The alleged Iranian assassination plot against Saudi Arabia’s ambassador in the US (if the allegations hold up) is not news in the sense that it doesn’t tell us anything new or represent anything new about the structure of relations in the Middle East. But it is very important news about the temperature of Saudi-Iranian relations, the explosive character of a rivalry that helps to define regional politics, and the reasons why the oddest couple in the world – the US and Saudi Arabia – quarrel fiercely but never quite break up.The plot has surprisingly few direct consequences for US-Iranian relations. President Obama’s moves to open a strategic dialog with Iran were spurned by the ruling mullahs long ago, and the White House, while not particularly eager for yet another war in the Middle East, seems to have reconciled itself to the necessity of a tougher stand against an Iran that doesn’t seem willing to budge.The apparent discovery of an Iranian plot on US soil doesn’t so much change US policy toward Iran as remove obstacles on a road already chosen. The US will use the new plot to tighten sanctions, step up pressure and urge others to do so. This is more of the same, and the plot revelations, if such they are, will add momentum to our existing Iran policy rather than change its direction.The same thing could be said about Saudi-Iranian relations. The two governments hate and fear one another and they are deadly rivals from every point of view. Each believes it is the legitimate leader of the Islamic world. Each aspires to be the predominant power in the Gulf. Each aspires to set prices and strategy for OPEC. One is Arab in culture; the other is chauvinistically Persian. There is not a lot of room for compromise here; the hatred and rivalry between these two powers is deep, bitter, deadly and intense.
That the Iranians would seek to kill a skilled Saudi diplomat who is close to the king is not surprising; that the Saudis would respond with bitter threats is also routine. The plot (again, assuming that the allegations are in fact largely correct) was unusually brazen and unusually baroque, but it again represents an intensification of dynamics already present rather than some startling new twist.The plot is one more sign that the Iran-Saudi rivalry is getting hotter as sectarian tension in the Middle East flares. The Saudis see the Syrian rising as a holy war: a rising up of oppressed orthodox Muslims against apostates and heretics backed by the Persian, Shi’a enemy. The murderous violence of the Syrian government’s response to the protests enrages the Saudis — and perhaps especially has drawn the king, who has deep personal ties to Syria, into a more anti-Iranian mood. The Saudis see the riots in Bahrain as part of a Persian plot and there is still much bad blood still over events in Iraq, where Sunni tribes with close Saudi connections are increasingly unhappy about Iranian influence.
The fight over the future of Syria is the biggest show in the region right now, and there is no doubt that it is bringing the Saudis and the Iranians to daggers drawn. The stakes for Iran could not be higher; the Syrian alliance has allowed Iran to build Hezbollah into a formidable force and given it tremendous leverage over Hamas. This puts Iran into the center of the Israeli-Arab dispute, burnishing its Islamic credentials among suspicious Sunnis and allowing it to provoke major Middle East crises at will. Losing Syria would be Iran’s biggest setback since 1979, not only driving it out of the Mediterranean but threatening its influence in Iraq — a Sunni Syria would be a new channel to help Sunni tribes limit Shi’a and Iranian power there as what could be a new civil war ramps up as the Americans step down.It is no surprise that both the Saudis and the Iranians are pulling out all the stops as the Syrian struggle lurches towards civil war. The chance for a highly visible strike at a prominent Saudi target close to the king, and one who exemplifies the US-Saudi connection would clearly be appealing to some people in Tehran, stung over the Shi’a setback in Bahrain, and worried about the erosion of Iran’s Syrian ally. The Iranians, who were gleefully deluding themselves a couple of years back that their long delayed hour had struck, are now beginning to wonder if they are being pushed aside.What is also striking about the current lineup in the Middle East is that the Saudi-US bromance, the strangest relationship and the oddest couple in global politics, looks so healthy. The US-Saudi alliance, now more than sixty years old, is a testimony to the ability of security issues to trump all others in international politics. In almost every way, the US and the Saudis are opposed. We are feminist; they don’t want women to drive. We are Christian and pluralist; they are Islamist and apply strict versions of sharia law. We believe in exporting democracy and Christianity; they believe in exporting theologically radical and highly combative versions of Islam. We love capitalism, at least some of the time; they hate usury. We like cheap oil; they helped organize OPEC. We back Israel; they have opposed it from the start. We like political parties and democratic institutions; they like an absolute monarchy checked by factionalism and tribal politics.It’s about as comprehensive a list of differences as it is possible to assemble, but there is a vital point where our interests coincide. We believe that Saudi independence and security is in America’s vital interest; they believe that no other country is as willing and able to protect the Saudis from the many forces who lust after their oil and the power it can bring.We first fell in love over America’s interest in preventing Great Britain from controlling all the oil in the Gulf. Back in the 1930s and even into the 1940s, Britain hoped to make control of the Gulf a new pillar of its tottering empire. The Saudis, on the other hand, wanted an alternative to the suffocating British embrace, and this coincidence of interests led to a uniquely close relationship between the world’s biggest Christian democracy and the world’s strictest Islamic kingdom.The relationship deepened when the collapse of British and French power in the region left a vacuum that Arab nationalists like Egypt’s Nasser tried to fill. Socialist and secular Arab nationalists believed that annexing the oil wealth of the Gulf to the population of the rest of the Arab world would create a new great power that could control the destiny of the world. Nasser and the Saudis were sworn foes as his dream (shared in various ways by both Syrian and Iraqi governments at different times) meant the end of the Saudi kingdom.The US unhesitatingly backed the Saudis and their neighbors against Pan-Arab nationalism. We did not want to see a huge Nasserite empire, possibly aligned with the Soviets, fund a big military buildup, nationalize oil wealth, and acquire the ability to blackmail the whole world by threatening to turn off the oil taps. It was a no-brainer; the US and the Saudis were arm in arm.After 1967 as secular Pan-Arabism faded in the humiliating aftermath of the Six Days’ War, the Soviets sought to fill the void created by Nasser’s and the nationalists’ decline. Once again, the US and the Saudis saw this in the same way. Soviet penetration of the Middle East was a threat to our vital interests, and no quasi-feudal and theocratic monarchy could welcome the rise of socialist atheism in the ‘hood. All through the Cold War, the Saudis and the US worked together to keep communism and Soviet influence at bay — climaxing with our joint efforts in Afghanistan. We disagreed about many things and quarreled about many things, but our similar strategic views kept those disagreements from boiling over.Saddam Hussein’s lurch to dominate the Gulf led to another episode of US-Saudi partnership. Saddam was clearly out to conquer the Saudis; nobody in the world but the United State was willing and able to push him out of Kuwait and then contain both him and his Iranian neighbors in the ensuing decade.
The most recent US war in Iraq was much less attractive from a Saudi point of view: true, it eliminated the hated and treacherous Saddam, but by installing a Shi’a dominated government susceptible to Iranian blandishments it increased rather than decreased Saudi worries about its basic safety. Saudi anger and resentment over this policy and over the US response to the 9/11 attacks (organized and to a large degree carried out by Saudi malcontents) further drove a wedge between the two countries.The early phases of the Obama administration put the relationship under new stress. Even as the White House thought that its outreach to Islam and backing of the Palestinians would endear it to the Islamic world, Saudi fear and rage over the attempt to start a dialog with Iran soured relations between the two allies. The early stages of the Arab Spring, when the US turned on Saudi allies and clients in Tunisia and Egypt, further deepened the gap.But at the end of the day, the same forces that have been driving the Americans and the Saudis together since the 1930s again played a role. As the focus of the Arab revolt moved from Egypt to Syria, US and Saudi interests moved into closer alignment. And as Iran’s contemptuous dismissal of American overtures became unmistakably clear, the Obama administration shifted from engagement to containment against Iran.I can remember periods of tremendous tension in US-Saudi relations. I was once at a private briefing where a Saudi diplomat threatened his American audience: we can cut off your oil anytime we want, he said. We can destroy your currency. You need us more than we need you.The Americans were polite and said little in response, though I imagine more than one was wondering whether we were really doing the right thing by propping up this ungrateful and impolite radical theocracy. Maybe it was time to find safer hands to control the hajj and manage all that oil.Over the years many Saudis and Americans have entertained these and other bitter thoughts about one another. Yet both of us keep coming back to the same place. From the US point of view, Saudi Arabia with all its flaws is a positive factor in the region. As long as the Saudis are independent and look to the US for security cover, no other power, regional or global, can control the flow of oil through the Gulf. And from the Saudi perspective, as long as the US is the world’s dominant military power and believes that an open global oil market is in its vital interest, there is no other country that can provide the Saudis with the security they need and crave.Iran, like all the other powers who have measured their strength against the US-Saudi alliance, is having the frustrating experience that the more it asserts itself, the closer Riyadh and Washington become. If Iran were to become weak, US-Saudi relations would likely fray; in the absence of a threat, we and the Saudis focus on the many things about each other that we do not like. But let a threat emerge and both of us bury the hatchet; this is one odd couple that gets closer and stronger when the going gets tough.