FPI Bulletin: Nuclear Deal Fuels Saudi-Iran Rivalry

September 28, 2016

Tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran are escalating. In recent weeks, the two states have traded increasingly strident accusations of apostasy and aggression, portraying each other as the region’s dominant threat and chief purveyor of religious extremism. To a large degree, the burgeoning conflict represents the fallout of the July 2015 nuclear agreement, which, in Riyadh’s eyes, bolstered the Iranian menace by reducing Tehran’s international isolation and spurring Washington to accommodate its expansionary policies. In this context, notwithstanding America’s past and present differences with Saudi Arabia, Washington must work to repair its relationship with Riyadh in order to counter Iran’s rising influence and related regional threats.

The latest feud between Riyadh and Tehran surrounded the annual hajj pilgrimage to Mecca earlier this month. After talks over security collapsed in May, the Iranian regime barred its citizens from participating, citing last year’s stampede at the holy site that killed more than 2,000 people, including hundreds of Iranian citizens. In a September 5 speech, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Saudi leaders “heartless and murderous” as well as “blasphemous, faithless, dependent and materialistic,” arguing that they rely on “alliances with Zionism and the U.S.” for their survival. The Islamic world, he continued, “must fundamentally reconsider” Saudi management of Mecca’s sacred shrine.

In response, Saudi Arabia’s top cleric, Grand Mufti Abdulaziz Al Sheikh, claimed that Iranian leaders are “not Muslims” but Zoroastrians, prompting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to tweet that Riyadh bears responsibility for the “bigoted extremism that Wahhabi top cleric & Saudi terror masters preach.” In a September 13 op-ed for The New York Times, Zarif called for a world without Wahhabism, contending that Riyadh’s extremist ideology accounts for the rise of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, leading Riyadh to release a series of tweets highlighting Iran’s history of terrorism. And in a rejoinder published on September 18 in The Wall Street Journal, the Saudi foreign minister, Adi Al-Jubeir, described Zarif’s rhetoric as “insincere propaganda,” noting that Iran remains “the leading state sponsor of terrorism.”

The deterioration of Saudi-Iran ties mirrors a corresponding erosion of Saudi-U.S. ties in the wake of the nuclear agreement. Riyadh, after all, supported the accord reluctantly, worrying that it would merely empower Tehran, align America’s foreign policy with Iran’s, and precipitate further U.S. disengagement from the region. The events of the past year have validated Saudi concerns. Iran has increased its support for Syria’s Assad regime, Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and other regional proxies opposed by Riyadh, while the United States, fearful that any dispute with Tehran would lead to the collapse of the deal, has remained largely passive.

In January, Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Tehran in January after a mob attacked Iran’s Saudi embassy in response to the Sunni regime’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric. Weeks later, in a February 18 essay, Saudi Prince Abdulmajeed Al-Saud offered a withering indictment of President Obama’s belief that the accord would lead to a broader rapprochement between Iran and its neighbors. “How,” he asked, “can the West be so easily duped, we wonder, and why are all of our efforts to contribute to the dialogue and abide by the rules of the international community ignored?” Millions of Arabs around the world, he added, “wonder why the United States and the Western media have, for the most part, turned a blind eye to Iran’s human rights abuses, support of terrorism throughout the world, and intent to destabilize the Middle East with its radical ideology.”

Ties between Washington and Riyadh experienced further strains in the wake of President Obama’s assertion, in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg released in March, that Saudi Arabia and Iran “need to find an effective way to share the neighborhood.” Riyadh responded with outrage: In an op-ed for Arab News, Prince Turki Al-Faisal wrote that the president has pivoted to Iran “so much that you equate the Kingdom’s 80 years of constant friendship with America to an Iranian leadership that continues to describe America as the biggest enemy.” When President Obama visited Riyadh in April, King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, in a deliberate snub, declined to greet him at the airport, while state television, only hours earlier, broadcast the king’s welcome of Sunni Arab leaders on the tarmac. After the president’s meeting with Saudi leaders, Prince Al-Faisal called for a “recalibration” of relations with the United States.

Ironically, the increased tensions between Washington and Riyadh come as ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, in light of their shared reservations about the nuclear deal, have significantly warmed. In July, a former Saudi general visited the Jewish state, a rare development that could not have proceeded without the approval of the Saudi regime. Dore Gold, the director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, who previously authored a book titled Hatred’s Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism, last year described the Sunni Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, as “Israel’s allies.” “Clearly,” he told The Wall Street Journal in January, “there’s been a convergence of interests between Israel and many Sunni Arab states given the fact that they both face identical challenges in the region.”

It is in this context of regional competition that Congress today voted to override President Obama’s veto of legislation that will enable 9/11 victims to sue Riyadh. Regardless of the bill’s merits, it is certain to exacerbate tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

To be sure, Washington and Riyadh will continue to harbor numerous differences, particularly regarding Saudi Arabia’s treatment of its own people. Moreover, Americans cannot and should not forget Riyadh’s history as the foremost incubator of Wahhabi doctrine, which has radicalized large swaths of the Middle East. At this juncture, however, America’s foremost regional priority should lie in the development of a regional coalition that can serve as a counterweight to Iranian expansionism and Sunni radicalism. Saudi-American cooperation remains essential to ensuring the success of such a policy.

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