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'For once the US is saying 'No' to the Saudis'

Published time: December 12, 2013 14:04
A Free Syrian Army fighter runs to avoid snipers loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in old Aleppo (Reuters / Mahmoud Hebbo)

Saudis have always felt that the US is in their pocket, but by suspending aid to Syrian opposition Washington said 'No' to the Saudis, and the simple reason is a lessening of dependence on their oil, John Graham, former US diplomat told RT.

RT: The US and UK have now suspended non-lethal aid to rebels in Northern Syria, how big a change of policy do you think this is?

John Graham: The US was always a little bit wary that the armory supplies to the rebels would fall into the wrong hands. After all, we’ve paid a terrible price in Afghanistan - that was exactly what happened. So, when the news came out yesterday that there was proof that some of the arms we were supplying were going into the hands of Al-Qaeda, we immediately said “No”, we are not going to do that. We’ve pulled back... It doesn’t mean we are going to stop.

When it was simply obvious that the guns were falling into the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliates, even though those affiliates were fighting Assad just like the other rebels, nonetheless when he's forced out we don’t want those people in power.

RT: Will it impact American relations in the Arab world?

JG: Of course, it will. What happens in Syria will impact the Arab world and we've got our two steadfast allies in the region very upset with us - Israel and Saudi Arabia - for pulling back. There hasn't also just been an arms supply, remember that we were going to bomb and attack Bashar Assad just a few months ago when he crossed that red line president Obama put down about chemical weapons, and we instead decided to let diplomacy take its course and it looks like it may have succeeded. I think the American choices are good ones… of not doing anything where arms can fall in the wrong hands and relying on diplomacy to take care of chemical weapons. America is doing well.

For once American foreign policy in the Middle East is being made by Americans and not by Tel Aviv or Riyadh. This is the kind of things the America should be doing for its own self-interest and for the interest of peace in the region, not just because Israeli or Saudi Arabia wants us to do it.

RT: Both Saudi Arabia and Israel are against the Iran nuclear deal. Can Washington stand with a foot in both camps while still keeping those countries as allies?

JG: Both Saudi Arabia and Israel are very annoyed because of the American policy toward Iran. They are not the same. They have two different situations. What has happened to frighten both of them, is that first of all Obama called his counterparts by phone, something the American president hasn’t done for decades. Second, the meeting in Geneva actually produced an agreement which looks like Iran will make significant changes to its nuclear policy in exchange for lessening of sanctions. What Iran has agreed to do is really quite significant. For example it'll halt enriching uranium in about 5 percent. And it takes 90 percent for Iran to make nuclear weapon. And also Iran has a small supply of uranium already enriched to 20 percent and that would be taken care of either by diluting it and putting it to power plant supplies. Iran will also stop importing centrifuges and other things, all of which Americans have been asking them to do for years, and they now say they are going to do it. We’ll see but if they keep to the agreement, then we will be definitely lessening sanctions.

Free Syrian Army fighters dig a tunnel in Deir al-Zor, eastern Syria (Reuters / Khalil Ashawi)

Now Israel and Saudi Arabia are mad for different reasons. For Israel what is going on in Iran presents an existential threat to Israel. Israel is a tiny little dot in the Middle East. And if Iran has nuclear weapons and is willing to use them then Israel security is greatly at stake. The Israelis are really sensitive and we can’t blame them.

It’s pushing us too far. The agreement that we struck in Geneva is all the Iranians have asked us to do; it does present a situation now, if the agreement is kept, in which Israel will be actually safer, even if Mr. Netanyahu doesn’t see it that way.

It seems to a lot of Americans, myself included, that Netanyahu is trying to bully us into going further than we should with Iran because what he sees is that there in Iran it hasn’t been attacked, the sanctions have been lifted. Iran is becoming cozy with the US, our ally, that could mean less support for us. Maybe you can blame them but the Israelis sort of want it all. We [the US] are saying, look, we are going to provide for your security. We always will, we are not abandoning you.

RT: Yet without Saudi Arabia and Israel, American influence in the Middle East would be greatly diminished. This is a huge risk for Washington, isn't it?

JG: No, I don’t think it’s a huge risk and I think we should stick by our policy. The key thing to keep in mind is a Sunni-Shia split across the Middle East. A huge power struggle has been going on for hundreds of years: Iran - Shia, Saudi Arabia – Sunni. The more that we seem to be supporting Iran, the Saudis really don’t like that. And in Syria of course if we pull back support for the rebels, it makes it harder to get Bashar Assad out. Anyway, they are still annoyed with us. The key thing which is important to recognize is that the Saudis have always felt that we are in their pocket. For once the American president and the secretary of the state are saying “No” to the Saudis. We’re going to do what we want to do in the Middle East, not because of your interest. The huge reason for that shift in policy is lessening dependence of America on Saudi Arabia oil.

RT: First, there was cooling relations between the White House and Netanyahu, then the nuclear deal with Iran, now the change of heart towards the rebels. Is the US going to use more soft power in future?

JG: The statistics are amazing. We are importing only 40 percent of our energy, that’s the lowest in decades and decades - only 14 percent comes from SA now. Less than half we get from Canada. America is becoming more energy independent. This continues to happen. The Americans tell the Saudis to take a flying leap. Americans are telling Saudis ‘No” as we are becoming less and less dependent on their oil. Of course, we are nerving Saudis for domestic reasons. The royal family of SA needs American support. And if we really get independent, we’ll start treating them like Yemen and so they are angry and annoyed with us. So both of our allies are upset at the moment.

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