Saudi fear re-enactment of ‘Twin Pillar’ strategy

Friday 22/05/2015
Back to the future?

Washington - “The Saudis’ worst night­mare would be the [Obama] administra­tion striking a grand bargain with Iran,” said former US Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Robert Jordan. Outside of the immediate concern about a po­tential nuclear deal with Iran and Tehran’s support for Shia-led mili­tary activities, the Saudis’ fear a US-Iran rapprochement that, in their eyes, would make Riyadh play second fiddle in a new US-led security orchestra in the Gulf.

At first glance, this scenario may seem far-fetched. After all, the United States and Iran have had bad relations since 1979 and Washington has consist­ently come to the aid of Saudi Ara­bia for decades.

The US-Saudi relationship goes back to the 1930s when American oil companies were given an ex­clusive concession to explore in the kingdom. The relationship was cemented during World War II when the United States built the Dhahran air base (which came in very handy during the 1990-91 Gulf war) and King Ibn Saud and US president Franklin Roosevelt had a friendly, day-long meeting in Egypt in 1945.

Despite this decades-long sym­biotic relationship between Wash­ington and Riyadh, the Saudis can look to recent history and see a time when they were not the US favour­ite in the Gulf region. US president Richard Nixon in 1969 announced a doctrine that bore his name, stipu­lating that the United States would supply regional allies with sophisti­cated military weapons and training but those allies were responsible for the defence of their own region.

In Southeast Asia, this doctrine was part of the “Vietnamisation” programme that aimed to withdraw US forces from Vietnam and compel South Vietnamese forces to pick up the slack. In the Gulf, the Nixon doctrine roughly coincided with the British decision to withdraw their forces from the region, which they completed by 1971.

Into the vacuum came the US “Twin-Pillar” strategy, a subset of the Nixon doctrine. The pillars were Iran and Saudi Arabia, which would be responsible for regional security. With increased oil reve­nues these two countries would be able to purchase expensive military equipment. Indeed, from 1970-72, total US arms sales to Iran jumped from $104 million to $553 million and sales to Saudi Arabia increased from $16 million to $312 million.

It soon became apparent that the shah of Iran was much more eager than the Saudis to play the role of “policeman” in the region. In the mid-1970s, for example, he sent troops to south-western Oman to fight, in conjunction with British Special Forces, a Marxist-led insur­gency.

Although Iran and Saudi Arabia were on the same side in the global Cold War, the latter was worried that the shah was trying to recreate the Persian Empire with US assis­tance. For all the US military train­ing and arms sales to Saudi Arabia in the 1970s, it was apparent to any observer that the United States clearly saw Iran as the much bigger (it terms of its population and the size of its armed forces) and more competent twin. Iran also under­took actions in the Gulf that upset other Arab countries, like seizing three islands off the coast of the newly formed United Arab Emirates in 1971 that is still a bone of conten­tion between the two countries.

The Saudis suspect that, despite the outwardly anti-US position of the present Iranian regime, the two countries could revive their historic ties, which go back even further than the 1930s. Moreover, Iran’s population is more than three times that of Saudi Arabia, the majority of its youth are pro-American from all indications and US businesses are eager to take advantage of an easing of sanctions that would accompany a nuclear deal.

Hence, a nuclear deal between the P5+1, led by the United States, and Iran would not only be allowed to export more oil and generate new revenues to bolster Tehran’s so-called proxy wars in the region, it would also, in the eyes of the Sau­dis, turn the United States away from looking on the Gulf Arab states as their prime partners.

Given these worries, the resist­ance of US President Barack Obama at the recent Camp David meet­ing with Gulf Arab leaders to a NATO-like security structure and his statement that “the purpose of any strategic cooperation [with Gulf Arab states] is not to perpetuate any long-term confrontation with Iran or to even marginalise Iran”, un­doubtedly raised eyebrows among these leaders about a US-Iran rap­prochement.

Although ideological differences between Tehran and Washington are stark, the Gulf Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia, fear that a repeat of the 1970s may be in the works.