Saudi Arabia, concerned by the looming nuclear deal between Iran and international powers, is charting a new and unusually robust course aimed at checking what it sees as the Islamic Republic’s expansion of influence across the Middle East.
The recent Saudi assertiveness, under Saudi Arabia’s new monarch, King Salman, is also a reflection of discontent with what it sees as the cautious approach of the United States to multiple crises roiling the Middle East, particularly in Syria.
Saudi Arabia’s “read” on the Middle East and Iran strengthens the impression that the US and one of its most important allies are out of step at a pivotal moment for the region, with increasingly diverging agendas.
“The main preoccupation in Saudi Arabia under Salman is Iran,” says Dennis Ross, a former Middle East adviser to President Barack Obama. “The preoccupation with Iran means that … when the US is taking a minimalist position [on Syria], we now see the Saudis adopting a position where their attitude is, ‘We are going to have to do more things on our own.’ ”
Since King Salman assumed the throne in January, the desert kingdom has spearheaded a coalition of nine nations against Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The coalition's aerial bombing campaign has left more than 2,600 people dead since it began in March.
Saudi Arabia also has set aside differences with Qatar and Turkey over Syria policy. That has led to enhanced coordination among rebel groups and territorial gains for the opposition in the north and south of Syria, placing the regime of President Bashar al-Assad under its stiffest pressure in three years.
Perhaps, the most telling sign of Saudi displeasure with Iran is the recent revelation that Saudi Arabia and Israel have been holding secret talks since the beginning of 2014 to discuss their common enemy.
“We are not against Iran, but we are against the regime of Iran, the policy of Iran, because it wants to revive the Persian empire,” said Anwar Eshki, a retired Saudi general who heads the Middle East Institute for Strategic and Legal Studies in Jeddah, speaking at a recent forum organized by the Brookings-Doha Center in Qatar.
Are Saudi fears exaggerated?
On June 4, Mr. Eshki and Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, revealed the secret Saudi-Israeli dialogue during an event at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
But Nasser Hadian, professor of political science at Tehran University, says the Saudi misgivings over Iran are misplaced and exaggerated.
“The Saudis are basically challenging us in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, but we are not challenging Saudi Arabia in those countries because we don’t see them as a threat,” he says.
The six Arab countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Mr. Hadian adds, “have the support of a superpower [the US], all the weaponry, the oil resources … why do [they] seem to feel vulnerability?”
Iran and the so-called P5+1 international powers are approaching a June 30 deadline to reach a historic deal over Tehran’s nuclear program, though last-minute wrangling suggests the negotiations will continue into July. The deal being negotiated in Vienna seeks to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear arsenal in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions that have crippled its economy.
Will Iran choose butter over guns?
But the Saudis and their allies in the Arab Gulf fear that a cash windfall from the lifting of sanctions following a nuclear deal will embolden Iran to pursue an aggressive foreign policy agenda in the Arab world.
US officials, however, argue that Iran’s leaders face domestic pressure to use the sanctions relief to rebuild the shattered economy rather than fund expansionist policies across the region.
Colin Kahl, the national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden, said in a speech in Doha that for now “butter is likely to take precedence over guns” in terms of Iranian spending after a nuclear deal is reached.
“Where Iran persists in its destabilizing activities or chooses to escalate them further, we will continue to push back and defend our allies and partners,” Mr. Kahl said.
But many in the Arab Gulf are skeptical of such assurances. They point to the Obama administration’s reluctance to support Syrian rebel groups, while Iran has invested billions of dollars in Syria and deployed thousands of Shiite fighters from Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan to help prop up the ailing Assad regime.
Nuclear deal as top US priority
In Iraq, the US and Iran may have differing long-term objectives, but for now they appear as tacit allies in helping the Iraqi government roll back the advances made over the past year by the ruthless Islamic State.
There is a widespread assumption across much of the Middle East that the Obama administration places its desire to reach a nuclear deal with Iran above the interests of its traditional regional partners.
“We see the United States pursue a nuclear deal with a lot of vigor, but we do not see vigor pursued on the other issues,” which the US sees as a “nuisance at best,” said Marwan Muasher, the former Jordanian foreign minister.
Still, it remains to be seen for how long Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Sunni Arab world will maintain their unity and resolve in confronting Iran. The Saudi-led campaign in Yemen has failed to defeat the Houthis, who remain in control of the capital, Sanaa, and the port city of Aden in the south.
In Syria, there are indications that the Assad regime could withdraw in the coming months to a more defendable line that incorporates Damascus and the coastal region, posing a tougher obstacle for Syrian rebel groups and potentially leading to a de facto partition of the country.