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Good Neighbors

Why is Saudi Arabia suddenly so chummy with Iran?

Strange things are happening in Saudi Arabia. First, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah brokered a deal between Fatah and Hamas, a religious party that won a popular election--not an example the kingdom is keen to promote. Then, by hosting the Arab League summit, the king decided to embrace a meeting of Arab leaders best known for discord and crisis (eight heads of state, including Saudi Arabia's, declined invitations in 2005 and ten the following year in Khartoum). Meanwhile, the Saudi king hosted Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and reportedly canceled a state dinner with President George W. Bush in Washington. As if all this weren't perplexing enough for seasoned Saudi watchers, last Wednesday, the king issued an extremely hard-line statement branding America's "occupation" in Iraq "illegal." This, from an ally that usually works quietly behind the scenes. What is going on?

There are two international forces driving Saudi Arabia's current policy that help to explain the kingdom's suddenly forceful presence on the political scene. The first is a faltering global partner unable to help Saudi Arabia secure its regional interests--the United States. Whether it was fighting communism together during the cold war or keeping oil prices stable (especially after the dramatic rises and collapses of prices in the 1970s and 1980s), Riyadh and Washington have long been able to overcome differences on Palestine to secure other mutually beneficial political ends. Today, Saudi Arabia looks across a conflict-prone region spiraling ever faster into chaos and sees that the United States has sometimes hastened, rather than stanched, the bleeding in places like Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. With the United States regionally hamstrung and President Bush domestically neutered, Abdullah has clearly decided to take matters into his own hands.

The second trend that is driving a more assertive Saudi policy--one that is related to the first--is Iran's growing confidence. There is considerable nervousness inside the kingdom about both Iran's nuclear program and its regional ambitions. The kingdom's leadership keeps careful watch over Iran's nuclear brinkmanship. In response, Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud Al Faisal, and others have called for not only a nuclear-free Middle East (a time-worn demand directed at Israel) but a nuclear-free Arabian Gulf--a clear signal that they are worried about Iran. The timing of recent statements that the Saudis might gin up their own nuclear program for civilian purposes is clearly a result of Iran's, not Israel's, nuclear program.

But it is not just Iran's nuclear recklessness that concerns the kingdom. The Saudi leadership has been frightened by the religious and ethnic rival next door for nearly three decades. In 1979, the Iranian revolution brought to power an Islamic Republic that threatened Saudi Arabia's claim to represent global Islam. Back then, Iran fomented sectarian violence within many Gulf states and threw countries like Bahrain, Kuwait, and Saudi Arabia onto the defensive. During the first months of the Iran-Iraq war, Saudi Arabia pumped as much as $1 billion per month into Iraq to prevent Iran from securing a foothold in the heart of the Arab world.

Today, Iran is successfully entrenching its influence across the region. It is slowly encircling the kingdom, filling the vacuum created by American missteps. In Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, Iran's influence grows ever larger with each passing day. In Palestine, U.S. and European cessation of aid to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas joined the government gave Iran the freedom to step in and offer its own aid package, one that quickly attracted Hamas's attention. This is why Abdullah brokered the Mecca Accord between Hamas and Fatah. It was done to dangle before the parties an aid package far in excess of what Iran could offer.

The Saudis are even more panicked by what may happen in Iraq. Foreign Minister Faisal succinctly summarized his country's concerns before an American audience in September 2005. He warned that, if Iraqi Sunnis and Shia devolve into civil war, "it will cause so many conflicts in the region that it will bring the whole region into a turmoil that will be hard to resolve. The Iranians would enter the conflict because of the south, the Turks because of the Kurds, and the Arabs--because both these countries are going to enter--will be definitely dragged into the conflict. ... [The United States and Saudi Arabia] fought a war together to keep Iran from occupying Iraq. ... Now we are handing the whole country over to Iran without reason." In a recent op-ed in The Washington Post, Saudi analyst Nawaf Obaid warned that, if the United States withdrew troops, Iraq's bloodshed would worsen at the expense of the Sunnis, which "would undermine Saudi Arabia's credibility in the Sunni world and would be a capitulation to Iran's militarist actions in the region."

All this would be bad enough if Iran were governed by a cautious leader. But, as the international crisis over Iran's seizing of British hostages suggests, Tehran has a habit of pushing international tension to the extremes, far from the realm of carefully staged court politics where Saudi Arabia is most comfortable. Saudi Arabia faces a nuclear and conventionally dangerous neighbor led by an irresponsible leader. But this is not to say that Saudi leaders won't try to engage Iran. In fact, they clearly will. In March, the king met with Ahmedinejad just weeks after the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that Iran was expanding enrichment instead of suspending it. The Saudi leadership has sought other opportunities for high-level exchanges as well. But quiet diplomacy should not be mistaken for appeasement. Rather, the kingdom is following the advice much of the rest of the world offers the United States when it comes to Iran: Negotiate with your enemies, not your friends. King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan bin Abd Al Aziz appear ready to nudge Iran to reduce regional tensions in Lebanon, Iraq, and beyond. Still, this doesn't mean that Saudi leaders either trust Iran or are optimistic about how far their efforts can succeed.

In fact, Saudi leaders have been meeting with Jordanians, Egyptians, and even Israelis to build a diplomatic juggernaut to confront Iran's forays. The king's desire to hold the Arab League Summit in Riyadh probably had as much to do with signaling Arab strength vis-à-vis the non-Arab Iranians as it did with a desire to relaunch Abdullah's peace initiative.

Two trends are converging that are leading Saudi Arabia to pursue a more visible and active foreign policy. But they still do not explain the reported cancellation of the state dinner in Washington or the dramatic charge of the U.S. presence in Iraq being illegal. The Saudis have clearly decided that, in order to do what they must regionally, they need to portray distance from the United States. The king sees little value in being viewed as the Tony Blair of the Middle East, which would hinder his attempt to build the regional will to confront Iran and push through his peace plan (which, he believes, will also reduce sympathy for Iran). It is certainly a gamble--Arab unity has not brought significant benefits for leaders who invested heavily to achieve it. And the current Saudi moves are no pleasure for Washington to watch. But, given its own precarious position in the region, being a spectator for this round may, for Washington, have its own advantages.

By Rachel Bronson