Saudi Arabia’s Last-Ditch Effort to Stop America’s Pivot to Iran

Did Riyadh execute Nimr to show the West that Tehran is still a loose cannon?

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 04:  U.S. President Barack Obama looks on as King Salman bin Abd alAziz of Saudi Arabia speaks during a  bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House September 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The President and the King were expected to discuss various issues including joint security and counter-terrorism efforts (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 04: U.S. President Barack Obama looks on as King Salman bin Abd alAziz of Saudi Arabia speaks during a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office of the White House September 4, 2015 in Washington, D.C. The President and the King were expected to discuss various issues including joint security and counter-terrorism efforts (Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia’s escalating diplomatic war with Iran is part of a new attempt to derail what Riyadh sees as a clear American shift towards Tehran. Unfortunately for the kingdom, it probably won’t work.

That’s because the Obama administration has effectively decided that upholding the nuclear accord with Iran is more important to U.S. interests — and to the president’s historical legacy —  than safeguarding a decades-old alliance with Saudi Arabia. From holding off on imposing new sanctions after Iran violated U.N. resolutions recently to all but turning a blind eye to Tehran’s military role in Iraq, the Obama administration has alarmed Riyadh and other Persian Gulf powers that fear being left on the sidelines.

The kingdom may have reason to worry. The United States sharply criticized Riyadh over the execution last week of a prominent Shiite cleric, Nimr al-Nimr, voicing concern it could fuel sectarian tensions in the region. But when a mob torched the Saudi Embassy in Tehran in outrage over the cleric’s death, Washington and other Western governments offered a more muted response, calling on the Iranian authorities to ensure the security of diplomatic missions.

That’s a sharp contrast from how the White House reacted in 2011 when the British Embassy in Tehran was overrun after Western governments tightened sanctions on Iran. President Barack Obama himself publicly accused the Iranian government of permitting the attack.

“For rioters essentially to be able to overrun the embassy and set it on fire is an indication that the Iranian government is not taking its international obligations seriously,” Obama said at the time.

In another sign of what the Saudis see as evidence of a conciliatory approach to Iran, Washington has yet to impose sanctions against Tehran even after the regime conducted two ballistic missile tests since the nuclear deal was agreed in July. The U.S. administration said it would impose sanctions on Iran over the missile launches — which violated U.N. resolutions — but has since pulled back from taking action. The delay has drawn criticism from lawmakers and critics of the deal.

The missile tests have coincided with a pivotal moment when Iran is required to carry out key measures under the nuclear deal to dismantle elements of its program, including shipping out stockpiles of enriched uranium, decommissioning centrifuges and dismantling a heavy-water reactor.

The administration’s reticence on the missile tests have reinforced Saudi Arabia’s fears that Obama has begun a gradual strategic turn toward Tehran and is abandoning its traditional Arab allies.

“The larger issue is by talking to Iran, the U.S. confirmed the fact that it no longer views the Arab world as singularly important,” said Vali Nasr, a former U.S. diplomat and dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

Since tensions spiked over the weekend between Riyadh and Tehran, the United States has appealed for calm and urged both sides to take steps to defuse the crisis — without publicly siding with either country in the dispute.

Since Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken to Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at least twice and also talked to Saudi Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir and Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, State Department spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday.

The United States had no intention of acting as a mediator in the conflict, Kirby said, and White House spokesman Josh Earnest said there was “plenty of blame to go around.”

In years past, it would have been unthinkable for the U.S. government to take an even-handed approach in the case of an argument between the Saudis and their Iranian rivals. The rapport that developed between Kerry and other American diplomats and their Iranian counterparts during the course of the nuclear negotiations has dismayed Riyadh.

The Saudis are not able to accept “a world in which an American secretary of state can talk to his Iranian counterpart on his BlackBerry,” Nasr told Foreign Policy.

Angered over Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria, his withdrawal of support for former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak after popular protests in 2011, and his readiness to turn a new page in Washington’s relations with Iran, Saudi Arabia has come to believe that the United States can no longer be counted on as a rock solid ally ready to come to the aid of its Arab friends, Nasr and other analysts said.

Increasingly, the Saudis are striking out on their own, staging a major military intervention last year in neighboring Yemen against Shiite Houthi rebels supported by Iran. The campaign has failed to achieve a quick victory and threatens to turn into a quagmire for Riyadh, with U.S. officials privately urging the Saudis to cut their losses and negotiate a peace deal.

For its part, Washington has been disappointed with Saudi Arabia’s lackluster efforts fighting the Islamic State, as Riyadh has devoted most of its energy in recent months to the faltering campaign in Yemen. U.S. officials, and their counterparts in Europe and the Middle East, worry about the future stability of the Saudi monarchy given a growing succession crisis and other domestic problems. And Western governments were particularly disturbed by the execution of Nimr, as well as its provocative timing — which came after months of painstaking diplomacy to persuade Iran and other powers on both sides of the Syrian war to enter into a peace process.

But Brett McGurk, the U.S. pointman for the anti-ISIS effort, told reporters Tuesday he expects both governments to overcome their differences and work toward a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Syria, citing encouraging signs from Riyadh.

“Even the Saudis recognize you have to have some sort of a political process to de-escalate the overall conflict,” he said. “What I’ve heard is they’ve said that, you know, nothing here should really stop the process that was launched in Vienna.”

The next round of peace talks between the Syrian government and the opposition is slated for Jan. 25, but many diplomats doubt the prospects for success without the presence of Iran or Saudi Arabia at the table.

Iran voiced incandescent rage over the execution of Nimr but will likely calibrate its reaction to Saudi Arabia’s actions, according to analysts and former officials who said Tehran is anxious to avoid jeopardizing the planned lifting of economic sanctions promised under the nuclear deal. Iran’s economy has suffered under the weight of the sanctions coupled with falling oil prices, and Tehran stands to gain access to roughly $100 billion in impounded funds. The easing of sanctions also could allow Iran to increase its oil exports from 1 million barrels a day currently to a pre-sanctions level of up to 2.5 million barrels a day.

“We should not underestimate how much they are committed to the deal to secure sanctions relief,” said Matthew McInnis, a former U.S. intelligence official who tracked Iran and is now a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.  

After the nuclear deal was clinched last year, the Obama administration tried to repair its frayed ties with the Saudis, with little success. The White House chose not to publicly warn Riyadh against executing Nimr, and instead conveyed its concerns in private.

But Washington may soon face a day of reckoning with the Saudis, as the two countries interests diverge, according to Nasr.

“At some point, Saudi actions are going to force us to say this particular action undermines our interests and we can’t support you,” he said.

The perception that the United States has pulled back from a once dominant role in the Middle East has prompted Arab governments to entertain overtures from Russia, which has waded into the Syrian conflict to prop up the regime in Damascus.

While the Saudis and Iran engaged in a war of words this week, Russia offered to serve as an intermediary. Moscow’s foreign ministry said Monday that Russia was ready to help both sides pursue “a path of dialogue.”

FP’s John Hudson contributed to this article.

Photo credit: Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images.