The US, Iran and Saudi Arabia: A complicated triangle

Friday 29/01/2016
Barbara Bodine

WASHINGTON - Washington’s lifting of economic sanctions on Iran is a boon to bilateral relations but there are still major obstacles to a full detente, a former senior US diplomat said.
“Both sides have emphatically repeated that the (nuclear) deal is a transactional agreement and each side is dealing with their fringe with whom a transformational agreement would be anathema,” ambassador Barbara Bodine told The Arab Weekly in her office at Georgetown University, where she is director of the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
“But it’s still a historic agreement.”
Bodine, who was US ambassador to Yemen from 1997- 2001 and also served in Kuwait and Iraq, said US-Iranian bilateral relations have seen significant improvement, as witnessed by the January 12th incident in which a two small US Navy boats veered into Iranian waters. Iranian authorities arrested and detained ten American sailors but released them about 16 hours later with little or no fanfare.
“It’s a fairly remarkable step itself that our secretary of state could pick up the phone and call the Iranian foreign minister and that the foreign minister took his call. That wouldn’t have happened 18 months ago,” said Bodine.
But this does not mean that Washington will soon open an embassy in Tehran, she warns. Perhaps the United States will open an interest section there but even this is unlikely before the end of US President Barack Obama’s term, according to Bodine.
Indeed, there is little indication that either side trusts the other. On January 17th, the Obama administration imposed new sanctions on Iran for two recent ballistic missile tests that violated UN resolutions. Two days later, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei warned Iranian President Hassan Rohani and his government to guard against American “deceptions”.
“It’s a given that the Iranians think the Americans are not trustworthy and duplicitous, neither side trusts the other one,” said Bodine. “After all, most Americans don’t know who the shah was, while Iranians do, and most Iranians don’t remember our embassy (hostage situation) but every American does.”
Asked how this new relationship might affect geopolitical dynamics in the region, Bodine said that Israel, as well as Saudi Arabia and its Sunni Arab allies, might pose a challenge in what she called a worst-case scenario, even if highly unlikely.
The scenario involves Israel taking unilateral military action against Iran by flying over Sunni Arab air space to reach the Islamic Republic. An Israeli fighter jet could fly along the northern Saudi border to reach Iran and the Saudis would turn a blind eye until after the fact, Bodine explained.
Israel has been vehemently against the Iran nuclear agreement and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu embarrassed many US allies by staging a diplomatic faux pas last March when he publicly lobbied members of Congress to support him against the deal while the White House was engaged in sensitive negotiations with Tehran. Washington insiders say that the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama subsequently plummeted to all-time lows.
Saudi Arabia has also been opposed to the Iran agreement, though the kingdom did not state so publicly. What worries the Saudis most is that Iran will use the tens of billions of dollars expected to be released after sanctions are lifted to expand its influence in the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. On January 19th, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir warned that if the funds “support the nefarious activities of the Iranian regime, this will be a negative and it will generate a pushback”.
Adding to the Saudis’ woes is that it has historically viewed its value to the West as a major oil exporter and an alternative to Iran, Bodine said. With oil revenue on the decline, the Iran agreement may appear particularly threatening to the kingdom.
“Saudi’s greatest fear is to be irrelevant or abandoned… and now, Saudi Arabia is looking around and wondering: What’s our value to the US?” Bodine said.
This question might be of particular relevance as the international community tries to find a resolution to the crisis in Syria. Diplomatic efforts have involved Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and the United States but with relations between Riyadh and Tehran sour, talks might stall indefinitely.
The two regional powers cut diplomatic relations after Saudi Arabia executed Nimr al-Nimr, a Saudi Shia cleric, which triggered mob attacks on the kingdom’s embassy in Tehran. In a show of solidarity with their Sunni Arab ally, Bahrain, Kuwait, Sudan, Djibouti and Qatar pulled their ambassadors from Tehran.