Fear and Loathing in the Kingdom

How Washington stabbed the Saudis in the back, and why the Iran deal will start a nuclear arms race in the Persian Gulf.

Pundits and policymakers are missing the big worry about the Obama administration's Iranian nuclear deal: its greatest impact is not ensuring that Iran doesn't get the bomb, but that the Saudis will.  

Indeed, the risk of arms race in the Middle East -- on a nuclear hair trigger -- just went up rather dramatically. And it increasingly looks like the coming Sunni-Shiite war will be nuclearized.

Two aspects of the agreement, in particular, will consolidate Saudi fears that an Iranian bomb is now almost certainly coming to a theater near them. First, the pre-emptive concession that the comprehensive solution still to be negotiated will leave Iran with a permanent capability to enrich uranium -- the key component of any program to develop nuclear weapons. In the blink of an eye, and without adequate notice or explanation to key allies who believe their national existence hangs in the balance, the United States appears to have fatally compromised the long-standing, legally-binding requirements of at least five United Nations Security Council resolutions. If the Saudis needed any confirmation that last month's rejection of a Security Council seat was merited -- on grounds that U.S. retrenchment has rendered the organization not just irrelevant, but increasingly dangerous to the kingdom's core interests -- they just got it, in spades.

Second, the agreement suggests that even the comprehensive solution will be time-limited. In other words, whatever restrictions are eventually imposed on Iran's nuclear program won't be permanent. The implication is quite clear: At a point in time still to be negotiated (three years, five, ten?) and long after the international sanctions regime has been dismantled, the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear program will be left unshackled, free to enjoy the same rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty as any other member in good standing. That looks an awful lot like a license to one day build an industrial-size nuclear program, if Iran so chooses, with largely unlimited ability to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, a la Japan.

But of course Iran is not Japan -- a peaceful, stable democracy aligned with the West. It is a bloody-minded, terror-sponsoring, hegemony-seeking revisionist power that has serially violated its non-proliferation commitments and which aims to destroy Israel, drive America out of the Middle East, and bring down the House of Saud.

Whether or not President Obama fully appreciates that distinction, the Saudis most definitely do.

Of course, Saudi concerns extend well beyond the four corners of last week's agreement. For Riyadh, Iran's march toward the bomb is only the most dangerous element -- the coup de grace in its expanding arsenal, if you will -- of an ongoing, region-wide campaign to overturn the Middle East's existing order in favor of one dominated by Tehran. The destabilization and weakening of Saudi Arabia is absolutely central to that project, and in Saudi eyes has been manifested in a systematic effort by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to extend its influence and tentacles near and far, by sowing violence, sabotage, terror, and insurrection -- in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and most destructively of all, in the IRGC's massive intervention to abet the slaughter in Syria and salvage the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Fairly or not, from the Saudi perspective, the nuclear deal not only ignores these central elements of the existential challenge that Iran poses to the kingdom's well-being, it threatens to greatly exacerbate them by elevating and legitimizing the Islamic Republic's claim to great power status. As surely as Obama's chemical weapons deal with Syria implicitly green-lighted the intensification of the Assad regime's murder machine, so, too, the Saudis fear, a nuclear deal with the mullahs will grant a free hand -- if not an implicit American imprimatur -- to the long-standing Iranian quest for regional supremacy that, to Saudi minds, won't end until it reaches Mecca and Medina.  

It should be said that Saudi paranoia about being sacrificed on the altar of a U.S.-Iranian deal is nothing new. But the fact is that, today, the Saudis look around and believe they've got more reasons than ever before to think that they're largely on their own.

As the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies. On one issue after another that they've deemed absolutely vital to their interests -- Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and now Iran -- the Saudis view the Obama administration as having been at best indifferent to their most urgent concerns, and at worst openly hostile. To Saudi minds, a very clear and dangerous pattern has now been conclusively established. And its defining characteristic is not pretty at all to behold: the selling out of longtime allies, even betrayal. Indeed, the Saudi listen to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rail against the Iran deal and realize that even Israel, by leaps and bounds America's foremost friend in the Middle East, is not immune. And they wonder where in the world does that leave them. How do you say "screwed" in Arabic?

The crisis of confidence in the reliability, purposes, and competence of American power has reached an all-time high. The Saudis have taken due note of National Security Advisor Susan Rice's declaration that "there's a whole world out there" beyond the Middle East that needs attention, and her predecessor's lament that the United States had "over-invested" in the region. The kingdom has become increasingly convinced that there's a method to Obama's madness, a systematic effort to reduce America's exposure and involvement in the region's conflicts, to downsize Washington's role and leadership, to retrench and, yes, to retreat.

Whatever the reason -- a weak and unprincipled president, a tired and fed up population, a broken economy and dysfunctional politics, growing energy independence (the Saudis cite all these and more) -- there's a growing conviction in Riyadh that the United States has run dangerously short of breath when it comes to standing by its allies in the Middle East. Obama wants out. Face-saving deals on issues like Syria and Iran that are designed not to resolve the region's most dangerous problems, but rather to defer them from exploding until he's safely out of office are the order of the day -- Saudi vital interests be damned ... or so they fear.  

It must be noted that the breach in trust has become intensely personal. The Saudi dismay with Obama and his chief lieutenants is hard to overstate at this point. Secretary of State John Kerry in particular has become a target of derision. In the days immediately following the Assad regime's Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, the phone calls between Kerry and senior Saudi leaders apparently ran fast and furious. Proof that Syria had smashed Obama's red line on chemical weapons was overwhelming, Kerry assured his interlocutors. A U.S. attack to punish the Assad regime was a sure thing. The Saudis were ecstatic, convinced that at long last Obama was prepared to get off the sidelines and decisively shift the conflict's trajectory in favor of the West and against Iran. Intelligence, war planning and targeting information were allegedly exchanged. Hints abound that the Saudis were ginned up not only to help finance the operation, but to participate actively with planes and bombs of their own. King Abdullah is rumored to have ordered relevant ministries to prepare to go to the Saudi equivalent of DEFCON 2, the level just short of war.

Then, on Aug. 31, the Saudis turned on CNN, expecting to watch President Obama announce the imminent enforcement of his red-line -- only to see him flinch by handing the decision off to Congress. The Saudis were enraged, dumbfounded, and convinced that Kerry had deliberately deceived and misled them. Told that Kerry himself had been caught largely unaware by Obama's decision, the Saudis were hardly mollified. A liar or an irrelevancy? Either one was disastrous from their perspective.

Unfortunately, the routine has repeated itself several times since -- on one issue after another considered critical to Saudi interests. Hence: Riyadh learned about the U.S.-Russia deal on Syria's chemical weapons from CNN. Riyadh learned about Obama's decision to suspend large chunks of military assistance to Egypt from CNN. And two weeks ago, Riyadh learned that the P5+1 was on the verge of signing an initial (and from its perspective, very bad) deal with Iran from CNN -- even though Kerry had just been in Saudi Arabia earlier that week in an effort to contain at least some of the fallout from the Syria fiasco. Instead, he ended up doubling down on the breach. Detailed revelations in recent days that for the better part of a year, the Obama administration has been engaged in secret bilateral talks with Iran that it sought to keep hidden from its allies -- while merely adding detail to what the Saudis had already suspected from their own sources -- will no doubt only further stoke the kingdom's fears that the fix is in between Washington and the mullahs.

An atmosphere this poisonous is dangerous, to say the least. The incentive for the Saudis to engage in all kinds of self-help that Washington would find less than beneficial, even destructive, is significant and rising. Driven into a corner, feeling largely abandoned by their traditional superpower patron, no one should doubt that the Saudis will do what they believe is necessary to ensure their survival. It would be a mistake to underestimate their capacity to deliver some very unpleasant surprises: from the groups they feel compelled to support in their escalating proxy war with Iran, to the price of oil, to their sponsorship (and bankrolling) of a much expanded regional role for Russia and China at America's expense. Convincing ourselves that the Saudis will bitch and moan, but in the end prove powerless to act in ways that harm key U.S. interests would be a very risky strategy.

Which brings us to the question of the Saudi bomb. King Abdullah has been unequivocal with a series of high-level interlocutors going back several years: If Iran gets the bomb, we get the bomb. There's not much artifice to the man. He's been clear. He's been consistent. He's not known to bluff. And I believe him.

Whether or not all the stories about the longstanding arrangements with the Pakistani nuclear program are true, there's enough of a link there that no one should be too shocked if we wake up next week, next month, or next year to discover that a small nuclear arsenal has suddenly shown up in the Saudi order of battle. If the prospect of an Israel-Iran nuclear standoff doesn't quite get your pulse to racing, how do you feel about adding a Saudi-Iran standoff to the mix?

Think of two nuclear powers eyeball to eyeball across the Strait of Hormuz -- with religious hatreds boiling over, ballistic missile flight times measured in minutes, and command and control protocols, well, less than robust. Even short of a nuclear exchange, what do you think that would do to the price premium on a barrel of oil? Can anyone say "instant global recession"?

That's clearly the direction we're headed, and it's my hunch that the Iran deal has pushed the day of reckoning dangerously closer. I don't know if it's possible at this late date to walk the Saudis back from the ledge. But the Obama administration should try. I think the place to start, and rapidly, is with the Saudi national security advisor and intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Formerly Riyadh's ambassador to Washington, Bandar is now clearly the tip of the spear in King Abdullah's efforts to combat the Iranian threat around the region -- not to mention the principal point of contact in the kingdom's thick relationship with Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment. He's been in virtually every major international capital in recent months -- with the notable exception of Washington. That alone speaks volumes of how much the situation has deteriorated. President Obama personally needs to get Bandar in the Oval Office as quickly as possible for a very frank discussion about the strategic situation in all its complexities -- and what the United States and Saudi Arabia, together, can do about it. At this point, no one else but the commander-in-chief stands a chance of convincing the Saudis that more desperate measures are not called for.  

Exactly what Obama would have to say to make the sale is another matter. On the nuclear deal, he'd have to be able to guarantee that any follow-on agreement would, at a minimum, see Iran compelled to accept a massive roll-back of its existing capabilities -- as close to zero as possible -- as well as a specially-designed, highly-intrusive verification regime. And should Iran reject that bottom-line, the president would have to be equally convincing that he's prepared to walk away from a bad deal and use force decisively to dismantle the most dangerous elements of the Iranian program. Should it come to that, and as a mark of his seriousness, he might broach the range of important contributions the Saudis could make to such an effort -- including managing global oil markets and Arab public opinion, basing and over-flight rights, financing, and direct military participation.

On the broader Iranian regional challenge, Syria is absolutely central for the Saudis. The president would need to be able to say something new and compelling about a genuine shift in U.S. strategy, one seriously committed to working with the kingdom to change the balance of power on the ground against the Assad regime and its Iranian backers, while marginalizing al Qaeda. Obama also be well-served by a serious discussion of Saudi regional priorities, and ways that Washington is prepared to cooperate with Riyadh in a sustained and careful way to advance our common interests -- in weakening Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Iran's influence in Iraq.

The chances that President Obama will be prepared to do any of this, I admit, are slim to none. Doing what comes as second-nature to Iran's leaders -- fighting and negotiating with your enemy at the same -- is just not in his DNA. Moreover, it would be completely contrary to his broader strategic purpose of extricating the United States from what he sees as the Middle East morass. The fact is that Obama thinks he's on the right track. If that makes the Saudis uncomfortable, if it forces them to adjust and take matters more into their own hands, so be it. To his mind, there's really not much that they can do without shooting themselves in the foot. At the end of the day, Obama believes, the Saudis know that they need us far more than we need them, and will act accordingly. At most, a pat on the head, a few vague reassurances that we take their concerns seriously, and a promise to consult more frequently on key issues will suffice to keep them quiet and in line.

I hope he's right. But I strongly suspect that he may be wrong and that we all could be in for a rude awakening at some point. My fear is that in a few years time, we will look back and conclude that President Obama -- who came to office with the lofty ambition of restoring America's standing with the Arab world and strengthening the global non-proliferation regime -- has instead done extensive damage to both causes that will be difficult, if not impossible, to repair in short order, and will come at a very, very high price in blood, treasure, and U.S. interests. If that's the case, we're in for a very rocky road, indeed. Buckle up.



Justice Undone

Why is Bosnia releasing people convicted of genocide?

On Nov. 18, convicted war criminal Slobodan Jakovljevic went home to his Bosnian village of Skelani 20 years before his sentence was supposed to end. Freed after serving eight and a half years in jail for committing genocide during the Bosnian War, he was greeted as a hero: Neighbors and supporters threw a celebration at his local Orthodox church. The head of the government assembly in Srebrenica, the municipality where Skelani sits, attended the event, which reportedly included the shooting of automatic weapons and tossing of grenades.

Jakovljevic, a Bosnian Serb, was not released because his guilt was in question. Rather, he was freed along with nine other war criminals, five of them also convicted of genocide, because an international court said Bosnia sentenced them according to the wrong law.  Some of the released men have returned home like Jakovljevic; at least two have already left Bosnia, reportedly for Serbia. And there are now concerns that many more war criminals -- at least 20, but possibly up to 100 -- could also be let go.

According to a press release, the Bosnian courts released the men, even though their guilty verdicts still stand, because no legal procedure exists in Bosnia to separate a conviction from sentencing. Consequently, the proceedings that put the men in prison must be repeated.

The decision to release the 10 men has exacerbated public distrust of Bosnia's already fragile judicial institutions, and it has angered families of the 8,000 Muslim men and boys killed in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, the single worst atrocity in Europe since the Holocaust and a legally recognized instance of genocide. (Jakovljevic was convicted for his participation in the killing of some 1,000 civilians in a warehouse.) It has heightened tensions in and around Srebrenica, a predominately Serb area to which some displaced Muslims have returned since the war. Witnesses who testified against the men fear reprisals.

"Nothing has undermined the stability in this country since the war more than the release of 10 sentenced, convicted war criminals," Emir Suljagic, a Bosnian Muslim who survived the massacre and has returned to his home in Srebrenica, told FP. "You are letting the fox back into the chicken coop."

Munira Subasic, president of Mothers of Srebrenica, a victims association, said she filed complaints on Nov. 26 to Bosnian courts. "This ruling is shameful. We believe the court has just played with the victims," said Subasic, who lost 22 family members in the war, testified against the perpetrators of Srebrenica, and now lives in the municipality. "Yesterday, I spent the whole day on guard, looking to see if someone was behind my back. The police who should be protecting us are the same men who 18 years ago separated wives from their husbands, mothers from their sons, and wanted us killed."

The story of the procedural error that led to such anger and fear is one of bureaucracy and oversight: In 2005, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the ad hoc tribunal set up by the United Nations to try the Balkans's most egregious crimes, transferred the bulk of its Bosnia-related cases to the country's state court. There, the 10 now-released men -- among others -- were sentenced according to a criminal code passed in 2003. Fast forward to July 2013, when the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) found that two men convicted of war crimes should have instead been sentenced based on a law that was in place when the Bosnia War was happening: the 1976 criminal code of Yugoslavia.

The 1976 law specified a maximum penalty of death for genocide. The 2003 code, in conformity with European standards, abolished the death penalty but also imposed longer sentences for war crimes and added the offense of crimes against humanity, absent in the Yugoslav code. The 2003 law was written and imposed by Bosnia's Office of the High Representative (OHR), the international viceroy put in place by the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, which established Bosnia's post-conflict constitution. (The OHR has the power to remove politicians from posts and to enact laws.) Judges in Bosnia's domestic war crimes chamber, which was created in 2004, were not required to use the 2003 code, but it is widely believed that they were pressured by the OHR to apply it.

The ECtHR said that while all uses of the 2003 code in deciding sentences for war crimes did not necessarily constitute a violation of rights, each case had to be assessed separately. Soon after, in October, Bosnia's Constitutional Court ruled that, in light of the ECtHR decision, the group of men, including Jakovljevic, had to be given new trials within three months.

Now, the specter of dozens more appeals and of new strains on Bosnia's war crimes chamber looms large. The chamber, which represents one of the most substantial efforts to hold war criminals accountable since the Nuremberg trials, has cost hundreds of millions of dollars, but less than 250 cases have been completed. There is a backlog of some 1,300 more. And already, Serb representatives in Bosnia's parliament have proposed legislation to annul all sentences dictated pursuant to the 2003 code.

Bosnian Serb leaders have long applied pressure to the war crimes chamber and the prosecutor's office because they believe both entities are biased against Serbs. (Generally, they oppose much of the work and structure of state-level institutions, preferring decentralization instead.) Complicating matters, the decision to release convicted criminals comes on the heels of other controversial moves by the Bosnian judiciary, including a 2012 decision to anonymize indictments and judgments for war crimes and the common practice of letting some war crimes indictees defend themselves without being in detention.

The messy state of affairs holds lessons and warnings for future transitional justice and state-building efforts -- particularly about the dangers of overreach by the international community if it remains involved in a country's domestic institutions. "The Dayton Peace Agreement had the seeds of Bosnia's destruction in it, and it is playing out now," said Madeleine Rees, who led the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in post-war Bosnia and is now secretary general of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. "Either you are the government, or you are not. It didn't work. And this is a lesson learned for Syria."

Echoing these concerns, a former international employee of the war crimes prosecutor's office, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said recent events have undermined any remaining authority the international community has in Bosnia. "Locals have lost faith, and there are not enough skilled prosecutors to do the job," the source said. "This is due in large part to the international community making a mess of it."

New custody hearings for the 10 men, including Jakovljevic, who should be retried under the 1976 criminal code, will take place in the coming days. But there's a good chance that, at the very least, the two men who have left Bosnia will remain free: Serbia and Bosnia signed an extradition treaty this September, but it does not apply to people indicted for war crimes or genocide. And the sentencing limits from the 1976 Yugoslav code could mean that even those sent back to prison might not be there very long. Jakovljevic, for instance, could get out in as little as a year and a half. 

Meanwhile, angry families in Srebrenica are swearing off Bosnia's judicial system. "We will no longer respond to the court as witnesses, not anyone in my family and not anyone else," Munira Subasic said. "We will not go through that painful experience once again."