Oil, Arms and Militant Wahhabism is the Basis of US-Saudi Relationship (2/2)
Medea Benjamin and Paul Jay discuss how Trump and Pence will look for ways to weaken Iran by abrogating the nuclear deal, reimposing sanctions, and a possible military attack all in alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia
PAUL JAY: Welcome to Reality Asserts Itself on The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. We’re continuing our discussion with Medea Benjamin about US-Saudi relations, and what that means for the rest of us. Now joining us again in the studio is Medea Benjamin. Thanks for joining us again.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Good to be with you, Paul.
PAUL JAY: Quickly, Medea is the co-founder of the peace group Code Pink, and the human rights organization, Global Exchange. Her latest book is “Kingdom of the Unjust: Behind the US-Saudi Connection”.
We ended up segment one –- and you should watch segment one first, it would make more sense –- with the one thing a Trump presidency, and the Saudis have in common is — at least on the face of it — is they both want regime change in Iran and they want it bad.
Trump has built a whole foreign policy team now, and the one connective tissue between all the people he’s choosing, whether it’s Flynn or Mattis, or any of these guys. They all want to attack Iran in some form or another, and so do the Saudis. The Saudi… we know from WikiLeaks, the Saudi King said cut off the head of the snake, which meant Iran.
I was at a dinner once, I’ve told this story before on The Real News, but I got, for some crazy reason, I was invited to this organization, Enigma’s, I believe that’s their name. It’s a crazy think-tanky, policy group funded by Raytheon and Boeing and General Dynamics and all the big arms manufacturers that lobbies and holds educationals for Gulf States.
And they have one on the best way to fight terrorism with tanks, and jet aircraft policy, and all the rest. They opened up their Washington office and had a dinner with all the big arms manufacturers there. And I’m at this table, and I got invited because I’m our bureau chief on Capitol Hill, and all the bureau chiefs were invited.
The only conversation at the table is how much Saudi Arabia wants to attack Iran. And, in fact, that Saudis are far more interested in the Israelis, and the Israelis — many people thought it was more for domestic consumption — had this existential threat of Iran. That they weren’t even as serious as the Saudis, who were really serious of wanting the Americans to attack Iran and try to force regime change.
So, why are the Saudis so intent on this?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, you could either go back many, many… a long time, or you could to go recent history of 1979 and talk about the Shi’a-Sunni split. But 1979 is when the Shi’a theocracy comes to power in Iran, overthrowing the Shah, and putting itself forward as the beacon of Islam in the world. As opposed to the Saudis, and the Saudis saying no, we are the place where the holiest lands are of Mecca and Medina. We are the champions of Islam in the world, of the Sunni-Wahhabi version.
And the Saudis have so much oil money that they are able then, to spread this with massive propaganda and textbooks, that are sent out and the creation of all these schools all over the Middle East, North Africa and spreading their ideology. And it becomes a Saudi-Iran competition. That ironically in many ways, the US helps to foment with its invasion of Iraq.
Sharpening the sectarian divide internally, not only in Iraq, but giving strength and putting in power a Shi’a government that is close to Iran.
PAUL JAY: I was about to say, it’s so much in the American interests to have this rivalry, because imagine the alternative. Imagine a Saudi-Iranian alliance that would create this pan-Islamic entity.
It would be a right — not in terms of modern economy — but in terms of the amount of money and power, it’d become a middle level super-power, at any rate.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: And the oil, all the oil. Imagine if you had the Iraq, Iran and Saudis all working together. It would be a tremendous powerhouse. So, yes, the US with the divide and conquer, the US with creating weak states in the Middle East. I mean, certainly the division of Iraq has been something that has shattered the foundations of the Iraqi government.
But put an Iranian, pro-Iran government, in power which has then — Iran is seen as having a foothold not only in Iraq, but in other parts of the region. And so you see the proxy war between the Saudis and Iran playing out in Syria, and in Iraq and Libya and Lebanon and elsewhere.
PAUL JAY: And if it wasn’t for this rivalry, perhaps Saudi Arabia doesn’t need to spend $114 billion on arms purchases over eight years.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Right. It certainly helps the weapons industry to keep this rivalry going.
PAUL JAY: In terms of the Saudi narrative domestically, why is it… is it important to have this kind of existential enemy, in terms of the way it deals with the Islamic world?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Very much so. Because it allows them to hype up the nationalism, that we are under attack, look at the Iranian influence on our border in Yemen. Look at the Iranians trying to take over in neighboring Bahrain that we have to be united. So, anybody who rises up to question the Saudi kingdom, and certainly the Shi’a who were trying to just get their rights as equal citizens, are seen as agents of Iran.
So, yes, it very much helps to try to keep cohesion within the Saudi regime. Especially the time when the oil prices are down. When they’re running at a deficit. When they’re having to cut a lot of benefits that they have given out to the Saudi people in the past. It’s become even more important.
PAUL JAY: At the Republican National Convention — made a statement, which I thought was rather important.
RUDY GIULIANI: In the last seven months, there have been five major Islamic terrorist attacks on us, and our allies. Donald Trump has said the first step in defeating our enemies is to identify them properly, and see the connections between them. So we can find them and catch them. We must commit ourselves to unconditional victory against them.
This includes undoing one of the worst deals America ever made — Obama’s nuclear agreement with Iran, that will eventually…
RUDY GIULIANI: …that will eventually let them become a nuclear power. And is putting billions of dollars back into a country, that’s the world’s largest supporter of terrorism.
(end video clip)
PAUL JAY: So, there’s Giuliani saying the global terrorist threat of the Iranians is against the United States. Not the Saudis. Now, Trump did get off-message a little bit in the campaign. Where he actually once… a couple of times, did blame terrorism and 9/11 on the Saudis. But all the people around him that he’s appointed don’t ever say a negative word about the Saudis. It’s all against Iran.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Right. And it turned out that Trump was even setting up business deals during his campaign with the Saudis. And yes, when you look at who he’s brought in, there’s not one person in the entire team who is not vehemently opposed to the Iranian government. Trying to find ways of pushing against the Iran nuclear deal.
And I think that’s very scary right now, to think that you have in place. The person who is in charge of Iran policy during this transition time is a woman who was Chief of Staff for the very right-wing, Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — and who has been trying for years to encourage the US to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities, has been supporting the terrorist group, the mujahedeen, in working to get them off the terrorist list. And as you mentioned, whether it’s Flynn, or even Pompeo, who was the congressperson who has been extremely anti-Iran, the…
PAUL JAY: Most importantly, Pence. They’re Cheney, and president… a president — Pence…
MEDEA BENJAMIN: It is, I think, very disturbing to think what they are going to do to try to tear up this Iran nuclear deal. Now, it’s important for your listeners to understand this is not a bilateral deal. This is a deal that involves Europe, involves China and Russia. And they’re not about to tear up the deal. And they are, I think, very worried about what a Trump administration would do in trying to cement the deal.
There are a lot of business interests that have already amped up their relationships with Iran that certainly would be affected. If the US tried to do something like punish foreign companies that are doing business with Iran. So, there’s a lot of troublemaking that a Trump administration could do, even if it couldn’t tear up the Iran nuclear deal.
PAUL JAY: Yeah. They can impose –- in effect, they already recently did, more or less –- but they can impose even heavier sanctions for other reasons.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, the Obama… during the Obama administration, that just passed in Congress. But what a Trump administration could do, I think, is then impose sanctions on foreign companies doing business with Iran.
PAUL JAY: There’s been some discussion about how the countries, other signatories, would not go along with ripping up the agreement. Would push back on some type of assault on Iran. But I just would remind everyone that Germany, France, Russia and China were all against the war in Iraq, and that didn’t stop anything.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, also, let’s look at how this could potentially play out within Iran. We already know that there’s hardliners in Iran who were against the deal, who always said you can’t negotiate with the West. They’re the devils. They’ll never go through on these agreements.
And who would be strengthened by this Trump troublemaking, would be the hardliners in Iran. Who could then use this as a reason to pull out of the deal, or could give them leverage in the next elections. I mean, there are a lot of things that could strengthen the very elements in Iran that we should be not strengthening.
PAUL JAY: It’s a mutually advantageous dance of death.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: That’s right. It’s the extreme right on both sides supporting each other.
PAUL JAY: And giving each other a reason to exist.
In terms of the critique of Iran as being, to use Giuliani’s words, Pence’s words, all of them, really –- Iran is the greatest source of international terrorism. Is there any evidence of that?
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, I would certainly say that the Saudis are the greatest source of international terrorism. But now Iran has become caught up, as we talked about before, in these proxy wars. It’s the Saudis that are supporting the Sunni extremists. But Iran now is very much involved, even if they weren’t in the beginning.
I mean, just take the war in Yemen, which gets very little coverage in the US press. I don’t think the Iranians were involved at all in the beginning, when the Saudis looked at the… one of the factions inside Yemen. The Houthis, and said, oh, they’re a proxy for Iran, and that’s why we’re going to go in there. And they’ve been doing this just tremendous bombing campaign for the last 20 months.
Iran eventually has to get involved, or feels it has to get involved, but I think that’s a result of the Saudis’ initial bombing campaign.
PAUL JAY: Is there any evidence of Iranian-sponsored terrorist attacks on the United States, or conspiring to? There was one kerfuffle in Florida, but it turned out to be nothing.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: As far as I know, there is nothing at all. All of the terrorist attacks of the United States, have been somehow involved with a group that is Sunni-influenced, and many of them can be traced back in one way or another to Saudi Arabia.
PAUL JAY: When they talk about Iranian-sponsored terrorism, they don’t say so, because they claim it’s attacking the United States. What they really mean is Hezbollah.
They don’t like the fact there’s a military force on the border of Israel that can actually defy Israeli power. Which Hezbollah did in Lebanon, and essentially defeated an Israeli invasion. That’s what they really have it on.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Well, right. And you talked about your story and saying that the Saudis were even more adamant than the Israelis about attacking Iran. But let’s not belittle the influence of Israel in all of this.
Israel was the major player internationally, trying to quash the Iran nuclear deal. Terrified of the US becoming closer to Iran and the US lifting more and more sanctions against Iran. And I think will be a major player, along with the Soviets, in a Trump administration.
PAUL JAY: Russia.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Huh?
PAUL JAY: Russians. You said Soviets.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Oh, I’m sorry… along with the Russians, in trying to do something during the Trump administration. And let’s also remember that as part of the concession prize for the Iran nuclear deal. The Israelis were given a large increase in US military aid that went up to almost $4 billion, from $3 billion a year for the next ten years. More sophisticated weapons, as well. So, I just don’t want us to belittle the role that the Israelis are playing.
PAUL JAY: Yeah. I was trying to highlight the less-spoken-about role of the Saudis.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: And remember, now that the Saudis and the Israelis are working together…
PAUL JAY: Very much so.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: …and this was once — a clandestinely — and now it is overt.
PAUL JAY: And there’s an important WikiLeaks that I don’t think gets enough attention. It appears to be a State Department memo to Hilary Clinton, where they say that we can… to get the Israelis to go along with the Iran deal, we need to help anti-Assad forces to overthrow Assad, because if we’re seen to be helping to overthrow Assad, they won’t be as concerned about the Iran deal. And clearly that’s about cutting weapons to Hezbollah as a primary objective of the Israelis.
This issue of Giuliani’s speech, the reason I think it’s so critical, and similar things said by Pence and all of these appointees, that if they do want to attack Iran – and they do. They’ve said so over and over again, “they” being Trump’s team, and Trump himself has been quite vitriolic on the issue of ripping up the agreement and so on.
They’re going to have trouble, I think, gathering American public opinion on this. First of all, there’s no direct threat from the Iranians. The consequence of an Iranian attack is going to drive the price of oil through the roof. Which is going to start affecting people at the pump, which is serious for them politically. The Iranians are unlikely just to take it. Which means it’s opening up another kind of gates of hell scenario in the Middle East. Who knows where it leads.
And one wonders if, you know, Pence says he is going to model his vice-presidency after Cheney. Well, I think there’s excellent evidence that Cheney, at the very least, in terms of 9/11, did what he could to make sure American intelligence agencies were disorganized and not acting on evidence that might have led to preventing 9/11.
You put all this together, and you get the drums of anti-Iranian war are going to start pounding after the inauguration.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: I think it’s more going to be an Iraq redux, in terms of the Iraqis are not complying with weapons inspections…
PAUL JAY: The Iranians.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Yeah. And just as we said that around Iraq and that fed into the war invasion of Iraq, they’re going to do the same thing about Iran. The Iranians are not complying. The Iranians are not complying. When the Iranians are complying.
But it doesn’t matter — it’s what is being put out and who has the soapbox.
So, my fear is that what we’re going to hear constantly from a Trump administration, is the Obama administration gave away everything, and gave the Iranians the money that was actually theirs that we had frozen. We’re not going to do that anymore. We’re going to be hard line. And the Iranians are not complying.
If you have been watching Fox News, that’s what you would be getting already. You would be already primed for the US to say there’s nothing we can do except take out the Iran nuclear facilities. Now, on the other hand, you have American people who are tired of these wars. Who don’t want more wars in the Middle East, and…
PAUL JAY: Frankly, we were more or less promised that by Trump.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: That’s right. And we’re also promised that Trump is going to rebuild America and make it great again. And that means jobs, jobs, jobs, and creation of things here at home. Not to be distracted by these wars in the Middle East. And also his idea that we should be friends with the Russians is contradictory to this idea that we should be militarily involved in Iran.
So, there are contradictions, there are questions around this. And I think this is an area where I, as an activist, and other activists, have to find our hope and our position of saying that we have to keep building up an American sentiment against involvement in another war.
We have to get out the truth about Iran is complying. We have to work with our friends in the European community who want to see this deal not only continued, but strengthened — and that’s where our hope has to be.
PAUL JAY: All right. Thanks very much for joining us.
MEDEA BENJAMIN: Thank you.
PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.