For the past 30 years, the United States has treated Saudi Arabia as its primary partner in the Persian Gulf and perhaps even the Middle East at large. While the two countries have cooperated on a number of issues, including preventing Soviet expansion and counterterrorism, the relationship at its core is based on a simple bargain: Saudi Arabia receives a U.S. security guarantee in exchange for ensuring the stability of global oil prices. Of course, Saudi Arabia is an autocratic Salafist state and the United States is a multiethnic democracy so they have naturally long differed on a variety of issues. But such divergent interests — never insignificant — were papered over, ignored, or resolved by unilateral compromise in the interests of preserving the basic bargain.
However, as the Middle East has changed over the last decade (the Iraq War, the Arab Spring, the diversification of energy supplies), these disagreements have grown both more public and frequent. Bitter rows over Egypt and President Barack Obama’s unwillingness to intervene in Syria have led senior Saudi officials to question U.S. resolve and commitment to the region.
But nowhere has U.S.-Saudi tension been more apparent than on the Iranian issue, as Saudi opposition to a prospective nuclear deal surpassed even that of Israel. The contretemps over Iran’s nuclear program masks a deeper conflict between the United States and Saudi Arabia over Iran’s place in the Gulf and the broader region. Whereas the United States views Iran’s return to the international fold as a potentially salutary development, Saudi Arabia regards this possibility as a crippling blow to the kingdom’s regional standing and an existential threat to the ruling al-Saud family.