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Enemies and Allies Both Undermining U.S. Efforts to Counter Iran

Working closely with Saudi Arabia makes sense for the Trump Administration as the White House tries to pressure Iran into behavioral change. However, when it comes to the Islamic Republic, U.S. interests and those of its Arab ally do not exactly align. That makes it difficult for Washington to realize its goal of countering Tehran. Further complicating this matter is the role of Daesh – a threat that is fueled by the geosectarianism that pits the Saudi-led Sunni camp against the Iranian-led Shiite bloc as well as the enmity between Iran and the United States.

On Oct. 2, U.S. President Donald J. Trump told a political rally in Southaven, Mississippi that without American military support Saudi Arabia’s monarchy could not sustain itself for more than a couple of weeks. Trump was quoted as saying, “We protect Saudi Arabia. Would you say they’re rich? And I love the King, King Salman. But I said, ‘King — we’re protecting you — you might not be there for two weeks without us — you have to pay for your military.’” It is not clear when Trump actually said this to the monarch of the world’s largest producer of crude oil. But his comments came three days after he phoned the king to discuss managing oil supplies to guarantee market stability and global economic growth.

Some public discussions are treating these remarks as yet another example of Trump insulting an ally. Other, far more polemical, treatments express a sense of satisfaction at the discord between the Americans and the Saudis. These subjective observations aside, the president’s remarks shed light on a seldom-discussed fact: the divergence in American and Saudi interests. Trump’s comments are by no means unprecedented – though this is the first time that a sitting U.S. president is publicly saying that the Saudi state could not survive without U.S. protection.

Divergence Between Washington and Riyadh

In fact, Trump’s statement is reflective of a sentiment that runs deep in Washington, which surfaces from time to time. For example, in a February 2010 cable, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates tells the French foreign minister that the Saudis always want to “fight the Iranians to the last American” and it’s “time for them to get in the game.” For decades, America has been the security guarantor of the Saudi state. However, since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Washington has occasionally had to do business with Saudi Arabia’s rival, Iran, which underscores a natural and non-trivial divergence between Washington and Riyadh.

In addition, a series of geopolitical developments over the past decade and a half have weakened Saudi Arabia’s position in the Middle East. Meanwhile, Iran has benefited from the bedlam that has riveted the region, especially since the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. Of course, Washington and Riyadh have a shared interest in containing Iran’s growing regional influence, but Saudi Arabia is much more threatened by Iran and understandably so. After all, the Shiite Islamist state is pursuing a policy of strategic encirclement of the Sunni kingdom.

In a May 2017 interview aired on Saudi channels, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expressed in detail his country’s threat perception of Iran. The soon-to-be king said, “We are not waiting until there becomes a battle in Saudi Arabia, so we will work so that it becomes a battle for them in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.” From the American point of view, however, the Saudi-Iranian rivalry is about a balance of power in one region of the world and can only give it so much attention. Besides, the United States has to deal with Iran in a complex manner – as is evident from President Trump’s call for negotiations with the Islamic republic.

The United States has to use a variety of policy tools, i.e., economic, diplomatic, military, and the like, to manage Iran. Certainly, Washington cannot allow Tehran to strategically alter the regional security architecture, but it can only do so much to block Iranian tactical moves in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan. In addition, American and Iranian interests converge when it comes to fighting Daesh and the broader jihadist phenomenon, and the United States ironically benefits from Iran’s military activities in Iraq and Syria. For Saudi Arabia though, this complex dynamic between its biggest ally and its biggest enemy is highly problematic because it normalizes Iran’s regional role.

Strategy in a Geosectarian Environment

During the George W. Bush presidency, and much more significantly the Obama administration, the U.S.-Saudi disconnect over Iran was evident. But even now with very close relations with the Trump White House, the Saudis cannot take for granted American moves to pressure the Iranians. The Trump strategy is not geared towards regime-change in Tehran; it is designed to force the Iranians into re-negotiating the nuclear agreement. But third-party actions are interfering with Washington’s plans to change Tehran’s behavior.

On Sept. 22, unidentified gunmen fired on a military parade in the southwestern Iranian city of Ahvaz – an area dominated by ethnic Arabs. Both Daesh and an Iranian Arab separatist movement claimed responsibility for the attack, which left at least 25 dead and dozens of others wounded. The reality of who was behind the attack does not matter as much as the perception in Tehran that Saudi Arabia – in concert with the United Arab Emirates – is responsible. Iranian retaliatory ballistic missile and drone strikes on Oct 1 targeting a facility near the eastern Syrian town of Abu Kamal were designed to hit Daesh, but more importantly, to send a message to the Arab states that Tehran is willing and able to strike well beyond its borders should it feel the need. These missile strikes come at a time when Washington is seeking greater restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile (BM) capability.

The attack in Ahvaz and the one in June 2017 targeting Iran’s parliament have provided Iran with the excuse to enhance and justify its BM program. Tehran has been able to move from test launches of ballistic missiles to what the U.S. Central Command confirms are “no-notice strikes”. The United States has been leading international efforts (particularly via the 2010 United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929) to stop Iran from developing BM technology. These terrorist attacks inside Iran are torpedoing those efforts and increase the risk of military confrontation in the region.

But this is exactly the kind of regional environment that Daesh seeks and for which it continues to feverishly exploit the Sunni-Shiite geopolitical fault line. The jihadists would gain tremendously if the Saudis and the Iranians came to blows or if increasing Iranian missile strikes in Syria were to lead to an Israel-Iran war. The resulting regional chaos would allow Daesh the time and space to not just accelerate its revival but also greatly enhance its footprint in the region. As I pointed out in the Aug 24 Navigator Washington needs to find a way out of the current situation where its efforts to counter Iran do not inadvertently empower jihadists and vice-versa.

While an expansion of jihadist activity in the region represents a major threat to Saudi Arabia’s national security Riyadh views Tehran as a bigger threat than Daesh. Relatedly, the Saudis see U.S.-Iran diplomacy as benefiting the Iranians at their expense. The Trump administration must recognize that Saudi Arabia, Iran, and jihadists together represent a complex geosectarian triad complicating U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Therefore, Washington will have to very carefully navigate this regional minefield as it goes about simultaneously pursuing the envisioned Middle East Strategic Alliance with the Arab states, fighting Daesh/jihadists, and pressuring Iran into a diplomatic engagement.   

Dr. Kamran Bokhari is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Global Policy (CGP) and a Senior Lecturer at the University of Ottawa’s Security and Policy Institute for Professional Development. He tweets at @KamranBokhari. The views expressed herein are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of CGP.