under tremendous pressure from within and from without, and they believe that Iran is mainly responsible for what's taking place in Yemen. Whether this is correct or not, that's the perception. There is also the perception that the United States is disengaging and leaving the region, that the United States was too deferential to Iran during the negotiations over the nuclear deal, that Barack Obama did not assure the Arabs in the Gulf, including the Saudis, UAE, these are all American allies, of American support.
MELHEMAnd they don't trust Barack Obama. Again, fair or unfair, there is this perception in the region that the United States is leaving, that we have wars burning around the region around Saudi Arabia and that there's a great deal of threat, and Iran is projecting itself, and that's the most dangerous thing, is projecting itself as the protector of Shiite Arabs. And if you look at Syria, Iraq and Yemen, you see the Iranians playing the proxy card wars brilliantly in the sense that they are using Shiite Arabs to fight Sunni Arabs.
MELHEMThat's what is taking place, and this is how the world look from Riyadh. I'm not justifying it. All I'm just saying, this is how the world looks. And one final point back on Nimr al-Nimr is that we are executing radical Sunni clerics and others. Why should we exclude someone like Nimr just because he's a Shiite? And that's their argument.
NASRI think Hisham is correct in the way he says the way Riyadh sees it. I'm not sure they actually executed any Sunni clerics, or they have actually executed Sunni clerics.
MELHEMNot in this batch but other...
NASRIn other batches, but ultimately the execution of a cleric, even though he was not a senior cleric, is contentious, and it actually forces religious leadership on the Shiite side to say something. There's a difference between killing Shiites, the Saudis had killed Shiites in the past, as well. I think, you know, the point that Hisham raises about perception of Iranian behavior, it's very important, it's very nuanced. You know, any time Shiites, even loyal Shiites, raise issue of political representation as they did in Bahrain, the reaction is that this is Iranian behavior. This is Iranian bad behavior. And the Obama administration has also bought into this.
NASRThere is bad behavior, like in Syria and in Lebanon, but we can't say when there was a Shiite uprising modeled on Egypt and on Tunisia that was Iran's doing. In fact, by suppressing it and telling the Shiites you're not equal Arabs to Sunnis, you don't deserve representation, and if you demand it, you are a fifth column for Iran, you actually push them into Iran's bosom. I mean, you know, the Bahrain uprising, we supported it as the United States. We supported the demand for political reform, for representation, for elections, and the Saudis suppressed it as, exactly as Hisham said, as closing the door to Iranian interference.
NASRAnd now what we're seeing in Bahrain is that the older, disenchanted Shiites have no option but to go down an Hezbollah path of adopting an Iranian model and Iranian patronage.
REHMAnd before we go any further, because I know this question will come from our listeners, briefly explain the difference in thought between the Sunnis and the Shiites.
NASRWell, the simplest way putting it is that think of Protestant, Catholic or Orthodox Christian and Catholic. They're two different interpretations of Islam. It started at the very beginning of Islam over succession, but over 14 centuries, there's different theology, there's different law. Each believes that it's the original orthodoxy. And in a Middle East where everybody's talking about Islam, the immediate question is which Islam are you practicing. You know, this is not a secular region.
REHMAnd how different are they in terms of their thinking, their approach to Islam?
NASRThey're very close, but, you know, they follow the same Quran, but they don't agree on a single page of it, and not in big ways. But, you know, they stand differently in prayer, they have different law, and Islam is a religion of law. It's not a religion of belief. So you how you practice is very different. And when you have an environment in the Middle East where you have a kind of views that ISIS is promoting, or conservatives are promoting, that there's only one Islam, and even Sunnis cannot veer off from it, the Shiites are way out there in their view. They're not even counted as Muslims.
NASRAnd, you know, the gulf is actually -- had been broadening, and politics is aggravating it. So the Shiites are essentially like any, say, religious minority, if you would, in a majority setting. But the problems today are not religious. This is not about -- this is not because they disagree on the text. This is because there is something on the table to fight for, which is the future of these countries and then whether Iran or Saudi Arabia end up coming on the top. One is Shiite, one is Sunni. So, you know, that's -- that goes to their element of power.
SANGERYou know, you can view this, of course, as a Sunni-Shiite conflict, and there's obviously a lot of that there. But I think as Vali pointed out before, you have to think of this primarily as a Saudi-Iran thing that's going on right now. And that's where the message to the United States got so interesting in all of this. You had the Saudis basically saying since the nuclear deal was agreed on in July, the Iranians had been acting throughout the region in Yemen, in Syria, elsewhere. They've been feeling their oats. They know they're getting, in a matter of weeks now, $100 billion released that's been frozen since the -- during the course of 30 years of tension with the United States.
SANGERThey fear that the United States views Iran as a more natural ally over the long period of time.
REHMBut isn't Saudi Arabia also getting money for weapons at the same time?
SANGERThat's absolutely true, and President Obama had the Saudis and all of the other Gulf countries up to Camp David to promise them that he would increase the weapons, A, which of course helps Americans weapons-makers an awful lot, to counter Iranian aggression outside of the nuclear arena. And the Obama administration would say bad is the situation has been in the past four or five days, imagine how much worse it would be if it involved a nuclear or near-nuclear Iran. The Saudi message is if you, Washington, are not going to contain Iranian behavior, we will.
SANGERAnd this is a new Saudi regime that's in place since King Abdullah died. They are significantly more headstrong. They are much more about action than they are about deliberation, as Martin Indyk said the other day, I thought a well-put phrase. And they are showing that they are not going to sit around and wait to take construction from Washington, and it was Secretary Kerry who was on the phone to them many times before these executions, urging them not to execute al-Nimr.
REHMAnd of course they went ahead and did it, Hisham.
MELHEMAnd the Iranians were taunting them. The Iranians made Nimr a cause célèbre, and they were taunting them. Now I don't believe in executing people, but that's the context. Look, we don't -- we are not talking about a theological or even a sectarian disputation among theologians as to which brand of Islam is better. But this is a political conflict between two states and also between two cultures, let's be blunt about it, you know, Arabs and Persians in the Gulf. This has been going on for centuries in many ways.
MELHEMIt's not -- sectarianism is a new cancer. We have 1,400 years of Muslim Islamic history. We did not see this. And people say, well, Muslims have been fighting each other forever. That's not true. It's like this silly claim that Jews and Arabs have been fighting each other for centuries. It's not true. What we have today is a political competition. There is a sense in Saudi Arabia and on the Arab side of the Gulf and in the region in general that Iran is an ascendant power. It's not only an assertive power, it's even an aggressive power. And see their action in Syria and Iraq.
MELHEMI agree that the Shiite Arabs in general have been marginalized. Historically the Shiite have been marginalized in every majority Sunni country. This is part of history, and it's explained by sociological data and everything. That said, Iran is acting as a state. It is driven by raison d'etat. It's exercising its influence brutally at times in Syria and in Lebanon and in Iraq today. And they have been getting away with murder as far as the Arabs and others in the region in terms of being the country that is most responsible for the killing of American soldiers in Iraq, along with Syria in the last 10, 12 years. This is a country that has a covert nuclear program. This is a country that's not even probably going along with the deal that they already signed in terms of their missile experimentations.
MELHEMThis is a country that has been fighting the United States directly and indirectly for a long time and that they are getting away with it. Now you have a new regime in Saudi Arabia, as David correctly said, that is more proactive. And I'll tell you, they are feeling the pressure from within Saudi Arabia and from without, and that's why they are acting the way they are acting.
REHMVali Nasr, did in fact the U.S. condemn Saudi Arabia's actions sufficiently?
NASRNo. I mean, there was a mild rebuke on human rights issues, but I don't know if privately they have told them that what they did was damaging to U.S. policy and that it has undermined regional stability. I think that's a challenge the U.S. has to deal with. If I may just pick up on the points that both Hisham and David made and put it in different context, you know, Hisham is right. Iran's regional behavior didn't start with the nuclear deal. It goes way back.
NASRSo what has changed? I actually don't think the Saudis are worried about nuclear Iran. They're really worried about the United States. What's really changed is that they have lost the U.S. And David is absolutely right in that sense that that's the big strategic -- so we keep telling them, oh, it would've been much worse if Iran had nukes, and I think their answer is that we wouldn't have cared whether they had 10 nukes if you were the United States of yesteryear, if it would be like North Korea, if you would have been steadfast.
NASRNow when you ask them, well, why did the United States, why did you lose the United States? They say, and often they use very colorful terminology. I've heard that, you know, you found a much more attractive suitor. And why is Iran attractive to the United States? Because of Iran's show of force. So, you know, they almost sort of have a sense -- they have that question within we had with China, who lost China. Who lost the U.S.? The Arabs lost the U.S. because of Iran's, you know, bullishness, because of its aggression, because of what it did in Iraq, because it forced the U.S. to throw the towel in on sanctions.
NASRSo they -- this new regime is taking a page out of the Iranian playbook. We need to show Saudi Arabia is not just a little poodle for the United States to pet and reassure. We can bomb a country into oblivion, too. We can stand up to Iran. We can have an independent oil policy. We don't need to consult with you, and we can do whatever we want in Syria.
SANGERBut they picked a really bad moment to do that, when oil prices are getting down to remarkably low levels. They're under huge tension. They're overstretched in Yemen. So these are all really good -- you know, you can understand a strategic rationale for the Saudis doing all the things they're doing. Their timing was pretty poor.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Doesn't the U.S. still need Saudi Arabia for its interaction with Iran?
SANGERWe certainly need Saudi Arabia as a counterweight to Iran throughout the region, and the U.S. doesn't want to have to choose between the two. The big gamble of the Iran deal, the unstated gamble of the Iran deal, was that over time, since Iran is run by an ayatollah who is not in great health and not a young man, is that over time there will be a political transition that they think will break in America's way and that if you got the nuclear dispute out of the way, and you relieve the sanctions, you are on the way to actually working out a new relationship.
SANGERAnd that's exactly what the Syrian -- what the Saudis fear. And they believe that, you know, over time the U.S. tie to Saudi Arabia will weaken because of Iran, because we're now pumping enough of our own oil that we don't need the Saudi oil as much and because there are other regional players, including Gulf Arab states, that we find easier to deal with.
REHMAnd what about Saudi Arabia's own domestic economic pressures, Vali?
NASRWell, let me, before saying anything about that, just add to what David was saying. You know, Saudi Arabia is not Egypt. It's not a big, you know, country. What is the elements of power in Saudi Arabia that will be a counterbalance to Iran? It's oil and ideology. Oil matters less and less, and we really don't like the ideology factor there, either. And that's I think the big problem for Saudi Arabia. In other words, without American military presence in the region, it is not really a counterbalance to Iran. It cannot stand up to a country of 80 million with the Revolutionary Guards and everything that Hisham explained.
NASRBut we also need others in the region. We need Iraq. To fight ISIS, we need Shiites, we need Iraq, and right now this sort of sectarian tussle doesn't make it easy for Prime Minister Abadi to do what we're telling him. We're telling him be nice to Sunnis after you've taken Ramadi, and meanwhile his own Shiites in the streets are protesting the execution. And I don't know if actually, you know, how we're going to fix Ramadi.
NASRThe domestic situation actually aggravates it because the open question is, is Saudi Arabia any different from Argentina, Brazil, Indonesia, countries that had to go through restructuring. We saw Suharto's regime, you know, fall apart in Indonesia the minute they began implementing IMF reforms. We've seen this movie play before. So the Saudi monarchy is taking a position, we're going to cut, you know, subsidies two years after King Abdullah actually put those subsidies in, in order to stop the Arab Spring. So that's a big open question for us.
REHMVali Nasr, he's dean of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Short break here. We'll take your calls, your comments when we come back. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back. Time to open the phones. 800-433-8850. First to Mark in Birmingham, Michigan. Go right ahead. You're on the air.
MARKYeah, good morning. You know, we've been talking about the situation, the specific situation between Saudi Arabia and Iran, but it's really part of a wider conflict in the Middle East. And, you know, one of your guests mentioned that the perception is that the US has pulled away in Saudi Arabia, and I would argue that it's not a perception. It's the reality. This is a strategic patience that identifies the Obama doctrine, and the Middle East is exploding and it's reaching our shores.
MARKAnd I think it's time to put the (unintelligible) squarely on the shoulders of the President. Even though this show and others are somehow allergic to, you know, criticizing, the President administration as they did the Bush administration.
REHMHisham, you were talking during the break about the fact that this is the President's last year in office.
REHMHe does not want to get involved here.
MELHEMI think the President lost intellectual and emotional interest and curiosity in the region when he was stiffed first by Netanyahu over the settlement issue when he found out that the Arab uprisings are going to demand a great deal of his time and his energy at a time when his basic domestic agenda is the most important thing for him. This isn't his first term. President Obama looked at the region, with all its complexities, and he really flinched.
REHMVali Nasr, would you agree with that?
NASRI agree. And I also think that even more fundamentally, he really did believe that America's fortunes should lie in Asia and that the Bush administration had overinvested in the Middle East without anything to show for it. And I think he made a big assumption that somehow if you left the Middle East to its own devices, they will fight it out and it won't impact us. We actually are too worried. And I don't -- and I think on that, he has had to revise his position. In other words, what happens in the Middle East doesn't stay in the Middle East and Middle East is not sub-Saharan Africa. You know, the first beheading by ISIS was a wake-up call.
NASRWhen you have a bombing in San Bernardino, it doesn't give us the luxury of saying well, you know, we really can wash our hands of it.
SANGERYou know, I think the President accurately came to the conclusion, as Vali suggested before with the Asian pivot, that there's a limited amount of American interests that you can promote over the long period of time in the Middle East. We certainly have interests with allies. The Saudis, who we've been discussing, the Israelis for certain. We have opportunities to diffuse issues such as with Iran, which, over time, could become a significant market. But it's 70 million people. It's not going to make a huge difference to the American economy whether Iran is an open or closed economy.
SANGERBut that in Asia, we had huge opportunity. And the oddity here is that the perception in the Middle East is that we are focused entirely on Asia. And the perception in Asia is that we've never disentangled ourselves from the Middle East and really executed on the Asian pivot. And so the result is that neither region of the world seems satisfied with where President Obama has ended up.
REHMIn contrast to the idea that we have lost Saudi Arabia, haven't they now agreed as of yesterday to come back to the table and participate in talks on Syria?
MELHEMNo, they, I mean, their decision is not going to impact -- they don't want their decision to impact the talks in Syria. I mean, it's in their own interests, also, to have a resolution in Syria, as long as that resolution will limit Iran's influence there. But let me say, the -- I mean, I agree that the United States should be to Asia or at least should focus on Asia, because, you know, the economic interests and all of that. The problem is, and let me start by a caveat. I think the Arabs are in the main responsible for most of the mess that exists in the Arab world.
MELHEMFrom Libya to Yemen. That said, the United States, being the country that's most important in the region, and don't forget that the history of colonialism and all the current borders and all that, that should be kept in mind and in the background. But, the United States is not a disinterested third party. Because the United States played an incredible role in the current unraveling of Iraq. This President, not Bush, was involved in the war in Libya. This President made threats and promises in Syria. He did certain actions, and because of his inaction, we have all of these problems.
MELHEMSo, there is an American responsibility. So we cannot say we are disengaging. The United States interests demands that because it is -- it was part of the problem, that it should be also part of the solution. The impression is, or the perception is this President does not exercise real power, that he, threw the towel, as Vali said correctly, on a number of occasions. He was read and studied by Putin. He did not stand up to him in Ukraine, and this is read by the Syrians, by the Saudis, by the Egyptians, by the Iranians, by everybody, that this President is not assertive enough.
MELHEMThat he does not deliver on his promises. And I can tell you, his decision not to attack Syria in the summer of 2013 is still hurting him. And just damaged his reputation. This is his last year. People in the region are going to say he is going to be weaker than ever. He is going to be diminished as a leader in the region. Why should we do this and that in his last year? Let's wait for the next year and for the next American President.
NASRI -- absolutely. The perception in the region, as Hisham was saying, is contempt for Obama. It's not even writing him off. There is contempt, but I think one of the things that they may be misunderstanding is that this -- that the United States sort of tilt towards Asia or disengagement from the region will necessarily be reversed under a new President. I mean, I think David has pointed out to this that there are structural things at play here.
NASROil is no longer what it was, that the nuclear deal is a fact and if it's implemented, it makes for a very different kind of an American presence in the region. Europe's position with the Middle East is changing. And Asia is still there. And, you know, I mean, I think the next President is not going to come in and say, we're going to pivot back to the Middle East. He may come up with a different balance. And I think the countries in the Middle East will be in for a surprise if they think that we're going to go back to, say, the Bush years or the Reagan years in terms of American focus on the region.
REHMWhat about the European Union? Where is Europe in all of this, David?
SANGERWell, first is the Europeans' geography still matters. And the Europeans view this through the two lenses. One, terrorism is much closer to them. I mean, San Bernardino, inspired as it may have been, was not like Paris, which was commanded, it looks like, by ISIS, probably out of Syria. Secondly, the migrant crisis has put a tension on the European community like none we have ever seen before. I've heard American officials, when they don't have to worry about speaking for attribution, talk about the concern that the migrant crisis could, over time, rip apart the European community.
SANGERAnd certainly, it's ripping apart the Schengen system of moving across without having to worry about where your passport's from. Moving across the borders. So, they view this in very different terms. And they are most interested, right now, in getting the Syrian crisis resolved, because that's the way to get the migrant crisis resolved.
REHMAll right, let's go to Virginia Beach, Virginia. Wynn, you're on the air.
WYNNGood morning, Diane. Thank you.
WYNNI just have two quick comments and I'll try to keep them brief. First, I just wonder if we could just comment one more time on how the United States and a lot of other Western nations really put on their convenience lenses when it comes to dealing with human rights violations in the Middle East, both in Iran and Saudi Arabia. Both are very guilty of a lot of violations over the last few years. And secondly, I'm wondering if they could just comment quickly on whether or not the United States is cozying up to Iran because of an upcoming political change that the United States think that they might be able to manipulate or to change the effects in order to really boost the United States' presence in the Middle East?
MELHEMLook, there are no Jeffersonian Democrats running around in the hallways of power in Tehran or in Riyadh, or in Cairo or anywhere, you know, most of the countries of the Middle East. I think the United States should speak in the same language to everybody when it comes to, especially massive violations of human rights. And there are massive violations of human rights on both sides of the Gulf. So let's be clear about that. The problem is that the United States, when it deals with a country like Iran, during negotiations with -- on the nuclear deal, I can understand a nuclear deal, buying time for the United States or the West for another 10, 15 years.
MELHEMAlthough that is nothing but a fleeting moment in the life of a Persian country, which has been around for 3500 years. But why didn't we deal with Iran the way we dealt with the Soviet Union during the negotiations with the Soviet Union? In those days, we had SALT agreements, (word?) agreements, we had the chairman of the Communist Party and then -- in Moscow, but we kept talking about human rights. We knew the stories, the individual specific stories of Soviet dissidence. We did not even raise the issue of the four Americans who are detained in Iran. Okay, we, the Soviet Union played nasty games in Afghanistan or in Africa or Central Asia.
MELHEMAnd Central America. We challenged them. And we played the proxy game. It was ugly, but we played the proxy game. And it was Ronald Reagan who pushed the Soviet Union towards a collapse, because he challenged them while signing agreements with them. We did not do this with Iran, because our President was concerned if he challenged Iran in Iraq, or if he challenged Iran in Syria, the nuclear deal will go. And for Obama, that, his eyes was on that prize.
SANGERI don't doubt for a minute that Hisham's right, that the President's eyes were on that particular prize. And I think there's a very legitimate question to be asked about whether they could have been more outspoken on human rights, although they say, and I believe them, that they raised the American prisoners in each meeting. But let's face it, there were things the United States was doing to push back on Iran. The Fifth Fleet was bolstered in a way to make sure that the Iranians were contained in the Gulf.
SANGERWe launched the biggest, most sophisticated cyber-attack that one state has ever done on another in order to slow down the nuclear program. So it's not as if the administration was sitting here not taking other actions.
MELHEMNo, I'm talking about challenging Iran's bad regional tactic. It's not that Iran...
SANGERThat's what the Fifth Fleet was about. It was about the Persian Gulf.
MELHEMThey were just firing live missiles against American aircraft carriers a few days ago and nothing was done.
REHMAll right. But there is a question now on the table. What is the US expected to do now and what actions might it take now to put things back into place?
NASRWell, I think you have to start by saying what are your priorities in the Middle East? There are many things we want to do, you know, promote human rights, implement a nuclear deal, but I think, you know, if we really looked at, you know, what's driving European and American politicians, you looked at the American Presidential elections. It's about ISIS and terrorism, number one. And then as David said, particularly for the Europeans, it's the refugee crisis. And these two things are tied to bringing back stability to Iraq and Syria.
NASRFinding an end to the Syrian War, as Hisham said, you know, through some kind of a combination of military and diplomatic process. And defeating ISIS. And I think what we have to communicate to all sides, and with Iran, we have a very narrow channel of communication. With Saudis, UAE, other allies, we have a much bigger, and the Turks, we have a much bigger channel of communication. We've got to get them all on the same page. So with the Turks, we have to tell them, it's not about the Kurds, it's about ISIS. You gotta focus on this. And with the Saudis, we have to say, whatever your issues with the Shias and internal, et cetera, our expectation is that you don't torpedo our policy.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go now to Sheldon in New York City. You're on the air.
SHELDONThank you. Interesting discussion. I have a question for the, to the two speakers about the concept of quote, losing Saudi Arabia.
REHMThere are actually three speakers here, but go right ahead.
SHELDONOkay, I'm sorry. Saudi Arabia is an anti-Democratic, religious monarchy which as supported extremism through the Rohani Sect for decades. And much of what we see, in terms of religious extremism, comes out of the teachings and the financial support that the Rohanis and Saudis have given throughout the Middle East, okay? They have not really been our allies. They have done things in their own way for themselves. And I remind the speakers that, in fact, most of the 9/11 terrorists, came from Saudi Arabia.
SHELDONSo I'm not sure, and their regime hangs on the threat of bribing its population. I'm not sure what we have lost and why we still consider them a real ally?
SANGERWell, it's an interesting question, because an ally has sort of three different functions. One is are you an ally in common values around the world? Clearly, the Saudi values and the American values are not the same, and that's part of what -- why this incident is so wrangled, because the concept of them beheading people and executions brought up images of ISIS. The complete counter value.
REHMBut haven't the Iranians killed more than the Saudis?
MELHEMLast year, they executed more in Iran than in Saudi Arabia.
MELHEMThat's not a defense of Saudi Arabia.
NASRBut they're not an ally.
SANGERThat's right. They're not an ally. Okay. The second is, do you have common military interests? And here, we do. But they're not completely in line. And so, when the Saudis went off into Yemen, the US considered that a huge distraction from going after ISIS and focusing on the Syria issue and so forth. And then, the third question for any kind of ally is do you have very strong economic ties? And we still have strong economic ties, but they're nowhere near as strong as they once were.
REHMAnd how does that change the outlook that the US may have towards Saudi Arabia as we go on? Hisham.
MELHEMIt weakens the hand of the United States, in general. And the hands of Barack Obama, in particular, because of what he did and what he did not do in the last seven years. What you have is are structural changes in the Middle East. And it's going to be very difficult for the Arabs and the Americans and others to adjust to this new reality. Less dependence on oil from the region, maybe the diminishing strategic importance of the region in the long run. And also, the wars that are taking place in the region, the demographic changes that are going to affect both Saudi Arabia and Iran. There are so many changes and variables. It's going to be very difficult for people to adjust to.
REHMLast word, Vali Nasr.
NASRWell, I think that it suggests that in the longer run, we're going to be drifting apart. I mean, if oil isn't there, the economy isn't there, values isn't there. Militarily, we want to defeat ISIS, they want to fight Shias. And we're not as hell bent as they are on containing Iran as we once were.
REHMWhat a picture. What a picture. Vali Nasr, David Sanger, Hisham Melhem. Thank you all so much.
REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.