Why Washington is worried about Saudi-Iran row
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.