“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Often the foundation for unexpected diplomatic alliances, this intuitive, common notion can help explain why, on the surface, two unlikely allies—the United States, a liberal, Western democratic state and Saudi Arabia, a conservative, Islamist, autocratic kingdom—could enjoy over six decades of “strategic partnership” and “positive results.”1 Whether this common threat (perceived or real) was the Soviet Union or post-1979 Iran, American-Saudi relations were held bound by mutual security interests. The US provided regional security for Saudi Arabia through its military power and in return Saudi Arabia provided economic security for the US through its power in the oil markets.2,3 But what happens if this common enemy’s interests begin to line up with one of the allied nations? That is to say, if Iran is considered to be a common threat to both the United States and Saudi Arabia, what would happen to US-Saudi relations if American and Iranian interests began to overlap? Between the chaos in Iraq, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Iran nuclear program negotiations, and the Arab Spring, at times it appears that this very well may be the case.
To establish a historical context, this essay will examine the collapse of the United States’ pre-1979 “twin pillar policy,” positive developments of US-Saudi relations before the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, and the countries’ relations following the attack and the US invasion of Iraq. This essay will then comment on current Middle Eastern conflicts, including those where American and Iranian interests overlap, and why the existence of these conflicts is concerning for Saudi Arabia. Of particular focus will be the situation in Iraq, including the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the conflict in Yemen, and the ongoing Iranian nuclear deal negotiations. While the overlap of US and Iranian interests should not be overstated, it is significant that there are some instances where their interests align in the Middle East. The notable progress made in the Iranian nuclear program negotiations is also of consequence and very much could affect and has affected US-Saudi relations. Finally, this essay will offer reasons the US and Saudi Arabia both have important stakes to maintain good diplomatic relations. This essay will posit that while US-Saudi relations are unlikely to deteriorate significantly in the future, the balance of power in the region is changing in such a way that the United States and Saudi Arabia might look to expand diplomatic relations in order to achieve greater security and flexibility when it comes to concerns in the region. For the US, this might mean developing some level of a rapprochement with Iran, while for Saudi Arabia this might mean looking for other partners such as China or certain European countries, and in some cases, even with Israel.
Collapse of the “Twin Pillar” Policy
During the Nixon Administration, the United States relied on its “twin pillar” diplomatic policy to ensure stability and protection of American interests in the Middle East.4 Establishing alliances with the monarchical governments of Saudi Arabia and Iran, the US benefitted not only from good diplomatic relations with two of the three main regional powers in the Middle East, but also from the composite make-up of the countries that border the Arabian/Persian Gulf (“the Gulf.”). Serving as the two “twin pillars,” Saudi Arabia, as a Sunni and Arab nation, and Iran, as a Shi’a and Persian nation, allowed the United States to create alliances across sectarian lines as it strategically attempted to restrict the sphere of influence of the Soviet Union, its Cold War rival, and limit the spread of communism.
With the overthrow of the American-backed, Iranian Shah and with the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran became hostile to the United States and to other powers in the Middle East, including Iraq and Saudi Arabia. With one pillar collapsed and Iraq acting aggressively, the United States was forced to rely on Saudi Arabia as its primary ally in an important area of the world.5 Iraq fought a costly war with Iran throughout most of the 1980s and then invaded the tiny Gulf state of Kuwait in 1991. The former ended in a stalemate, and the latter ended in defeat with great economic, military, and diplomatic costs, as a massive international coalition including the US and Saudi Arabia repelled the Iraqi forces from Kuwait.6 Although Saddam Hussein remained in power until 2003 when the US invaded Iraq, by the end of the Gulf War only two of the original three regional powers remained: Saudi Arabia and Iran.7 With Iran and the US having hostile relations, and Iran and Saudi Arabia remaining distrustful of one another, the US and Saudi Arabia had reasons to establish a strong alliance that has persisted into the twenty-first century.8
US-Saudi Relations Post-Iranian Revolution (1979 – 2001)
In the 1980s, while Iraq and Iran were exhausting each other’s resources and capital, the US and Saudi Arabia were experiencing one of the strongest stretches in their alliance.9 The foundation of the alliance remained the same: security. As one of the world’s two superpowers, matched only by the Soviet Union until the 1990s, the United States could offer Saudi Arabia protection in a turbulent region dominated by the ambitious regional hegemons of Saddam’s Iraq and Khomeini’s Iran. In return, Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest exporter of oil and most powerful member of OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries), could offer the oil-dependent United States economic security in fluctuating oil markets.10,11 This relationship extended into a number of diplomatic objectives for both countries, especially when it came to Saudi Arabia assisting the Untied States in its covert goals.
For instance, while the Reagan Administration is infamously known for the Iran-Contra affair scandal, it had been partaking in backdoor dealings long before then and relied extensively on Saudi support. As far back as the early 1970s, Saudi Arabia was assisting in US efforts, financially guiding Egypt away from the Soviet Union and converting Egypt into an American ally.12 In 1979, Saudi Arabia engaged with escalating clashes between the pro-Soviet, People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen in the south of Yemen and the Yemen Arab Republic in the north, donating tens of millions of dollars on top of the arms and money the Saudis had been contributing since 1962.13 Another example of Saudi Cold War cooperation with the Americans was in the late 1970s when Saudi Arabia provided $200 million to Somalia to bring the former Soviet ally onto the other side of the Cold War. This conversion benefitted the Americans by allowing the US to have naval bases with access to the Indian Ocean.14 The Saudis also supported the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA), working with South Africa to intervene in Angola, which many considered to be a “particular favor” to Reagan and the US15 Saudi Arabia in return relied on the United States for security and for arms deals, including Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft.16
Despite a strong diplomatic reliance yielding favorable results, both the US and Saudi Arabia had to address domestic concerns about their relationship. Even with the Saudis’ support in a few Cold War conflicts, the Reagan Administration found it difficult to get a “reluctant” US Congress to agree to the AWACS deal, passing by a slim 52-48 Senate vote.17,18 On the other hand, Saudi Arabia rejected the United States’ “strategic consensus” initiative to formally establish an American military presence in Saudi Arabia and instead opted for a policy that would keep the US “over the horizon” rather than on Saudi territory.19
The arms-for-aid deals continued throughout the 1980s including with the Contra War in Nicaragua.20 The US was heavily invested in trying to help the Contras overthrow the Nicaraguan government, eventually embroiling itself in the Iran-Contra affair.21 In April 1984, the US discreetly asked Saudi Arabia to contribute financial support to the Contras, to which the Saudis declined for four reasons: 1) there was “no quid pro quo,” 2) Nicaragua already leaned “pro-Arab,” 3) the Saudis doubted whether the US could keep a secret if they provided such clandestine support, and 4) the US had recently slowed arm sales to Saudi Arabia.22 The Reagan Administration responded to the fourth claim in May of 1984 by bypassing Congress. On the grounds of it being an emergency, and thus not needing Congressional approval, the administration authorized a $131 million military aircraft equipment sale and 400 Stinger antiaircraft missiles to be sent to Saudi Arabia.23 In addition, President Reagan wrote a letter personally to King Fahd assuring him that the US would provide assistance to Saudi Arabia if a conflict with Iran were to arise.24 At the end of the month, US funding for the Contras ran out and Congress refused to authorize more funds (they eventually would authorize “humanitarian” aid later in the year), so again the US asked Saudi Arabia to provide financial assistance to the Contras.25 This time, the Saudis agreed and began funneling tens of millions of dollars of support to the Contras that year.26 After the United States approved the AWACS transfer, sent Stinger antiaircraft missiles, and assured assistance in the case of a Saudi-Iranian conflict, Saudi Arabia began to further assist the United States covertly, going as far, according to some reports, as to cooperate with “counterterrorist assassinations.”27,28 The arms-for-aid deals during the Reagan Administration brought the United States and Saudi Arabia even closer together as strategic allies, relying on one another for security and diplomatic objectives.
These covert instances of support—not all of which were publicly known at the time—demonstrate the closeness between the US and Saudi Arabia in the immediate years after the Iranian Revolution. One of the other most notable instances of cooperation at this time was the US-Saudi joint effort to expel the Soviets out of Afghanistan by empowering the Taliban.29 This “strategic partnership” reached its pinnacle during the Gulf War when the two nations joined forces as part of a broader international coalition to repel Iraqi forces from Kuwait.30 Since US-Saudi relations in these two conflicts are well addressed, this essay focused on some of the clandestine activities the two nations shared during the 1980s in particular in order to supplement the historical context with which to reflect on US-Saudi relations. In many ways, these backdoor arms-for-aid dealings demonstrate the degree of trust, reliance, and interdependence of US-Saudi relations. Along with the development of a strong US-Saudi Arabia partnership, the 1990s were then marked by two developments: the fall of Iraq as a regional power after being exhausted and internationally isolated from two wars, and the growth of the “salafi jihadist movement.”31
Post-2001 Tensions in US-Saudi Relations
The 1980s and 1990s were the decades in which US-Saudi ties were arguably the strongest, and this period was also the time of two of the biggest joint successes to come out of the relationship: the success of the jihad in expelling the Soviets out of Afghanistan and the Gulf War.32 The irony is that, ultimately, these two successes set into motion what would eventually lead to the 9/11 attacks and, consequently, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, which strained American-Saudi relations during these years.33 Osama bin Laden, who joined and eventually helped lead the successful jihadist movement in Afghanistan, established al-Qaeda there.34 He established ties with Ayman al-Zawahiri, founder of the Islamic jihad movement in Egypt, and continued to grow his network.35 Emboldened by his victory over the Soviets (which was followed soon by the Soviet Union’s collapse), Osama bin Laden felt that he and his jihadists could protect Saudi Arabia and expel the Iraqis from Kuwait, but Saudi leadership rejected this proposal and relied on the US instead.36 As a result, Osama bin Laden would leave Saudi Arabia, continue to grow his network based in Afghanistan, and in 1996 issue his “Declaration of Jihad Against the Americans Occupying the Land of the Two Holy Mosques” and asserted that the Al Saud rule was an apostate regime.37
In particular, US support of Israel has long been a complication when it comes to other American alliances in the region. Having a Western, pro-Israel country like the United States defending Saudi Arabia allowed Osama bin Laden to criticize the Saudi government. In fact, one of the things bin Laden used to justify his attacks on the Saudi government was their involvement in the Arab-Israeli peace process.38 He often used rhetoric involving the Western “Judeo-Christian” alliance and argued that the Middle East was still essentially ruled by the West with many Arab leaders serving only as its puppets.39 As will be discussed later in the paper, an “unholy alliance” is forming between Israel and Saudi Arabia as their interests significantly overlap in regards to a potential Iranian nuclear deal.40
Following the attacks of September 11th, US-Saudi relations were severely strained. Fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi nationals.41 The US media was extraordinarily harsh on Saudi leadership and the American public began to seriously question the value of such an alliance.42 Accusations reigned from criticisms that Saudi Arabia “created a climate” that allowed radical Islam to flourish to those that suggested some Saudi officials were responsible for the attacks “through design or negligence.”43 Many of the “enemy combatants” captured in Afghanistan when fighting the Taliban regime in late 2001 turned out to be Saudi as did many of the Sunni insurgents after the US invaded Iraq after 2003.44
Saudi Arabia for its part vigorously denied any prior knowledge of the attacks and Saudi leadership was shocked by the events, especially by the fact that the hijackers mostly came from their kingdom.45 At the same time, they were concerned about the harsh criticisms received in the US despite the moves Saudi Arabia made to try to maintain the relationship between the two nations.46 Saudi leadership rightly pointed out that Osama bin Laden had his Saudi citizenship revoked in 1994.47 Abdullah, who was Crown Prince at the time, “publicly castigated the Ulema for encouraging hatred and violence and failing to preach the true message of Islam of moderation and tolerance.”48 The Saudis took additional steps, including Abdullah providing the New York Times a copy of his peace plan for Israel (Arab states would recognize Israel and establish normal diplomatic ties if Israel withdrew to its pre-1967 borders) and traveling to Crawford, Texas in 2002 to create closer ties to President Bush.49 The Saudis were also exceptionally successful in assisting the United States in its counter-terrorism efforts, capturing and/or killing “all 19 wanted terrorists on a list published in May 2003 and all 26 on a second list published in December 2003.”50
The United States’ decision to invade Iraq in March of 2003 further strained US-Saudi relations. While Iraqi-Saudi relations were not great, Saudi Arabia did prefer the Saddam Sunni regime in power to serve as a bulwark against Iran.51 Additionally, Iraq has a Shi’a majority, so a democratic state, as desired by the United States, would result in a Shi’a power in the region and one that would favor Iran.52 Saudi Arabia publicly opposed the US invasion of Iraq, asserting that it would not “participate in any way” although it did secretly provide the US some logistical support.53 At the same time, in June of 2003, Saudi Aramco—the state-run oil company with historical ties to the United States (not to mention the America-related basis for the name “Aramco”)—ended stalled negotiations with US companies and opened up negotiations with Russian, Chinese, and European firms instead.54 Saudi Arabia viewed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—who came to power in Iraq through elections and with American approval (as a product of the new “democratized” Iraq)—as an Iranian agent.55 Finally, after Saddam Hussein’s regime collapsed in April 2003, all remaining American combat troops left Saudi Arabia by September of that year.56
After the September 11th attacks, there was a significant shift in US foreign policy, responded to a feeling that the old approach of “deterrence and containment” proved to be inadequate in protecting Americans and American interests.57 A new approach, the Bush Doctrine, which was pushed by neo-conservatives in the Bush Administration, would instead rely on its global military superiority and use aggressive “unilateral” and “preemptive” measures when it believed necessary.58 It was under this new approach, as well as huge psychological fear and paranoia of another 9/11-style “worst case scenario” attack, that justified the Bush administration’s decision to invade Iraq.59 This strategy did not sit well with the Saudis nor did talk of President Bush’s “freedom agenda,” which included calls for political reform in Iraq.60 A monarchical, autocratic state with about a 10-15% Shi’a minority, Saudi Arabia did not feel remotely comfortable with the idea of a democratic Shi’a state bordering to its north with probable ties to Iran.61,62
These tensions did not dissipate as the first decade of the 2000s progressed. In September 2005, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal criticized the US for “handing the whole country [Iraq] over to Iran without reason.”63 An Iraqi minister later responded by rejecting the comments and adding the cutting remark that “a whole country is named after a family.”64 US officials pressed Saudi Arabia to help and not criticize the fledgling Iraqi state.65 In November 2006, it was reported that about 12% of foreign fighters killed or captured in Iraq were Saudi nationals.66 In addition, in the fall of 2006, there were reports of Saudi clerics encouraging support for Sunni insurgents in Iraq including through “honest resistance…one of the legitimate types of jihad.”67
While these tensions did exist, it is important to note that the US and Saudi Arabia never officially broke ties and that the rhetoric of some of their domestic statesmen did not reflect legitimate policy changes. The ties between the two nations were considered “very deep,” and the “strategic considerations that brought them together continue[d] to be relevant.”68 Additionally, both states want Saudi oil markets to remain “uninterrupted,” face attacks from al-Qaeda, and have concerns about Iran, including Iran’s nuclear program.69 In May 2003, Al-Qaeda began launching attacks within Saudi Arabia.70 These attacks have provided the US and Saudi Arabia a common enemy and have been used by Saudi Arabia to dispel alleged reports that it was at one point funding al-Qaeda.71 The Saudi Ambassador to the US said, “Al-Qaeda is a cult seeking to destroy Saudi Arabia as well as the Untied States,” and rhetorically asked why Saudi Arabia would “support a cult that is trying to kill us?”72 While US-Saudi relations have been strained due to the events of September 11th and the invasion of Iraq, it would be misguided to allege that US-Saudi ties are still not strong, strategically important, and valuable to each nation.
US-Saudi Relations in light of the conflicts in Iraq, ISIS, Syria, and Yemen
This essay has so far examined the strongest and weakest points in US-Saudi relations since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. Since the collapse of the Shah, Saudi Arabia has been the United States’ primary ally in the region and Iran has been considered a threat to both countries. However, that balance of power has changed in recent years with the developments of the Arab Spring, the Syrian Civil War, and the rise of ISIS. The recent “US-Iran nuclear détente,” including the nuclear deal with Iran and their “superficial rapprochement” is very troubling to Saudi leadership.73,74 This final portion of the essay will reflect on how US-Iranian interests are lining up and how this might affect US-Saudi relations.
In many respects, it is surprising to see American and Iranian interests in the Middle East overlapping. The two nations do not have diplomatic relations with each other. The United States considers Iran part of the “Axis of Evil” and Iran labels the United States as “the Great Satan.”75,76 Yet when it comes to Iraq, ISIS, and Syria, their interests appear to be matching up. Iraq and ISIS line up together in that both the US and Iran consider the Sunni-based ISIS to be a severe threat and that a functioning, unified Iraqi state is the ultimate goal in the conflict.77 For the United States, this would be the final realization of a democratizing Iraq and eventually establishing a state model that can be replicated throughout the Middle East if or when the rest of the region experiences democratic change (as the United States suspects). For Iran, a democratic Iraq means likely a Shi’a government from Iraq’s Shi’a majority, which could be a useful ally in the region.78 With respect to ISIS, both states have carried out airstrikes on the Islamic State but deny any collaboration. At the same time tough, each relies on “the Iraqi government to de-conflict…airspace” so that essentially the two nations are indirectly working together towards a common objective.79
Saudi Arabia, while not supporting ISIS (although there are Saudi nationals who have joined ISIS), is not happy with Iraq since the United States’ invasion. While Saddam’s regime was at times considered a threat, it was a Sunni regime and one that provided a counterbalance to Iran. Now a Shi’a government is in place and one that has been subject to heavy Iranian influence.80 Iran-US uncoordinated but simultaneous attacks concern the Saudi government and Iraqi Sunni lawmakers who worry that these airstrikes might eventually become coordinated if Iran and the US can work out a nuclear deal and establish some degree of relations.81 One Iraqi Sunni lawmaker was quoted as saying that if the US and Iran reach an agreement, it would mean “the Americans are handing over Iraq to Iran.”82
In Syria, the split between Saudi Arabia and Iran continues and, again, the Saudis have concerns regarding their American allies. When protests initially developed in Syria, it appeared that the United States might offer legitimate support to rebels looking to overthrow the Bashar al-Assad regime. However, radical elements began to enter the conflict, making it difficult to distinguish who would or could benefit from a regime overthrow in Syria.83 As the conflict grew chaotic and Assad persisted in power, the war-weary US seemed to downgrade its priorities “from the removal of the Syrian dictator to merely the removal of his chemical weapons.”84 Additionally, it seems at this point that the US will avoid any direct intervention and that ISIS will continue to remain its primary concern.
For Iran, this conflict has huge implications as Syria has been a steadfast ally—often times the only one in the region—with Assad, an Alawite (a Shi’a sect), ruling over a Sunni majority Syrian populace.85 A key strategic partner for the Iranian government, Tehran is doing all in its means to keep the Assad regime propped up, including providing “billions of dollars in loans, credits, and subsidized oil…conventional and unconventional military aid, as well as intelligence training and cooperation to help crush popular unrest.”86 Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia supported by Iran, is also involved in supporting and fighting for the Assad regime.87 If ISIS or a disintegrated Syria is the alternative, it appears that the US might accept no regime change in Syria, something that again benefits Iran but worries Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Arabia has been supportive of the rebels in Syria but has reduced its support recently as the conflict has evolved into an exhaustive and chaotic “three-front struggle” between al-Qaeda affiliates (including ISIS, which later disavowed al-Qaeda), the Assad regime backed by Iran and Hezbollah, and other Sunni Syrian rebels.88 With the rise of ISIS, it seems that the United States currently views the Islamic extremist elements of the conflict as more of a threat than the Assad regime. At the same time, the United States would like to see the end of the Assad regime, an issue that provides a future, common objective and may alleviate some Saudi concerns.89
Finally, in Yemen, a new conflict has arisen. Houthi rebels, a Shi’a offshoot, took control of the capital Sanaa in September of 2004.90 By March of 2015, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria became involved in the conflict, bombing two Shi’a mosques and killing over a hundred civilians.91 Today the conflict has turned into a proxy war, with Saudi Arabia launching airstrikes against the “Iranian-funded Houthis.”92,93 The chart below from The Economist highlights some of the instances in which actors in the Middle East are fighting against one another in one conflict but for each other in another conflict. For example, Iran and the United States are fighting on the same side in Iraq against ISIS, but ISIS is fighting on the same side of Saudi Arabia and the United States in Yemen against Iran. Moreover, in Syria, ISIS is fighting against the Saudi and American-backed Sunni rebels who are all fighting the Iranian-backed Assad regime. With the number and nature of conflicts embattling the region right now, perhaps it is not a surprise that hostile states sometimes find themselves fighting on the same side and allies sometimes find their interests opposed.
Iranian Nuclear Deal Negotiations
In addition to all of the conflicts currently plaguing the Middle East, there are also ongoing controversial talks in Lausanne, Switzerland regarding Iran’s nuclear program. The so-called “P5 + 1” countries including the United Nations Security Council – United States, Russia, China, the United Kingdom, and France – and Germany are currently negotiating with Iran about curbing uranium enrichment activities to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, at least in the near future. This essay will first provide a historical context for the deal, next attempt to briefly outline the main details of the proposed framework, and then analyze the effect a deal or no deal would have on US-Saudi relations and the region as a whole.
To begin, there have been efforts for years to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon. As far back as 1996, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister (who was Prime Minister in 1996 as well), addressed the United States Congress and delivered a similar warning to the one he issued when addressing the United States Congress in 2015: Iran as a nuclear power means severe instability in the region and poses a direct threat to Israel and a threat to the United States, and Iran is on the verge of making this a reality.94 But Iran is not the only power to pursue weapons of mass destruction. First, Israel, though not officially declared, has nuclear weapons.95 Iraq and Iran, hostile neighbors who brutally exhausted one another in the longest war of the twentieth century (1980-1988), competitively stocked and developed weapon technology.96,97 Even as late as 2002, Saddam Hussein was uncooperative with the United Nations and the United States over Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction because he wanted Iran to think that Iraq might have weapons of mass destruction in order to project Iraqi power.98 After the US invasion, Libya gave up its nuclear weapons pursuit after seeing the reaction of the international community.99 Iran even came to the table to negotiate with the West and the United States after the US invaded Iraq in 2003, offering to cap its number of centrifuges, maintain low enrichment levels, and “convert its existing enriched uranium into fuel rods (which could not be put to military use).”100 The United States declined the offer.
Fast-forwarding roughly ten years to today, Iran’s nuclear program is again a point of controversy and a key concern in the region. Ironically (and perhaps fortunately depending on one’s perspective), the chief Iranian nuclear negotiator back in 2003 was Hassan Rouhani, who is now the president of Iran and is strongly pushing for a deal to be reached.101,102 Instead of 164 centrifuges that it had in 2003, Iran currently has 19,000; in addition to amassing over 17,000 pounds of enriched uranium gas, Iran has also begun to advance construction of a “heavy water reactor at Arak that could be used to produce weapons-grade plutonium.”103 While nuclear power reactors in the West use uranium enriched up to five percent, Iran has currently produced uranium enriched up to twenty percent; enrichment levels need to exceed ninety percent in order to be used for a nuclear weapon.104 Finally, Iran’s current “breakout capability,” which is the “key yardstick of time needed to produce enough fissile material for one nuclear weapon,” is estimated to be currently at around two to three months.105
In March of 2013, the Obama administration opened up “back channel” negotiations with Iran, secretly meeting on several occasions in Oman.106 In June of 2013, Rouhani was elected president and negotiations formally began in March 2014.107 A year later, on April 2, 2015, a framework for a potential future deal was announced.108 While the negotiations are a complicated process with many details to it, briefly, these are the main aspects of the April 2, 2015 deal as provided by The New York Times: As mentioned earlier, Iran had developed uranium enrichment levels up to twenty percent. Under the new deal, uranium enrichment levels will be limited to 3.7 percent and its stockpile of this type of uranium will be reduced from 10,000 kilograms to 300 kilograms for the next fifteen years. The number of centrifuges, which are responsible for isolating the U-235 isotope needed for a bomb, will also be reduced by two-thirds to about 5,000. The underground enrichment site at Fordo will be converted into “a center for nuclear physics and technology research” and the nuclear reactor at Arak will be “redesigned” so that it “will not produce weapons-grade plutonium.”109 Furthermore, no additional heavy water reactors will be built over the next fifteen years. The International Atomic Energy Agency will be responsible for confirming these agreements and inspectors will be permitted to access facilities anywhere in the country.110 If these measures were put into place, Iran’s “breakout time” as described above, would increase from a couple of months to a year.111
There are disagreements that persist still, some of them instrumental to the overall framework of the deal. First, the United States is seeking for the agreement, including the inspection measures, to last twenty years while Iran is calling for eight years.112 There are fundamental disagreements over when some of the economic sanctions on Iran will be lifted. The United States and some members of the P5 + 1 have maintained that sanction relief will occur only after it has been confirmed that Iran has kept its end of the deal and “will come in phases.”113 Iran has conversely been adamant that sanctions will be lifted immediately under the current agreed terms.114 This has led to some embarrassment for the parties involved, and whether it will prevent a deal from being reached remains to be seen. July 1st has been agreed upon as the deadline for negotiations, which is after the time of writing for this essay.
There were mixed reactions after the deal was announced. Many Republicans and some Democrats in the United States Congress have expressed skepticism of and concerns about the deal.115 Likewise in Iran, there is domestic opposition among some sections of society, such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as well as those against any dealings with the United States, frequently dubbed the “Great Satan.”116 On the other hand, this is a deal heavily lobbied by President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry and is actually fairly popular with the American public considering its potential to devolve into a partisan issue.117 In Iran, there is a great desire for the sanctions to be lifted, especially among the general, civilian population.118
On the other hand, there are a few significant regional actors who are adamantly opposed to any deal, particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia. While the “unholy alliance” may seem unusual, similar sets of circumstances have brought these two states together. First, both states face unstable conflicts in the region between Lebanon/Hezbollah (for Israel), Syria, Iraq, and Yemen (for Saudi Arabia) and view Iran as a legitimate and direct threat. For Saudi Arabia, this threat lies right across the Gulf but is also manifested in proxy conflicts such as in Yemen and Syria. For Israel, the severity of this threat varies, and the rhetoric of Iran is certainly alarming, including former President Ahmadinejad’s threat of having Israel “wiped off of the map.”119 Both states are regional hegemons in their own right and an increasingly powerful Iran, which is getting heavily involved in a number of the Middle Eastern conflicts, threatens to change the balance of power. Finally, both states are closely allied with the United States, relying on, at least to some degree, the US for security purposes. The United States’ eagerness to finalize a deal with Iran has, therefore, greatly concerned both states.
There are two main reasons Israel and Saudi Arabia are so adamantly opposed to an Iranian nuclear deal. First, and perhaps the more obvious reason, is that Israel and Saudi Arabia worry that an Iranian deal could actually make it easier for Iran to achieve a nuclear weapon in the future. The agreement does not “destroy Iran’s technical capabilities to maintain a nuclear program,” and it is a relatively short agreement.120 Even if the United States gets its desired time frame of twenty years, that is still a relatively (very) short length of time, especially when it comes to the lifetime of states. Part of the reason Saudi Arabia and Israel so greatly fear an Iranian nuclear weapon is because of how much it would alter the balance of power in the Middle East, a turbulent region, where many of the conflicts are proxy wars. If Iran had a nuclear weapon, could Saudi Arabia become as aggressively involved in Yemen as it is now? If Iran had a nuclear weapon, could Israel launch a serious military attack on Hezbollah? The rules through which the Middle East operates would drastically change, and the zero-sum game that is the balance of power would leave Iran a winner at Saudi Arabia and Israel’s expense. Finally, if Iran eventually developed a nuclear weapon, it quite possibly could set off an arms race in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia (and possibly other states such as Turkey or Egypt) also pursuing nuclear arms through development or possibly from another country.121 As far back as 1999, the Saudi Defense Minister visited Pakistan’s nuclear and missile facilities, and reports came out in 2003 that there was a secret agreement between the two countries involving “nuclear cooperation” on behalf of Pakistan in return for “oil at reduced prices.”122 In December of 2006, the GCC announced “an intention to develop peaceful nuclear energy” jointly, but not nuclear weapons.123 Should Iran achieve a nuclear weapon, proliferation in the Middle East could become a real possibility, a potentially parlous development in an unstable region of the world.
The second reason Saudi Arabia and Israel are against the deal is because it would result in sanctions being lifted.124 While the US and other countries levied sanctions against Iran because it is pursuing a nuclear program (and only those sanctions will potentially be lifted; sanctions levied against Iran for other reasons will remain), the truth of the matter is that Israel and Saudi Arabia benefit from the economic sanctions on Iran. While these sanctions may theoretically dampen potential trade and economic benefits that could spread across the region, they also serve to handicap Iran, which even with this economic hindrance, is still one of the most powerful countries in the region getting involved in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and now Yemen. A sanctions-free (or sanctions-lessened) Iran could achieve the economic relief it has been seeking for years and develop into an even stronger state. Iran produces oil like Saudi Arabia, but unlike Saudi Arabia, Iran also has a diverse economy and has the geography and demographics to become the most powerful country in the region. Iran supports Hezbollah and the Assad regime and is fighting ISIS, as well as the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Having a strong economic backing would likely only further encourage Iran to pursue its regional interests. Israel and Saudi Arabia are concerned at the extent of Iranian influence that already exists in the region – and that is with Iran suffering from harsh economic sanctions.
US-Saudi relations are at risk of being strained during this time as Saudi Arabia is highly concerned about the potential deal. In particular, the “secretive nature of the talks” is worrisome, as is “the absence of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members” in the talk.125 In fact, Al Jazeera had a recent line of stinging criticism when it wrote, “In Geneva, everybody concerned was present except for the Gulf states, which would be directly impacted by any kind of agreement in their backyard.”126 Saudi Arabia (and the Gulf states in general) relies on the United States not only as a form of security, but in order to maintain a balance of power in the region. If the US begins to develop closer ties with Iran, whether real or perceived, then Iran may become further emboldened. Already there is speculation in the region that Saudi Arabia “will seek new alliances,” given the “unreliability of American assurances.”127 Furthermore, the Iranian nuclear program negotiations come after the United States managed to remove Iran’s two biggest threats: the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq a little more than a decade ago. While the budding relations between the US and Iran may be frustrating at best, alarming at worst, to the Saudis, it is important to note that the US and Saudi Arabia align on a number of issues and conflicts, far more than the brief US-Iranian overlap that is happening right now in Iraq. Both the US and Saudi Arabia have concerns about Hezbollah, neither state wants the Assad regime to ultimately stand, both have concerns about ISIS, both had faced attacks from al-Qaeda, and the US supports Saudi efforts in Yemen. It is important to keep perspective before declaring that US-Saudi relations are severely strained or perhaps even deteriorating.
US-Saudi Relations Going Forward
The United States has been reassuring Saudi Arabia that it “remains the most loyal guarantor of Saudi security and interests.”128 At times though, this can be difficult for the Saudi government to perceive. First, the invasion of Iraq removed a Sunni power and replaced it with an Iran-influenced Shi’a government.129 Taking into account Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria, and now a Shi’a government in Iraq, it is not difficult to see how Jordanian King Abdullah II expressed grave concerns about the “crescent” of Shi’a power stretching from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut.130 For Saudi Arabia, closer US-Iranian relations would be a form of “abandonment” and a security threat.131 If the US can negotiate for some degree of a détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran, on the condition the US can establish its own relations with Iran, then perhaps the United States would have the flexibility to work with both countries without alienating one country or the other.132
While some will speculate as to whether Saudi-US relations will persist in light of the overlap between Iranian and American interests, it is important to remember the long history Saudi Arabia and the United States share. Economically and geopolitically, Saudi Arabia is still an important ally for the United States, and both stand to benefit from continued relations. On one hand, for the United States, capitalizing on overlapping interests with Iran, even if these overlapping interests exist in the relative short-term, may prove to be fruitful in the long-term as it tries to expand its allies in the region. But at the same time, risking the loss of a 60-year-plus ally, and regional power, in Saudi Arabia is clearly not in the United States’ interest. Moreover, while the US and Iran do have overlapping interests in Iraq when it comes to opposing ISIS, the US is indirectly fighting Iran and supporting Saudi Arabia in the Yemen conflict, which is serving as a proxy war. Additionally, there is opposition even within the United States when it comes to the Iran nuclear deal, so while this instance of US-Iranian interests overlapping should not be ignored, it is important to keep it in perspective relative to the significant overlap between the interests of the US and Saudi Arabia.
The balance of power is currently quite unstable in the Middle East as the futures of ISIS, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen remain uncertain (besides other potential conflicts in Lebanon, Israel/Palestine, and Bahrain). This imbalance of power might very well produce a Middle East where Saudi Arabia becomes the regional hegemon depending how the conflicts play out. On the other hand, Iran is in a strong position to further increase its influence in the area and become a dominant regional player. Regardless of the scenario, it would still benefit the Saudis to continue to enjoy relations with the United States for security and economic purposes. Like the United States, these times of instability in the Middle East that result in great uncertainty may force Saudi Arabia to seek out other allies, diversifying and expanding its own security network without abandoning one of its oldest allies.
Luke Zaro (’16) is a senior at Fordham University.
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