BEIRUT - As
President Barack Obama pursues a historic deal with Iran over its nuclear
program, he has already made history -- though perhaps not in the way he
intended. For the first time since the United States emerged as a major power
in the Middle East, all of its key allies -- Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia --
are in open revolt against its policies.
With U.S. and
Iranian negotiators preparing for another round of negotiations, Washington's
relationship with Riyadh may prove the hardest to patch up. While Israeli
signaled that a previous version of a nuclear deal was something they
"didn't love but could live with," Saudi concerns about Iran relate to a whole range
of actions that the kingdom views as a threat to their influence in the Arab
world -- and even their grip on power at home. As a result, analysts and former
U.S. officials say, Saudi Arabia sees any realistic deal as American
acquiescence to Tehran's hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East.
officials] don't think this leads to a deal that leads to peace, they think
this leads to Iranian domination of the Gulf," said Jon Alterman, the director
of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International
Studies. "To their minds it doesn't do anything about Iranian ambitions, it
just takes the United States out of the equation as a force that's helping box
This is far from
the first issue on which the Saudi royals have been at odds with the Obama
administration. Top Saudi officials were
angered by a previous U.S. decision to cancel a planned strike against
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, as well as what they perceived as
Washington's hostile attitude toward the governments in Egypt and Bahrain. In
response to these disagreements, Saudi Arabia has embarked on an independent
effort to train Syrian rebels - even enlisting
Pakistani trainers in its effort - while intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin
that the kingdom would undertake a "major shift" away from Washington.
It may just be
that Saudi Arabia and the United States have increasingly irreconcilable
priorities when it comes to the Middle East. While the Obama administration's
focus is clearly on Iran's nuclear program, Saudi royals see potential threats
in a range of other Iranian activities, such as its support for the Assad
regime, its patronage of the Lebanese paramilitary organization Hezbollah, and
what they perceive as its intent to use Shia communities to stoke unrest in the
"They want to
stop [Iran], to stop its ability to project influence in the region. And I
think they've drawn the line in Syria," said Bernard Haykel, a professor of
Near Eastern studies at Princeton University. "Sometimes they say, ‘if we don't
do it in Syria, the next time it will be on our own territory.'"
The threat of
Iran destabilizing the governments of the Arab Gulf may not be the top concern
of anyone in Washington, but analysts say that it's an issue officials in
Riyadh takes seriously. It was only two years ago, after all that they spearheaded
an intervention into Bahrain to put down what they viewed as a pro-Iranian
uprising against the ruling Sunni regime.
"There is this
idea that the Iranians are supporting fifth columns in the states of the
region, which they will use to mount an unconventional attack," said Alterman.
"That they have agents from within Shia communities and more broadly who [Saudi
officials] believe will...carry out asymmetrical warfare against the Gulf
Chas Freeman -- a former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia who was tapped for a top intelligence
post in the Obama administration before a controversy about his views toward
Israel caused him to withdraw his name -- believes that the Saudis' concerns go
beyond the fear that Washington will no longer help contain Iran, but may
actually align itself with Tehran again. "[There are] probably recollections of
the time, more than 30 years ago, when Iran was the regional gendarme of the
United States," he said. "That would mean a long-term strategic erosion in their
relative position in the region."
The idea that
U.S.-Iranian relations could return to what they were under the Shah's time may
seem outlandish to officials in Washington. But the royals in Riyadh perhaps
have a deeper institutional memory than their American counterparts. Foreign
Minister Saud al-Faisal took office four years before the Iranian Revolution,
while the current King Abdullah was already head of the Saudi Arabian National
Guard and second in line for the throne.
While the United
States and Iran have so far worked to keep negotiations focused on the nuclear
issue, it may be difficult to keep broader concerns about Tehran's role in the
Middle East from leaking into the conversation. Alterman believes that a final
agreement may have to address issues like Iran's support for the Assad regime
and Hezbollah, without which it would be impossible to fully lift sanctions.
"You could get to May, and have some very, very difficult political discussions
in the U.S. and Iran," he said.
Such a broadening
of the issues on the table could give the Saudis a chance to make their voice
heard -- but few expect them to change their tune. "When Kerry went to Saudi
Arabia [earlier this month], they told him in no uncertain terms that they're
against any deal being cut, any lifting of the sanctions," said Haykel. "They
want Iran to be punished."
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images