In pressing for negotiated settlements to the Iranian nuclear dispute and the Syrian civil war, President Barack Obama is challenging the imposing lobbying, propaganda and financial clout of the new Saudi-Israeli alliance, with the future direction of U.S. foreign policy - and geopolitical stability - at stake.
Already, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pulling the strings of his media and congressional marionettes, creating opposition to Obama's diplomatic initiatives. Meanwhile, the Saudi monarchy has gone to unprecedented lengths to register its disapproval of Obama's peace initiatives, even rejecting a two-year seat on the United Nations Security Council.
The Saudis also have made sounds about possibly acquiring their own nuclear bomb from Pakistan, which developed the Bomb during the Reagan-Bush-41 administrations with the help of Saudi financing.
Citing "a senior NATO decision maker," Mark Urban, diplomatic editor for BBC's "Newsnight," described "intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery." Urban also noted that "Last month Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told a conference in Sweden that if Iran got the bomb, 'the Saudis will not wait one month. They already paid for the bomb, they will go to Pakistan and bring what they need to bring.'"
Urban added that these warnings about the imminent Saudi possession of a nuclear weapon were emanating from Israel, possibly to add pressure on Obama to fall into line and join a military airstrike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
"It is Israeli information - that Saudi Arabia is now ready to take delivery of finished warheads for its long-range missiles - that informs some recent US and NATO intelligence reporting. Israel of course shares Saudi Arabia's motive in wanting to worry the US into containing Iran," Urban said, adding:
"Amos Yadlin ... told me by email that 'unlike other potential regional threats, the Saudi one is very credible and imminent.'"
After the BBC report, I was told by a source familiar with Mideast developments that this possibility of Saudi possession of a nuclear bomb - and the overall truculence from the Saudi-Israeli alliance - prompted a blunt response from President Obama, directed to Israeli President Shimon Peres and to Saudi King Abdullah, making clear that the United States would not tolerate a nuclear arms race in the Middle East.
Obama's choice of recipients, I'm also told, was significant in that he appealed to the heads of state, going over the heads of Netanyahu and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the chief of Saudi intelligence who has been spearheading the collaboration with Israel on a variety of shared interests, including Iran, Syria and Egypt.
I was told the letters to Peres and King Abdullah could be viewed as a signal that the U.S. government sees the need for Netanyahu and Bandar to be replaced.
A Tougher Kerry
Obama's anger over Netanyahu's sabotage of U.S. diplomacy was reflected, too, in the toughening tone from Secretary of State John Kerry, who came under criticism last week for going too far in efforts to smooth the ruffled feathers of the Israelis and Saudis - appearing obsequious when the White House wanted to project an image of forceful confidence.
So, in surprisingly blunt comments to Israeli and Palestinian journalists on Thursday, Kerry warned Israel about the consequences if it refused to recognize the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinians in peace talks that he is personally overseeing.
"The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos," Kerry said. "I mean, does Israel want a third intifada," a reference to two outbreaks of Palestinian violence in resistance to the decades of Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.
"If we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of delegitimization of Israel that's been taking place on an international basis," Kerry added.
Kerry's more forceful tone, however, didn't help him salvage the latest round of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Despite optimism that an interim deal was within reach in which Iran would suspend some of its nuclear development in exchange for some sanctions relief, the insistence from France on a harder line - more in sync with Israel's demands - prevented a sign-off on the accord.
Iran has consistently said that its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only, and U.S. intelligence agencies agree that Iran has made no decision to build a nuclear weapon. Nevertheless, Netanyahu has threatened to bomb Iran if it doesn't capitulate on its right as a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to develop nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.
By contrast, Israel has refused to sign the treaty and maintains an undeclared nuclear arsenal that is considered one of the most sophisticated on earth. Despite the hypocrisy, Israel has been able to concentrate the world's attention on Iran, which lacks a single nuclear weapon, while keeping the attention away for Israel's own rogue nuclear arsenal, which is rarely mentioned in U.S. press reports even in articles about Israel raising alarms regarding Iran.
The Lines Forming
Yet, while Israeli leaders and the Saudi royals possess substantial clout inside U.S. policy circles, Obama has in his corner his own unlikely ally, Russian President Vladimir Putin, who also has clashed with Netanyahu and Prince Bandar.
Putin appears particularly concerned with Saudi-backed jihadists who have attacked Russian targets in the past and still threaten to destabilize Muslim areas of the Russian Federation, such as Chechnya and Dagestan. Putin also has concerns that Islamic terrorists could endanger the upcoming Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
The battle lines of this high-stakes diplomatic conflict are forming with Netanyahu, Bandar and American neoconservatives on one side - and Obama, Putin and foreign-policy "realists" on the other. Besides the future direction of the Middle East, the political fortunes of individual leaders are at stake, with either Obama or Netanyahu potentially emerging as the biggest loser.
Netanyahu's strategy calls for rallying Israel's staunch supporters in Congress and the U.S. news media to criticize Obama for showing "weakness" in trying to resolve disputes with Iran and Syria through constructive diplomacy rather than military force or coercive economic warfare.
On Thursday, Netanyahu called the tentative agreement with Iran a "grievous historic error" that would not eliminate Iran's potential for eventually moving to build a nuclear bomb. "If the news that I am receiving of the impending proposal by the p-5-plus-1 is true, this is the deal of the century, for Iran," said Netanyahu, referring to the five permanent Security Council members, plus Germany, which have been negotiating with Iran over constraints on its nuclear program.
Trying to head off the deal, some of Netanyahu's backers called for more economic sanctions on Iran, even as its new government under President Hassan Rouhani signals a desire for a diplomatic settlement that would include new limits and more supervision on its nuclear program. Torpedoing the talks by enacting more sanctions would likely increase the prospects of an eventual U.S.-Israel air assault on Iran's nuclear facilities, a move that Netanyahu has advocated in the past.
"Even if we get this de minimus interim deal [with Iran], we could be in serious trouble," said Mark Dubowitz, executive director of the neocon Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "The Israelis and the Saudis are already freaking out about the dangers of any interim deal. This would demonstrate to them and Congress that the Obama administration has entered the Persian nuclear bazaar and gotten totally outnegotiated."
Similarly, Israeli and Saudi hardliners are furious with Obama for scrapping a planned military strike against Syria last August in favor of having the Syrian government give up its chemical weapons in response to a U.S.-Russian initiative. Saudi Arabia, in particular, was hoping that a wave of U.S. airstrikes inside Syria could give the Saudi-backed Sunni jihadists an opportunity to oust President Bashar al-Assad, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.
The Saudi royals, representing the richest Sunni Islamic nation, have long viewed the more ascetic Shiite-led Iranian revolution as a threat to the Saudi regional influence and their own playboy lifestyles.
But the rivalry between Shiite and Sunni Islam dates back almost 1,400 years to the succession struggle after the death of Prophet Muhammad. Israel's interests also are rooted in the ancient past, with Netanyahu believing in the restoration of the Greater Israel of King David from 3,000 years ago.
In much more recent history, Official Washington's still-influential neocons were the architects of George W. Bush's invasion of Iraq - and they have never given up on their dream of forcing "regime change" across the Middle East in nations considered hostile to Israel. After ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein, their overriding goal was to overthrow the governments of Iran and Syria - and thus isolate Israel's close-in enemies, Lebanon's Hezbollah and Gaza's Hamas.
However, the neocons have often miscalculated. Not only did the Iraq War drain the United States of treasure and blood, but it ended up replacing a Sunni tyrant, Saddam Hussein, with a Shiite authoritarian, Nouri al-Maliki, pushing Iraq closer to Iran and creating what is known as "the Shiite crescent," reaching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah strongholds in Lebanon.
That expansion of Shiite influence alarmed Saudi Arabia and further elevated Israel's concerns about Iran's influence. Another consequence was that an ascendant Iran caused Saudi Arabia to view its longtime adversary, Israel, as a de facto ally in the Sunni-Shiite sectarian struggle. For somewhat different reasons, the Saudis and the Israelis view Iran as their greatest regional enemy, giving new meaning to the old saying: "My enemy's enemy is my friend."
The Saudis and Israeli also have other common interests. They sided with the Egyptian military in removing the elected government of President Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, a populist Sunni movement that the Saudi royals also see as a threat to their privileged status and the Israelis view as an ally of Hamas in Gaza.
When the worldly Bandar, who served as Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005, expanded his influence in the Saudi court especially after his appointment as chief of Saudi intelligence in July 2012, an alliance of convenience became possible between Saudi Arabia and Israel. The alliance combined the two nations' complementary skills: Israel's unparalleled propaganda and lobbying and Saudi Arabia's oil wealth and financial investments.
However, Bandar's confidence with this new power tandem appears to have crossed over into arrogance. According to a leaked diplomatic account of a meeting in Moscow on July 31, he offered both carrots and sticks to Putin to get the Russian president to abandon the Assad regime in Syria. But Bandar's less-than-subtle reference to Saudi influence over Chechen jihadists - and their potential threat to the Winter Olympics in Sochi - reportedly infuriated Putin.
Obama also was chafing under the rough-riding style of Netanyahu, who has frequently brought his whip down on Obama, scolding him in the Oval Office, going over Obama's head to Congress and the U.S. news media, and essentially endorsing Republican Mitt Romney for president in 2012. Netanyahu also has sought to corner Obama into military conflicts with Iran and Syria, challenging the President's goal of rebalancing U.S. geopolitical interests away from the Middle East.
Now the stakes have been raised. Either Obama's regional strategy of diplomacy will prevail with the support of Russian President Putin - or Netanyahu and Bandar will manage to rally their supporters, especially in U.S. political and media circles, to push the region deeper into conflict.