Will Saudi Spoil American-Iranian Détente?

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By Burgan Hobbs
October 10, 2013
Washington DC – Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, may be seeking to end hostilities with the U.S. through a charm offensive of statements and tweets. The new president is trying to break the deadlock on the nuclear issue and restore Iran’s relations with the West. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has issued unprecedented statements that he does not oppose diplomatic compromise and supports flexibility in U.S. relations. Barack Obama and Hassan Rouhani were not able to have a face to face meeting at the UN annual session, but an exchange of letters and a telephone conversation is an important step, if only a symbolic one. After nearly 35 years of political estrangement, direct public bilateral negotiations would constitute a major milestone in U.S.-Iranian relations. Yet, do recent events indicate a likely rapprochement between the two major power brokers in the Middle East? It may be too early to tell if recent overtures will lead toward normalization in the long-term, but it in the short-term it will become apparent how any normalization between the U.S. and Iran complicates the U.S.-Saudi relationship.
Iran’s Motives
Iran’s recent overtures could be a tactical shift to address its struggling economy and not a strategic shift in its foreign policy outlook. Iran firmly believes that the U.S. is committed to affecting regime change to end the revolution. Regime change in Iraq and Libya looms heavily for Khamenei. Both Saddam and Qaddafi gave up their WMD programs, ended up without a nuclear capability, and were attacked and deposed. From Tehran’s perspective, economic sanctions are part of a broader U.S. strategy and not just a response to its nuclear ambitions. The nuclear program is a bargaining chip which if given up, could lead Iran to a similar fate as Iraq or Libya. Khamenei views U.S. policy as a reconstituted plan to destroy the Islamic Republic through political and economic pressures, just as it did the Soviet Union. Diplomacy and negotiation over Iran’s nuclear program, however encouraging, will not alter longstanding ideological and geopolitical dichotomies.
Saudi Distress
For Saudi Arabia, the prospect of a U.S.-Iranian rapprochement is viewed through a zero-sum lens. The Saudi calculus is driven by a deep fear of expanding Iranian influence. To the oil rich Gulf state, regional security issues can scarcely be disentangled from the Iranian threat. Over the last decade Saudi Arabia has persistently lobbied the U.S. into attacking Iran. With reference to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has repeatedly called on the U.S. to “cut off the head of the snake” while there is still time.
It has become an established Saudi policy to leverage the U.S. military might against the Kingdom’s external and internal adversaries. For instance, Riyadh successfully employed U.S. power in the wars against Iraq in 1991 and 2003, the effort to depose Muammar Gaddafi from Libya in 2011, as well as providing arms and intelligence to Saudi allies in Yemen to fight the Houthi rebellion. The US also provided security assistance against Saudi opposition groups and figures. Most recently, this can be seen in the Saudi-Qatari declaration to finance a U.S. military intervention in Syria.
For the GCC countries, a normalization of relations with Iran would help reintegrate it into the international community which could bring stability to the region by decreasing tensions and the possibility of conflicts. Depending on the nature of U.S.-Iranian relations, the current balance of power in the Middle East could be altered.
Forever in favor of the status quo, Riyadh believes that any rebalancing of U.S.-Iranian relations would come primarily at Saudi expense. The Saudi position has come to expect, indeed it necessitates, a hostile dynamic between Washington and Tehran and any de-escalation of hostilities would augment Iranian influence and power vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. Riyadh has an interest in preventing diplomacy which leads to a normalization of relations between Iran and the U.S. and it will work to undermine any meaningful rapprochement.
U.S. Constrained
While the U.S. could benefit by cooperating over Syria, particularly to manage threats posed by jihadists, it must balance the interests of its Gulf allies, Israel, Turkey and Egypt. In the Middle East the U.S. is constrained by a zero-sum dichotomy. U.S.-Iranian détente would undermine core interests of American allies across the region. However, failure to consider areas of cooperation would threaten core U.S. interests; prolong a decades old rift and disincentivize Iranian cooperation over its nuclear program. Furthermore, Iran may be eager to negotiate with the U.S. on a number of issues, but it will not turn its back on Syria or the Assad regime. Riyadh desires a unified Syria only if outright regime change produces a government subservient to Saudi interests. If this outcome becomes unlikely or unmanageable, as it currently seems to be, Riyadh will work to keep Syria a fragmented polity in which it can maintain influence over the factions it supports.
On the nuclear front, Iran is issuing encouraging statements. However, according to recent IAEA assessments, Iran is producing fuel assemblies at Natanz that could produce material for a nuclear bomb. As of September 23, 2013, Iranian engineers have taken full operational control of the Bushehr reactor from their Russian counterparts. Critically, Iran continues to defy IAEA and it is unlikely to dramatically alter its nuclear ambitions in the near-term.
For the U.S., the Gulf States, and Israel there is a considerable convergence of interests regarding Iran’s nuclear program. A nuclear capable Iran would be more than a mere existential threat. Such a reality would dramatically alter the architecture of the regional balance of power. In the long-term, a nuclear Iran could be managed and contained. In the short-term however, the region would experience an arms race for unconventional weapons. Although unlikely, Saudi Arabia has been considering the acquisition of nuclear weapons as a hedge to deter a nuclear Iran. Additionally, the prospects for conventional conflicts between states would increase at a time when instability is already pervasive.
U.S. aims in the Gulf are the preservation of the status quo and willing allies, to contain Iran. To this end, the U.S. has enabled the Gulf regimes carte blanche to consolidate their authoritarian power at home. Riyadh will continue to reinforce Washington’s preoccupation with Iran thereby giving it a free hand to suppress dissent at home and an ability to exert its influence across the region. However unlikely a meaningful American-Iranian détente may be, it is all the more unlikely given Saudi ambitions and a propensity to act as regional spoiler.

Burgan Hobbs is a policy analyst at the Institute for Gulf Affairs

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