Courting a Nemesis Out of Necessity
In October, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stunned international observers by turning down the opportunity to sit on the United Nations Security Council. According to the Saudi Foreign Ministry, the rejection reflected frustration with the United Nations’ ineffectiveness in “preserving world peace”. Diplomats speculated that the move actually reflected Saudi frustration with the West, especially the United States, regarding its policies toward Egypt and Syria. Now, in the wake of the recently concluded nuclear agreement with Iran, Saudi Arabia is reportedly exploring alternatives to its alliance with the United States. While experts acknowledge Saudi frustration is genuine, they assert the kingdom has few viable options. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia could contravene all geopolitical calculations if it is prepared to engage a nemesis that also happens to be the region’s sole credible counterweight to Iran.
The alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia dates back to 1944 and has weathered many crises, from the 1973 OPEC oil embargo to the participation of nineteen Saudi nationals in the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
However, in the aftermath of American military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as foreign policy decisions over the past twenty-four months, the Saudi leadership has become very apprehensive as to the alliance’s durability.
In February 2011, Saudi leaders watched as the United States sanctioned the departure of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and then condoned the election of Mohamed Morsi, a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the presidency the following June. When the military ousted Morsi in July 2013, the United States declined to condemn the takeover as a coup, but quietly signaled its displeasure and began decreasing aid.
In September 2013, Saudi leaders watched as President Barack Obama declined to militarily enforce his declared “red line” against Syria after the regime there had used chemical weapons against rebels, who have received Saudi support.
During this period, the United States announced, in January 2012, its intent to “rebalance” its diplomatic and security priorities toward the Asia-Pacific.
Lastly, on November 23, the United States concluded a multilateral agreement with Iran whereby the latter would pause its nuclear enrichment program and submit to a stricter inspection regime in exchange for temporary relief from international sanctions. In subsequent reporting, Saudi leaders learned that the United States had been meeting secretly with Iranian representatives in Oman for the past eight months, despite public disavowals.
The Egyptian and Syrian episodes may have reflected the United States’ best attempts to navigate the uncertain circumstances of the Arab Spring, but Saudi Arabia has been engaged in a proxy war with Iran across the region for the past decade. Saudi leaders have also made clear their categorical opposition to Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons.
With the rapprochement between the United States and Iran imminent, the Saudi leadership may have concluded its longtime security guarantor can no longer be depended upon to uphold its commitments.
Few Alternatives Indeed
Without the American security umbrella, deterring a nuclear Iran would require either new allies or nuclear capabilities.
Russia, while regularly inclined to counterbalance the United States, stands athwart Saudi interests as patron of the current regimes in Syria and Iran.
China, while ascendant and increasingly dependent on Saudi oil, lacks power projection capabilities and is similarly interested in restarting trade with Iran.
Turkey, while a regional economic and military power, has no nuclear capabilities and is bound by NATO obligations.
Acquiring a nuclear weapon from Pakistan would obviate the need for a new ally, but Saudi Arabia is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and would risk the very same international sanctions visited upon Iran.
Faced with few alternatives, Saudi leadership may have to opt for extraordinary measures.
The Enemy of My Enemy…
Saudi Arabia and Israel may be mortal enemies, but both countries are unequivocally opposed to Iran’s development of nuclear weapons.
Israel has similarly been frustrated by recent U.S. foreign policy, especially in regard to Iran. After the agreement with Iran was announced, the Israeli prime minister described it as an “historic mistake.”
To counter Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel could inaugurate a detente of convenience. The detente need not be overt or ratified in a formal alliance, but the two countries could clearly communicate their new understanding by concluding a temporary non-aggression pact; Saudi Arabia would cease all overt and covert hostilities against Israel in exchange for protection under the latter’s nuclear umbrella. Furthermore, the two countries would begin covertly collaborating on all measures to subvert the Iranian nuclear program as well as preparing for joint military operations.
While less optimal than securing a new major ally or acquiring a nuclear arsenal of its own, Saudi Arabia’s pact with Israel would arrest Iran’s momentum in the region.
The kingdom would regain the initiative and be privy to a nuclear deterrent without the risk of becoming an international pariah. Israel would obtain additional options to conduct a military strike against Iran’s nuclear sites. Moreover, Israel would preclude another neighboring hostile regime from obtaining nuclear weapons.
The United States would probably be shocked by such a development and have to contend with a variety of domestic reactions, ranging from vehement opposition to enthusiastic acceptance. Whatever the reaction, though, America would not end its bilateral alliances with either country.
Europe, in general, could welcome the pact as a positive step toward regional peace.
China, as noted above, is more concerned about the security of Gulf energy supplies and, if detente appeared to ensure the continued flow of oil, it would probably welcome the pact as well.
Russia could worry how the Saudi-Israeli detente impacts Iran and Syria. It might decline to react publicly, but it would probably begin exploring how to respond if the relationship became operational.
A Saudi-Israeli non-aggression pact may be speculative, but both countries know the American-Iranian nuclear agreement, like the unexpected opening of China in 1972, only marks the beginning of a deeper and consequential alignment.
Friends for Now, But Afterward?
For Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Iranian nuclear program is an existential threat. Both countries’ pursuit of national interest turns on this matter of survival, not ideological affinity or historical ties. The United States may be seeking a new balance of power in the Middle East that will provide it greater room for maneuver and the option to forgo military intervention, but such efforts may inadvertently imperil its longtime alliances.
If Israel and Saudi Arabia deepened ties, the question is whether the United States would capitalize on the opportunity. Israel possesses a first-class military and a covert nuclear arsenal; Saudi Arabia does not. If the Iranian threat disappeared by virtue of a joint military strike or regime change, would the two countries revert to hostilities? Would Saudi Arabia align with Iran to renew the Islamic war on Israel? Or would the United States have helped to cultivate a more constructive relationship?
As a Russian might darkly observe, countries linked by non-aggression pacts would be wise to watch their backs, as such pacts can end dangerously.