Saudi Arabia and an Iran Nuclear Deal

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is not the only one worried about a possible U.S. nuclear deal with Iran. The leaders of Saudi Arabia are also concerned.  They fear that if Washington reaches an accommodation with Tehran on its nuclear program, the two countries will begin to cooperate on other issues—including Syria, the fight against ISIS, and Afghanistan—which would give Iran greater influence in the region.

The U.S. is already working in parallel with Iran in Syria and Iraq, although officials in Washington deny any direct coordination. The two sides have similar interests in opposing the rise of ISIS. Both want to see an end to the civil war in Syria and are concerned about the spreading violence and instability in Iraq. The two countries also share the goal of attempting to stabilize Afghanistan and reduce Taliban influence.

The United States especially needs Iran’s help in Iraq and Syria. Tehran has sufficient leverage in Baghdad and Syria to encourage the political concessions and diplomatic compromises that will be needed to reduce the appeal of ISIS and stem the tide of political instability and war in the region. The U.S. knows this, which is undoubtedly one of the reasons the Obama administration is so intent on finding a solution to the nuclear standoff, which would pave the way for engaging Iran on other issues.

If Tehran and Washington reach an accommodation on the nuclear issue, Iran will begin to emerge from its political and diplomatic isolation. Sanctions will ease and new economic development opportunities will emerge. Iran will become a major regional player.

This is exactly what worries the Saudis. They do not want to see the rise of Iranian influence. Saudi leaders are concerned about Iranian support for the Houthi rebels in Yemen and the possibility of Iranian support for their own restless Shia communities. Saudi Arabia views Iran as its principal rival for primacy in the Gulf region, and as the source of revolutionary Shiite Islam which competes with Riyadh’s ultraconservative Sunni Wahhabism.

The Saudis are also very worried about ISIS, however. They are participating in the U.S.-led campaign of air strikes against ISIS, and they are bolstering their northern border against possible ISIS incursions.

The irony is that in the fight against ISIS Saudi Arabia needs Iran, just as the U.S. does. Through its support for the Shiite militias in Iraq, Iran is one of the major bulwarks against ISIS. From an objective security perspective, Saudi Arabia should be cooperating with Iran to deter and push back ISIS.

Saudi Arabia has deep geopolitical and ideological differences with Iran that prevent it from considering such cooperation, but conditions could change if the outcome of the nuclear negotiations is successful (still very uncertain) and the threat from ISIS intensifies. If their longtime allies in Washington begin to work alongside Iran, Saudi leaders may begin to do the same. Much would have to change for this to happen, but the result could be a united front against ISIS and greater security in the region.

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