The Uncertain Path Ahead in the Middle East
The P5+1’s interim deal with Iran has set the stage for a gradual but uncertain normalization of diplomatic relations between Washington and Tehran. The much-hailed talks were certainly tense, but they were also ultimately productive: in return for loosened economic sanctions, Iran accepted stricter monitoring of its burgeoning nuclear program—a major victory for the Western Powers. The future remains uncertain, but the willingness of both sides to negotiate—particularly Iran’s willingness to limit the potency, if you will, of its enriched uranium, down to 5% from the previous norm for the country of 20%—gives onlookers reason to be optimistic in their outlook on future relations between the two powers.
Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has been less-than-supportive of the aforementioned negotiations, having been kept in the dark by the US about them initially. Countering Iranian influence in region is a central pillar of Saudi foreign policy, and the Kingdom is becoming more and more concerned with the expansion of Iranian power. In the last year, Saudi defense spending increased to 18.6%, compared to the 7-9% yearly increases between 2008 and 2011. Although it was denied, during an official to Islamabad in mid-February Saudi Arabia’s crown prince conveyed a request for Pakistani troops to deploy to the Gulf state. Given the speculation that if Iran goes nuclear, Saudi Arabia would follow with Pakistani help (either by transferring the technology or the weapons themselves), the request for Pakistani troop deployments is even more troubling than the increase in defense spending.
Yet Riyadh’s actions are not without explanation: the Saudis have lost faith in their alliance with the United States, which has been their guarantor of security for decades. This breach of security is only heightened by the protests of the Arab Spring (which demonstrated the instability of regional autocracies to popular uprisings).Having seen the US so easily abandon its longtime ally, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Riyadh is understandably worried that it will also receive no support in a similar situation. With a sizable Shiite minority, the Kingdom has reason to fear internal unrest, especially if it were stoked by Iranian support.
Meanwhile, US actions have only heightened the perception that it is turning away from the region and its allies. Normalization with Tehran is seen as a part of a US drawdown to its regional presence. What else can Riyadh think when the Obama administration originally called its grand strategy a “pivot to Asia”—a poor title choice if you’re looking to keep up good relations with your allies anywhere besides East Asia. In response to Washington’s conciliatory approach toward Iran, Saudi Arabia went so far as to reject a seat in the U.N. Security Council.
To add to the Saudi's frustration, the US has, at least so far, avoided providing any significant degree of support for anti-Assad forces in Syria (largely due to their justified fears that weapons and resources would end up in the hands of jihadist forces). The decision to back down from punitive strikes after the Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons, in favor of a Russian-brokered chemical disarmament plan, only served to further alienate the Saudis. Now Saudi Arabia is unilaterally supporting Sunni groups, including hardline Salafist fighters, against the Syrian regime—much to Washington’s dismay.
The traditional balance of power of the entire region is shifting. Saudi Arabia’s authority is based solely on its robust oil exports to the US, and thus their power is beginning to wane in face of America’s shale oil revolution and Iran's rapidly-increasing oil exports. With reduced sanctions, Iran’s oil industry will be able to expand its export capacity, possibly leading to lower oil prices than Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States would be willing to accept. Meanwhile, Riyadh must confront expanding Iranian influence in the Shia Crescent (a land mass that includes Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon) that has grown in the last decade.
Washington must take Riyadh’s strategic concerns seriously, even if it chooses to shift—I mean pivot—to East Asia. The United States may not be highly dependent on Middle Eastern oil—as it once was—but the growing East and Southeast Asian economies are. Across the globe, US alliances are, in part, based on the assumption that Washington is a reliable partner that will back up its allies. Its alleged failure to inform Riyadh of negotiations with Tehran is puzzling given Saudi Arabia’s close alliance with the United States. To be sure, the diplomatic track with Iran was the right move. If Iran was indeed planning on building a nuclear weapon, Washington has exchanged air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities—which would be ineffective as more permanent, long-term diplomatic solution (assuming Iran keeps its end of the bargain). Even Saudi Arabia has at least publicly praised the interim deal.
Nevertheless, going forward, the US needs to demonstrate its commitment to the region, including its assistance in checking Iranian influence. The Iran deal and Syria remain areas of contention between Washington and Riyadh, but they also provide opportunities for cooperation, because the core issue—stopping the growth of Iran’s regional power—remains an interest to both Saudi Arabia and America. We cannot make a habit of abandoning our friends, for, as distasteful as some might find working with Riyadh, the Saudis have been reliable allies for the United States in many areas, including anti-terrorism operations. Reconciling often differeing political goals in the region requires good diplomacy, and the understanding that both sides may have to meet in the middle. If the United States can sit down with the Iranians, it can certainly keep talking with the Saudis. The planned fence-mending trip to Saudi Arabia in March is a good start to rekindling that alliance, and should be followed by concrete commitments to Gulf Security like cooperation on ballistic missile defense (as suggested by US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel).