(Persia Digest) – In its April 9, 2018 issue, The New Yorker writes that a few days after Donald Trump was inaugurated, Jared Kushner sat down to decide how to reshape the Middle East. During the campaign, Trump had promised a sweeping transformation of the region. Steve Bannon, Trump’s senior aide and ideologist at the time, told me recently, “Our plan was to annihilate the physical caliphate of isis in Iraq and Syria—not attrition, annihilation— to roll back the Persians, and force the Gulf states to stop funding radical Islam.” The Middle East initiative, Bannon said, was one of the few points of agreement in an otherwise fractious White House. “Jared and I were at war on a number of other topics, but not this.”
You can continue to read excerpts by the New Yorker reporter here:
In a conference room at the White House, Kushner met with aides from the National Security Council. “We took out the map and assessed the situation,” the former defense official said. Surveying the region, they concluded that the northern tier of the Middle East had been lost to Iran. In Lebanon, Hezbollah controlled the government. In Syria, Iran had helped save President Bashar al-Assad from military disaster and was now bolstering his political future. In Iraq, the government, nominally pro-American, was also under the sway of Tehran. “We kind of set those to the side,” the official told me. “We thought, So then what? Our anchors were Israel and Saudi Arabia. We can’t be successful in the Gulf without Saudi Arabia.”
That meant reversing the approach supported by Barack Obama, who, unlike previous Presidents, had kept the Saudis at arm’s length, objecting to their repressive internal policies, their treatment of women, and their aggressive posture toward Iran. Above all, that meant forming a new alliance with Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman—known in the White House and throughout the Middle East as M.B.S.
Bin Salman, though only thirty-one¸ was already one of the most powerful people in the kingdom. The son of the current monarch, he was the minister of defense, chairman of the committee that charted the kingdom’s economy, and second in line to the throne. In a country long ruled by aging kings, M.B.S. was young, tall, and transparently ambitious. He wanted to wean the kingdom from its unsustainable addiction to oil and to diversify its economy. And he promised to end the long-standing arrangement of Saudi domestic politics, in which the royal family, and its myriad princes, bought off political opposition by allowing radical Islamists to propagate their creed and even to carry out terrorist acts abroad. M.B.S. was uncompromising in foreign policy.
As Kushner grappled with the complexities of Middle East politics, he and M.B.S. began a conversation by telephone and e-mail. “They became close very fast,” a former American official who sees M.B.S. periodically said. “They see the world in the same way—they see themselves as being in the tech-savvy money world.” Kushner followed up with a visit to Riyadh, the first of three such trips; the two men stayed up nearly until dawn, discussing the future of their countries.
M.B.S. had his own ideas about how to remake the Middle East. But, Bannon told me [reporter], the message that he and Kushner wanted Trump to convey to the region’s leaders was that the status quo had to change, and in the more places the better. “We said to them—Trump said to them, ‘We’ll support you, but we want action, action,” Bannon said. No one seemed more eager to hear that message than the deputy crown prince. “The judgment was that we needed to find a change agent,” the former defense official told me. “That’s where M.B.S. came in. We were going to embrace him as the change agent.”
A new narrative of the failed plan of bin Salman to dismiss Saad Hariri
Around the same time, M.B.S. summoned Saad Hariri, the Lebanese Prime Minister, to Riyadh. Hariri got the call as he was preparing for lunch with Françoise Nyssen, the French minister of culture, but he was not in a position to ignore M.B.S. Hariri was a Saudi citizen, and his construction company, Saudi Oger, which was deeply in debt, had done millions of dollars’ worth of projects for the Saudi state.
Adding to M.B.S.’s anxiety was Hezbollah’s position inside Lebanon. Since the Lebanese civil war ended, in 1990, Saudi Arabia had given the country billions of dollars to help it rebuild, only to watch as Hezbollah grew into the strongest party and the dominant military force. For several years, the American and the Saudi governments had teamed up to build a Lebanese Army as a counterweight. In 2016, a year after M.B.S. took over as defense minister, he cancelled three billion dollars of military aid, concluding that it was a waste of money. “He felt like every dollar he sent to Lebanon was supporting Hezbollah,” the former American official who sees M.B.S. periodically told me.
The Saudis hoped that Hariri would be able to confront Hezbollah. He was a Sunni, and an experienced politician, who had served as Prime Minister from 2009 to 2011, when he fled to Paris, largely out of fear that Hezbollah was preparing to kill him. (His fears were not unfounded. In 2005, his father, Rafik, another Saudi-backed Prime Minister, was killed in a car-bomb attack, for which a U.N. tribunal has indicted four members of Hezbollah.) In 2016, after two years of parliamentary deadlock, in which the country operated without a head of state, he returned and took office.
But Hariri was unable to thwart Hezbollah, even as M.B.S. pushed him to take a tougher stand. The breaking point came in early November. As the rebels continued to fire missiles across the border, Ali Velayati, a senior Iranian leader, flew to Lebanon and met with Hariri. According to the former American official, Velayati said that Iran intended to continue asserting itself in the region. Afterward, Hariri posed, smiling, for a picture with him. When word reached M.B.S., he was enraged. “He felt like he had to do something,” the official said.
When Hariri was summoned to meet M.B.S., he expected a warm reception from the royal family. “Saad was thinking that all his problems with M.B.S. would be solved,” an aide to Hariri told me. Instead, in Riyadh, he was confronted by police, who took him into custody. According to two former American officials active in the region, he was held for eleven hours. “The Saudis put him in a chair, and they slapped him repeatedly,” one of the officials told me. (Hariri’s spokesman denied this.) At the end, in a surreal video that was played on Saudi television, Hariri, looking exhausted and drawn, read a resignation speech, claiming that he had fled Lebanon to evade an Iranian plot to kill him. Hariri, who is usually soft-spoken, declared that “Iran’s hands in the region will be cut off”—a statement that convinced many Lebanese that the speech had been written by someone else.
It was unclear who would become Lebanon’s new Prime Minister; according to Lebanese and Western officials I spoke to, M.B.S. had tried to enlist Hariri’s brother, Bahaa, who spends much of his time in Monaco, to take the position. A senior American official in the Middle East told me that the plot was “the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen.” But there were indications that M.B.S. had coordinated his moves with the Trump Administration, possibly at the summit in Riyadh. A former senior intelligence official who is close to the White House told me that M.B.S. had received a “green light” to remove Hariri. (A senior Administration official denied this.) “It’s disruptive,” the intelligence official told me. “The status quo in the Middle East doesn’t work. They want to break it up.”
Western officials, caught off guard by Hariri’s detention, rallied to save him. Tillerson released a statement, saying, “The United States supports the stability of Lebanon and is opposed to any actions that could threaten that stability.” Emmanuel Macron, the French President, visited M.B.S. and pressed him to release Hariri. According to a Western diplomat with knowledge of the exchange, M.B.S. opened the conversation by threatening to cut off trade with France unless Macron stopped doing business with Iran. Macron gently replied that a country like France was free to trade with whomever it wished. “Macron handled it very well, and M.B.S. backed down,” the diplomat told me.
Ultimately, the plan collapsed when most of the Lebanese political establishment protested Hariri’s captivity. Two weeks after he had arrived, Hariri was on a plane, going first to meet with officials in Paris and Cairo, and then on to Beirut, where he basked in sympathy. “The whole country is unified around him,” a senior Hezbollah leader told me.
The New Yorker reporter continues:
Several days after his return, I went to see Hariri in Beirut. He lives in the Beit al-Wasat neighborhood, inside a high-walled compound of exquisitely restored villas with views of the Mediterranean; a few doors down sits the Maghen Abraham synagogue, destroyed during the civil war and rebuilt with the help of Hariri’s family. Despite the grand surroundings, he seemed less a returning hero than an exhausted former prisoner. “I don’t want to talk about what just happened,” he said, slumped behind his desk. “M.B.S. was right, O.K.? What he is trying to do is right.”
Saudi and UAE princes align in opposition to Iran
In 2009, the Obama White House began negotiating with the Iranians to limit their nuclear program. Saudi and Emirati leaders viewed any outreach to Iran as dangerously misguided. An American national-security official recalled visiting the Emirates in 2011 to meet M.B.S. He told me that he was instructed to wait on a dock on the Persian Gulf; eventually, M.B.S. pulled up in a speedboat, wearing shorts, flip-flops, and a Bass Pro Shop hat. “He read us the riot act,” the official recalled. “He told us that we were naïve about the Iranians, and that we were giving away the whole region to them. That was always what the Emiratis and the Saudis said—we were naïve. We thought they were reckless.”
This article appears in the print edition of the April 9, 2018, issue, with the headline “The Ascent.” Dexter Filkins joined The New Yorker as a staff writer in 2011.