The Iran deal: a view from Saudi Arabia

Nawaf Obaid

Nawaf Obaid, an adviser to senior Saudi officials and a visiting fellow at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center, writes for Iran Matters that Saudi Arabia will not simply trust that Iranian leaders are turning about-face on longtime disputes involving the Gulf and the Arab world. He writes that while the Saudis cautiously welcome new rhetoric from Iran, they remain determined to counter Iran's expansionist approach in Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere in the region -- and will reciprocate if Iran does opt for a nuclear weapons capability:

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By Nawaf Obaid

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.

The 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.

Nawaf Obaid is a Senior Fellow at the King Faisal Center in Riyadh and a visiting fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard Kennedy School.