Will Nuclear Talks With Iran Provoke A Crisis In U.S.-Saudi Ties?

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The hints, and they are no more than hints, of an improved Iranian-American relationship have led to some interesting (to put it mildly) reactions from Saudi Arabia. For the first time, the Saudi government gave up its yearly opportunity to present its view of the world in an address to the United Nations General Assembly. The Saudis let it be known that their unhappiness with American foreign policy in the region — on Iran, on Syria, on the Palestinian issue — led to this demurral. Saudi commentators and media have raised the specter of the U.S. selling out Riyadh in a grand geopolitical bargain with Tehran. Are we headed for another “crisis” in Saudi-American relations?

In a word, no. There is nothing new here. The United States and Saudi Arabia have faced much more serious differences in the past, without the bilateral relationship being fundamentally altered — the 1973-74 oil embargo, the differences over the Camp David Accords and the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970’s, the profound crisis of 9/11 and the Iraq War. The episodic crises, both real and imagined, between Riyadh and Washington are, in fact, baked in the cake. They are the result of two enduring elements of the relationship: 1) the structural fact that the Saudis are the much weaker party in the partnership, and 2) the mistaken belief of many, more in the U.S. than in Saudi Arabia, that the de facto alliance is built on a complete complementarity of interests.

In any alliance between a weaker and a stronger party, the weaker is always tugged between the opposite, but equally dangerous, fears of entrapment and abandonment. When the United States and the Soviet Union were at daggers drawn in the Cold War, America’s Western European allies feared being dragged into a war not of their own choosing. When the U.S. and the USSR engaged in détente, the Europeans worried that their interests would be ignored. But the Western Europeans had nowhere else to go. There was not a third global power to which they could look for security. The British and the French acquired their own, small nuclear forces. The French made symbolic gestures of independence, like withdrawing from NATO’s military command. But nobody thought London or Paris could stand up to the Soviets on its own. In the end, the Western Europeans stuck with the U.S. and NATO because they did not have any reasonable alternative.

Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf monarchies are in exactly the same structural position vis-à-vis the U.S. and Iran. When the U.S. threatens Iran with military strikes over the Iranian nuclear program, the Gulf states fear that Iranian retaliation will be against them. When the U.S. signals a willingness to negotiate with Iran, they worry that Washington will anoint Tehran as the regional hegemon. If there were an alternative great power with which to ally, Saudi Arabia might be tempted to do so. But China is far from able to project military power to the Persian Gulf region. Like the NATO allies in the Cold War, the Saudis’ strategic choices are very limited.

The occasional hints that Riyadh is thinking about acquiring nuclear weapons, if Iran should do so, are motivated by the same fears that led the French and the British to build their nuclear forces. But the Saudis are hesitant on the nuclear question, for fear of alienating an American ally that on occasion infuriates them, but that they cannot do without. The irony of the Saudi strategic predicament is that as American miscues, like the Iraq War, enhance Iran’s regional influence, Riyadh needs the U.S. even more. The more it seems that Washington is reconciling with Iran, the more important maintaining the American security tie will be to the Saudis.

The fear of abandonment is structural in the Saudi-American relationship, but it is also exaggerated. American policy in the Persian Gulf for decades has been to prevent any other power from assuming a dominant position in the world’s oil patch. The United States has bases up and down the Arab side of the Gulf. The Obama Administration is not about to turn regional control over to an Iranian regime with which the United States has not even had diplomatic relations for over 30 years and with whom profound levels of mistrust remain. It is the job of American diplomats to remind their Saudi and Gulf interlocutors of that fact. That is not, as they say in Washington, a “heavy lift.”

The second structural element of the Saudi-American relationship that leads to episodic hyperventilation about “crises” is the misunderstanding among many about the bases of the relationship. Washington and Riyadh have never fully agreed on strategic goals in the Middle East. Their differences on Arab-Israeli questions are obvious. The Saudis were always nervous about America’s close relationship with the Shah of Iran back in the 1960’s and 1970’s. They actively lobbied against the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. For its part, Washington has worried at various times about Saudi meddling in other countries and, more recently, about Saudi support for spreading its version of Islam.

The core common interest keeping the two sides together has always been their mutual commitment to the security of the Saudi oil industry and their common opposition to regional power grabs by other parties. Being on the same side during the Cold War helped to smooth over other differences and occasionally gave the partners a common agenda, in places like Afghanistan. The end of the Cold War removed that element of cooperation, but the core common interest remained.

But many observers misunderstand this reality. One form of this misunderstanding is to exaggerate Saudi influence on American decision-making, assuming that Washington sees the need to placate Riyadh in order to achieve its wider regional goals. Marc Lynch is only the most recent analyst to make this case. Lynch worries that the Saudis and the other Gulf states will draw Washington more deeply into the Syrian morass and lead the Obama Administration to give up on its regional democracy agenda. He need not worry so much. As he was expressing those fears, the U.S. backed away from a military strike on Syria that the Saudis really wanted, made a deal on Syrian chemical weapons that the Saudis really don’t like, and then cut military aid to an Egyptian government that the Saudis really support. Not exactly a regional policy dictated from Riyadh. Bahrain is really the only place where the soft-peddling of Washington’s democracy agenda might have something to do with Saudi Arabia.

The more usual misunderstanding, though, is that when the Saudis and the Americans disagree, the relationship is in “crisis.” But the history of the relationship demonstrates that it is not complete agreement on the range of regional issues that keeps the Saudi-American relationship intact, but rather a common understanding on the core interest of Persian Gulf security. There is no doubt that Washington and Riyadh disagree on quite a bit these days, from how to handle Syria to the generals’ regime in Cairo to the promise and perils of the Rouhani presidency in Iran, on top of the hardy perennial of Palestine. But these disagreements, while serious, do not rise to the level of a bilateral crisis. There have been even wider disagreements in the past, and the common interests pushing the two countries together remain as salient as they have been over the past six decades.

As the United States moves forward on the Iranian front, it is important for the Obama Administration to keep the Saudis informed and, as necessary, reassured about the continuity of American strategic goals in the Gulf. American diplomacy can also point out to its Gulf partners the benefits that could accrue to all concerned from a more normal relationship with Iran, as has at least one important Saudi commentator in recent days. Neither the inflated hopes nor exaggerated fears of other actors should distract the Administration from its cautious but promising outreach to Iran.