Editor’s Note: In an interview with the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), Gregory Gause looks at how Saudi Arabia is apprehensive about improving relations between the United States and Iran. Gause says that the chief impetus for Saudi support of the Syrian insurgency is unwinding Iranian influence in the region.
CFR: What motivated Saudi Arabia to decide against giving a speech to the UN General Assembly for the first time in history?
Gause: Fewer speeches to the General Assembly are generally good thing. So this is a trend that should be encouraged. Specifically, I think the Saudis are trying to signal to the United States that they’re quite displeased with the way U.S. policy is going in the Middle East. Having said that, I don’t want to exaggerate the effects of this displeasure.
The Saudis have been displeased with U.S. policy in the Middle East a number of times in the past. The irony of this is that the more displeased they are with the United States, the more they see their regional rivals, in this case Iran, increasing in power—so they then need the United States more. In other words, their perception of their strategic setbacks makes ties with the United States all that much more important. They really don’t have an alternative patron.
CFR: So the Saudis did not appreciate the apparent rapprochement between Presidents Hassan Rouhani and Obama at the UN, capped off by the famous fifteen-minute phone call?
Gause:That was the most recent thing, but we can take this back a couple of steps. The Saudis were, of course, extremely supportive of the military coup in Egypt, which the United States has sent mixed signals about. I don’t want to say that Washington is dead-set against the military coup…
CFR: But the White House has indicated its displeasure with Egypt’s interim leadership, holding up delivery of U.S. military aid.
Gause: Right, the Saudis don’t like that, and very much didn’t like the backing away from the military threat against Syria. I think that was the primary cause of their disquiet with the United States in the last couple of weeks. They think they went out on a limb by publicly supporting a U.S. strike when it was talked about by President Obama, and then the United States pulled the rug out from under them by not carrying through.
It is too soon to tell whether Pompeo would take a different approach toward Turkey...Though I wouldn’t expect the direction of U.S. policy to change significantly...The working groups put in place after Tillerson’s Ankara meetings were something that multiple other secretaries of state had used in the past to address tough policy issues, and there [is] no reason why this particular group could not continue under the new leadership...[Moreover], U.S. policy on the issues of Brunson and Gülen will not change.