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Saudi Outrage at the Prospect of Iran-US Thaw

Friday, February 21, 2014

Nasser Saghafi-Ameri

Since the events of September11, 2001 Saudi Arabia is facing many challenges. At that time a respected U.S. think thank described the monarchy as "a sponsor of terror at all levels." Those allegations prevail today but not only for probable Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the 9/11 events but for recent times and supporting the groups directly linked to the terrorists in Syria and elsewhere. Add to that problem are the mounting difficulties which the Saudis have entangled themselves in a contest which they perceive to be a confrontation with the growing Iranian influence in the region.

In that vein, the Kingdom has opened several fronts against Iran, ranging from flaring up the ideological conflict between their Wahabi-Salafi sect and the Shiites or challenging Iran and locking horn with it over Iraq, Lebanon and Syria. Meanwhile the Arab Awakening is knocking at its door putting the fragile ageing House of Saud under unprecedented duress. There are few doubts that Saudi Arabia will go through a series of internal changes in the near future.

Nevertheless, perhaps the most painful development for the monarchy was the news of the forthcoming thaw in the Iran- US relations. At the midst of what is perceived by the Saudis as an 'all-or-nothing' power struggle with Iran on different regional issues including the political developments in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Syria, Saudi foreign policy is distancing itself from the traditional approach of the past and is adopting a blunt radical postures that in the view of many observers would not only bring adverse effects for the Kingdom but may also further impair the regional security.

Saudi Arabia's discontent with world’s politics and specifically the Western powers’ approach toward Iran has taken it to adopt a defiant foreign policy. Everyone was surprised when last October the Saudis rejected a prestigious seat at the United Nations Security Council apparently said to be in protest to what the monarchy saw as the weak and conciliatory stances of the West toward the Syrian crisis and Iran’s growing regional role. 

Few weeks later the Saudi Ambassador in Britain in an article published in the New York Times lamented the West for what it called the foreign policy choices that "risk the stability of the region and potentially the security of the whole Arab world." The article reflecting the monarchies' grievances on world affairs was blunt in condemning the policies of the West regarding Syria and Iran. It said, "We believe that many of the West’s policies on both Iran and Syria risk the stability and security of the Middle East."

This was a clear departure from the past when the Saudis conducted their foreign policy in a quiet and discreet manner. Apparently, they were determined to demonstrate their defiance to the West and making a threat that if the West would not comply with their wishes to confront Iran they would "go it alone"!

Former  U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is quoted in his new book Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War that King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia told him bluntly that “Iran is the source of all problems and a danger that must be confronted.” Also in the Wikileaks documents it has been revealed that the Saudi monarch has "frequently exhorted the U.S. to attack Iran to put an end to its nuclear weapons program." "Cut off the head of the snake," the Saudi ambassador to Washington, quotes the King as saying during a meeting with the American officials in April 2008. Coincidently, less than a year it was announced that the Kingdom plans to purchase $60 billion worth of military hardware from the United States.

Meantime, Saudi Arabia in a clear sign of discontent with the U.S. policy in the Middle East intensified its diplomatic outreach to both Russia and China. The Saudis were annoyed when the U.S. supported the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Another disappointment came when Washington backed off on attacking Syria. But the final blow came when the Saudis learned that Tehran and Washington were engaged in a quite dialogue with the aim of a rapprochement between the two countries.

Thus, knowing that how much the West is reliant and concerned about the security of oil and gas supplies, the Saudis made an overture toward the East, Russia, China and India.  In that policy relations with China were accentuated. Already Saudi Arabia has become the leading supplier of crude oil to China since 2009 and their trade is expected to reach $60 billion by 2015. As reported, in the military circles, Saudi Arabia is acquiring Chinese CSS-3 (DF-3) ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads in supplement and replacement of the CSS-2 nuclear-capable missiles it received from China in 1988.

Obviously, the Kingdom is intending to pass a clear message to the West that if they continue the same course of policy, they might lose a valuable ally. But the Saudis know better than anyone else that they are no longer in the position to impress their old friends in the West with the so-called 'East Policy'. The world has changed and there are more changes yet to come.

For example, it is said that in the coming years some dramatic changes will occur in the energy markets. The forecasts by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in 2012 say that the United States will overtake Saudi Arabia and Russia as the world's top oil producer by 2017. The United States, which currently imports around 20 percent of its total energy needs, will become a net oil exporter by around 2030. All that might not mean that Americans will ignore the Saudis or they would abandon the Middle East.

However, taking America's new oil and gas potentials into account along with other major denominators in the energy field including the combined oil reserves of Iran and Iraq, which are greater than that of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf region, might have a major impact on the U.S. foreign policy and its approach toward the Kingdom.

More importantly, the threat of Wahabi-Salafis groups and jihadists is growing to the extent that no longer Western powers can afford to keep a blind eye to it as before. A recent report for the European Parliament estimates that Saudi Arabia has spent over $10 billion to promote Wahabism through Saudi charitable foundations. The Saudis have to come to terms with reality. Unmistakably, good and constructive relations with the power centers in the region, including Egypt, Turkey and specifically Iran as a rising power is essential for Saudi Arabia. It is time for them to open up to changing realities in Iran and the region. The period of ending Iran's imposed isolation is fast approaching. Whether the Saudis would like it or not, Iran is apt to regain its rightful status in the region and in the world scene.

While Iran has demonstrated in every occasion its desire for good and friendly relations with Saudi Arabia, there has been a cold response from Riyadh.

To overcome the present diplomatic gridlock, a track II diplomacy activating exchanges and meetings between scholars and experts of the two countries would be helpful in bringing about new insights for the improvement of the relations. Currently no security forum exists in the broader Middle East where Iran and Saudi Arabia sit at the same table and exchange their views. Different official or unofficial fora for Saudi Arabia and Iran to interact may not lead to an immediate rapprochement, yet it would prevent further misunderstandings in forming their mutual relations and this helps building confidence.

*Nasser Saghafi-Ameri is a former senior Iranian diplomat, and a scholar and author in the fields of foreign policy, international security, and nuclear disarmament.

Source: Institute for Middle East Strategic Studies (MERC)
http://en.merc.ir/Home.aspx

More By Nasser Saghafi-Ameri:

*Nuclear Accord between Iran and P5+1: A Victory for Diplomacy and Peace: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Nuclear-Accord-between-Iran-and-P5-1-A-Victory-for-Diplomacy-and-Peace.htm

*Iran-Russia: A Common Stand for Syria Chemical Weapons: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Iran-Russia-A-Common-Stand-for-Syria-Chemical-Weapons.htm

*Restoration of Iran-US Relations Benefits Both Sides: http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/Restoration-of-Iran-US-Relations-Benefits-Both-Sides.htm

*Photo Credit: Aljazeera America, CNN

*These views represent those of the author and are not necessarily Iran Review's viewpoints.

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