POLICY BRIEF: Saudi-Iranian Rivalry

The Middle East Policy Council convened its 84th Capitol Hill Conference on Tuesday, April 12. “The Saudi-Iranian Rivalry and the Obama Doctrine” explored competition between these two regional powers through the lens of journalist Jeffrey Goldberg’s recent essay in The Atlantic titled “The Obama Doctrine.” In this essay, based upon a series of interviews with President Obama discussing his foreign policy worldview, Goldberg recounted the president’s view that Saudi Arabia and Iran should find “an effective way to share the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace.” This view — coupled with further statements around Saudi Arabia being a “free rider” on the U.S. military presence in the region — alarmed many U.S. Gulf allies and prompted a series of public responses.

The four-person panel was selected with an eye towards examining the reaction to this article in both Saudi Arabia and Iran as well as assessing what it means for U.S. policy in the region for the rest of Obama’s term and in the next U.S. presidential administration. Richard Schmierer (former U.S. Ambassador to Oman; Chairman of the Board of Directors, Middle East Policy Council) provided his perspective, having been U.S. ambassador to Oman during the beginnings of negotiations between the U.S. and Iran over Iran’s nuclear program. James Jeffrey (former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Turkey) shared his view on the global importance of the Saudi-Iranian rivalry. Alireza Nader (Senior International Policy Analyst, RAND Corporation) assessed the Iranian government and public’s view towards Saudi Arabia while Fahad Nazer (Senior Political Analyst, JTG, Inc.) presented the Saudi view of Obama’s legacy in the region. The event — moderated by Thomas Mattair of the Middle East Policy Council — can be viewed in its entirety here.

A former diplomat, Richard Schmierer opened the panel by outlining how, in practice, the U.S. employs diplomacy to balance support for or opposition to the policies allies may pursue in order to advance core U.S. national interests. In his view, the Atlantic article is about U.S. interests and how to best pursue them. Middle East allies may pursue policies that the U.S. disagrees with — Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being a prime example — and the U.S. may pressure allies to change behavior, particularly if these policies are viewed as conflicting with U.S. national interests. But diplomatic prodding is quite different from abandonment: in Schmierer’s view, the proof of the relationship is in the deeper economic or security arrangements that the U.S. pursues with different allies. On this front, cooperation has deepened between the U.S. and Israel and between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and its other Gulf allies, something that matters more than public critiques of their policies.

Also a former diplomat, James Jeffrey analyzed the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran through the lens of similar conflicts historically. At root, Jeffrey believes that Iran is pursuing a change to the international order, preferring to operate via strategic proxies and non-government actors as opposed to within an international order, recently dominated by the United States. He gave various examples — from Syria to Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen — where Iran was acting through these proxies to gain influence, often in places where a significant Shiite population does not exist. Iran’s desire to act outside of an international order organized around states conflicts with what Jeffrey sees as Obama’s overly optimistic view of a “self-perpetuating” global order with American (Western) values at its center. While Obama feels that this order will “run by itself” with limited U.S. intervention, Jeffrey explained that many U.S. allies feel just the opposite privately. Specifically, they often crave more U.S. engagement, including militarily, so more predictable benefits will accrue to actors like Saudi Arabia who operate with greater adherence to the international order than countries like Iran.

Alireza Nader reported on how Saudi-Iranian relations were at a new low, and that anti-Arab sentiment appears to be increasing within the Iranian population. Iran believes that Saudi Arabia is actively undermining stability at home, funding anti-Iranian groups. And while he believes that Iran is more “diplomatically flexible” than Saudi Arabia, he does not expect relations to improve due to a regional infrastructure favoring the Saudis that Iran must respond to strategically in ways that weaken Saudi Arabia through over-extension (e.g. the conflict in Yemen). And while the Iranian regime will continue to be fundamentally insecure as a Persian country in an Arab neighborhood, Nader does not see Iran at the root of the region’s troubles. The broader region is undergoing tremendous change and Nader argued that the Iranian regime is relatively stable and consistent. Until the regime in Tehran changes, he does not believe competition with Saudi Arabia and efforts to influence the region will subside in a meaningful way.

Fahad Nazer explained the swift reaction to the Atlantic piece, particularly around the charge that U.S. allies are in some way “free riding.” Nazer suggested that the Saudi view is that Obama’s legacy in the Middle East will not be a positive one, beginning with Obama’s abandonment of Mubarak in 2011. Yet at the same time, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia remain generally aligned around core issues in the region. Saudi Arabia has taken an active role in funding the U.S.-supported opposition in Syria and deepening anti-terror cooperation with the U.S., including taking an active role in the fight against ISIS, an underappreciated element in validating the effort as more than another Western-led military intrusion. They are already taking a more active, solo approach to the region, with their involvement in Yemen being the most vivid example. With regards to the Iranian rivalry, Nazer expressed the Saudi concern that the recent Iranian nuclear agreement will embolden Iran, particularly with regards to their continued support for Assad in Syria, one of the most clear-cut differences between the two countries.

The full video from the event is already available on the Middle East Policy Council website. An edited video by speaker, including a full transcript from the event will be posted in a few days at www.mepc.org and published in the next issue of the journal Middle East Policy. For members of the media interested in contacting these speakers or other members of the Middle East Policy Council’s leadership, please email mepc.press@gmail.com.

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