For years, the Saudis have urged the United States to take an aggressive approach to Iran. Yet the aftermath of last month’s killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani has demonstrated that they also do not want the US to start a regional war. In short, the Saudis want the United States to thread a delicate needle: to push back hard against Iran, but not so hard as to produce an escalating conflict with unknown consequences.
They should know from the experience of the 2003 invasion of Iraq that this is not a needle their ally, the US, is likely to thread.
The Saudis’ ongoing campaign against Iran is not the first time they have pushed the US to exert maximum pressure on another country. In the 1990s, they similarly pressed it to take decisive action to remove Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq. However, when the Bush administration did precisely that in 2003, the Saudis ended up with a bad case of buyer’s remorse.
The Saudis broke irrevocably with Saddam after he invaded and annexed Kuwait in 1990. Suspecting that he had also intended to seize Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province and was thwarted only by the US’s rapid response to protect the kingdom, the Saudis would never trust him again. After the Gulf War, the Saudis supported a covert US program to topple Saddam via a palace coup.
The covert program had a very narrow objective: to replace Saddam with another Sunni Arab dictator, not to remake the country or reform the regime. The Saudi leadership in particular wanted to restore a Sunni Arab ally in Iraq to balance Shia Iran, which they have long viewed as expansionist.
But the covert program stalled in the mid-1990s. After a number of disastrous attempts to foment a coup, the Clinton administration became resigned to the less ambitious policy of containing Saddam through sanctions and occasional military action. For their part, however, the Saudis continued to have faith that the US could pull off a coup – if only it tried harder. As one former official in the Clinton administration recounted to me, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in Washington, “was constantly telling us, ‘You got to go and decapitate Saddam. You got to get rid of him, take more action. You got to use force, use force, use force.’”
The Saudis had achieved their limited objective, but at the cost of what they regarded as an enormous strategic defeat.
After 9/11, the Bush administration decided to adopt a more aggressive approach toward Saddam, as the Saudis had been advocating – except that a massive ground invasion of Iraq with the goal of implementing fundamental political reform was not what they had in mind. On the eve of the invasion, the Saudis publicly spoke out against a war they believed could set the region aflame, even as they continued to argue in private for the far more limited objective of ousting Saddam via a coup.
Ultimately, what they wanted was for Saddam Hussein simply to disappear from the scene. But when the Bush administration finally decided to remove the Iraqi dictator, they did so on their terms, not the Saudis’. And they had no leverage to stop the US from doing as it wanted.
Many of the Saudis’ fears prior to the invasion came true. Then-Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal predicted that an invasion could produce a political vacuum in Baghdad that would lead to a civil war. That is effectively what happened.
The greatest irony, however, is that Saudi Arabia had pushed the US to remove Saddam so that they could restore an Iraqi counterweight to Iran, yet when the Bush administration finally overthrew the dictator, it established a democratic system, led by the country’s Shia majority, which ultimately empowered Iran. The Saudis had achieved their limited objective, but at the cost of what they regarded as an enormous strategic defeat.
Saudi Arabia’s new crop of leaders, particularly the powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, should keep this experience of their predecessors in mind as they consult with the Trump administration on the approach to be taken toward Iran. In the 1990s, Saudi decision-makers believed that the solution to the problem posed by Saddam was a more aggressive US approach. But in 2003, they saw instead how aggressive action on the part of the United States could fix one problem while creating many others. Moreover, once the United States became determined to take action in the case of Saddam, American leaders were not listening to their Saudi counterparts’ recommendations on which actions to take or what the end-goal for Iraq should look like. The Bush administration had unleashed its military might, and the Saudis were at their ally’s whim.
Today, Iran’s nuclear program and support to regional proxies present significant challenges to its neighbors in the Middle East and the international community more broadly. Such an intractable problem may at times call for a hardline approach, but its resolution will require far more finesse and agility than can be mustered simply through the use of blunt instruments like sanctions and missile strikes. There is no quick fix that can be achieved by means of aggressive US action. The Saudis had a front-row seat to that sort of experiment in 2003, and should remember its lessons today.
Katherine Harvey holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies from King’s College London, where her research explored the Saudi/Iraq/Iran relationship in the last 40 years. She formerly served as a Lieutenant in the US Navy, including at Fifth Fleet in Bahrain.