Hossein Askari told Javad Heirannia of Mehr News International Service that Saudis systematically been short of enjoying the position of the Custodian of Two Holy Shrines; their reading of scriptures had been quite violent and displayed a face of Islam inspiring fear and hatred, rather than highlighting more humanly and peace-seeking nature of the religion.
On Trump’s possible adventurism in the Middle East, Askari believes Persian Gulf Arab states plus Saudi Arabia would rejoice on the prospects of a possible Trump’s engagement with Iran militarily, since they had been fearing Iran’s achieving nuclear weapons once the 10-year restriction on its nuclear program ended.
In an article in Huffington Post, you argued that Donald Trump is presenting the United States as a mercenary for Saudi Arabia—pay and the US will defend you against Iran. How far, in your opinion, can such a policy go against Iran and its interests?
President Trump has said that he will defend Saudi Arabia from Iran and anyone else as long as Saudi Arabia pays. Such a policy is the policy of a mercenary. This much we know. But the details of how far he will go are unknown. I believe that he will come to the Al-Saud rescue if there is any dispute with Iran. I even think that the Saudis may intentionally initiate an incident with Iran—such as a shooting of a plane or a boat in the Persian Gulf or an incident on Abu Mussa or Tonbs—expressly in order to bring the US fleet into the conflict and put Iran on notice.
I also believe that that Trump will come to support the Al-Saud if there is any internal movement to overthrow them, i.e. a coup. In such a case it will be argued that Iran was behind the coup attempt or that it was terrorist-inspired.
I think that the Al-Saud feel very safe with Trump as President. There is no issue of pointing out Saudi abuses of human rights. They have had indirect business dealings with him. They know him. And they know that with money (and with promises for rewards when Trump is not in power) they can buy protection and even an ally if they pick a fight with Iran. To the Al-Saud, this may in fact be the best time to start a war with Iran—assured US support and with Israel lending a helping hand. We live in dangerous times!
With respect to approaching the anniversary of Yemen war and bombing the country by Saudi-led coalition, why would you think that Trump compromised with Saudi Arabia?
I think President Trump wants to pick some foreign adventure to consolidate his presidency. Yemen may be his best bet. Or a fight in the Persian Gulf. He could support Saudi Arabia. He could teach Iran a lesson and set Iran back. Remember that Iran is even less popular than Saudi Arabia in the United States.
Are Saudis capable of managing the custodianship of two Holly Mosques?
“Well, they have had a rough time of it. But they could be getting better at it. However, for me the bigger issue is that they have destroyed 1400 years of Islamic heritage. This is something that is IRREVERSIBLE. They have destroyed houses that belonged to the Prophet Mohammad’s family and companions AND they have built places and luxury hotels. This is not the Islam that I know. Such luxury! With rooms and suites that cost several thousand dollars a night looking down on the Kaaba for the rich and with the poor pilgrims living in poverty! Islam is all about sharing and justice, not opulence living for a few alongside poverty for the many.”
Isn’t it better to entrust the management of the two holy sites to all Muslims, e.g. through OIC with due regard to political approach and dominant Wahhabism thinking of the Saudi family?
“Yes. At least a committee of selected Muslims to oversee or at least advise. It is wrong for the King of Saudi Arabia to do as he wishes while 1.7 billion Muslims look on as spectators. But be careful, the OIC has in recent years taken sides with Saudi Arabia. The management or advisory committee should have no affiliation with any country or group.”
Why do you think Trump clanged his position toward Saudi Arabia after entering the White House, while he made harsh criticism against the kingdom during the presidential campaign and now the love affair?
As I have said, Saudi Arabia is not popular in the US. So Trump attacked Saud Arabia to get votes, but Saudi Arabia has money and now, and especially when he leaves office, he and his family can do lucrative business deals with the Saudis. So he now supports them with an eye on potential business deals. I must add something that I have said for over 25 years about Iran. The way Iran can become a force in the world, and for the good of all Iranians, is through economic development and prosperity. Sadly, Iran has failed to develop and grow its economy, as it should have done. The country has wasted 30 years since the end of the Iran-Iraq War. Iran has not built the institutions it needs. Iran has not addressed corruption and waste. Iran will not become an economic giant if it does not develop a sensible long-term vision for the transformation of its economy and social system.
How do you assess Trump’s approach toward Iran? And what are the factors influencing his approach to Iran?
As I have said above, Trump will support the GCC. He will do this because the GCC has money and can pay. But I also believe do all he can to separate Iraq from Iran. Iraq will have to decide whether to ally itself with Iran or the US. This will increasingly become a difficult choice facing Iraq. The US may also want to reduce Iran’s influence in Lebanon.I am also afraid that Iran presents a good target for Trump. Iran is unpopular in the US. Iran is economically weak and cannot afford another war. The GCC would love to see Iran weakened. They are afraid that in 10 years Iran may be free to develop nuclear warheads. The GCC may see now the best time with Trump in the White House to reduce Iran’s influence in the region.
Hossein Askari is a professor of Business and International Affairs at George Washington University and a Huffington Post contributor.
Interview by: Javad Heirannia