by Thomas W. Lippman
Shortly after President Obama’s startling telephone conversation with Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, a Saudi Arabian journalist wrote that “The phone call between Obama and Rouhani shocked the Gulf states, Jordan, Turkey, Israel, and other countries.” No matter which president initiated the call, he wrote, “What is important to know is what stands behind the conversation and how deep the ties are between America and Iran.”
Never mind that there are no “ties” between Washington and Tehran, let alone “deep” ones. His article reflected concern among Saudis that the United States might negotiate some wide-ranging settlement of its issues with Iran and that any such deal would automatically be detrimental to Saudi interests.
Such anxiety has surfaced in Riyadh many times over the past two decades, dating to Madeleine Albright’s unsuccessful efforts to reach out to Iran when she was secretary of state in Bill Clinton’s second term. No doubt many prominent Saudis share the journalist’s sentiment, not just in the ruling family but in the Sunni religious establishment. In their short-sighted view, regional security is a zero-sum game: if it benefits Iran, it must be bad for Saudi Arabia. To this group, as the authors of a major RAND Corp. study noted in 2009, “the prospect of U.S.-Iranian rapprochement (or even near-term coordination on Iraq) would appear to jeopardize the privileged position Riyadh has long enjoyed in Gulf affairs.”
Since that study appeared, Saudi antipathy to Iran has only increased. Iran’s growing influence in Iraq, its all-out support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and for Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its perceived instigation of civil unrest in Bahrain have exacerbated Saudi anxieties and reinforced the kingdom’s determination to keep Iran isolated and economically constrained. At the same time, the Saudi perception that the United States abandoned Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, a longtime ally, and might do the same to them if regional circumstances changed, has led some Saudis to doubt the long-term reliability of the United States as anchor of the kingdom’s security. Their doubts were not alleviated when panelists at a Gulf security conference in Washington earlier this year projected a reversal of the regional alignment over the coming decade, with Iran emerging as more friendly to the United States and Saudi Arabia less so.
The Saudis have also been peeved about the inability of the United States to deliver on its commitment to a two-state solution that would end the Arab-Israeli conflict. That diplomatic stalemate has allowed Iran, which refuses to acknowledge Israel’s existence and openly supports Hezbollah, to present itself to the Arab world as the true champion of justice for the Palestinians, as opposed to the Saudis, who have offered a comprehensive plan for peace with Israel.
Furthermore, the Saudis went all-in to try to engineer the ouster of Assad, believing that they were in tune with U.S. policy. Now they may be feeling exposed as the United States and Russia appear to be pursuing a different course.
And it is certainly true that many of Saudi Arabia’s leading officials, including some diplomats in the foreign ministry, harbor a deep loathing for, and suspicion of, all things Shia. A softer U.S. line on Iran would not make those Saudis more comfortable in the bilateral relationship.
Moreover, the Rouhani initiative, assuming it is genuine rather than cosmetic, coincides with a growing realization in Saudi Arabia that the United States is becoming steadily less dependent on Gulf oil. Could the Obama administration’s announced shift of strategic resources to Asia presage a reduction of U.S. commitments in the Gulf? Senior U.S. officials say no: Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said a few months ago that “You can take it to the bank” that the U.S. will maintain its posture in the Gulf for the foreseeable future.
Thus, recent reports of anxiety in Riyadh about a possible shift in relations between Washington and Tehran were predictable, and may well have some basis in fact.
But there are also Saudis who understand that a better relationship between Washington and Tehran might actually benefit the kingdom. After all, the two countries shared a strategic alignment with the United States before the Iranian revolution. In that era, Iran was far more powerful than Saudi Arabia militarily and economically, but the Saudis did not perceive it as a strategic threat, partly because it was influenced by the United States and partly because Saddam Hussein’s Iraq provided a protective buffer — a buffer that the United States dismantled with its invasion of Iraq a decade ago.
Even during the past decade, when tensions were high over Lebanon, Bahrain, Iraq and other issues, the Saudis and Iranians found ways to work cooperatively when it was in the interests of both countries. “Such calculations often take place independently of U.S. pressure or encouragement,” the RAND report noted, adding that in past times of tension with Washington the Saudis have been more flexible, rather than less so, in their regional rivalries.
“With the ‘moderation’ discourse strengthened during the presidency of recently elected Hassan Rouhani, pragmatism will be enhanced in Iran’s regional policy,” the columnist Kayhan Barzegar, an experienced analyst of Gulf affairs, predicted in the online magazine al-Monitor after Rouhani was inaugurated. “This development will weaken the existing ‘mutual threat’ perception between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is rooted primarily in the policies of both countries in response to regional issues. Such a development will also consequently strengthen relations between the two. Iran and Saudi Arabia are not interested in an intensification of sectarian or geostrategic regional rivalries. They are well aware that such rivalries will eventually be instrumentalized and used politically, draining energy from both sides. The result will be increased instability and growth of extremist trends in their backyard. Conflict between the two also provides an opportunity for other rival actors, such as Turkey and Qatar, to play an active role in regional issues at their expense, such as happened with the Syrian crisis, which is not currently welcomed by the Iranians or the Saudis.”
In fact, there are several ways in which a lessening of tensions between Iran and the United States could actually benefit Saudi Arabia. To achieve some form of rapprochement with the United States now, Iran would be required to forgo definitively any attempt to build or acquire nuclear weapons — a development that could hardly be depicted as detrimental to Saudi interests. The United States would also press Iran to curtail the aggressive policies that have destabilized the region for years. If Iran’s leaders truly want relief from international economic sanctions, they will have to persuade the countries that imposed them that they will be good neighbors to Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states. Would that not assuage some of the security concerns that have prompted Saudi Arabia to spend tens of billions of dollars on new U.S. weapons?
If Iran were to curtail its support for Hezbollah in order to improve relations with Washington and the West, it might forfeit its position as “more Arab than the Arabs” on the issue of Israel, another development that could be to Saudi Arabia’s advantage.
And Saudi Arabia’s Gulf neighbors such as Qatar might no longer feel the need to hedge their bets by keeping some distance between themselves and Saudi Arabia and maintaining correct relations with Iran, thus facilitating Saudi Arabia’s desire to exert the regional leadership to which it feels entitled.
On a visit to South Asia when she was secretary of state, Albright chided the Pakistanis for opposing a U.S. initiative to expand economic ties with India. The initiative was not aimed at undermining Pakistan, she said, and might actually be helpful if an expanding Indian economy brought greater cross-border trade.
The Pakistanis didn’t buy it, but that did not diminish the validity of her message. It might be useful now for Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry to explain to the Saudis that any deal with Iran will be a long time in the making and will not damage U.S. ties with Riyadh unless the Saudis want it that way.