by Thomas W. Lippman
A dozen or so of your basic Washington types — lobbyists, consultants, think-tankers — were talking with a U.S. senator the other day about the linkages between energy, foreign policy, and national security. The conversation would not have gone down well in Riyadh.
If there was one point of consensus, it was that it is in U.S. economic and strategic interests to forge a working relationship with Iran, a more sophisticated, potentially more congenial and ultimately more important country than Saudi Arabia will ever be. Nobody suggested that the United States should abandon its longtime commitment to Saudi security, or believed that a deal with Iran will be easy to reach, but everyone, including the senator, agreed that sustained, long-term hostility between Washington and Tehran is not good for the United States.
That kind of thinking among Americans inspires anxiety among the Saudis and is eroding their confidence in U.S. assurances. Beneath all the noise about the kingdom’s rejection of a U.N. Security Council seat that it had labored for years to get, it is clear that the principal driver of Saudi security decision-making these days is fear of Iran.
The Saudis see Iranian troublemaking all around them: in Iran’s support for the Assad regime in Syrian, in its backing of the Hezbollah Shiite militia in Lebanon, in its influence over the Maliki government in Iraq, in its suspected instigation of anti-government protests in Bahrain, in its support — real or imaginary — for dissident Shiites in the kingdom’s Eastern Province, and in the threat posed by Iranian gunboats to critical Saudi oil and water installations on the Gulf coast.
This is why the Saudis are so determined to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria and so dismayed by President Obama’s decision not to take military action against the Assad regime; King Abdullah loathes Assad, but, beyond that, Riyadh believes that Assad’s fall would break apart the network of alliances that Tehran has forged all through the region. It is also, according to Saudi officials, the basis of their apprehension about a possible U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement. Riyadh fears that the United States will accept a rapprochement with Iran based solely on the nuclear issue, an outcome that in Riyadh’s view would only enhance Iran’s ability to throw its weight around the region because Tehran would be free of some of the crippling economic sanctions imposed against it over the nuclear standoff. The combination of an unconstrained Iran and survival of its ally Assad would be a nightmare for the Saudis.
In a recent speech in Washington, Prince Turki al-Faisal, the kingdom’s former ambassador to the United States, went so far as to criticize what he said was President Obama’s “open arms approach” Iran. That idea is, to be blunt, ridiculous. The president and all his senior foreign policy officials have stressed that any rapprochement is far in the future and that it will be forged, if at all, only the basis of wide-ranging assurance of Iranian good behavior, in addition to restraints on its nuclear program. Other than the America-Firsters and pro-Israel absolutists of the political right, Americans generally welcome the possibility of better relations with Iran, but nobody advocates giving away the store.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry addressed this concern head-on after meeting in Riyadh with King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal earlier this week. “The first topic is nuclear,” he said, but that is not the only topic. “We are well aware of Iran’s activities in the region. Obviously, we Americans have never forgotten what happened with Khobar Towers. We know that there were plots involving the ambassador from Saudi Arabia to the United States. We are well aware of other activities, and they concern us. It concerns us that Iran has personnel on the ground in Syria. It concerns us that Hezbollah is active in conjunction with Iran’s support. But the first step is the nuclear step, which we hope will open the door to the possibility to be able to deal with those [other issues.]”
That phraseology is unlikely to have reassured the Saudis. Like the Israelis, they fear that Iran will keep the current round of negotiations with the P5 + 1 going as long as possible and use the time gained to achieve nuclear-weapons capability. But if that Tehran’s plan, it only becomes more urgent to pursue the nuclear negotiations to ascertain Iran’s true intentions, without cluttering up the discussions with extraneous issues such as the role of Hezbollah in Syria. Those matters are important, but as Kerry said, it would be easier to address them if the nuclear issue were resolved.