November 29, 2013 | Foreign Policy

Fear and Loathing in the Kingdom

Pundits and policymakers are missing the big worry about the Obama administration's Iranian nuclear deal: its greatest impact is not ensuring that Iran doesn't get the bomb, but that the Saudis will. 

Indeed, the risk of arms race in the Middle East — on a nuclear hair trigger — just went up rather dramatically. And it increasingly looks like the coming Sunni-Shiite war will be nuclearized.

Two aspects of the agreement, in particular, will consolidate Saudi fears that an Iranian bomb is now almost certainly coming to a theater near them. First, the pre-emptive concession that the comprehensive solution still to be negotiated will leave Iran with a permanent capability to enrich uranium — the key component of any program to develop nuclear weapons. In the blink of an eye, and without adequate notice or explanation to key allies who believe their national existence hangs in the balance, the United States appears to have fatally compromised the long-standing, legally-binding requirements of at least five United Nations Security Council resolutions. If the Saudis needed any confirmation that last month's rejection of a Security Council seat was merited — on grounds that U.S. retrenchment has rendered the organization not just irrelevant, but increasingly dangerous to the kingdom's core interests — they just got it, in spades.

Second, the agreement suggests that even the comprehensive solution will be time-limited. In other words, whatever restrictions are eventually imposed on Iran's nuclear program won't be permanent. The implication is quite clear: At a point in time still to be negotiated (three years, five, ten?) and long after the international sanctions regime has been dismantled, the Islamic Republic of Iran's nuclear program will be left unshackled, free to enjoy the same rights under the Non-Proliferation Treaty as any other member in good standing. That looks an awful lot like a license to one day build an industrial-size nuclear program, if Iran so chooses, with largely unlimited ability to enrich uranium and reprocess plutonium, a la Japan.

But of course Iran is not Japan — a peaceful, stable democracy aligned with the West. It is a bloody-minded, terror-sponsoring, hegemony-seeking revisionist power that has serially violated its non-proliferation commitments and which aims to destroy Israel, drive America out of the Middle East, and bring down the House of Saud.

Whether or not President Obama fully appreciates that distinction, the Saudis most definitely do.

Of course, Saudi concerns extend well beyond the four corners of last week's agreement. For Riyadh, Iran's march toward the bomb is only the most dangerous element — the coup de grace in its expanding arsenal, if you will — of an ongoing, region-wide campaign to overturn the Middle East's existing order in favor of one dominated by Tehran. The destabilization and weakening of Saudi Arabia is absolutely central to that project, and in Saudi eyes has been manifested in a systematic effort by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to extend its influence and tentacles near and far, by sowing violence, sabotage, terror, and insurrection — in Bahrain, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and most destructively of all, in the IRGC's massive intervention to abet the slaughter in Syria and salvage the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Fairly or not, from the Saudi perspective, the nuclear deal not only ignores these central elements of the existential challenge that Iran poses to the kingdom's well-being, it threatens to greatly exacerbate them by elevating and legitimizing the Islamic Republic's claim to great power status. As surely as Obama's chemical weapons deal with Syria implicitly green-lighted the intensification of the Assad regime's murder machine, so, too, the Saudis fear, a nuclear deal with the mullahs will grant a free hand — if not an implicit American imprimatur — to the long-standing Iranian quest for regional supremacy that, to Saudi minds, won't end until it reaches Mecca and Medina.  

It should be said that Saudi paranoia about being sacrificed on the altar of a U.S.-Iranian deal is nothing new. But the fact is that, today, the Saudis look around and believe they've got more reasons than ever before to think that they're largely on their own.

As the saying goes, even paranoids have enemies. On one issue after another that they've deemed absolutely vital to their interests — Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and now Iran — the Saudis view the Obama administration as having been at best indifferent to their most urgent concerns, and at worst openly hostile. To Saudi minds, a very clear and dangerous pattern has now been conclusively established. And its defining characteristic is not pretty at all to behold: the selling out of longtime allies, even betrayal. Indeed, the Saudi listen to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rail against the Iran deal and realize that even Israel, by leaps and bounds America's foremost friend in the Middle East, is not immune. And they wonder where in the world does that leave them. How do you say “screwed” in Arabic?

The crisis of confidence in the reliability, purposes, and competence of American power has reached an all-time high. The Saudis have taken due note of National Security Advisor Susan Rice's declaration that “there's a whole world out there” beyond the Middle East that needs attention, and her predecessor's lament that the United States had “over-invested” in the region. The kingdom has become increasingly convinced that there's a method to Obama's madness, a systematic effort to reduce America's exposure and involvement in the region's conflicts, to downsize Washington's role and leadership, to retrench and, yes, to retreat.

Whatever the reason — a weak and unprincipled president, a tired and fed up population, a broken economy and dysfunctional politics, growing energy independence (the Saudis cite all these and more) — there's a growing conviction in Riyadh that the United States has run dangerously short of breath when it comes to standing by its allies in the Middle East. Obama wants out. Face-saving deals on issues like Syria and Iran that are designed not to resolve the region's most dangerous problems, but rather to defer them from exploding until he's safely out of office are the order of the day — Saudi vital interests be damned … or so they fear.  

It must be noted that the breach in trust has become intensely personal. The Saudi dismay with Obama and his chief lieutenants is hard to overstate at this point. Secretary of State John Kerry in particular has become a target of derision. In the days immediately following the Assad regime's Aug. 21 chemical weapons attack, the phone calls between Kerry and senior Saudi leaders apparently ran fast and furious. Proof that Syria had smashed Obama's red line on chemical weapons was overwhelming, Kerry assured his interlocutors. A U.S. attack to punish the Assad regime was a sure thing. The Saudis were ecstatic, convinced that at long last Obama was prepared to get off the sidelines and decisively shift the conflict's trajectory in favor of the West and against Iran. Intelligence, war planning and targeting information were allegedly exchanged. Hints abound that the Saudis were ginned up not only to help finance the operation, but to participate actively with planes and bombs of their own. King Abdullah is rumored to have ordered relevant ministries to prepare to go to the Saudi equivalent of DEFCON 2, the level just short of war.

Then, on Aug. 31, the Saudis turned on CNN, expecting to watch President Obama announce the imminent enforcement of his red-line — only to see him flinch by handing the decision off to Congress. The Saudis were enraged, dumbfounded, and convinced that Kerry had deliberately deceived and misled them. Told that Kerry himself had been caught largely unaware by Obama's decision, the Saudis were hardly mollified. A liar or an irrelevancy? Either one was disastrous from their perspective.

Unfortunately, the routine has repeated itself several times since — on one issue after another considered critical to Saudi interests. Hence: Riyadh learned about the U.S.-Russia deal on Syria's chemical weapons from CNN. Riyadh learned about Obama's decision to suspend large chunks of military assistance to Egypt from CNN. And two weeks ago, Riyadh learned that the P5+1 was on the verge of signing an initial (and from its perspective, very bad) deal with Iran from CNN — even though Kerry had just been in Saudi Arabia earlier that week in an effort to contain at least some of the fallout from the Syria fiasco. Instead, he ended up doubling down on the breach. Detailed revelations in recent days that for the better part of a year, the Obama administration has beenengaged in secret bilateral talks with Iran that it sought to keep hidden from its allies — while merely adding detail to what the Saudis had already suspected from their own sources — will no doubt only further stoke the kingdom's fears that the fix is in between Washington and the mullahs.

An atmosphere this poisonous is dangerous, to say the least. The incentive for the Saudis to engage in all kinds of self-help that Washington would find less than beneficial, even destructive, is significant and rising. Driven into a corner, feeling largely abandoned by their traditional superpower patron, no one should doubt that the Saudis will do what they believe is necessary to ensure their survival. It would be a mistake to underestimate their capacity to deliver some very unpleasant surprises: from the groups they feel compelled to support in their escalating proxy war with Iran, to the price of oil, to their sponsorship (and bankrolling) of a much expanded regional role for Russia and China at America's expense. Convincing ourselves that the Saudis will bitch and moan, but in the end prove powerless to act in ways that harm key U.S. interests would be a very risky strategy.

Which brings us to the question of the Saudi bomb. King Abdullah has been unequivocal with a series of high-level interlocutors going back several years: If Iran gets the bomb, we get the bomb. There's not much artifice to the man. He's been clear. He's been consistent. He's not known to bluff. And I believe him.

Whether or not all the stories about the longstanding arrangements with the Pakistani nuclear program are true, there's enough of a link there that no one should be too shocked if we wake up next week, next month, or next year to discover that a small nuclear arsenal has suddenly shown up in the Saudi order of battle. If the prospect of an Israel-Iran nuclear standoff doesn't quite get your pulse to racing, how do you feel about adding a Saudi-Iran standoff to the mix?

Think of two nuclear powers eyeball to eyeball across the Strait of Hormuz — with religious hatreds boiling over, ballistic missile flight times measured in minutes, and command and control protocols, well, less than robust. Even short of a nuclear exchange, what do you think that would do to the price premium on a barrel of oil? Can anyone say “instant global recession”?

That's clearly the direction we're headed, and it's my hunch that the Iran deal has pushed the day of reckoning dangerously closer. I don't know if it's possible at this late date to walk the Saudis back from the ledge. But the Obama administration should try. I think the place to start, and rapidly, is with the Saudi national security advisor and intelligence chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan. Formerly Riyadh's ambassador to Washington, Bandar is now clearly the tip of the spear in King Abdullah's efforts to combat the Iranian threat around the region — not to mention the principal point of contact in the kingdom's thick relationship with Pakistan's military and intelligence establishment. He's been in virtually every major international capital in recent months — with the notable exception of Washington. That alone speaks volumes of how much the situation has deteriorated. President Obama personally needs to get Bandar in the Oval Office as quickly as possible for a very frank discussion about the strategic situation in all its complexities — and what the United States and Saudi Arabia, together, can do about it. At this point, no one else but the commander-in-chief stands a chance of convincing the Saudis that more desperate measures are not called for.  

Exactly what Obama would have to say to make the sale is another matter. On the nuclear deal, he'd have to be able to guarantee that any follow-on agreement would, at a minimum, see Iran compelled to accept a massive roll-back of its existing capabilities — as close to zero as possible — as well as a specially-designed, highly-intrusive verification regime. And should Iran reject that bottom-line, the president would have to be equally convincing that he's prepared to walk away from a bad deal and use force decisively to dismantle the most dangerous elements of the Iranian program. Should it come to that, and as a mark of his seriousness, he might broach the range of important contributions the Saudis could make to such an effort — including managing global oil markets and Arab public opinion, basing and over-flight rights, financing, and direct military participation.

On the broader Iranian regional challenge, Syria is absolutely central for the Saudis. The president would need to be able to say something new and compelling about a genuine shift in U.S. strategy, one seriously committed to working with the kingdom to change the balance of power on the ground against the Assad regime and its Iranian backers, while marginalizing al Qaeda. Obama also be well-served by a serious discussion of Saudi regional priorities, and ways that Washington is prepared to cooperate with Riyadh in a sustained and careful way to advance our common interests — in weakening Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Iran's influence in Iraq.

The chances that President Obama will be prepared to do any of this, I admit, are slim to none. Doing what comes as second-nature to Iran's leaders — fighting and negotiating with your enemy at the same — is just not in his DNA. Moreover, it would be completely contrary to his broader strategic purpose of extricating the United States from what he sees as the Middle East morass. The fact is that Obama thinks he's on the right track. If that makes the Saudis uncomfortable, if it forces them to adjust and take matters more into their own hands, so be it. To his mind, there's really not much that they can do without shooting themselves in the foot. At the end of the day, Obama believes, the Saudis know that they need us far more than we need them, and will act accordingly. At most, a pat on the head, a few vague reassurances that we take their concerns seriously, and a promise to consult more frequently on key issues will suffice to keep them quiet and in line.

I hope he's right. But I strongly suspect that he may be wrong and that we all could be in for a rude awakening at some point. My fear is that in a few years time, we will look back and conclude that President Obama — who came to office with the lofty ambition of restoring America's standing with the Arab world and strengthening the global non-proliferation regime — has instead done extensive damage to both causes that will be difficult, if not impossible, to repair in short order, and will come at a very, very high price in blood, treasure, and U.S. interests. If that's the case, we're in for a very rocky road, indeed. Buckle up.

John Hannah is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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