Key fact

Saudi Arabia is working towards a defence deal with the US to buy $60bn-worth of military equipment

Source: MEED

If there had been any doubts about Saudi Arabia’s concerns over Iran’s growing influence in the region, the contents of US diplomatic cables from Riyadh leaked in late November should have erased them. According to the leaked cables, which were released by the whistleblowing website Wikileaks, in an April 2008 meeting with then-chief of the US Central Command, David Petraeus, the Saudi ambassador to Washington talked of King Abdullah’s “frequent exhortations to the US to attack Iran”. Other leaked cables stated that the kingdom’s foreign minister said the “use of military pressure against Iran should not be ruled out”.

Another communique to Washington is said to have reported that King Abdullah was sufficiently anxious about the Islamic Republic de-veloping nuclear technology that he demanded the US “cut off the head of the snake”.

Distorted picture of Saudi Arabia

The cables present, however, a distorted picture of Saudi Arabia, implying that the kingdom is more prepared to accept war in the region than is the case.

“Saudi Arabia has committed itself to a major industrialisation campaign that will require sustained engagement with the rest of the world,” says Thomas Lippman, senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. “It’s not rational that they would jeopardise this in favour of a pre-emptive strike against the theoretical possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.”

Saudi Arabia [is committed] to major industrialisation … that requires sustained [global] contact”

Thomas Lippman, Middle East Institute

Despite the awkwardness of the remarks for Riyadh, they highlight the kingdom’s desire to do something to contain the growing presence of its Shia neighbour, and its frustration with the failure of the US administration to make real progress in doing so.

The leaked cables also highlight the unwillingness of Saudi Arabia to act alone. Despite working towards a defence deal with the US, in which it is set to buy $60bn-worth of military equipment, direct military confrontation with Iran is not something that Riyadh would contemplate. In fact, the deal is an indication of its desire for Washington to maintain a strong military presence in the region. The package under discussion would take a decade to deliver and would require US expertise for training, operations and maintenance for many years after that.

But, like many of its neighbours, Riyadh’s public utterances on Iran are constrained by a population that, by and large, sympathises with a fellow Islamic state more than with the US or Israel – the two countries most likely to take military action against Iran. Riyadh is acutely sensitive to the fact that most Arabs feel their monarchs are too beholden to their Western allies, particularly in the aftermath of the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Riyadh doesn’t believe it can effect a major change … today, but it is maintaining levers of influence”

Gregory Gause, University of Vermont

“The Saudis are pushing the US to take an aggressive stance, but they wouldn’t want to be directly implicated,” says Gregory Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont, in the US. “They want America to deal with the problem, but in a way that doesn’t have any blow-back. There’s a certain amount of magical thinking going on.”

So it is left to the US to shoulder the burden of Iranian containment. And it is not doing so well. Despite the insistence of President Barrack Obama in his inauguration speech that he would offer an outstretched hand to Iran rather than a clenched fist, the failure of his administration to make any headway with a diplomatic approach has led quickly to its substitution by economic sanctions that are even more severe than those employed by his predecessor President George W Bush.

To date, though, this approach has been equally unsuccessful. Although Iran resumed talks on its nuclear programme with a group of six international powers on 6 December, the hopes of its interlocutors are not high. The previous day, Tehran pointedly took another step along the path of nuclear development when it started to use its own yellowcake (refined uranium ore) in an Isfahan conversion plant. Even as the US continues to pursue a twin-track approach of diplomacy and sanctions, there is an increasingly widespread feeling that, based on the current trajectory, a nuclear-armed Iran is inevitable.

Shifting political power in the Middle East

If Iran were to successfully acquire a nuclear weapons capability, the balance of power in the Middle East would be permanently and dramatically changed.

“Once Iran gets a nuclear bomb, the whole calculus of the Middle East changes,” says Simon Henderson, a specialist on Saudi Arabia at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Iran would be considered to be top dog in the region and they would see this as a way of leveraging their influence. Iran, people judge, would use nuclear capacity for political purposes – to extend their own influence, engage with other Shia communities and undermine the Sunni regimes.”

For Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the pre-eminent power in the Middle East, such
a scenario is unthinkable. But as the Islamic Republic edges towards a nuclear capability, neither Riyadh nor Washington appears to know what to do next. When it comes to a strategy to deal with the situation, Saudi Arabia “are being headless chickens”, says Henderson. “They go to bed at night hoping the situation will be different when they wake up in the morning.”

US lost credibility in Iran

The prospect of outside powers finding a solution looks as far away as ever. Just as the Saudi regime is constrained by a public resistant to outside intervention, the precipitate attack in 2003 on an Iraq that had not in fact acquired a nuclear capability and the subsequent failure to “win the peace”, has left no appetite for another conflict either within the US or among its allies.

The threat of a US intervention in Iran is no longer credible. “Obama’s administration is constrained by Obama’s view of the world,” says Henderson. “It says all the options are on the table, but people don’t believe [that military action is an option]. If Bush said so, they would. But [Iran’s President] Ahmedinejad doesn’t believe it from Obama,” he adds.

“It’s absolutely clear that this US administration doesn’t want a third confrontation,” says Gause.

While a nuclear-armed Iran is a frightening possibility for Riyadh in the long term, Tehran’s increasing soft power in the region is a more immediate threat. Iran’s willingness to stand up to Washington and Tel Aviv on the nuclear issue, its financial support for Hamas and Hezbollah, and its affinity with the region’s Shia populations make it a genuine competitor to Saudi Arabia for political influence in the Middle East.

“Iran’s influence is not because people think they are going to march their armies across the border,” says Gause. “It’s because they have ideological ties to sub-state groups that have important roles to play within those states.”

According to Gause, Iraq is “the central prize” for the two powers, and the recently-leaked diplomatic cables reveal the extent to which Iran and Saudi Arabia are seeking to shape the country’s political future in their own interests.

One cable to Washington in September 2009 from the US ambassador to Riyadh estimated that Iran gives $100m-200m a year to political groups in Iraq, while “the Saudis are using their money and power … to support Sunni political aspirations”. Riyadh has backed the leader of the Iraqi National Movement, Iyad Allawi, who commands the support of most of the country’s Sunni groups, while Tehran has promoted the cause of Shia leader Nouri al-Maliki.

The rivalry between the two countries is also being played out elsewhere in the region. In Syria, King Abdullah has sought to combat Iranian influence by forging closer relations with President Bashar al-Assad. In turn, cooperation between Riyadh and Damascus underpinned the formation of a unity government in Lebanon in 2009. The visit of the two leaders to Beirut in July also helped to calm rising tensions between the March 14 movement of Prime Minister Saad Hariri and Hezbollah.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia has taken the unusual step of deploying its own forces to suppress a Houthi insurgency that it claims has Iranian backing.

Challenging political times for Saudi Arabia

But at every turn, Riyadh is finding that Iran’s influence is far from easy to repel. In Iraq, Tehran has helped to broker the formation of a Shia coalition under the leadership of Al-Maliki, who was formally nominated for a second term as prime minister at the end of November, after Allawi failed to form a government despite winning the most parliamentary seats in the March elections.

In September, Ahmedinejad chose Damascus as the venue for a speech claiming that the Middle East region would “disrupt” the plans of the US and Israel to impose their own solution to the Arab-Israeli problem. A month later, the Iranian leader grabbed the headlines again when he was greeted by a rapturous reception in the streets of Beirut at the start of a two-day visit to Lebanon.

In Yemen, there is even a suspicion that Riyadh picked a fight with Iran that it thought it could win – even though it was unclear that Iran was involved in the first place. “I don’t think that Iran was involved, but the Saudis say they are, and they are saying that they are overcoming them,” says Gause.

All in all, Riyadh finds itself in challenging times. “Saudi influence is diminished because of the way Iran is behaving and it is diminished because its main international supporter – the US – is seen to be less powerful,” says Henderson.

In the absence of strategic direction, there is little the kingdom can do but continue in the same vein and hope that it all works out in the end. “Riyadh doesn’t believe it can effect a major change in Iraq, Lebanon or Syria today, tomorrow or the next day,” says Gause. “But it is maintaining levers of influence that might become more useful in time.”