U.S. can a≠ord to side with Iran on Saudis

The Denver Post - - OPINION - By Noah Feld­man A longer version of this col­umn is at den­ver­post.com/opin­ion.

The rapidly es­ca­lat­ing con­flict be­tween Saudi Ara­bia and Iran, sparked by the ex­e­cu­tion of a Saudi Shi­ite ac­tivist, may seem like the nat­u­ral out­growth of a decade’s Sunni-Shi­ite ten­sions. But more than de­nom­i­na­tional dif­fer­ences, what’s driv­ing the open con­flict is the Saudis’ deep­en­ing fear that the U.S. is shift­ing its loy­al­ties in the Per­sian Gulf re­gion from its tra­di­tional Saudi ally to a grad­u­ally mod­er­at­ing Iran. And in a sense, they’re right: Al­though the U.S. is a long way from be­com­ing an in­stinc­tive Ira­nian ally, the nu­clear deal has led Wash­ing­ton to start broad­en­ing its base in the Gulf, work­ing with Iran where the two sides have over­lap­ping in­ter­ests. Of which there are many th­ese days.

The Saudis ex­e­cuted the ac­tivist, Nimr al-Nimr (it means Tiger the Tiger, by the way, which could pos­si­bly be the best name ever), last week­end be­cause they wanted to send a mes­sage to the coun­try’s Shi­ite mi­nor­ity and neigh­bors, and be­cause they thought they could get away with it.

The out­spo­ken al-Nimr sym­bol­ized the pos­si­bil­ity that Saudi Shi­ites might never fully ac­cept their sec­ond­class sta­tus and, worse, might seek au­ton­omy or in­de­pen­dence in the event of the Saudi state’s weak­ness. The Saudis seem to have cal­cu­lated that if Iran made any noise about the ex­e­cu­tion, it would not have lever­age to do any­thing about it. Un­doubt­edly the Saudis knew the Amer­i­cans wouldn’t be best pleased with them for killing a non­vi­o­lent ac­tivist — but again, they must’ve thought it wouldn’t mat­ter.

Ex­e­cut­ing al-Nimr was thus prob­a­bly in­tended to demon­strate that the Saudis can go it alone, making se­cu­rity-re­lated de­ci­sions with­out wor­ry­ing what their neigh­bors or the U.S. think. If that’s right, the ex­e­cu­tion was an in­di­rect sig­nal that Saudi Ara­bia is feel­ing iso­lated, and that if iso­lated, it will act uni­lat­er­ally.

Here the Saudis over­played their hand. The Ira­ni­ans re­acted clev­erly. First, the gov­ern­ment stirred up pub­lic sen­ti­ment by con­demn­ing the ex­e­cu­tion. Then, it al­lowed an­gry pro­test­ers to storm the Saudi Em­bassy in Tehran. Fi­nally, the Ira­nian gov­ern­ment shut down the protest, made ar­rests and is­sued pub­lic state­ments dis­claim­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for what had hap­pened.

The Amer­i­cans, rather re­mark­ably, took the Ira­nian side. U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry let it be known that he was talk­ing to his Ira­nian coun­ter­part, Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif. Mean­while, a for­mer deputy CIA di­rec­tor, Michael Morell, pub­licly praised the Ira­ni­ans for their han­dling of the sit­u­a­tion in Tehran.

Th­ese re­ac­tions show that Saudi wor­ries about Amer­i­can aban­don­ment are to a de­gree jus­ti­fied. Af­ter the Iran nu­clear deal, Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy makers can look at an episode like the al-Nimr af­fair and ask: Whose fault is this? If the an­swer is the Saudis, the U.S. can now af­ford to side with Iran.

More broadly, this shift re­flects in­creas­ingly over­lap­ping U.S.-Ira­nian in­ter­ests. Both want to sta­bi­lize Iraq, in­clud­ing by keep­ing the Iraqi Sun­nis in a sec­ondary po­si­tion. Both would like to de­feat Is­lamic State, a rel­a­tively low pri­or­ity for the Saudis, who ei­ther don’t fear the Sunni mil­i­tant group or fear it so much they don’t want to join the bat­tle.

There are still plenty of points where U.S. and Saudi in­ter­ests con­verge, and op­pose Ira­nian in­ter­ests. Both sides dis­like Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad and want Hezbol­lah to have less, not more power in Le­banon. Both want to resta­bi­lize Egypt and in­deed the re­gion more broadly, cre­at­ing a broad-based Sunni al­liance to bal­ance Ira­nian ex­pan­sion.

A Repub­li­can pres­i­dent, urged on by Is­rael, might con­ceiv­ably try to roll back the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s steps to re­align­ment, and bring back the good old days for the Saudis. And Hil­lary Clin­ton might be tougher on Iran than Barack Obama has been. But for­eign pol­icy con­ti­nu­ity on Iran is likely, re­gard­less of rhetoric. Any pres­i­dent will need to try and pro­duce wins on Is­lamic State and Iraq — and those can’t be achieved with­out Iran.

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