The Iran Deal: A View from Saudi Arabia – Obaid

Published: December 4, 2013

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Editor’s Note:

Since January 2011, when the eruption of the so-called “Arab Spring” toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, there has been an increasingly public display of government to government disagreements between Washington and Riyadh. The most recent episode in the quarrels came in October when President Obama stepped back from seemingly imminent strikes on Syria following the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons. On October 18th Saudi Arabia rejected its election to a hard won seat on the UN Security Council citing its lack of faith in the body to carry out its international security obligations, specifically in the cases of the Syrian regime killing its citizens, failure to achieve a Mideast WMD “free zone” and the decades of conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

The second issue troubling Riyadh about Washington’s tactics, separate but not unrelated to Syria, is talk of a rapprochement between Iran and the United States. It began with newly elected President Rouhani’s charm offensive at the UN General Assembly meetings in New York in October and moved through the P5+1 talks in Geneva where a breakthrough was reached on sanctions versus Iranian nuclear developments in November. Breaking the ice with Tehran is just the latest confidence-shaking development in the Gulf where some question Washington’s commitment to regional security. The drawdown of military forces in the region, the declared “rebalancing” of American strategic interests toward Asia and America’s increasing energy self-reliance heighten anxiety over Iranian hegemony and interference in Arab affairs. Riyadh’s concerns over Syria point directly to Iranian influence and involvement and the Sunni-Shia divide.

In November Secretary of State John Kerry met with King Abdullah and senior Saudi officials to discuss the increasingly fractious relationship and the divergent approaches to regional crises. Kerry talked to the press afterwards with his Saudi counterpart Prince Saud Al-Faisal who characterized the relationship being based on “sincerity, candor, and frankness rather than mere courtesy.” Kerry noted, “And when we may differ once or twice on a tactic here or there, the bonds of our friends are much stronger than any of those differences at that moment in time.” President Obama subsequently talked with King Abdullah by phone about bilateral issues.

Despite attempts to patch diplomatic potholes the disenchantment lingers and divergent policies are emerging especially regarding Syria and Iran. As evidence there is the report on Tuesday that Prince Bandar bin Sultan, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, met with President Vladimir Putin in Russia, the second public visit to Moscow since July. Conversations about Iran and Syria are believed to have been on the table. One interpretation of the visit, viewed from a Moscow think-tank, was that the Saudis are seeking a way to diversify their foreign relations by restoring contacts with Russia. The head of Moscow’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, Fyodor Lukyanov, told Bloomberg, “Saudi Arabia is furious with the U.S. for threatening to attack Syria and then not carrying that out, as well as for its rapprochement with Iran.”

Yesterday Nawaf Obaid, an adviser to senior Saudi officials and a visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, wrote in the center’s “Iran Matters” blog about the context for contemporary Saudi foreign policy and Riyadh’s approach to Tehran — its involvement in Syria, its nuclear weapons program and its interference with Arab affairs. Importantly he also elaborates on Saudi foreign policy which has evolved dramatically to “an ever expanding foreign policy assertiveness that is being transformed from a primarily reactive based doctrine to a proactive one.” He writes, “The implications are that the Saudis will amalgamate political and financial incentives with an ever-growing military capability to sustain a forceful diplomacy to pursue vital national security imperatives.” Obaid, one of the few Saudi bellwethers on national security issues, said, “Saudi Arabia finds itself in a completely changed political environment in the region and beyond, having essentially been left alone to maintain stability in the Arab world and check Iranian influence.”

We are pleased to share “The Iran Deal: A View from Saudi Arabia” by Nawaf Obaid for your consideration.



The Iran Deal: A View from Saudi Arabia
Nawaf Obaid | December 3, 2013

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The fundamentals of Saudi foreign policy stem from its role as the cradle of Islam, the world’s central banker of energy and the Middle East’s economic and financial engine. As the birthplace of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) and the location of the religion’s two holiest sites, the Saudi Kingdom is in a unique standing vis-a-vis the more than 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide. This situation makes it incumbent on the Kingdom to remain extremely conservative at its core and outlook. This reality is enhanced by the Kingdom’s role as the world’s largest crude exporter. This has made Saudi Arabia the largest economy by far in the Middle East-North Africa region and the world’s third largest holder of foreign exchange reserves and is giving it the firepower to expend formidable financial and economic resources in assisting other nations in dire straits to maintain stability. The Kingdom’s enhanced role has generated an ever expanding foreign policy assertiveness that is being transformed from a primarily reactive based doctrine to a proactive one. The implications are that the Saudis will amalgamate political and financial incentives with an ever-growing military capability to sustain a forceful diplomacy to pursue vital national security imperatives.

Over the past few decades the Kingdom has gained a position of global prominence and considerable influence. It has led the regional response to curtail the Iranian agenda by improving Gulf security and moving forward on the Gulf Union initiative. It has put forward the Arab Peace Initiative as the basis for a final Palestinian-Israeli settlement that would bring a lasting peace between Israel and the entire Arab and Muslim worlds. The Saudis are also leading an alliance of like-minded states to attempt to dislodge the tyrannical regime of Assad in Damascus, stop the humanitarian catastrophe that has displaced over 25% of the Syrian populace and bring Syria back into the Arab fold. The Kingdom is also heavily involved in Egypt, Yemen, Lebanon, Jordan and Bahrain, supporting the moderate forces and strengthening the central governments to minimize the destructive policies of Iran and its local proxies. Finally, the Saudis have for years been working on the establishment of a “Zone Free of Weapons of Mass Destruction,” which, if achieved, would be a historic development.

Foremost, while many in the Obama administration are hailing the new deal to curb the Iranian nuclear weapons program and the new Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, has indicated his nation’s interest in rapprochement after years of tension and sanctions, the Saudis have cautiously welcomed the nuclear deal and Rouhani’s sensible rhetoric. But they are in no position to simply trust that a change is coming to Iran and therefore ease their vigilance and regional engagement and much increased presence. Saudi Arabia and Iran are on opposite sides of the Syrian conflict and various other regional conflicts. In order to meet this daunting challenge successfully, the Saudi Kingdom will have to be more proactive but also develop a new national security framework that will increase its capacity to successfully handle all the crises across the Muslim world.

Rising Iranian involvement in Syria will lead to Saudi Arabia’s increased stakes in the situation as the two leading regional powers seek to be the predominant force in resolving that conflict and emerging as the most influential post-conflict arbiter. Considering the shift in Western and regional international priorities—as well as the current political climate and regional stakes in the Syrian conflict—there is a realization in Riyadh that it is time for the major Arab powers to prepare a response to keep order in the Arab world and counter Iran’s expanding infiltration. The Kingdom and its regional allies will increase their support to the Syrian rebels and prevent the collapse of collateral nations like Lebanon and Jordan. The removal of the tyrannical regime in Damascus is a national security priority for the Saudis to check Iran’s delusional ambitions in the Arab world.

Saudi Arabia finds itself in a completely changed political environment in the region and beyond, having essentially been left alone to maintain stability in the Arab world and check Iranian influence. Given the pressures of this predicament, the fundamental basis of the new Saudi foreign policy doctrine is about radically altering course from being protected by others to protecting itself and its allies. The Saudis know they need to restructure their foreign policy and national security establishment to increase their capacity to handle themselves internationally on par with the political, economic and religious significance and influence the kingdom holds.

Hence, in light of the Iranian nuclear deal reached in Geneva to halt its progress temporarily and the strange manner by which it was accomplished, the Kingdom will very closely monitor the subsequent six months and see how transparent the process is. But what is clear, and here there should be no room for misinterpretation or misunderstanding, is that if the Iranians are allowed to keep “an enrichment capability” that will over the medium- to long-term make them a de facto nuclear power, then Saudi Arabia, in keeping with its new emerging strategic doctrine, will have no choice but to go nuclear as well.

Originally published in the Harvard Belfer Center blog “Iran Matters” and reprinted here with permission of the author.


About Nawaf Obaid

People Nawaf ObaidNawaf Obaid is a visiting fellow at the Belfer Center for 2013-2014. Currently, he is a counselor to both Prince Mohammad bin Nawaf, Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Prince Turki Al Faisal, who served as Saudi ambassador to the United States and was the longtime director of Saudi Arabia’s intelligence service.

From 2004 to 2007, he was was Special Advisor for National Security Affairs to Prince Turki Al Faisal while Prince Turki was the Saudi Ambassador to the United Kingdom & Ireland, and then the United States. He has been a research fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS), and the King Faisal Center for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh.

He is a graduate of Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service and has a Masters in Public Policy from the Harvard Kennedy School. He began his doctoral work at MIT’s Political Science Department and is currently completing work on his Doctorate of Philosophy in War Studies at London University (King’s College).

Source: Belfer Center, Harvard University


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