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 officials had 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.
"[Saudi 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 Iran in."
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 Sultan announced 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 Arab Gulf.
"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 states."
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."