Why Won’t Trump Condemn the Saudis? (hint: because of Israel and Iran)

Deconstructed The Intercept Oct 18, 2018 (this link has audio, below is a transcript)

In this week’s episode, Mehdi Hasan is joined by The Intercept’s D.C. bureau chief, Ryan Grim, and the founder of the National Iranian American Council, Trita Parsi, to deconstruct the evil Justice League of Donald Trump, Benjamin Netanyahu, and Mohammed bin Salman.

Donald Trump: I’m not giving cover at all. With that being said, Saudi Arabia has been a very important ally of ours in the Middle East. We are stopping Iran. We have other very good allies in the Middle East, but if you look at Saudi Arabia they’re an ally.

Mehdi Hasan: Why is the U.S. so keen to help the Saudis cover-up the alleged murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi? Is it all about oil and arms sales and Trump’s apartments, or is it something deeper, more geopolitical? Is it really about Iran and about Israel?

I’m Mehdi Hasan. Welcome to Deconstructed.

Newsreel Announcer: An American destroyer comes alongside a cruiser in Great Bitter Lake on the Suez Canal in Egypt. It brings Ibn Saud, king of the five million people of Saudi Arabia to a conference with President Roosevelt stopping off here on his return from the Crimea conference.

MH: The United States and Saudi Arabia have been the best of best friends since 1945, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt met with Saudi Arabia’s founding king, Abdulaziz, onboard the USS Quincy in the Suez Canal to strike the deal of the century: Washington would provide the security and Riyadh would provide the oil.

That alliance has held for more than seven decades, it held through the Cold War; it held even after 9/11 when 15 of the 19 hijackers who brought down the Twin Towers turned out to be Saudi nationals. But now bizarrely, and belatedly, since Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi was allegedly murdered by government agents inside the Saudi consulate in Turkey a growing number of US politicians and pundits seem to have turned on the Kingdom and its belligerent young crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, or MBS.

Listen to hawkish Republican senator Lindsey Graham on Fox and Friends on Tuesday:

Senator Lindsey Graham: I’ve been their biggest defender on the floor of United States Senate. This guy is a wrecking ball. He had this guy murdered in a consulate in Turkey and to expect me to ignore it. I feel used and abused. I was on the floor every time defending Saudi Arabia.

MH: But here’s the thing. There are plenty of Washington D.C. think tankers and pundits, not to mention senior members of the Trump administration who don’t want to release from their warm embrace of the Saudis, who have been busy smearing Jamal Khashoggi, and spinning on behalf of the Saudis.

And so, I want to talk today about why that is. Why Saudi Arabia has such support from the neocons, from the Trump administration, even from the State of Israel, and it’s not just because they buy lots of weapons and sell lots of oil, important though that is; nor is it just because they give lots of money to Donald Trump personally, important though that is. I made a video for the Intercept on precisely that subject earlier this week, you can watch it on the Intercept website.

That’s all true BUT it’s also about geopolitics, it’s also about power. It’s about the Iranian elephant in the room, Donald Trump and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are obsessed with Iran. Obsessed! And are bent on going after Iran, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is their key ally in that aggressive endeavor. Trump himself admitted this.

Listen to the president of the United States speaking to the Fox Business Network on Tuesday night:

DT: Don’t forget, Saudi Arabia is our partner. They’re our ally against Iran, and against missiles, and against what they’re doing, trying to take over the Middle East.

MH: So, this is what I want to get to the bottom of today, what I want to deconstruct. How there’s a kind of evil Justice League of Trump, Netanyahu and MBS who want to start a new war in the Middle East.

And, you know what, actually I was very pleased to see the New York Times this week report White House officials are “worried” this new crisis with Saudi Arabia, and the Kingdom’s constantly changing story over whether or not they murdered Jamal Khashoggi, whether that could, “derail a showdown with Iran and jeopardize plans to enlist Saudi help to avoid disrupting the oil market.”

Got that? Derail a showdown with Iran. Because that clearly is the priority for hawks in Washington D.C., in Tel Aviv and in Riyadh.

The Times goes on to point out this crisis comes “at a fraught moment for the Trump administration, which is expected to reimpose harsh sanctions against Iran on November 5, with the intent of cutting off all Iranian oil exports.”

“But to make the strategy work,” the paper says, “the administration is counting on its relationship with the Saudis to keep global oil flowing… and to work together on a new policy to contain Iran in the Persian Gulf.”

Contain Iran. Sanction Iran. Showdown with Iran. With the ultimate aim of? War with Iran.

That is the name of the game when it comes to Trump, Netanyahu and yes, MBS, the Saudi clown prince. They are the three anti-Iran Musketeers and therefore they will stick together through thick and thin, through gruesome murders and beyond. As will their spinners and propagandists here in D.C. and elsewhere.

To discuss this sadly much-ignored Iran and Israel angle to this whole Saudi crisis, and to the U.S. Saudi-alliance as a whole, I’m joined by the Intercept’s DC bureau chief Ryan Grim, who has been following the money trail and influence campaigns of the Saudi and UAE governments here in DC for several years now, and Trita Parsi, founder of the National Iranian American Council, adjunct professor at Georgetown University, and author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.

Trita, like Ryan, has butted heads with a lot of pro-Saudi and pro-Israeli lobbyists here in D.C. in recent years, so thank you both for joining me on Deconstructed.

Trita, I want to start with you. Am I wrong? Is a lot of this focus on covering for Saudi Arabia, staying buddy-buddy with the kingdom with Riyadh, really all about teaming up in some kind of evil Justice League to take on Iran with Israel-Saudi America together in some kind of new war?

Trita Parsi: I think it is. I mean to a very large extent the reason the Trump Administration doesn’t want to actually seek justice in this case is they’re in on a strategy to counter Iran, which really is about making sure the U.S. doubles down on its military presence in the region and helps the Saudis and the Israelis shift the balance of power back to the way it was prior to 2003.

That’s the Saudi and Israeli game plan.

Now the way I think some folks have kind of got this story a little bit wrong in the sense of saying – look, we need the Saudis for this strategy. We don’t need the strategy. It’s the Saudis that need a strategy. It’s the Saudis pushing this strategy together with the Israelis.

Because prior to this, we had a nuclear deal that was working and you had the Obama Administration actually trying to slowly but surely reduce America’s dependence on Saudi Arabia.

Trump has done the opposite and bizarrely is now making the argument: well, we need the Saudis to counter Iran. We don’t need to counter Iran. It’s the Saudis that need the U.S. to counter Iran.

MH: Okay, so I want to unpack a lot of that and in the discussion today.

Ryan, how much does Iran and the scary threat from Iran feature in your experience in the calculations of pro-Saudi American politicians, pro-Saudi American newspaper columnists, pro-Saudi American lobbyists here in D.C.? How much does Iran come up in that conversation?

Ryan Grim: It’s all tied in in some ways to Israel. And so you know, Israel considers Iran to be its existential threat. And the Saudis and the Emiratis have over the last several years, or more than a decade, recognized their best path to power in Washington is to cozy up with Israel.

Now, that is a balancing act because they don’t actually recognize the country, and so they need a different rhetoric back home than they need here in Washington. But the ambassadors have become good friends and they kind of allow Israel to carry it through Congress in some ways.

Now, the Emiratis and the Saudis also pump Washington full of cash. But cash alone doesn’t do it. You also need the political cover, and the political cover is Israel. And so, to the extent Israel wants a confrontation with Iran, the Saudis and Emiratis also want it – Emiratis slightly less so – but if it gets them closer to Israel, which then gets them closer to the United States, then they’re willing to go along with it.

MH: And obviously, the Saudis have their own kind of sectarian and geopolitical reasons for not liking Iran. Saudi is a “Sunni majority state.” Iran is a Shia majority state and of course, you know, my enemy’s enemy is my friend.

Is it that simple: “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” Trita? Give us a backstory. Ryan mentioned it’s been going on for several years, building up. Tell our listeners how this weird Saudi-Israeli-Trump alliance that we see in the Middle East right now – how it’s developed.

Because the neocons – and you’ve written about the neoconservatives in D.C. – they always claim to love democracy, hate dictatorship. That’s why allegedly we went into Iraq. The Israelis used to attack Saudi Arabia all the time, I remember, for supporting terrorism, for being anti-semitic. And now how do they get into this new relationship where they’re all BFFs?

TP: It is really fascinating to see. Not just now, but for the last five years, how very hawkish pro-Israel, I would say pro- Likud, operators in this town have been moonlighting as lobbyists or spokespeople for Saudi Arabia. It’s actually been going on for quite some time. And it is because of a common geopolitical perception they have and what the perceive particularly as a result of the nuclear deal.

The nuclear deal was not just about the nuclear issue. It signified after 40 years, the US had come to terms with one reality in the region – Iran is a major power. Because remember what John Kerry was doing as soon as the nuclear deal was struck. He was going around the world telling people: “Trade with Iran. You have to make sure this deal works by providing Iran with the economic benefits we promised them.”

It was the opposite of containment. This terrified them, because it meant in their perspective, they were abandoned by the United States. They had to go and fight the Iranian rivalry on their own instead of being able to have the United States, with its massive power, come and tip the scale in their favor. And then they got lucky.

Donald Trump got elected. A man who has no understanding whatsoever of geopolitics, and they managed to quickly convince him – to the extent I think he genuinely starts to believe it – their fight with Iran is America’s fight with Iran. It is not.

MH: Trita mentions Trump there. We know the people around Trump – National Security adviser John Bolton, who’s never met a Middle East Country didn’t want to bomb, invade, occupy, he loves the idea of bombing Iran. He literally wrote a piece for the New York Times back in 2015 headlined “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran.”

We know Mike Pompeo secretary of state is an Iran hawk. He wanted to bomb Iran rather than do a nuclear deal, and he’s written a piece actually for the latest issue of Foreign Affairs called “Confronting Iran.” Surprise!

What’s Trump’s deal though? Ryan, why do you think he’s so keen to buddy up to Saudi while hating on Iran? He’s not an ideologue, obviously. He’s not aware of the backstory Trita just outlined for us.

RG: Right.

trump-medal

MH: So where does he come in? Is it just the Saudi bling, and then buying his apartments, and Netanyahu sucking up to him? Is it that easy?

RG: Some of it, yeah. In some ways, it’s that easy. There’s also the other easy psychological part, which is Obama wanted to buddy up to Iran. Trump called it “the worst deal ever struck in the history of deals.”

MH: He likes doing the opposite of Obama.

RG: Right, Trump thinks Obama cozied up with Iran, so therefore, you know, George Costanza style, you do the opposite and you go to war with Iran.  You challenge Iran.

And yes, he doesn’t know much about geopolitics, but he does know a lot of Saudis, like you said. Not only does he do business with Saudis, but he’s known a lot of them personally.

He also is wildly pro-Israel, more pro-Israel than the typical structural pro-Israel president we’ve had. And so, as Israel tells him Iran is bad and Saudi is good. Then he says, “Okay, that’s what I thought already because Obama thought the opposite.”

So it all falls into place quite easily for him, and he’s not somebody who’s going to ask his advisors “Give me the counter arguments here.” And if he did, his advisors are the rabidly anti-Iran people you find in the Republican Party.

MH: Everywhere. Exactly, it’s not just in government. He’s got outside – he’s got people at Tom Cotton and Lindsey Graham in the Senate, who are hardcore anti-Iran hawks. George Costanza, by the way, George Costanza, wouldn’t he make so much better a president than –

RG: George Costanza would. Well, depending if he did what he what his instincts told him to do or the opposite. Either way –

MH: I’d take Costanza in a heartbeat with Kramer as Vice President.

[Seinfeld clip]

George Costanza: I tell you if I was running for office, I would ask for the death penalty for double parkers. If this is allowed to go on, this is not a society. This is anarchy!

MH: Trita, sorry, you were going to come up with a more serious point.

TP: What Ryan is saying is – I wholeheartedly agree with and I think it’s important we talk about the angle in which viewing the region through Saudi or Israeli prisms is a major factor.

But there are those in the US government that have this view independently of Saudi Arabia and Israel. And their view as I read it is it’s much more of a pure imperialistic view.

They want to be heavily present and have American hegemony in the region. And they’re doing so regardless of whatever Israel or Saudi Arabia is saying.

They want to control the resources. They view any type of withdrawal as retreat.

MH: Trita, you’re obviously a supporter of closer relations between the U.S. and Iran, you were the founder of NIAC, the National Iranian American Council, you helped lobby for the Iran nuclear deal during the Obama years.

But a lot of Americans, and not just on the right, would say ‘Saudi’s always been a reliable ally, they have invested in our economy, sold us oil, they were with us in the Cold War, etc etc;’ while Iran, you hear chants of “Death to America.” You have the hostage crisis a lot of Americans still remember.

That’s the difference between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That’s why Saudi Arabia gets a little bit of a pass. In the way that Iran never will. Is that fair? 

TP: I don’t think that is entirely. First of all, I think the US should have reduced tensions with Iran, and try to find a way for both countries to be able to have some sort of a functioning relationship.

I don’t think it’s in the cards to actually have the warm strategic partnership or anything like that for either side. Nor do I think the United States should have a bad relationship with Saudi Arabia.

I just happen to think the United States already has a bad relationship with Saudi Arabia because the Saudis have been funding and promoting so much of the terrorism hitting the United States and Europe and many other places.

And I think it’s actually worse to support 9/11 than comparing it to chants and the streets of Tehran. That is actually much bigger of a crime and they’re getting away with it.

And I think it’s quite fascinating at this moment what we’re seeing right now potentially is becoming transformative.

I just hope it becomes transformative in the sense we actually try to have a constructive relationship, in which we use our leverage to make sure Saudi Arabia behaves much, much better than it has rather than thinking this is a moment to become some form of an enemy of Saudi Arabia.

I don’t think that would be helpful for the region. I don’t think it would be helpful for the United States.

MH: You mentioned 9/11.

Trump has this awful Muslim ban – which is now being backed by the U.S. Supreme Court – which clearly should not exist.

But isn’t it weird that when it does exist, it’s a ban list that includes Iran, which despite being accused regularly by the US State Department of being a state sponsor of terrorism – the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism – the fact is as far as I’m aware, correct me if I’m wrong, no Iranian has ever been caught killing Americans on American soil. Whereas we know that 15 Saudi hijackers on 9/11 helped kill 3,000 American citizens.

It’s weird isn’t it, Ryan? This Muslim ban list from Trump the Islamophobe, and he goes out of his way to make sure Saudi Arabia is not on the list, but Iran is?

RG: Right, you could easily write a counter-story, in which Saudi Arabia was the villain in it. And in fact, I think there’s a latent rage at Saudi Arabia here in Washington that has been bottled up for years –

MH: Interesting.

RG: By the money and by the alliance with Israel; and if the lid fully comes off, it could explode.

You have the families of the 9/11 victims, who have long been trying to sue Saudi Arabia. An issue that has become hot in Congress, as Saudi Arabia’s lobbied to prevent it from happening. All of it has been kept –

MH: Is that how you explain Lindsey Graham kind of, exploding on Fox News?

RG: Yes. Yes, and they also have been protected by millions they’ve spent on lobbying, and now a lot of their lobbyists are walking away from them.

Now, they’re going to be able to find people who will take their money.

MH: It’s Washington D.C.

RG: It’s Washington D.C.

MH: You’ll always find someone who will take your money.

RG: But who takes your money matters. If you have the fly-by-night congressman, who was run out of town on a corruption scandal as your lobbyist, you can get that guy. But that’s not as good as having Glover Park Group.

MH: Yeah, who have walked away.

RG: Who have walked away now.

MH: Are you surprised, Ryan, having covered this town for so many years – I mean, I’m quite cynical so, when people say to me “Oh, this will be a turning point. This will be the breaking point.”

Hmmm… I don’t buy it. But I am surprised, I will admit to that, at the visceral reaction from the U.S. media and even Republican politicians to this alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

I get that he was a friend with lots of journalists. He was high profile. So, they pay more attention to that than to the fact the Saudis have bombed and besieged and starved Yemen for several years.

But even then, it’s been astonishing the way the story hasn’t gone away day after day.

RG: It’s one of the longest surviving news cycles of the Trump area.

MH: Are you surprised?

bo181016_

RG: Yes, and no.  I think the image of a bone saw will be with MBS as long as he’s in power, and it will stick with Saudi Arabia. We use the term “butcher” often metaphorically to refer to dictators.

To have that vivid, visceral, imagery in the minds of people on K Street who are accustomed to making small compromises is just too much for a lot of them.

MH: Trita?

TP: I agree fully, there is a tremendous amount of pent-up anger; and I think we should remind ourselves even prior to this, the votes in the Senate and Congress when it comes to the Yemen warfare –

MH: Were starting to switch.

TP: Were starting to switch, and this happened already two, three years ago in which we could constantly see there’s something building up.

MH:  We had Chris Murphy on the show, the first of this current series of Deconstructed. Senator Chris Murphy has been leading a lot of these votes. His argument is, it’s going to eventually switch.

RG: And you wouldn’t have gotten the Iran deal if that weren’t the case.

TP: Exactly.

MH: We’re talking about the obsession with Iran here in Washington DC, but it’s not just a geopolitical obsession. It crosses into good old-fashioned racism from time to time as we saw this week.

Listen to Lindsey Graham on Fox News:

Steve Doocy: Elizabeth Warren.

LG: Yes.

SD: DNA test, she could be anywhere from 1/64th to 1000th Native American.

LG: I’m going to take a DNA test. All of you have. I’ll probably be Iranian and it’d be terrible.

Brian Kilmeade: They have great people, just bad leaders.

LG: Bad leaders. I’m not in the Ayatollah branch.

MH: Trita, he’s worried about being Iranian.

TP: I’ll be frank, a lot of Iranians are worried he will turn out to be Iranian. I don’t think they would like to have him in their club.

MH: But it’s bigotry.

TP: It is certainly bigotry and it’s not the first time. He made a comment a couple of years ago that because he worked in some pool thing when he was a college kid, he learned there that all Iranians are liars.

It’s very important. This is not just, “Oh, we dislike the regime, but we love the people.”

It came out there very very clearly. There is an obsession. There’s a hatred. It has a racial component to it. And that is a very, very real element in some of the very hawkish elements in Washington. The ones I earlier on referred to as “the imperialists.”

RG: And this one was so bad, the dudes on the Fox and Friends couch had to kind of rap him gently for it.

MH: The people are great people —

RG: The people are great people.

MH: When you’re so racist, Fox News has to save you from your racism.

LG: This guy’s got to go. Saudi Arabia, if you’re listening, there are a lot of good people you can choose, but MBS has tainted your country and tainted himself.

BK: Like who? Who would replace him?

LG: That’s up to them. That’s not my job.

BK: But there’s another crown prince there –

LG: There are a bunch of them.

SD: There are hundreds.

LG: It’s your job, not mine, to pick your leader.

SD: Exactly.

TP: My read of his comments is Lindsay is very, very committed to war with Iran. He just thinks MBS has become a liability.

MH: He’s not the right guy to do it.

TP: You need to throw him under the bus. I mean he went on Fox and Friends because he was trying to talk directly to Trump. Throw him under the bus –

MH: And change your government.

TP: Let’s salvage the real goal here, which is war with Iran.

MH: I’m love how Lindsey Graham’s response to anything is regime change.

RG: But then he becomes humble when they say well who should they put in there?

“Well, that’s up to them.”

MH: Because Saudi’s a well-known democracy. We’re going to choose –

TP: It’s because he’s fine with anyone else in the House of Saud.

MH: But the hypocrisy! I know we’re in Washington D.C. and we should be used to the hypocrisy, but the hypocrisy from these people. I mean even in the Israeli side, Dore Gold, who I mentioned, former head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry – who is the point man on relations with Saudi Arabia now is saying yes, the Saudis should join with us against those evil dastardly Persians.

He wrote a book –

TP: I know.

MH: – Called Hatred’s Kingdom after 9/11 in which he said Saudi Arabia is the exporter of all terrorism. It’s the most evil country in the world. And now he’s the guy who’s basically buddying up to the Saudis as part of this weird evil Justice League to take on Iran.

TP: And the only way to understand this is to set aside issues of “Is this a Shia-Sunni thing? Is this an ideological thing?” It’s about the power struggle in the region.

MH: Yeah, completely agree with you.

TP: And it’s only then that you can understand these different shows.

MH: So Trita, before we finish – this is not a quick question at all – but I do wonder about this. What would a war with Iran even look like?

I do think the Trump Administration would love a good fight with Iran. I do think Netanyahu would love a war with Iran. But I always wonder, in what shape or form? How is that even possible? It’s not easy. This is not Iraq. You can’t just invade tomorrow.

TP: You certainly cannot invade,  and there are no such troop movements at this stage. There’s actually such a preparation. But it is not inconceivable there would be missile strikes and things of that nature, which the Trump Administration may think is going to be limited and the Trump Administration has escalation control.

I don’t think that’s the way it’s going to play out.

The Iranians have the capacity to hit U.S. targets and interests throughout the region. If they get a sense this is going to be a war, it is the final war. This is a war for their survival. They’re going to throw everything out and they’re going to be expanding the war.

They know their only chance of defeating the United States is not by defeating the U.S., but by surviving the war. And that can only happen if they don’t allow the U.S. to choose the battlefield. The Iranians will choose the battlefield, and that means the entire region will become part of that battlefield.

RG: One thing to watch is the embassy in Baghdad, which Iranian forces effectively have surrounded. So if you start bombing Iran, then the thousands of Americans who are in that Embassy –

MH: My worry’s always been they won’t consciously go to war with Iran, wittingly, that it’s the kind of accidental war because you have people like Trump who run their mouths and say something stupid, do something stupid.

And Netanyahu and MBS, what do these three leaders have in common? They’re all really incompetent and bad at leading. And Netanyahu’s probably the best of the three, and that’s not saying much.

TP: I want to just take a step back, because we’re having this conversation so often about what would war look like and things like that, but the conversation we’re not having is – What is the US’s actual national interest in all of this?

Why would we even consider a military confrontation with Iran?

Now, when we have a functioning nuclear deal in which there isn’t a threat the Iranians quickly would be able to go to a nuclear bomb?

And even if that was it, what is the actual national interest? I think if we had more of a consciousness about that, we would avoid many, many of these very ridiculous scenarios the U.S. drags itself into.

MH: Ryan, final question to you, is this a turning point? Congressman Ro Khanna and others have said the U.S.-Saudi relationship will never be the same again.

Lindsey Graham seems to be implying, although maybe he’s more into criticizing MBS than Saudi Arabia as a whole, this moment now… We’ve seen so much change in recent weeks: people pulling out of conferences, lobbyists walking away, American politicians lining up to attack Saudi Arabia. More than seven decades on from that Saudi-U.S. embrace. Is this a change?

RG: Yes, I think it is a turning point. I don’t know exactly what the relationship’s going to look like going forward, but it won’t be the same as the one we’ve had for the decades in the past.

Part of it comes down to the partisan nature of it. Democrats are, as Trita was saying, are moving in a different direction in the relationship with Saudi Arabia. To the extent they have power in Washington or come to power, that changes it, as well as the slap in the face people like Lindsey Graham feel has been delivered to them. We’ll see how it changes, but it’s definitely changing.

MH: Ryan Grim, Trita Parsi, thank you for joining me on Deconstructed.

You might not think there’s a link between the gruesome killing of a journalist inside a consulate in Turkey and avoiding another major US-led war in the Middle East, which could kill hundreds of thousands of people.

But as you just heard, there is.

There’s a reason the US and Israel have buddied up with the Saudi government, with Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman, and that reason is Iran. The people who want a war with Iran aren’t going to let Jamal Khashoggi’s death get in their way. Unless we make sure the Saudis, and their allies, and their apologists, are held to account.

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