President Obama’s Friday telephone call with Iranian president Hassan Rouhani—the first at such a level in over three decades—has exacerbated existing problems between the United States and its Saudi ally. Now we learn that Saudi Arabia cancelled its address at the United Nations, evidently in protest at recent shifts in U.S. policy.
The Saudi royal family has seen Iran as a threat to their survival ever since 1979, when Iranian leaders began encouraging Shi’ite communities in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich Eastern Province to rebel. Subsequently, the Kingdom has been engaged in a regional battle for influence with Iran, and the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq removed a traditional counterweight to Iranian power. Sunni rulers now fear a Shi’ite crescent stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean—and possibly south into the Arab Gulf states.
Fearing Iranian advances, the Kingdom spearheaded a 2011 military intervention by the Gulf Cooperation Council that was designed to rescue the minority Sunni regime in Bahrain from its Shi’ite opposition. But of late, Syria has been the biggest regional source of conflict between Riyadh and Tehran. Saudi officials insist that Syria’s Assad regime is guilty of genocide, and they see Iran’s efforts to rescue Assad as aiding and abetting this slaughter.
The Saudis were therefore incensed when the U.S. backed away from launching a military strike against the regime in Damascus. President Obama’s telephone diplomacy, part of a broader effort to reach an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.
Although Israeli sources said that PM Netanyahu would singlehandedly “spoil the party” on Iran at the United Nations, his concerns are actually shared by America’s Arab allies, especially in the Gulf. While Oman facilitated the recent contact between Washington and Iran, the administration has privately received warnings or complaints on this issue from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt.
Like Israel, these countries fear that drawn-out negotiations or even an agreement could allow Iran to achieve a nuclear breakout capacity. Regardless, they oppose sanctions relief so long as Iran continues to threaten them with terrorism or political subversion. The Saudi reaction—cancelling an opportunity to address the world community—may be the most blunt articulation of those concerns to date, perhaps trumping even Netanyahu’s tough UN speech.
Of course, the U.S. should not predicate its foreign policy on trying to keep the government of Saudi Arabia happy. However, it is important to recognize that the current diplomatic effort to engage Iran may come at the expense of our relations with the Saudis.
There are several ways the Saudis could respond to this latest challenge. One possibility is to grumble but ultimately give in, recognizing at the end of the day that they depend upon us for regime survival. However, cancelling their address to the UNGA is probably a sign Riyadh is not prepared to let the latest dispute blow over.
Another possibility is for Saudi Arabia to decrease its dependence on the U.S. alliance, either in a fit of anger or as a cold-blooded strategic calculation. The Saudis might turn to Europe or Asia for future military sales or energy transactions. They may also revisit their posture on Syria, arming more extreme rebel groups and sending weapons that the U.S. opposes such as MANPADS.
But paradoxically, a third possibility is for the Kingdom to cut its own limited deal with Tehran. Although the Saudis’ enmity toward Iran runs deep—and involves a prominent sectarian dimension—they have responded this way before when U.S. overtures toward Iran left them feeling exposed.
For instance, when the Clinton administration reached out to Iran’s Khatami government in late 1990s, the Saudis signed their own cooperation agreement with the Iranians and obstructed an FBI investigation into the Khobar bombings because its results would implicate Tehran. During the George W. Bush administration, Condoleezza Rice said the U.S. had trouble engaging Saudi Arabia and other Gulf allies on regional cooperation at two key moments: when the U.S. decided to talk with Iran over the future of Iraq, and after the release of the controversial 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that let Iran’s nuclear program off the hook. Following the 2007 NIE, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah invited Ahmadinejad to visit the Kingdom for Hajj, even while privately browbeating U.S. officials to bomb Iran’s reactors.
However far-fetched such a scenario may currently seem, it is not out of the question. Rouhani played a personal role in negotiating the 1998 Iranian-Saudi agreement to expand economic cooperation, including in the energy sector. Since coming to power, he has also described rapprochement with Saudi Arabia as a top priority since coming to power. Although Iranian officials on Tuesday ruled out the possibility, there had even been speculation that Rouhani would be visiting Mecca for the Hajj this month.
In short, the Saudis are deeply unsettled by America’s recent policy shifts on Syria and Iran. In the wake of President Obama’s historic phone call with Rouhani, White House officials worked over the weekend to reassure Arab allies that their interests will factor into any potential diplomacy with Iran. Evidently, more reassurance will be needed if we want to keep the Saudis onboard.
David Andrew Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He previously served as a Democratic Professional Staff Member at the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.