America’s Position in the Persian Gulf
Deteriorates as Relations With Key Allies Worsen
While the Obama administration is cheered by the spread of “democratic” protests throughout the Arab world, key allies—especially Saudi Arabia—are increasingly apprehensive regarding America’s commitment to their governments. Any administration must balance its economic, military and political interests with its desire to see democratic reforms. However, the Saudis and other fragile autocracies worry that President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and other top officials are leaning too far toward the promotion of revolutionary change.
The Washington Post’s Karen DeYoung writes that the “Saudis are feeling an ominous chill from all points of the compass”—Bahrain to the east, Yemen to the south, Egypt to the west, and Iraq to the north (“Top White House Aide Delivers Obama Letter to the King”, WP, April 12). The Saudis were furious when the administration criticized their deployment of troops to Bahrain, whose Shiite majority (under Iranian influence) has risen up to demand more political representation. The U.S. saw this as a step toward majority rights, but Riyadh sees it as a clear case of “interference by Iran’s Shiite theocracy”.
The Saudi kingdom will be at a difficult transition point soon, as its 86-year old monarch, King Abdullah, departs the scene. It is a majority Sunni nation, but has a sizeable Shiite population in the oil-rich eastern region. It is deeply worried about Iran’s increasing support for international terrorism directed against stable and often Sunni monarchies, particularly what it sees as Tehran’s interference in Bahrain. It worries that the quid pro quo with the US—Washington extends its nuclear and other military umbrellas to protect the Kingdom, while the Saudis stabilize global oil flows and prices, has become one-sided.
The Saudis believe that the Iranians have stepped up their efforts to destabilize the kingdom and other monarchies (See Spindle and Coker, “The New Cold War”, WSJ, April 16). They worry that Washington sometimes takes its eye off a key factor—that 20% of the world’s oil flows through the narrow waterway between the Saudi Arabia and Iran–and fails to appreciate how important Riyadh’s role is in maintaining those transits.
Riyadh likely exaggerates the Iranian hand in the spread of revolutions, but probably believes it. The Saudis firmly think that Tehran is sponsoring instability in Lebanon through its support of Hezbollah (true), in Palestine (yes, at least with Hamas in Gaza), in Morocco (less clear), in Syria (yes, but largely supportive so far of the ruling clique), and in Bahrain and the Emirates (likely). They feel that the U.S. has too quickly embraced the clarion call for revolution, from Libya to Tunisia to Egypt, without realizing the consequences nor appreciating the extent of Iranian complicity.
It may be hard to always see the hidden Iranian hand in all this, but not difficult to conclude that Tehran may be a major beneficiary of the changing political order. The Saudis panicked when they saw how fast the U.S. let loose of President Mubarak in Egypt and worry that it might repeat that “mistake” in other—stable, but autocratic—areas. In Saudi eyes, “Mubarak represented a key bulwark in what Riyadh perceives as a great Sunni wall standing against an expansionist Iran”, Spindler and Coker write.
Riyadh has deep concerns over the likely fall of another ruler in Yemen, the increasing influence of Muslim radicals in Egypt, continuing conflict in Palestine, the riots in Bahrain, what the “rebels” may actually represent in Libya, and even growing Iranian influence in Iraq. Not a pretty picture compounded by their paranoia that the U.S. commitment to the Saudi monarchy may not be rock solid. They also have begun exploring what it would take to achieve nuclear weapons status, given that they firmly believe that’s where Tehran is heading (and amid growing doubts about the U.S. nuclear umbrella).
It is in this context that Saudi-U.S relations fractured recently, as Washington condemned Riyadh’s dispatch of (armored) troops into Bahrain to quell the disturbances. Although unrelated, the Saudis used the occasion to once again blame the U.S. for supporting Israel and not pushing harder for Palestinian statehood—a development they believe would greatly limit Iranian opportunities in that area. Finally, Riyadh said it would be reconsidering the pending $60 billion arms sale from the U.S.
At the core lies Saudi concerns, as DeYoung notes, “that it has been taken for granted by the U.S. for too long.” Riyadh considers itself as a voice for moderation and reason in a troubled region and resents pressure from Washington to implement political reforms.
The Saudis may overstate the challenges to their regime and the degree to which Iran is behind every move that appears to threaten the current order. But it is the case that they tend to see the Iranian hand in every shift in the political landscape, including in Iraq. The monarchy is convinced that the Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki is nothing but an Iranian stooge, and as Americans withdraw more forces, they think that Iran will simply extend its political control that much closer.
STRATFOR published an interesting analysis (April 13) that would support Riyadh’s fears(“US-Iranian Struggle and Arab Unrest”). STRATFOR noted that “Tehran is the rising power” in the region and the one that will be filling the vacuum as the American military presence declines in Iraq.
“It is Tehran that has a strong, established network of proxies and covert operatives already in place in key positions across the region”, STRATFOR notes. Iran can foment unrest in Gaza or Lebanon that can spill over to Israel; it can at least exacerbate the turmoil in Bahrain and Yemen; it can encourage the restive Shiite populace in eastern Saudi Arabia to revolt. They see America’s traditional allies falling (Mubarak) and regimes that while not democratic were at least stable (Yemen and Libya), and finally dependable allies having serious doubts (Israel and Saudi Arabia) about U.S. commitments.
It is in this context that President Obama dispatched national security advisor Tom Donilon to Riyadh last week, carrying a conciliatory letter to the King. That may not alleviate Saudi fears, who worry that Washington may sacrifice the Kingdom to the altar of revolutionary change.
President Obama and his administration have a difficult challenge in balancing our commitment to assisting democratic forces in achieving significant political influence, while not jeopardizing our critical economic and political interests in the region.
Maybe we ought to just concentrate on promoting democratic change in Iran. That would serve all of our interests!
- Tyrus W. Cobb
April 18, 2011