US and the Saudi-Iran Spat

Friday, April 22, 2016

Kaveh L. Afrasiabi

By all indications, the US is caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to Irani-Saudi tensions that have clearly escalated recently. The chilly reception given to US President Barack Obama in Riyadh — the Saudi King failed to greet him at the airport yet did so for the neighboring emirs the next day — reflects the Kingdom’s overt unhappiness with Obama’s refusal to completely join the anti-Iran crusade that the Saudi officials have been pursuing with a great deal zeal and determination in the region and beyond.

In his most recent comments on Saudi Arabia, Obama has accused them of being security “free riders,” has called for a “cold peace” between Tehran and Riyadh, and also urged the latter to “share the neighborhood” with Iran. None of this sits well with the Saudis, who much prefer to see scathing criticisms of Iran by Obama, echoing the final document of the recent summit of Islamic leaders in Istanbul, which accused Iran of meddling in the internal affairs of other countries in the region, while targeting Iran’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon as a terrorist organization.

So far, as of this writing, all that the Saudis had managed to extract from Obama in his visit was a commitment by the US to shore up patrolling the shores of Yemen to interdict Iran arms smuggling for the Yemenese Houthis fighting the Saudis and their proxies, as well as cooperation on missile defense and counter-terrorism. The US-GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) meeting is unlikely to translate into a significant modification of Obama’s nuanced Persian Gulf policy, that seeks to balance relations between the two power houses of Iran and Saudi Arabia, in light of the Iran nuclear agreement, which has broken some ice between Tehran and Washington.

Still, the Saudi-led GCC bloc is a source of gigantic profit for the US military-industrial complex and the tens of billions of sophisticated arms sold to them, irrespective of Saudis’ abysmal human rights record or their on-going atrocities in Yemen, speaks volumes about US’s priorities. Despite some calls in Europe for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia over its year-long brutal campaign in Yemen, supplied by US military, there is no indication that the US has the slightest intention of rocking the solid boat of its decades-long alliance with the Saudis, who occasionally rattle Washington by making overtures toward China or Russia.

Indeed, this explains why Obama has sided against penalizing the Saudis for their role in the 9/11 attacks, rebuffing a congressional attempt to do so, given the stern Saudi threat to sell out their hundreds of billions of their US assets, a threat taken rather seriously in US policy circles.

On the other hand, the US and Saudi Arabia appear to be basically on level with each other on the important oil policy, which has been used to weaken both Russia and Iran, with negative results for the Saudis themselves, who have entered into a fragile Doha agreement on production level that may or may not hold, depending on the near future developments. The successful US-Saudi “oil card” has delivered a devastating blow to the Putin regime in Russia, which might explain why Moscow has cut short its expensive military campaign in Syria, concerned about a costly quagmire.

Meanwhile, the traditional “Iran containment” approach by the US, which has been in place since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, is basically intact and, therefore, the Saudis have essentially little to complain against the US, their protectorate superpower, except in the scope of their desired Iran-bashing that, for now however, the US lags behind, knowing full well that the GCC oil states will continue to rely on the US power so long as there is a credible “Iran threat.” In other words, the US is at best interested in a “cold peace” between Tehran and Riyadh not a warm and cooperative relationship between them.

*Kaveh Afrasiabi, Ph.D, is a former political science professor at Tehran University and the author of several books on Iran’s foreign policy. His writings have appeared on several online and print publications, including UN Chronicle, New York Times, Der Tagesspiegel, Middle East Journal, Harvard International Review, and Brown's Journal of World Affairs, Guardian, Russia Today, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Boston Globe, Mediterranean Affairs, Nation, Telos, Der Tageszeit, Hamdard Islamicus, Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Global Dialogue.

Source: Eurasia Review

More By Kaveh L. Afrasiabi:

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*Photo Credit: Reuters

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

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