Saudi plans for regional domination are not meeting with much success
More than six weeks after the death of Jamal Khashoggi we know a lot more about his tragic plight after he entered the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. However, it is still unclear who ordered his execution, what will be done about it, who knew what when …
According to Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, audio tapes of Khashoggi’s last moments in the consulate have been shared with the CIA and leaders of the ‘free world’, including the United States, the UK and EU. Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau admits his intelligence services have received the audio tapes and listened to them and, while French ministers deny having received such recordings, other European and US officials remain quiet on the subject.
According to The Guardian,Saudi officials have claimed that Erdoğan “betrayed the kingdom by disclosing details of the investigation and refusing all overtures from Saudi envoys, including an offer to pay ‘significant’ compensation”.1 However, it is unlikely that Turkey, playing its own game in this sad saga, will be tempted by blood money, which theoretically can only be offered to relatives of the deceased.
By November 13 the drip-drip of information about Khashoggi’s death reached a new level, with revelations carried by the New York Times and Al Jazeera, quoting Turkish intelligence officers, that soon after the assassination, Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb, one of the agents involved in the murder, phoned his superior with the message “tell your boss [believed by some to be crown prince Mohammed bin Salman] that the operatives have carried out their mission”. The recording was, according to Turkey, shared last month with Central Intelligence Agency director Gina Haspel.
The allegations, true or false, have caused a considerable dent in bin Salman’s authority. Meanwhile, we have seen the return from self-imposed exile of Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the only remaining full brother of the Saudi king; the release from prison of another royal, Khaled bin Talal al-Saud, who had been held in custody following last year’s purge, when princes and business ‘leaders’ were held in the Ritz Carlton Hotel in Riyadh. But MBS remains crown prince for the time being.
There are also further revelations about MBS’s antics since he ascended to the second most important position in the Saudi kingdom. According to the New York Times, “Top Saudi intelligence officials close to crown prince Mohammed bin Salman asked a small group of businessmen last year about using private companies to assassinate Iranian enemies of the kingdom.”2
Last week, as oil prices fell following ‘excessive supply’ from the world’s major producers, Saudi Arabian authorities told ministers from other oil-exporting countries at an Opec meeting that they had no prior knowledge of the Trump administration’s plans to exempt seven countries – purchasers of Iranian oil – from new sanctions against the Islamic republic imposed on November 5. As a result the Saudis, who had already increased their oil production, were forced to do a U-turn – a clear sign that US-Saudi relations are not as warm as last year.
Over the last few weeks Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi have been lobbying the US government in support of MBS and, according to the website Middle East Eye, “Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman attempted to persuade Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start a conflict with Hamas in Gaza as part of a plan to divert attention from the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.” A “war in Gaza would distract Trump’s attention and refocus Washington’s attention on the role Saudi Arabia plays in bolstering Israeli strategic interests”.3 Yet all this – including attempts to bribe Erdoğan with promises of Saudi purchases of arms from Turkey – seems to have failed so far.
To add insult to injury, Qatar-Israel-Hamas negotiations, which started a few months ago, seem to have progressed. Last week, in what was an unprecedented move, Netanyahu allowed the transfer of $15 million to Gaza, to pay for “salaries”, following the Palestinian Authority’s decision to cut them in Gaza last year. The money is also supposed to contribute towards medical care of the wounded. Despite criticism by some, including his own ministers, who have denounced the transfer of millions to Gaza as “protection money”, Netanyahu has defended the initiative. In fact, the Israeli prime minister said: “I’m doing everything I can in coordination with security experts to return calm to [Israeli] villages of the south, but also to prevent a humanitarian disaster [in Gaza].”
According to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, Qatar and Israel had agreed to establish a sea passage between Cyprus and Gaza – a route that would be under Israeli security supervision and monitored by international forces.
Of course, some of this seemed to be in doubt following a ‘secret’ security operation on November 11 by Israeli special forces, using a civilian vehicle deep inside Gaza. What was a plan to target and execute a senior Hamas commander was botched – an Israeli officer was killed and another was wounded. Seven Palestinians were killed.
There is speculation in the Middle Eastern press that opponents of the Qatar deal in the Israeli government planned and ordered the Israel Defence Forces operation. Some ministers, including Naftali Bennett, who had strongly criticised the Qatar-Israel-Hamas deal, were happy to see an escalation of the conflict in Gaza. However, three days after the IDF adventure into Gaza, there seems little sign that either side wants a full-scale war at this particular time. A ceasefire was agreed on November 12 and seems to be holding. MBS’s dream of an Israeli-Palestinian war diverting attention from his plight has not materialised.
Meanwhile, Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has resigned, labelling the deal with Gaza “a capitulation to terror”.
Saudi officials have changed their story about the Khashoggi execution so many times that it is difficult to believe anything they say. However, they have consistently denied allegations that MBS played any role in the planning of this political murder. Instead they blame rogue elements, including general Ahmed al-Assiri, who discussed a $2 billion plan with a private intelligence firm to “sabotage Iran’s economy”. During these discussions Assiri is said to have also asked about plans to kill general Qassem Soleimani of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
A few days earlier fresh allegations were made about the kind of activities Saudi publicists are alleged to follow in UK. According to The Guardian, “A UK-based Iranian TV station is being funded through a secretive offshore entity and a company whose director is a Saudi Arabian businessman with close links to the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.”4 Although it is difficult to verify the paper’s claims that bin Salman is the “force behind the TV channel” via his media advisor, Saud al-Qahtani, there is no doubt that Iran International’s relentless promotion of pro-Trump ‘regime change’ groups such as Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and individuals such as the son of the ex-shah do follow a clear political agenda. The reporter who is associated with the article has faced a barrage of verbal abuse, and threats of legal action, as well as threats to his safety.
Of course, the TV channel is not unique in promoting individuals and organisations who have been emboldened by Trump’s new sanctions. There are many exiled Iranians, including royalists, ‘liberals’ and even some claiming to be on the left who endorse sanctions as a means of achieving regime change. In the last few weeks some of us have tried to balance the situation by writing or speaking against this type of regime change and as a result we are accused of ‘helping the Islamic Republic by criticising its opponents’. Nothing could be further from the truth. It was precisely the reluctance of the Iranian left to expose Ruhollah Khomeini and his brand of Islamic fundamentalism prior to the February uprising of 1979 that led to the nightmare of the religious state. It is a state which claims to be the government of the disinherited, while presiding over one of the most corrupt regimes on earth, where the gap between the rich and the poor is reaching unprecedented levels.
Last week Iranians were treated to an interview with the former shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, courtesy of Iran International TV. In answer to the sycophantic ‘questions’ that started with praise of the hapless ex-prince, every time he opened his mouth he managed to say something stupid.
In other words, if a section of the al Saud family is behind the funding of this TV station run by exiled Iranians, they are failing badly – every time they promote MEK or Reza Pahlavi, they only manage to strengthen Ayatollah Khamenei and the Tehran regime. As much as Iranians hate the increasingly dictatorial tone of the supreme leader at a time of severe economic crisis – not all of which can be blamed on sanctions – the alternatives presented by US regime change planners are both too stupid and too corrupt to be taken seriously. All of this amounts to yet another setback for MBS and the Saudi royals.
Yassamine Mather is an Iranian political activist