U.S. and Saudis in Growing Rift as Power Shifts
WASHINGTON — There was a time when Saudi and American interests in the Middle East seemed so aligned that the cigar-smoking former Saudi ambassador, Prince Bandar bin Sultan, was viewed as one of the most influential diplomats in Washington.
Those days are over. The Saudi king and his envoys — like the Israelis — have spent weeks lobbying fruitlessly against the interim nuclear accord with Iran that was reached in Geneva on Sunday. In the end, there was little they could do: The Obama administration saw the nuclear talks in a fundamentally different light from the Saudis, who fear that any letup in the sanctions will come at the cost of a wider and more dangerous Iranian role in the Middle East.
Although the Saudis remain close American allies, the nuclear accord is the culmination of a slow mutual disenchantment that began at the end of the Cold War.
For decades, Washington depended on Saudi Arabia — a country of 30 million people but the Middle East’s largest reserves of oil — to shore up stability in a region dominated by autocrats and hostile to another ally, Israel. The Saudis used their role as the dominant power in OPEC to help rein in Iraq and Iran, and they supported bases for the American military, anchoring American influence in the Middle East and beyond.
But the Arab uprisings altered the balance of power across the Middle East, especially with the ouster of the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak, a close ally of both the Saudis and the Americans.
The United States has also been reluctant to take sides in the worsening sectarian strife between Shiite and Sunni, in which the Saudis are firm partisans on the Sunni side.
At the same time, new sources of oil have made the Saudis less essential. And the Obama administration’s recent diplomatic initiatives on Syria and Iran have left the Saudis with a deep fear of abandonment.
“We still share many of the same goals, but our priorities are increasingly different from the Saudis,” said F. Gregory Gause III, a professor of Middle East studies at the University of Vermont. “When you look at our differing views of the Arab Spring, on how to deal with Iran, on changing energy markets that make gulf oil less central — these things have altered the basis of U.S.-Saudi relations.”
The United States always had important differences with the Saudis, including on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the spread of fundamentalist strains of Islam, Mr. Gause added. But the Obama administration’s determination to ease the long estrangement with Iran’s theocratic leaders has touched an especially raw nerve: Saudi Arabia’s deep-rooted hostility to its Shiite rival for leadership of the Islamic world.
Saudi reaction to the Geneva agreement was guarded on Monday, with the official Saudi Press Agency declaring in a statement that “if there is good will, then this agreement could be an initial step” toward a comprehensive solution for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
In recent days, Saudi officials and influential columnists have made clear that they fear the agreement will reward Iran with new legitimacy and a few billion dollars in sanctions relief at exactly the wrong time. Iran has been mounting a costly effort to support the government of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, including arms, training and some of its most valuable Revolutionary Guards commandos, an effort that has helped Mr. Assad win important victories in recent months.
The Saudis fear that further battlefield gains will translate into expanded Iranian hegemony across the region. Already, the Saudis have watched with alarm as Turkey — their ally in supporting the Syrian rebels — has begun making conciliatory gestures toward Iran, including an invitation by the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, to his Iranian counterpart to pay an official visit earlier this month.
In the wake of the accord’s announcement on Sunday, Saudi Twitter users posted a wave of anxious, defeatist comments about being abandoned by the United States.
In many ways, those fears are at odds with the facts of continuing American-Saudi cooperation on many fronts, including counterterrorism. “We’re training their National Guard, we’re doing security plans and training for oil terminals and other facilities, and we’re implementing one of the biggest arms deals in history,” said Thomas W. Lippman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute who has written extensively on American-Saudi relations.
And despite all the talk of decreasing reliance on Saudi oil, the Saudis remain a crucial producer for world markets.
But none of this can obscure a fundamental split in perspectives toward the Geneva accord. The Saudis see the nuclear file as one front in a sectarian proxy war — centered in Syria — that will shape the Middle East for decades to come, pitting them against their ancient rival.
“To the Saudis, the Iranian nuclear program and the Syria war are parts of a single conflict,” said Bernard Haykel, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton. “One well-placed Saudi told me, ‘If we don’t do this in Syria, we’ll be fighting them next inside the kingdom.’ ”
How the Saudis propose to win the struggle for Syria is not clear. Already, their expanded support for Islamist rebel fighters in Syria — and the widespread assumption that they are linked to the jihadist groups fighting there — has elevated tensions across the region. After a double suicide bombing killed 23 people outside the Iranian Embassy in Beirut last Tuesday, the Arab news media was full of panicky reports that this was a Saudi “message” to Iran before the nuclear talks in Geneva. A day later, a Shiite group in Iraq claimed responsibility for mortars fired into Saudi Arabia near the border between the two countries.
The Saudi-owned news media has bubbled with vitriol in recent days. One prominent columnist, Tareq al-Homayed, sarcastically compared President Obama to Mother Teresa, “turning his right and left cheeks to his opponents in hopes of reconciliation.”
American efforts to assuage these anxieties, including Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Riyadh earlier this month, have had little effect.
The Saudis have already broadcast their discontent about the Iran agreement, and America’s Syria policy, by refusing their newly won seat on the United Nations Security Council last month. It was a gesture that many analysts ridiculed as self-defeating.
Beyond such gestures, it is not clear that the Saudis can do much. The Obama administration has made fairly clear that it is not overly worried about Saudi discontent, because the Saudis have no one else to turn to for protection from Iran.
The Saudis have increased their support for Syrian rebel groups in the past two months, including some Islamist groups that are not part of the secular American-backed coalition.
“They are working with some people who make us squeamish,” said one United States official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “But they’re effective, they’re the real deal. These are Islamists who foresee a Syria where Alawites and Christians are tolerated minorities, but at least they’re not enemies to be slaughtered.”
In its most feverish form, the Saudis’ anxiety is not just that the United States will leave them more exposed to Iran, but that it will reach a reconciliation and ultimately anoint Iran as the central American ally in the region. As the Saudi newspaper Al Riyadh put it recently in an unsigned column: “The Geneva negotiations are just a prelude to a new chapter of convergence” between the United States and Iran.
That may seem far-fetched in light of the ferocious and entrenched anti-Americanism of the Iranian government. But the Saudi king and his ministers have not forgotten the days of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran, who cherished his status as America’s great friend in the region.
“The Saudis are feeling surrounded by Iranian influence — in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Bahrain,” said Richard W. Murphy, a retired American ambassador who spent decades in the Middle East. “It’s a hard state of mind to deal with, a rivalry with ancient roots — a blood feud operating in the 21st century.”