April 12, 1998
New York Times
half a century, the Persian Gulf has held a crucial place in U.S. policy-making.
Repeatedly, its oil and its leaders have drawn the United States into its
sometimes deadly games, even as its rivalries and intrigues have confounded U.S.
strategy. So the United States can end up preoccupied with the smallest
events, on the assumption that they may be the prelude to something big.
This is one of those times. Saudi Arabia, America's closest ally in the Persian
Gulf, and Iran, one of Washington's most bitter foes, have been busy trying to
charm each other. .... In the two decades since Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
fomented Iran's revolution, the Saudis and Iranians have never been particularly
close. .... Since then, Saudi Arabia and Iran have moved slowly -- very slowly
-- to shape a more normal relationship. That effort accelerated late last year,
when Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah met Iranian President Mohammed Khatami in
Tehran at the summit of Islamic countries. After two meetings, the Iranian
cleric and the Saudi prince gave signals that they had, in a manner of speaking,
bonded. .... These days, there are no more rumblings from the kingdom that Iran
might have been involved in the terrorist bombing of an apartment building in
Saudi Arabia in 1996 that left 19 U.S. servicemen dead. In fact, Saudi Arabia
announced last month that it would allow its national airline to fly in and out
of Tehran for the first time since shortly after the revolution. So
the question in Washington is: What's up? ..... The stability of the Saudi
kingdom is of so much concern to the United States that since the bombing of the
military housing, a special task force of analysts has been studying the kingdom
under the same rigorous process used to assess the most serious potential
threats to U.S. national security. The Saudis who hold power now are not
about to walk away from the United States, of course. It's just that the
relationship is a lot more difficult than when King Fahd was in good health, in
charge and eager to please the United States. Crown Prince Abdullah, who is
running the country on a day-to-day basis, simply isn't as likely as his brother
the king to say yes every time the United States asks for something. When
Defense Secretary William Cohen visited in February in a vain effort to win
support for possible military action against Iraq, Crown Prince Abdullah simply
made himself unavailable. Prince Sultan, the defense minister, stood in. A
week later, the crown prince did turn up for a meeting with Secretary of State
Madeleine Albright. Ever-protective of his boss, State Department spokesman
James Rubin said she found the encounter "fascinating"; other
officials described it as a stern lecture by Abdullah on the failings of U.S.
policy in the Middle East, followed by an equally stern defense by Ms. Albright.
The Iranians, meanwhile, are not about to embrace the United States. They have
been demanding for two decades that the U.S. military leave the gulf, and that
is not likely to change. But already the Saudis have urged the Clinton
administration to help along Iran's new president and have offered to mediate.
One thought remains profoundly comforting to the policy planners in Washington.
Whatever else is going on between Saudi Arabia and Iran, trust is not part of
the equation. Crown Prince Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain,
one of Saudi Arabia's close neighbors, shared a joke recently with a senior U.S.
official visiting the sheikdom. In Iran, he said, "You have three people in
charge: You have Khamenei, and he is in charge of religion and terrorism,"
referring to Iran's ruling spiritual leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. "You
have Rafsanjani, and he is in charge of business and terrorism. And you have
Khatami, and he is in charge of internal politics, moderation and