Ian Black writes: Big changes make governments nervous, so it is striking to observe the jitters emanating from Saudi Arabia at the incipient thaw in relations between the US and Iran. Riyadh had long been rumbling with discontent over Washington’s responses to the Arab spring but their differences burst into the open with last month’s US-Russian deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons — putting Bashar al-Assad out of range of punitive air strikes. Now the prospect of agreement on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear programme is said to be giving the Saudi royals bad dreams.
Saudi Arabia and Iran have been strategic rivals since before the 1979 revolution – the shah was known as the “policeman of the Gulf” – as well as the respective leaders of the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. Iran’s position was inadvertently strengthened by the US-led invasion of Iraq and the installation of a Shia government in Baghdad. Tehran backs Assad and Hizbullah in Lebanon while Riyadh openly advocates regime change in Damascus. Syria’s conflict is indeed, in some ways, a proxy war.
The Saudis also fear Iran’s nuclear ambitions – King Abdullah famously urged the US to “cut off the head of the snake” – and have repeatedly signalled that they will acquire nuclear weapons if Iran does. They blame Tehran – though without much evidence – for encouraging Shia opposition to the Sunni monarchy in neighbouring Bahrain. Shias in the kingdom’s eastern provinces face state repression and Saudi clerics have used inflammatory sectarian language over Syria, especially Assad’s Alawite community.
Saudi diplomacy is unusually opaque, so the signs of anxiety are subtle but unmistakable. Saud al-Faisal, the foreign minister, cancelled his speech to the UN general assembly out of pique at the Syria CW agreement. In private conversations senior Saudis are scathing about President Obama’s preference for inspections and disarmament over military action. Obama’s high-profile phone call with Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s new president, is another big factor in this diplo-sulk. Like the Israelis, the Saudis do not believe, or do not want to believe, that Rouhani is a genuine moderate or can overcome hardline elements at home. Their fear is that in a much-touted “grand bargain” between Washington and Tehran, the Gulf states will be the losers. [Continue reading…]