Will the Saudi-Qatar Spat Escalate Friction Between America and Iran?

Will the Saudi-Qatar Spat Escalate Friction Between America and Iran?

The question is no longer whether America can shape a coalition of like-minded nations to fight terrorism, but whether it can dampen a burgeoning confrontation.

Finally, and crucially, while the Saudis have been busy recruiting Sunnis to the anti-Qatar and anti-Iran cause, the Trump administration has had an anti-Iran recruiting drive of its own. Mattis, McMaster and Harvey have now been joined by Michael D’Andrea, who was named by the CIA to head its Iran operations in early June. Besides being a chain-smoking expert on the Middle East (as the press has trumpeted), D’Andrea is a larger-than-life figure at both the CIA and in the Pentagon. He “spent his career angling for the DDO job,” the deputy director of operations, who runs the service’s directorate for covert operations, according to a recently retired intelligence officer. But D’Andrea was always passed over for the job “because he was too black and white,” the former officer said. “There was never any nuance in what he said. And he’s a hothead,” according to the former officer.

The CIA did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

David Petraeus came to the same conclusion after brushing up against D’Andrea when the general was the head of CENTCOM, and then again when he became the CIA’s director. While Petraeus might not know much about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (or the symbolism of Al-Aqsa Mosque), he’s a careful thinker, crackerjack researcher and is aware of the areas where he lacks expertise while maintaining a willingness to learn. That was never true for D’Andrea. As CIA director, Petraeus came to know D’Andrea well, and what he saw and heard didn’t impress him. “Petraeus would listen to his advisors carefully, but he tended to dismiss what D’Andrea said,” I was told. “He was always pushing the ‘us versus them’ tough-guy line—and Petraeus just never bought it.” D’Andrea’s views were so disturbing that Petraeus tried to get rid of him “at least three times,” but could never succeed—as the CIA officer was viewed on Capitol Hill as the agency’s foremost expert on Al Qaeda and, as he was described to me, “the guy who got bin Laden,” the official said. On Iran, D’Andrea is just as outspoken, the former intelligence officer said. D’Andrea likely gets his Iran views from having served as CIA station chief in Baghdad in 2006, when Iranian IEDs were killing Americans. “Lack of sophistication is an understatement,” the former CIA officer said. “For Mike, if you opposed the U.S. you were automatically in bed with the terrorists. ‘We’re good, they’re bad, therefore they’re terrorists.’ That’s what he thought, and that’s what he still thinks.”

It’s not clear just how far Mattis, McMaster, Harvey and D’Andrea—the administration’s constellation of anti-Iran officials—are willing to push against Qatar and its regional allies. Defense Secretary James Mattis, for instance, has recently said that the United States needs to patch up the Saudi-Qatar relationship, perhaps in the wan hope that the anti-terrorism Sunni bloc announced by President Trump in Riyadh can somehow be salvaged. Will the United States succeed?

Interestingly, when ISIS terrorists attacked Iran’s parliament and the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini (killing seventeen and wounding forty), the Trump administration’s response was tepid, at best. While sending condolences to the Iranian people by stating that Americans “grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran,” the White House also implied that Iran got what it deserved: “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.” Tehran’s response was immediate, with Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeting that the U.S. statement was “repugnant” and pointing out that Iran was countering terror that was “backed by U.S. clients”— by which, arguably, he meant Saudi Arabia.

Indeed, the Saudi-Qatar clash goes well beyond the characterization of a family squabble that can be healed by “fraternal visits” (as Kuwait’s Emir, Sheikh Sabah, has phrased it) or moderate pronouncements from the U.S. Defense Secretary. What is really at stake is far more fundamental. The question is no longer whether America can shape a coalition of like-minded nations to fight terrorism, but whether it can dampen a burgeoning confrontation that confirms Israel and Saudi Arabia’s real agenda: that they will fight Iran to the last drop of American blood.

Mark Perry is a foreign-policy analyst and the author of The Most Dangerous Man In America: The Making of Douglas MacArthur. His next book, The Pentagon's Wars (Basic Books, New York) will be released in October. He tweets at @markperrydc.

Image: U.S. Army Specialist Bobby Jenkins, armed with 5.56mm M16A2 rifles, stands a security watch at the MIM-104 Patriot Missile Battery site located at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. ​Flickr / U.S. Army Korea