TEL AVIV – In his sit-down interview with the New York Times over the weekend, President Obama issued a dire, largely unreported prediction about the future of Saudi Arabia and other Sunni allies of the United States.
“I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading,” said Obama. “It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries.”
While the president’s remarks were mostly overlooked by the U.S. and Western media, the comments received headline coverage in news outlets run by Iran and by the Hezbollah jihadist organization.
Obama sat down Saturday with Times’ columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who asked about “protecting our Sunni Arab allies, like Saudi Arabia.”
Obama explained he thinks “that our friends in the region, our traditional Sunni states, have some very real external threats, but they also have some internal threats.”
He highlighted the “threat” of “populations that, in some cases, are alienated, youth that are underemployed, an ideology that is destructive and nihilistic, and in some cases, just a belief that there are no legitimate political outlets for grievances.”
“And so,” Obama said, “part of our job is to work with these states and say, ‘How can we build your defense capabilities against external threats, but also, how can we strengthen the body politic in these countries, so that Sunni youth feel that they’ve got something other than [ISIS] to choose from?’
“And that’s going to be a generation process … and ultimately it will be up to the societies to do that.”
Obama warned of a possible Arab Spring-style revolution in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and other Sunni-majority countries.
“I think the biggest threats that they face may not be coming from Iran invading. It’s going to be from dissatisfaction inside their own countries. … That’s a tough conversation to have, but it’s one that we have to have.”
And what about Iranians dissatisfied and disillusioned with the Shiite theocratic regime?
Obama told Friedman the best hope for democratic change in Iran is through the accomplishment of a final nuclear deal.
“But if we’re able to get this done,” he said, “then what may happen – and I’m not counting on it – but what may happen is that those forces inside of Iran that say, ‘We don’t need to view ourselves entirely through the lens of our war machine.’
“’Let’s excel in science and technology and job creation and developing our people,’ that those folks get stronger. … I say that emphasizing that the nuclear deal that we’ve put together is not based on the idea that somehow the regime changes.”
Obama was widely criticized in 2009 for not interfering when Iran brutalized civilian opposition protesters challenging the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who tallied nearly 60 percent amid widespread reports of vote irregularities.
While the U.S. and Western media largely glossed over Obama’s comments about a possible uprising in Sunni states, the remarks received top coverage in Iranian regime and Hezbollah-linked newspapers.
Al-Manar, a Lebanese satellite television station affiliated with Hezbollah, led with the headline “Obama to ’Gulf States’: Biggest Threat is from inside own Countries, not Iran.”
Al-Manar is banned in the U.S., France, Spain and Germany and was named by the State Department as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity.”
Iran’s state-run Press TV led with Obama’s remarks, reporting Obama “says what threatens the Arab governments is the increasing dissatisfaction inside their countries, not the growing influence of Iran in the region.”
The Tehran Times published the headline, “Obama says threat against Arabs comes from within not Iran.”
With additional research by Joshua Klein.