After Iran Deal, Time for U.S. to Pamper Saudi Arabia

Since it's too rich to require military aid, Riyadh could demand diplomatic compensation – such as a concerted American effort to resolve the Palestinian question.

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In this May 7, 2015 file photo, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry shakes hands with Saudi Arabia's King Salman at the Royal Court, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Credit: AP
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Amr Moussa, former secretary general of the Arab League, managed to find a ray of light in the nuclear agreement with Iran. “The agreement will be a prologue to a Middle East free of nuclear weapons, especially those of Israel,” he said. Since the time Moussa was foreign minister of Egypt, he has had a dream – to remove Israel’s nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. But it seems that this dream will have to wait at least another 10 years until the fate of the agreement with Iran becomes clear, after it runs out.

But for Moussa, like for most leaders of Arab countries, there are more pressing concerns. Will Iran regard the agreement as legitimization for “Shi’ite control over the Sunni world”? Or, more practically, will Syrian President Bashar Assad, who rushed to congratulate Iran on signing the accord, now be assured of his continued hold on power? Will Turkey enjoy an economic and military bonanza? And mainly, how will Saudi Arabia deal with what it considers a threatening turning point in U.S. strategy?

The Iranian nuclear program created a Western-Arab coalition in which Israel was a silent partner. It also relied on a joint war against ISIS (Islamic State), but ISIS also served as an excuse for the anti-Iranian strategy of the Arab countries. The Arab concern is that the agreement will bring the United States closer to Iran and move it further away from the Arab alliance, and will in any case impact the efficacy of the war against ISIS.

The same is true for Syria. Before the agreement, it was clear that the United States would refrain from attacking the Syrian army so as not to harm nuclear negotiations with Iran. But in fact it is the signing of the agreement that is now the greatest barrier to military involvement in Syria. That is because the Western powers will take care not to give Iran a reason to upset the stability of the agreement, even at the price of Assad remaining in power.

Iran claims at every opportunity that there is no connection between the agreement and other issues – that is, to the war in Syria, Yemen or Iraq, nor to cooperation against ISIS. But there is no doubt that these issues came up in talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Jawad Zarif. It is not known whether Iran promised anything with regard to Syria, but when it now seeks power and legitimate partnership in the resolution of regional conflicts, it may be assumed that it will promote diplomacy between Syria, Russia, the United States and some of the rebel militias, to propose solutions that include Assad.

Dilemma for Turkey

Iran’s new status also poses a dilemma for Turkey, which on the one hand has tied itself in an alliance with Saudi Arabia in the war against Assad and against ISIS, but on the other hand will not want to give up the new market opening in Iran. Turkey will seek to develop its weapons export to Iran and increase gas imports from Iran. These being Turkey’s interests, the new alliance with Saudi Arabia could cool off, especially once Turkey realized that this alliance does not bring it closer to the Arab Middle East, or at least to Egypt, from which it was given the boot.

The kingdom’s fear, real or imagined, is that close ties with Iran could tempt the U.S. to create a new balance of power in the Middle East in which the Arab countries, particularly the Gulf states, lose their exclusivity in steering regional policy. Former Iranian President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani’s statement that it is not impossible for the U.S. embassy to reopen in Tehran is viewed with suspicion in Riyadh: as a sign that something has already been agreed on between Iran and the U.S..

Theoretically, Saudi Arabia has the option of turning to Russia or at least threatening the United States with such a strategy. But Russia cannot replace the United States, both because of Saudi Arabia military infrastructure, which relies on American weapons and warfare doctrines, and because of the deep ideological hostility between Saudi Arabia and the Soviet Union.

Saudi Arabia, which on Wednesday described the agreement as Iranian capitulation to the West, cannot be sure that the other Gulf states will hold to its anti-Iranian policies. The United Arab Emirates conveyed their congratulations to Tehran, Qatar has military and economic ties with Tehran, Kuwait presents itself as “neutral” and only Bahrain is worried over the foment of its Shi’ite majority by Iran.

In light of this fragile array, the U.S. will need to pamper Saudi Arabia to allay its fears. Saudi Arabia is not Israel that can be requited by a shipment of new aircraft and advanced technology; Saudi Arabia can buy anything it needs. It thus might demand a diplomatic achievement as compensation – for example, that the U.S invest the same efforts and pressures it did on Iran to resolve the Palestinian problem.

A Palestinian protester holds a Palestinian flag as she stands next to Israeli border police during clashes at a protest against Jewish settlements in the West Bank village of Bil'in, Feb. 27, 2015. (Reuters)

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