Nuclear sands of Arabia

SamoreContinuing his trip through the region, Gary Samore writes in from Saudi Arabia:

On the Iran nuclear issue, I was struck that the Saudis are less concerned with the details of the nuclear negotiations and more with how the nuclear issue fits into the broader geopolitical threat they perceive from Iran. Unlike Israelis, who see the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat, the Saudis see the Islamic Republic itself as an existential threat.

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By Gary Samore

I am here in Saudi Arabia as a guest of Prince Turki al-Faisal of the King Faisal Centre for Research and Islamic Studies in Riyadh. Prince Turki hosted a lunch and seminar for me with Saudi academics and foreign policy experts and a public speaking event on “Creating a WMD Free Zone in the Middle East.”

The Saudis were gracious hosts, as always, but the questions were pointed. Beginning with the US invasion of Iraq and President’s Bush “freedom agenda” through to President Obama’s policies toward political change in Egypt (the abandonment of Mubarak and refusal to embrace Sisi), reluctance to arm the Syrian rebels, and eagerness for a nuclear deal with Iran, the Saudis have a long list of grievances. They don’t understand why Washington continues to support Iraqi Prime Minster Maliki (whom they see as a pawn of Tehran) and why we don’t throw our weight behind “nationalist” leaders (both Sunni and Shi’a) who would restore Iraq as a natural counterweight to Iran. Looking at the world from the Saudi vantage point, some of their complaints are hard to argue with.

On the Iran nuclear issue, I was struck that the Saudis are less concerned with the details of the nuclear negotiations and more with how the nuclear issue fits into the broader geopolitical threat they perceive from Iran. Unlike Israelis, who see the Iranian nuclear program as an existential threat, the Saudis see the Islamic Republic itself as an existential threat. The threat to Saudi Arabia is not a nuclear attack, but Iran’s conventional forces and potential to stir up dissention among the Arab Shi’a of the Arabian Peninsula by working through proxies such as Hezbollah. Bahrain is exhibit one. They fear that the Shi’a of Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province could be next.

Informed Saudis understand that Washington and Tehran are not on the verge of imposing a condominium in the region. Even if the nuclear issue were somehow resolved (and Saudi foreign policy experts understand this is not likely to happen anytime soon), there are too many other points of dispute between the U.S. and Iran. Nonetheless, the Saudis fear that the U.S. will accommodate Iran on other issues of importance to the Kingdom in exchange for Iranian cooperation to resolve the nuclear issue.

One theory making the rounds, for example, is that President Obama decided not to increase military support for the Syrian rebels in order to avoid upsetting the secret US-Iranian talks in Oman. Frustrating Riyadh further, they see Iran’s regional isolation slipping away as Turkey and the smaller Gulf States respond to Tehran’s regional “charm offensive” and prospects for business opportunities if the nuclear issue is resolved.

In my public session, I explained that the Obama administration supported the proposal to hold a meeting of regional parties by the end 2012 to discuss the WMD Free Zone, which was the consensus of the parties at the 2010 NPT Review Conference. The U.S. did so because it wanted to demonstrate its support for the zone, even though we knew it couldn’t be achieved in the near term any more than President Obama’s vision for a world free of nuclear weapons.

The U.S. postponed the conference in late 2012 because there was not sufficient agreement between Israel and the Arabs on the basic purpose and procedure of the conference. Since then, however, there have been two working level meetings in Switzerland between Israel and most of the Arab countries, which seemed to be making progress toward agreement on the agenda and procedure for the conference. The next planning meeting is tentatively scheduled for January. Iran, however, has announced that it would boycott future planning meetings because of Israel’s presence, and I suggested that here was an opportunity for the Arab countries and Israel to meet together and show their support for a WMD Free Zone even if Iran refused to attend.

Following my speech, I was peppered (as expected) with accusations about America’s nuclear double standards. Why are we pressuring Iran while tolerating Israel’s nuclear weapons? Why don’t we make Israel give up its nuclear weapons? I don’t think my answer—we need to focus on the immediate, achievable objective of stopping Iran, while working to create political conditions in the long term for establishing a WMD Free Zone, including Israel—was very convincing to the audience. The session was a forceful reminder that, whether we like it or not, U.S. public diplomacy in the region is hampered by a deeply felt sense of unfairness and inconsistency on nuclear (and other) issues.

Gary Samore is executive director for research at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. From 200913, he was President Obama's White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction.