Obama’s efforts to sign a nuclear deal with Iran have rattled the US’s historical allies in the region. It was expected that Israel would loudly object to any nuclear deal with Iran but the reactions of the Gulf States, with Saudi Arabia at their head, are now bordering between fear and hysteria.
Can the US successfully juggle its relations with Iran and the Gulf States without dropping any of them? Probably not.
In order to do so, Saudi Arabia would have to believe that a nuclear deal would stop Iran’s dash for nuclear break-out which it obviously doesn’t. Furthermore, it would have to believe in the US’s threat of war against Iran if Tehran does build a bomb, and the Saudis seem to doubt this as well.
So the US finds itself in the worst position ever in which it is damned if it does and damned if it doesn’t. In any scenario, the US is bound to lose face and the faith of its current allies.
The Saudis Don’t Trust Tehran
The Saudis have much to fear: Relations between Riyadh and Tehran soured with the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and festered when Saudi Arabia backed Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war in the 80’s. For years, Iran has been putting pressure on the Saudis’ dominance in the Gulf. Whether this is part of a Sunni-Shiite conflict, Tehran’s efforts to “export the revolution” or financial interests, the power struggle between these neighbors has been on for years and has been escalating through proxy wars fought by Iran in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
Tehran has an infamous track record of meddling in local politics of neighboring states out of the pretext of “helping” factions, which “happen to be” friendlier to Iran, Shiism and the Islamic Revolution. Usually such efforts by Tehran were met by Riyadh with disapproval or proxy fighting through third party militia. But, the Saudis attack on Yemen, following the Iranian backing of the Houthi rebels, is a game changer which has escalated the tensions between the two rivals.
Saudi Arabia is not only worried about proxy wars or of wars in proxy states. Saudi Arabia, unlike the USA, doesn’t have the “luxury” of its own nuclear arsenal which might inhibit Tehran from nuking Riyadh. One nuclear bomb over Riyadh will extinguish the Saudi empire and its ruling family with it. Thus, making it harder to trust Iran with nukes.
The Saudis Don’t Trust Washington Either
Obama seems to be stuck between a rock and a hard place: On the one hand, he is wooing Tehran in an effort to control its nuclear program and to destroy ISIS militia in Iraq and in Syria. On the other hand, he is trying to keep allies such as Saudi Arabia in line. Standing on both sides of the fence might seem possible as long as there is no direct and open conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In such a case, Obama will then have to choose.
But the Saudis don’t really believe that a nuclear deal with Iran will stop Tehran from building a bomb. Nor do they believe that the US is ready for an open war against Iran if it does renege on the nuclear deal. Riyadh’s disbelief in the placating messages from Tehran and from Washington are striking a wedge between Riyadh and Washington, a wedge which presented itself in the form of the snub of King Salman when he refused to attend a meeting between Obama and the Gulf states in Camp David last week.
Obama can keep on juggling Iran and Saudi Arabia with polished rhetoric only up to a point in which Iran and Saudi Arabia clash directly and not through proxy wars. If Iran continues to reassert its support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, no smooth talking can help Obama in keeping both sides happy.
Obama’s options are clearly limited and he is bound to place the US in a position of conflict in all possible scenarios. The region has turned into a huge unlit bonfire that’s just waiting for a spark to ignite. When it does, the US may be forced to war with a potential nuclear dimension. In the meantime, Obama’s administration is passing the buck to the next generation of leaders.