Why Washington is worried about Saudi-Iran row

Friday 15/01/2016
Iranian demonstrators burning representation of US flag

WASHINGTON - The escalation of Sunni- Shia tensions in the wake of Riyadh’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and the subsequent Irani­an-Saudi war of words, has put the United States in a difficult position as it tries to juggle competing inter­ests.

First, the United States has close ties to both Sunni and Shia-led re­gimes. Although the former domi­nate the region, the United States has invested heavily, in terms of blood and treasure, in the Shia-dominated Iraqi regime, which it sees as a critical ally in the war against the Islamic State (ISIS).

In the wake of the Iran nuclear deal, which was concluded last summer, Washington hopes, as US President Barack Obama has stated on several occasions, that Iran, the leading Shia nation, will eventu­ally moderate its behaviour in the region and return to the family of nations.

Hence, for Washington to land in the sectarian conflict on the side of the Sunnis threatens not only to upend its relationship with Bagh­dad but also to scuttle any chances of a rapprochement with Iran. And Obama sees the nuclear deal with Iran and the potential for a better relationship with Tehran as one of his important legacies. He told a journalist last May that, long after he has left the presidency, “it’s my name on this”.

But it is precisely that legacy that worries the Saudis most of all. Al­though Saudi Arabia, after much prodding from Washington last summer, officially endorsed the nuclear deal with Iran, it never re­ally accepted it. Riyadh believes that Iran will not honour the deal and will do what it can to pursue a clandestine programme. It also fears that the windfall of cash that will soon fill Tehran’s coffers with the lifting of sanctions will em­bolden Iran’s meddling in the Arab world, which is already occurring in Iraq, Yemen and Syria.

Although the Obama administra­tion has promised the Saudis that they can buy very sophisticated US military hardware for their defence, the leadership in Riyadh does not place much stock in Washington’s promises that it will come to its de­fence. Unnamed Saudi diplomats have complained in the media that Washington has not done anything in response to Iran’s recent missile tests, for example, an ominous sign from Riyadh’s perspective.

Washington also has its share of problems with Riyadh. White House spokesman Josh Ernest said in January that US diplomats had raised concerns with Saudi officials about going ahead with the execu­tion of Nimr because of the poten­tial for “damaging consequences”, which, he said, have now been “precipitated” by the execution.

Still, with so many conflicts and problems in the region, Washing­ton needs the cooperation of both Saudi Arabia and Iran, reflected in the fact that shortly after the torch­ing of the Saudi embassy in Tehran, US Secretary of State John Kerry was on the phone to foreign min­isters from both Saudi Arabia and Iran to try to calm the situation.

Washington’s top priority at this point is keep the international coalition together to defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria and to get a ceasefire and a political process under way in Syria that would finally end the conflict. US officials had applauded the cooperation and efforts of the Saudis to host the recent meeting of Syrian opposition forces — mi­nus ISIS and the al-Qaeda-affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra — in the kingdom and they want Iran’s cooperation to help convince Syrian President Bashar Assad to agree to a transi­tion timetable.

From the US perspective, any­thing that could derail these efforts — such as the Saudi-Iranian war of words — needed to be dealt with. As State Department spokesman John Kirby stated: “One of the things on Kerry’s mind is not letting the Vi­enna process [on Syria] stall or fall backward.” Thus far, the Saudi-Iran spat has not scuttled that process.

On Iraq, the Sunni-Shia con­flict has the potential to unravel the military gains, albeit modest, against ISIS. Although Iraqi Sunnis complain that the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is not giv­ing them their fair share of power, the recent victory against ISIS in Ramadi was carried out in conjunc­tion with forces from the regular Iraqi army and some Sunni tribal forces. Continued cooperation be­tween these two forces is necessary if the much larger city of Mosul is to be taken down the road.

Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al- Abadi, while condemning the ex­ecution of Nimr, was careful not to inflame an already delicate situ­ation given Iraq’s sectarian prob­lems. Washington is undoubtedly hoping that such wise policies will prevail.