Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Policy Gamble and the Iranian Nuclear Problem

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Germany

Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Germany

September 22, 2009

BROOKS FOREIGN POLICY REVIEW: ANALYSIS

By Webster Brooks

While there are many unanswered questions about Saudi Arabia’s evolving foreign policy, Riyadh’s response to Iranian enlargement in the Middle East already suggests that great change is at hand. The Saudi’s are engaged in active diplomacy with Iran while simultaneously fighting proxy wars against them, pursuing a massive military buildup, inviting the Soviets into the Persian Gulf and debating nuclear deterrence to push back the “Persian threat.”

 

Containing Iran’s drive for dominance in the Middle East has risen to the top of Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy agenda. Tehran’s enlarged footprint in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, the Palestinian territories and Gulf States has diminished Saudi Arabia’s political power across the Middle East. The threat to Riyadh’s national security interests are being felt with immediacy. Iranian backed Shiite militias control southern Iraq and threaten Saudi Arabia’s northern border. In Yemen, Iran is supporting the al Houthi Shiia insurgency against President Saleh’s government on the Kingdom’s southern border. With the specter of Iran’s nuclear program looming over the House of Saud, Riyadh is recalibrating its foreign policy to counter the possibility of a new existential threat. To combat Iran’s imperial reach King Abdullah has transformed Saudi Arabia’s once secretive cloak and dagger diplomacy into a fully engaged foreign policy agenda aimed at establishing Saudi Arabia as maximum leader of the Arab World. But King Abdulla’s multifaceted efforts to staunch the Iranian juggernaut have met with limited success. Thus, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy continues to undergo profound change that will require more accommodations to Tehran, greater independence from the United States, closer ties to Russia and an unprecedented military buildup that could include a Saudi nuclear program.    For decades, maintaining stability in the Persian Gulf and insuring the safe passage of oil through its critical shipping lanes defined Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy universe; a policy based on Riyadh’s reliance on American military power. The nexus of U.S.-Saudi relations was containment of Iran and Iraq whose highly militarized states constituted a direct threat to Riyadh. But the 1979 Iranian revolution that bought a radical Shiite theocracy to power, and President Bush’s ill-advised Iraq invasion that led to an Iranian backed Shiia government in Baghdad has changed the balance of power in the Persian Gulf.    With Saddam Hussein’s buffer state deposed and nothing standing between Saudi Arabia and Iran’s hegemonic designs, King Abdulla initiated a decisive shift in the Kingdom’s policies toward Tehran. Riyadh no longer treats Iran as a permanent adversary but a strategic competitor. Rather than leading a Sunni Arab united front to isolate Tehran, King Abdulla opened a permanent dialogue with Iran on a full range of diplomatic issues. Since Iranian President Ahmadinijad’s surprise invitation to address the religious pilgrimage in Mecca in 2007, Saudi and Iranian leaders have negotiated understandings over Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Both countries have sought to “manage” conflict between their competing religious and political factions to minimize sectarian bloodshed. In each instance Iranian backed Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, the Mahdi and Badr Forces in Iraq and HAMAS in Palestine have held the upper hand militarily. Thus, the Saudi’s have funneled arms and money to defend their Sunni allies, while negotiating compromises with Iran to preserve political options for their Sunni compatriots. Although King Abdullah slowed Iran’s momentum in Lebanon where the Cedar forces won the spring elections and HAMAS and al Fatah are at an impasse, Iran is clearly emerging as the Gulf’s dominant force. Indeed, the Iraqi Shiia ascendency to power under Nouri al Maliki constituted an enormous strategic setback for Riyadh. Expanded Iranian access to Iraqi oil, its waterways and its strategic energy platform in Basra has greatly strengthened Iran’s economic, military and political position across the Middle East.    With a weak national army, vulnerable borders and having dismissed American forces from its soil in 2003, King Abdullah has embarked on a military buildup that consumes 11% of the nation’s GDP. To counter Iran’s growing threat he turned to an unlikely ally; Russia. In 2007, following discussions with President Vladimir Putin, King Abdullah agreed to a $4 billion deal to purchase 150 Russian T-9 tanks, 100 MI-17 and MI-35 tanks, hundreds of BMP Armored Infantry Combat Vehicles and 20 BVIC air defense systems. Putin also offered the Saudi’s nuclear reactors and cooperation on a space program to invest in launching Saudi satellites.  Speculation that the Saudi arms deal with Moscow included a proviso that Russia would oppose Iran’s nuclear arms program has not materialized. Abdullah’s shift to allow the Russians arms sales shocked the United States and Western Europe. As a major arms and nuclear materials supplier to Iran, Russian arms sales to Saudi Arabia afford Moscow powerful leverage in the Persian Gulf at a time when American and Western European influence is declining.

Notwithstanding the Russian arms deal Saudi Arabia will remain in the U.S. sponsored Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC) defense pact. The Saudi’s will install an $8 billion border security system, procure coast guard vessels, surveillance aircraft, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles and a telecommunications network as part of the GCC agreement. But the Moscow agreement was a serious warning that Riyadh is no longer marching in lockstep with the U.S., especially when its national security interests are at state.  Similarly, the debate within the House of Saud about President Obama’s response to the Iranian nuclear threat has raised the issue of Riyadh pursuing a nuclear path.

The Saudi’s are skeptical about President Obama’s imprimatur to convene talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Irrespective of the fact that no proof exist that Iran has a nuclear weapons program, the Saudi’s are convinced Iran won’t suspend its enrichment activities or permit more intrusive inspections. Should the U.S. or Israel attack Iran’s nuclear facilities Tehran would likely respond with attacks on Saudi oil tankers, close Gulf shipping lanes, sabotage Saudi oil facilities and foment Shiia unrest within the Kingdom. While the Saudi’s are split on the issue of an attack against Iran, at the end of the day the decision is not theirs to make. It is this sense of frustration at the lack of a credible conventional and nuclear deterrent that has prompted the Saudi’s to consider a nuclear program.      

The prospects of Saudi Arabia attempting to develop a nuclear weapons program are remote. The Kingdom has no nuclear power facilities. Its scientists have no experience in enriching uranium for reactor fuel or operating nuclear reactors. Further, no evidence exists that Riyadh has tried to procure nuclear weapons from foreign suppliers. Saudi Arabia has joined the Gulf Cooperation Council initiative to develop a joint nuclear energy program. In May 2008, they also signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. on nuclear energy cooperation. Were the Saudi’s to move in the direction of a nuclear weapons program, they would undoubtedly face heavy international criticism, risk isolation and stiff economic sanctions. Nevertheless, the possibility of Riyadh going nuclear cannot be ruled out. If Iran brings a nuclear weapons program on-line, or Saudi confidence in America’s ability to protect the Kingdom collapses, or a new leader succeeds King Abdullah with a pro-nuclear weapons agenda, Riyadh could reverse course.   

While there are many unanswered questions about Saudi Arabia’s evolving foreign policy, Riyadh’s response to Iranian enlargement in the Middle East already suggests that great change is at hand. The Saudi’s are engaged in active diplomacy with Iran while simultaneously fighting proxy wars against them, pursuing a massive military buildup, inviting the Soviets into the Persian Gulf and debating nuclear deterrence to push back the “Persian threat.”

 Beyond Riyadh’s preoccupation with Iran, the broader currents of change sweeping over the Middle East are challenging the Saudi foreign policies as well. The Saudi’s are already softening their position towards Shiia Muslim communities in Arab countries in response to the “Shiia awakening.” The clamor for democracy that is bringing new forces to power through elections is forcing the Saudi’s to enter new alliances with a more diverse set of players. The growing role of non-state actors, militias and ethnic breakaway movements has exposed the limitations of Riyadh’s reliance on petro-dollars to simply buy off whole governments. The Saudi’s attempt to pay the Kurds $1 billion dollars to postpone the referendum on Kirkuk for ten years is a classic if not embarrassing case in point. Even the Saudi’s role as the grand mediator’s of Sunni Arab conflicts is being challenged by tiny Qutar that recently brokered peace arrangements in Lebanon and Yemen.    There is a “New Middle East” coming into being. How Saudi Arabia adjust its foreign policy to meet the Iranian challenge and embrace the winds of change engulfing the region will determine if Riyadh is prepared to meet the test of leadership in a new age.  ******

 
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