Trump Heads to Saudi Arabia – Target Iran and Iraq? – RAI with Sabah Alnasseri (pt 1/6)

This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on May 16, 2017. On Reality Asserts Itself, Sabah Alnasseri and Paul Jay discuss the Trump/Saudi plan for an anti-Iran Arab alliance and to use ISIS as justification for increasing American troop levels – with Iraq’s oil as the prize.

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay. When President Trump was inaugurated, the main plank of his foreign policy was a war against what he called Islamic terrorism. He called for a global war against Islamic terrorism. Here’s what he said.

DONALD TRUMP: …and unite the civilized world against radical Islamic terrorism, which we will eradicate completely from the face of the Earth. We are protected, and we will always be protected. We will be protected by the great men and women of our military and law enforcement. And most importantly, we will be protected by God.

PAUL JAY: President Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon has called for a global war against Islamic fascism. This week, President Trump is taking a trip to a country that is the most associated with global Islamic terrorism, if that’s what you want to call it, with Islamic fascism, and that’s Saudi Arabia. No country has been more involved in nurturing, developing various terrorist organizations that use terrorist tactics including 9/11. The joint congressional committee investigating the 9/11 activities found that Saudi Arabia was directly involved and Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, was in the thick of that. That came out in the 28 pages of their report that was initially redacted, and was then released, and had Prince Bandar, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, in direct contact with various of the conspirators in 9/11. It’s not only the joint congressional investigators that came to that conclusion. It’s also President Trump. Here’s a quote from him during the elections.

DONALD TRUMP: In all fairness, we went after Iraq – they did not knock down the World Trade Center, okay? It wasn’t the Iraqis that knocked down the World Trade Center. We went after Iraq, we decimated the country. Iran’s taking over, okay. But it wasn’t the Iraqis. You will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center, because they have papers there that are very secret. You may find it’s the Saudis, okay? But you will find out. So President Trump, during the elections at least, believed that Saudi Arabia was directly involved in organizing the 9/11 attacks. He’s called for a war against Islamic terrorism, his cohort Bannon wants to fight against Islamic fascism, and here he is off to Saudi Arabia bearing under his arm a $100 billion arms deal and an alliance. And with Saudi Arabia, apparently the real agenda here is to build an alliance of the Gulf states and other Arab countries against Iran. So if they’re really talking about a fight against Islamic fascism or Islamic terrorism, then why are they making the ally of this Saudi Arabia? In fact, this is not a fight against global terrorism or global fascism at all. This is all about isolating Iran, and this has been the Trump foreign policy strategy from day one. Now joining us to discuss this Trump trip to Saudi Arabia is Sabah Alnasseri. He was born in Basra, Iraq, teaches at the political science department at York University in Toronto. His publications cover topics in political economy, Marxist state theory, and Middle East politics and economy. His most recent publication is Arab Revolutions and Beyond: The Middle East and Reverberations in the Americas. Thanks for joining us, Sabah.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Good to be with you, Paul.

PAUL JAY: All this rhetoric, and it ends up kind of we’re back into somewhat Obama foreign policy but certainly George Bush foreign policy, which is close alliance with the Saudis and the Israelis and with a target painted on the side of Iran.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Right. Right. Right. The Saudis are the most reliable allies of the United State even before Israel was created, since the Second World War. Despite all the rhetoric of Saudi Arabia’s involved in 9/11 and, I don’t know, some terrorist groups around the Middle East de facto served the US interests ever since the Second World War. It pushed back against communism, nationalists, and socialists in the Middle East. It helped the US create the Vietnam War for the Soviet Union in Afghanistan by creating Al-Qaeda and financing Al-Qaeda, the Saudis’ and the Pakistanis’ intelligence we are having in war and all of that. So the Saudis are the most reliable allies, and I think the establishment of the United States and the security apparatus, but also the administrative one, knows this very, very well. So whatever Trump thought or said about the Saudis and their involvement in 9/11 and fighting Islamic fascism or radical Islamic terrorism, as he called it, the reality assert itself here in a geopolitical sense. And here we have it. Trump is going to Saudi Arabia precisely to collaborate with the Saudis and the Gulf monarchies. As you said, Paul, it’s all about Iran. I think that is the target of all this rhetoric of Islamic terrorism. Think about it. Iran is maybe the only country that called itself the Islamic Republic of Iran, so here you have it in the name. Fighting radical Islamic terrorism, in a way, is a cipher, a code for fighting Iran.

PAUL JAY: The irony of this, of course, is that it’s actually Iran that actually helped fight the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. They cooperated with the United States and Afghanistan and elsewhere, other places.


PAUL JAY: It’s the Saudis … Yeah, in Iraq. It’s the Saudis that have been actually playing both sides of this game spurring Al-Qaeda and those kinds of organizations. It’s generally thought that the Saudis were involved in the origins of ISIS.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Right. Right. Of course, the Saudis realize there’s a shift, a relative shift in foreign policy of the United State in the Middle East where they thought that maybe the long-term priorities of the United States will shift away from Saudi Arabia towards maybe Iraq or Iran, so of course, they did whatever they can through violence, terrorist group, or funding, et cetera, to jeopardize whatever potential was there or attempts were there or tension, let’s say, under the Obama administration to move away, to shift away from the Saudis towards Iraq or maybe directly with Iran. So of course, the Saudis always played this double game of allying with the US, but at the same time, they have their own concrete interests in the region, and they pursue their own policies. If there’s a contradiction between the interest or maybe some sort of policy of the United State in the region, with the Saudi interests, you always have the Saudis playing this game approaching France, or even approaching Russia or China for that matter, to play them against the United States. So they used this space of maneuver internationally to play out different international power against each other to sustain their dominance in the region. I think this push right now is very successful in the sense of the Trump administration. They are really come close again to Saudi Arabia compared to the Obama administration, at least the last two or three years of the Obama administration.

PAUL JAY: And closer to Netanyahu and Israel.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Exactly. Of course.

PAUL JAY: Which are more or less on the same page, the Saudis and the Israelis.

SABAH ALNASSERI: The same page, yes. Yes.

PAUL JAY: If you just step back a bit here, and you look at what drives politics in the Middle East, which is oil and arms, but number one, oil, and if you look at the world from the perspective of the big American oil companies, they’re in this very new situation, I would say for them. While oil has always driven Middle East politics, the new game or the new factor here is climate change. In the thinking of the oil companies, you can see in their literature and also you hear it from people, they’re guessing they only have maybe 20 or 30 years before the climate change imperative really starts to close down the oil industry. If you talk to climate scientists, that’s way too long.


PAUL JAY: Twenty, thirty years more of fossil fuel fueling the Earth is going to mean a disaster. We’re already on track for a two degree warming, and it could easily, if we go 20, 30 years as business as usual, we’re going to be looking, most models are saying anywhere from four to six to eight degrees by the end of the century, which is catastrophic. So you figure you got all this oil in the ground that you already own, but a lot of it’s getting kind of expensive like the Athabasca oil and such. There’s some really nice, sweet, easy-to-get crude in Iraq, but the Americans don’t have it.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Yeah, that’s-

PAUL JAY: Not enough of it.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Not enough because there was a pushback in Iraq. After the occupation of Iraq, that was the intention of the Bush administration because they thought once they occupy Iraq, the Iraqis will be happy Saddam Hussein is gone, so they can push through with their agenda, which is first, to privatize the oil, and it would be controlled by the UK/US corporations for the next decades to come. The second thing, of course, is after getting rid of Saddam Hussein, the next step would be Iran, to attack Iran. It didn’t work because there was resistance in Iraq-

PAUL JAY: Syria, then Iran.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Exactly. They were stuck in Iraq. The other thing is there was a pushback in Iraq, not only among the population but also even among their own allies, Al-Dawa parties and the Shiite parties, against privatizing of the oil and so on. So you end up having a different corporation – Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Russian – taking over most of the products in Iraq and the oil in Iraq rather than the UK/US corporation. I think what the Trump administration is trying to do now is, again, to push for their old game, especially US corporation taking control of Iraq oil for next 20 or 30 years to come.

PAUL JAY: When Trump went to the CIA not long after his inauguration, there was one little line in there, which perhaps suggested what this tactic is. Let’s roll that clip of Trump talking about oil at his visit to the CIA.

DONALD TRUMP: The old expression, “To the victor belong the spoils.” You remember I always used to say, “Keep the oil.” I wasn’t a fan of Iraq, I don’t want to go into Iraq, but I will tell you, when we were in, we got out wrong. And I always said, in addition to that, “Keep the oil.” Now I said it for economic reasons, but if you think about it, Mike, if we kept the oil you probably wouldn’t have ISIS, because that’s where they made their money in the first place. So, we should have kept the oil. But, okay, maybe you’ll have another chance. But the fact is, we should have kept the oil.

PAUL JAY: So there’s Trump kind of hinting at what the strategy might be. It would seem to me if your strategy is to go back into Iraq, there’s two key things you need to do. You need the Saudis on board, and you’re going to have to give them something to make them on board because if the Saudis aren’t on board, you’re going to have this Sunni insurrectionary forces attacking you in Iraq.


PAUL JAY: And you need the … Yeah, attacking any kind of troop build up of US in Iraq. And you also need to pushback against the Iranians who have an enormous leverage in Iraq.


PAUL JAY: Which means you build up this strategy of getting the Saudis and all your Arab allies in this broad front against Iran, which is exactly what they seem to planning in these Saudi meetings.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Right. Before the Saudi meeting, you can say the first step was, especially when Jared Kushner was in Iraq recently, the first step is to push this Abadi government to convince its cabinet and the parliament to bring back more US troop under the cover of fighting ISIS and build American military bases in Iraq on the one hand. On the second is to bring back, or maybe for the first time, US oil corporation to take control of most of the Iraqi oil, not necessarily that is already produced but to be produced, and there’s a lot of oil in Iraq, all over Iraq, especially in the southern part, western-southern part of Iraq.

PAUL JAY: That’s not being exploited yet.

SABAH ALNASSERI: It’s not exploited yet. That they get contract for the next 20 or 30 years and try to dissolve the Shiite militias or integrate them in the Iraqi army to push back against Iranian influence in Iraq, especially through these militias. So you can say that was the first step. The second step, and Jared Kushner was in Saudi Arabia preparing for Trump visit to Saudi Arabia, is to bring also Saudi Arabia on board by offering, as he said, offering some concession. One of them is the $100 billion arm deals, which the Obama administration was hesitant in pursuing at that time because of the war in Yemen. Now, the Trump administration is willing to do that to have the Saudis also on board and behind the Saudis, of course, not only the Gulf Cooperation countries, the six GCC countries, but also other major regional power like Egypt or Turkey or Pakistan, to have them on board to encircle Iran, to push back Iran.

PAUL JAY: In these meetings this week, one, Trump is meeting with the leaders of all the Gulf Cooperation countries and then 56 representatives of various Arab countries-

SABAH ALNASSERI: And Muslim countries.

PAUL JAY: One of the articles I was reading about this was saying that this is an attempt to create a Saudi-led Arab NATO targeting Iran.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Yes. Yeah, exactly. That’s the second step. But this, as I said, presuppose many different variables that, at this stage, can’t be controlled. For instance, assume that Abadi government in Iraq will be able to push back against these militias or be able to convince the parliament or the Iraqi population in general that there’s a necessity for the United States troops to come back to Iraq and build military bases and allow them … Most of them are against it in the first place.

PAUL JAY: They left some very big bases still more or less intact.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Intact, but it’s not operative. Yeah. So that’s what they want now. They want for these military bases to be the place from which they could … If they don’t make war against Iran but at least threaten Iran, encircle Iran, et cetera. That’s one of the things they need to make sure that it works, and I’m not sure this will work. The second thing, in order to have Iraq and Saudi Arabia on board and behind in the Gulf Council and other regional power to encircle Iran would mean also, you have to deal with Russia because Iran is an ally of Russia. So you have to offer something to Russia, too, not only to Saudi Arabia. And especially, let’s say, in Syria. You have to make some concession to Russia in Syria in order to be able to intensify this threat scenario against Iran. Here, I’m not even quite sure if this would be successful, too. So again-

PAUL JAY: The strategy they’ve more or less articulated, the Trump camp, before all this attack on them and Russia’s involvement in the elections and so on, but the strategy was essentially work, ally with Assad/Russia, fight IS, and then more or less, I think, give Syria to the Russians/Assad.


PAUL JAY: I would guess part of that deal would be ending arms shipments to Hezbollah, which would be difficult given how much Hezbollah saved the Assad regime.

SABAH ALNASSERI: True. There’s another thing. When you talk about the election, I think it’s not the coincidence that they are intensifying these attempts now because in a few weeks from now-

PAUL JAY: The Iranian elections.

SABAH ALNASSERI: You’ll have election in Iran, so that means there’s a message also here that has been sent to Iran even before there’s a real threat scenario to affect the outcome of the election because remember, at the beginning of 2003 when, at that time, the Iranian government was willing to collaborate with the US and actually appending most of their policies just to open up to the West, and the Bush administration was against it because they wanted the war, let’s say, in Iraq. That’s one of the reason why when it surfaced in Iran that Ahmadinejad won the election in 2005, and there was radical shift in the Iranian foreign policy and security policy then. So I think here, also, there’s a message to the Iranian to influence the outcome of election-

PAUL JAY: They may prefer a more hardline conservative regime.


PAUL JAY: Because it helps justify the American-Saudi strategy.


PAUL JAY: The American-Saudi-Israeli strategy.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Yeah. Relying and hoping on Iranian nationals, that they become more nationalist and so on, then you can justify the threats, that they present a threat.

PAUL JAY: One of the things that’s been talked about since the Iraq War if not even before, and you see this from the kinds of circles that are now back in power, these are the circles around Cheney, and now there’s similar voices, which is the breaking up of Iraq.


PAUL JAY: One can imagine they’re sitting at this grand chess board negotiating table with the Saudis and others, but particularly the oil companies behind the scenes, maybe dividing up Iraq. How real is that, and what would that look like?

SABAH ALNASSERI: True. I guess it’s imaginable to have an independent Kurdish state in the north. Now, about the south, and that’s what difficulties kicks in, though there are a Shiite-Sunni divide through the occupation, not socially but through the occupation, you have [inaudible 00:19:08] provinces controlled by Shiite political forces, especially in the middle and the southeastern part of Iraq to the border to Iran. But on the western part and the southern and west part of Iraq, it’s mostly controlled by nomadic tribal forces, mostly Sunni. Here, you have most of the oil in Iraq. If you go to Iraq, Rumaila in the south, which used to be nearby where I lived in Basra, is the biggest oil field in Iraq. The biggest chunk of Iraqi oil is produced from Rumaila, not Kirkuk, not Majnoon, not other oil fields. This is the one that we know since the beginning of the 20th century, but there are a lot of potential of oil discovery construction-

PAUL JAY: Who’s controlling that oil now?

SABAH ALNASSERI: As I said, you have different companies – Chinese, Korean, Russian, and sometimes subcontracting to other small companies – some part of, not the biggest chunk of the oil, is controlled by US corporation. Let’s say, think about Shell or something. But in the majority of it, it’s mostly service contract with other oil corporations.

PAUL JAY: So it’s not like pre-2003. It’s the Iraqi government, well, certainly has very friendly relations with Iran, maintains friendly relations in United States as well.


PAUL JAY: They don’t have to invade to capture something. What would they be talking about? Is essentially US troops that control various oil fields to make it safe to exploit, is that what we’re looking at?

SABAH ALNASSERI: If we go back to the scenario of containerizing Iraq, fracturing Iraq, if you would think about some sort of concession to Saudi Arabia in Iraq would be to separate the western-southern part of Iraq, the so-called Sunni tribal space, and include it in Saudi Arabia or at least as a zone of influence of Saudis in Iraq, whereas the other part of Iraq led by the Shiite political parties in the middle and the south of the border to Iran would be considered some sort of part of influence of Iran. This scenario would work if the US with their escalation of the conflict with Iran would push Iran so much that they are ready to make a lot of concession to the United States and have some sort of influence within Iraq. If you think about 1999, when NATO wanted to attack ex-Yugoslavia, the option NATO gave at that time to Milošević was that if he opened up the space of ex-Yugoslavia for NATO forces, the airport, the highways, that they can move freely and so on, they would not consider the war option. So that means it was for Milošević at that time political suicide to accept these demands of NATO. It’s practically a declaration of war, so then, of course Milošević was against it, and here you go, you had the war. Think about 2001. In the few weeks before 9/11, the Taliban were in Washington negotiating with the Bush administration some sort of agreement on the oil and gas pipelines from the Caspian Sea and so on. The Taliban was against it because they thought it’s against their legitimacy in Afghanistan, and you have a war in Afghanistan. Again, so in the case of Iran, if the Iranian are willing to make so much concession to the United State, that the fact that the United State can use Iran space militarily and so on, space of maneuver against, let’s say, China, et cetera, maybe there’s an exit option here for Iran to avoid the option of war.

PAUL JAY: But in the short term, the objective would be a pro-American government in Baghdad-


PAUL JAY: And direct US control over more Iraqi oil.

SABAH ALNASSERI: Right. Iraqi oil and military bases in Iraq, and again, to operate from Iraq. But that’s the biggest problem. The Iranian made sure when they collaborate with the United State in actually occupying Iraq is that there will be no long-term military presence of the US in Iraq so that Iran wouldn’t feel threatened. So what they did, they supported all the Shiite political parties and militia to push back any sort of agreement between the United States and the Iraqi government to have long-term military bases in Iraq. Now, the Trump administration want to do exactly that, to bring back US troops, build military bases, and escalate the conflict with Iran-

PAUL JAY: Pick up where they left off, which has-

SABAH ALNASSERI: Pick up where they left off, yes.

PAUL JAY: Always been the critique of the John McCains and much of the Pentagon [crosstalk 00:23:58] the withdrawal.

SABAH ALNASSERI: We should’ve… there in the first place. Yes. Yes.

PAUL JAY: Okay. Thanks very much for joining us.


PAUL JAY: And thank you for joining us. We’re going to continue this discussion with Sabah as part of a series on Reality Asserts Itself, so please join us for that. 

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Sabah Alnasseri is a Professor of Middle East Politics at York University, Toronto, Canada. Born in Basra, Iraq, he earned his Ph.D. at the Johann-Wolfgang Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. His publications cover topics in political economy; Marxist state theory in the tradition of Gramsci, Poulantzas and Althusser; regulation theory; and Middle East politics and economy.” theme music

written by Slim Williams for Paul Jay’s documentary film “Never-Endum-Referendum“.  

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