Punditry means never having to say you’re sorry, or really suffer any consequences for being bad at your job at all. I am not a pundit, though, and so I feel like I need to go back and straighten something up. Back when the Saudis started showing their displeasure with American policy in the Middle East, I wrote that it seemed like they were really on about our lack of action (i.e., bombing) with respect to Syria. Turns out that was wrong; they’re really intensely agitated about the Iran negotiations, and it’s driving almost everything they do in the region, particularly their interventions in support of Sunnis in Bahrain and Syria. What I didn’t realize at the time was how long back-channel talks had been going on between the US and Iran, let alone the fact that that Saudis were aware enough that these talks were taking place to snitch to Israel about them. Obviously this bee has been in the Saudi bonnet for a while, then.
While we’re on the subject, it’s worth noting again that the Saudis are not really pulling in the same direction as the US is on any front right now (and that’s certainly within their rights, but we should understand that it’s happening), and they are particularly at cross purposes with us, and their new BFF Israel, when it comes to Iran.
Aside from all the usual differences in opinion that you find between a secular democracy and a highly theocratic absolute monarchy, our interests have diverged on regional matters. In Egypt, the Saudis are funding the military government because of an unambiguous hostility to the Muslim Brotherhood, while America has, let’s be honest, dithered. We want to support democracy and elections but we hate it when other countries vote against our interests, so we were kind of ambivalent about Morsi, except then he started governing more like a dictator than an elected president, and we weren’t sad to see him go, but we also (as a matter of law) don’t support military coups. So when Sisi took over we sort of didn’t want to really admit that it was a coup, but at the same time we started looking kind of ridiculous, so we made some nebulous reduction in aid to Egypt and then looked desperately for some other squirrel to chase. So the Saudis aren’t really working with us there but it’s not really as though they’re working against us, either, since we have no consistent position on Egypt at this point. In Syria, America and the Saudis are both clear that Assad needs to go, but for America Assad is only the second-worst outcome, behind a Salafi takeover, while for the Saudis a Salafi takeover is fine, as long as it’s their Salafis who come out on top. Again, not working toward the same outcome, but there is some broader agreement even though they’re mad that we’re not bombing Assad and indirectly aiding their Salafi clients.
But on Iran, Saudi interests are totally different from American or even Israeli interests. Where America wants a nuclear weapons-free Iran that takes the steps (on human rights, support for terrorism, etc.) needed to rejoin the international community, and Israel just wants a nuclear-free Iran (although the Israeli right certainly hasn’t suffered from having a nuclear Iran bogeyman to wave around), the Saudis want an Iran that is permanently ostracized, alone, and crippled either by sanctions or military action. I’ve written before on what I see as the inevitable decline of Saudi power, regionally and internationally, but the wild card in that scenario is Iran, whose resurgence could challenge Saudi hegemony long before the dropoff in Saudi oil production does. An Iran that negotiates an end to the sanctions regime immediately becomes a regional competitor for the Saudis; they’ve got a young, educated population and plenty of natural resources, and yes it’s governed by an anachronistic, repressive theocracy, but, oh, hello, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, whose autocratic king derives his legitimacy from a particularly repressive and anti-modernist strain of Sunni Islam.
An Iran that actually takes steps to join the rest of us in the 21st century (by, say, respecting religious and ethnic minorities, not supporting terrorism anymore, and maybe recognizing some basic human rights also too) can potentially match or move past the Saudis not only as a regional heavy but also internationally, where they could be a much more strategic ally for the US. Even other Gulf countries like Qatar, whose greatest military fear is that Ayatollah Khamenei will wake up one day and decide that Iran should really own much more of the South Pars/North Dome gas field than it does now, would be better off with an Iran that was reintegrated into the world than it is with the Iran-as-pariah status quo. That’s probably why Qatar is praising the deal, at least publicly. Admittedly, the Saudis are publicly (if tentatively) saying nice things about the deal too, but some of that may be an attempt to save face or to avoid being seen as completely obstructionist.
Fear of Iran as the driving force behind Saudi foreign policy makes plenty of sense. It explains why they didn’t particularly care about Saddam being replaced with a mostly-Shiʿa government in Iraq, since the Saudis hate Baathists like Saddam just as much as they hate the Iranians. It explains why they want Assad out at any cost, since he’s a double whammy, a Baathist who’s allied with Iran. It explains their relatively uncharacteristic direct military intervention in Bahrain to help put down an Iran-sympathetic Shiʿa uprising. It explains why they’re pissed at America for actually pushing for a negotiated end to the sanctions once the international community’s conditions are met. For everybody else, the sanctions are a means to an end, a nuclear-free Iran. For the Saudis, despite their talk of concern over Iran’s nuclear program, the sanctions really are the end. It would be far better for the world if Iran could be coaxed into rejoining the international community, but it would be worse for the Saudis. That’s what’s driving their actions right now.
UPDATE: Another aspect to all of this that I failed to emphasize strongly enough has to do with Saudi fears that Iran is constantly working to agitate and mobilize the significant Shiʿa population throughout eastern Arabia (not just in Bahrain), including in Saudi Arabia itself. An Iran whose regional profile increases may be able, so this story goes, to meddle in Arabian affairs even more than it already does, which assumes that it already does, despite a lack of evidence to support that assumption. This seems a little crazy; if Iran wants to completely come out from under sanctions and fully reintegrate itself into the international community then it will have to do more than scale back/limit its nuclear program, it will have to back off supporting regional paramilitary/terrorist groups above all, and it will have to at least cosmetically improve its guttered human rights behavior. Swearing off any interference in the internal affairs of other countries in the region would have to be part of a number of steps Iran would have to take along those lines.