By Jackson Diehl
Monday, February 19, 2007
For 22 years Prince Bandar bin Sultan wheeled and dealed his way through Washington as Saudi Arabia's ambassador. By his account -- provided expansively to favored journalists -- he had a hand in most of America's major initiatives in the Middle East over a generation. During George W. Bush's presidency, for example, he brokered U.S. rapprochement with Libya and previewed plans for the invasion of Iraq two months before the war.
For a while after returning home in the summer of 2005, Bandar kept a low profile. Some speculated he was out of favor with the kingdom's ruler, Abdullah, despite his appointment as national security adviser. Now he's back: Since the beginning of the year the prince has suddenly begun wheeling and dealing his way around the Middle East.
In the past month Bandar has held three meetings with the Iranian national security chief, Ali Larijani, most recently last Wednesday in Riyadh. He's met twice with Vladimir Putin, in Moscow and Riyadh, to talk about Middle East affairs; overseen talks between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Hamas leaders; and quietly shuttled to Washington to brief President Bush. He helped broker this month's Palestinian accord on a unity government as well as a Saudi-Iranian understanding to cool political conflict in Lebanon. And he's been talking with the most senior officials of the Iranian and U.S. governments about whether there's a way out of the standoff over Iran's nuclear weapons.
Can Bandar bail the United States out of the multiple crises it has stumbled into in the Middle East? Maybe not, but Washington's old friend may be one of the best bets a desperate Bush administration has going at the moment. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has maneuvered herself into a corner by refusing to talk to Syria and Iran and boycotting the Hamas-led Palestinian government. Consequently there's little the United States can do diplomatically to defuse the conflicts in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, not to mention Iraq. Rice tried calling on Egypt, abruptly dropping the administration's previous urging that its autocratic government "lead the way" in democratizing the Middle East. But Egypt has been unable to deliver: It tried and failed to pry Syria away from its alliance with Iran, and it tried and failed to win concessions from Hamas.
That leaves Saudi Arabia and the hyperkinetic Bandar. In his last visit to Washington he offered a rosy report on his travels. Iran, he assured his American friends, had been taken aback by President Bush's recent shows of strength in the region, by the failure of his administration to collapse after midterm elections and by the unanimous passage of a U.N. resolution imposing sanctions on Tehran for failing to stop its nuclear program. The mullahs, he said, were worried about Shiite-Sunni conflict spreading from Iraq around the region, and about an escalating conflict with the United States; they were interested in tamping both down.
Bandar and Larijani already worked to stop incipient street fighting between Lebanon's Shiite Hezbollah movement and pro-Western Sunni and Christian parties several weeks ago. But the Saudis have bigger plans: Bandar reported to Washington that he's hoping to split Iran from Syria -- reversing the maneuver that Egypt tried. The means would be a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran over a Lebanese settlement that included authorization of a U.N. tribunal to try those responsible for the murder of former prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri. That would be poison to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who almost certainly was behind the murder.
Bandar's spin and dazzle make it tempting to think he can pull off almost anything. It's also easy to forget that he works in the interests of Saudi Arabia, not the United States. The results can be disappointing. Bush got a reminder of that when Bandar brokered the "Mecca agreement" between Palestinian leaders Abbas and Khaled Meshal of Hamas. Bush administration policy has been to strengthen Abbas at Hamas's expense; the accord undercut that approach and all but ruined Rice's plan to begin developing a "political horizon" at a meeting with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert today.
Washington tried to set a couple of red lines for the Mecca talks: Hamas, it said, should be forced to accept international demands that it renounce violence and recognize Israel; and its prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, should not lead the new Palestinian cabinet. Bandar disregarded both.
That doesn't mean the old Bush family friend is not still welcome at the White House. The Palestinian deal was secondary for Bandar; his main aim is to defuse the multiple threats posed by Iran. If he can find a way to broker a deal that stops the Iranian nuclear program, and kick-starts a strategic dialogue between Tehran and Washington, it will be his greatest feat of all.