On Monday, Saudi newspapers carry headlines describing the deal made with major powers over Iran's disputed nuclear facilities. The accord the United States and its allies welcomed will put Iran's nuclear enrichment program on hold as talks continue, but it marks only the first stage in difficult negotiations. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)
DUBAI — Saudi Arabia is expected to soon engage in diplomatic overtures with Iran following the nuclear agreement that was struck in Geneva over the weekend, US experts are forecasting.
Speaking on their return to Washington from a visit to Saudi Arabia this week, high ranking members of the Atlantic Council said a new sort of relationship with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is set to emerge.
“There is a new phase on US-Saudi relations,” said Richard LeBaron, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and former ambassador to Kuwait. “During our various meetings with officials, business leaders and experts on the Iranian nuclear deal, many have expressed their dismay with the US position and approach to the Middle East.”
LeBaron said that after the breakthrough on Sunday, Saudi Arabia is expected “in the next few months” to begin diplomatic engagements with Iran to “test the waters.”
“I cannot rule out that there will be diplomatic engagements over the next few months as [Saudi Arabia] are watching the nuclear talks,” he said.
“The Saudis and the other gulf states have had diplomatic relations with Iran for many, many years. They never broke their relations when we did. We haven’t been in Iran for 33 years. They’ve had some periods of decent relations; they’ve had some periods of less effective relations,” LeBaron said.
The former ambassador said the kingdom is beginning to think through its options. “If they think the scenario is going to emerge where the United States is going to have improved relations with Iran, I think they’ll want to hedge their own bets and test [Iranian President Hassan] Rouhani’s indication that he believes, for example, that improvement of relations with Saudi Arabia should be an Iranian priority.
Barry Pavel, another official with the Atlantic Council, added that during their official and unofficial meetings in the kingdom, they were told that if Iran reaches a nuclear capability, Saudi Arabia would go the the US “or other countries” to develop their own nuclear capabilities.
“We did talk around this issue of Pakistani nuclear weapons, and I think the message that I got, sort of reading a little bit between the lines, but I think there was one comment that, you know, if it was clear that Iran developed a nuclear weapons capability, then they would indeed acquire their own capability, either from the US or, quote, from other countries, unquote, or they would develop their own,” he said. “I don’t think that’s an empty threat. I think they would feel the need to do so if it became clear that Iran had a similar capability.”
On Monday, Saudi Arabia said an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program could be a step toward a comprehensive solution — and hoped it could lead to the removal of weapons of mass destruction from the Middle East.
“The government of the kingdom sees that if there was goodwill, this agreement could represent a preliminary step towards a comprehensive solution to the Iranian nuclear program,” the Saudi cabinet said in a statement. The kingdom said it hoped this agreement would be followed by further steps that would guarantee the rights of all states in the region to peaceful nuclear energy.
Despite Iran’s agreement to suspend enrichment work, relinquish its stockpiles of 20 percent enriched uranium, and stop construction of a heavy water reactor that could produce plutonium — in return for the US lifting a number of sanctions to aid Iran’s crippled economy — Pavel said the “hard part is the next step.”
“There is a lot of ink being spilled about the US-Saudi relationship now after the Iran agreement,” LeBaron said. “I think it’s also a good time to keep in mind that all politics are local so that when the Saudis think about Iran, they think about it as a regional neighborhood player.”
The Saudis perceive Iran as interfering in the Yemen Houthi rebellion as well as having a hand in Bahrain by stirring up sectarianism there and in Syria, he added.
LeBaron called for more sensitivity when dealing with the Saudis due to these factors “The other thing to keep in mind for the Saudis, senior figures emphasize this too, is that stability is the main objective of their foreign policy. So any shock to the system is going to cause them to react in some way,” he said.
LeBaron and Pavel agree that a new relationship has to emerge between the US and the GCC.
“There is just a great concern about what’s been remarked as an absence of US leadership and engagement broadly in the region,” Pavel said. “There are patterns being drawn that we in the US I don’t think have seen or sensed ourselves in terms of perceptions of a US downgrading of regard for Saudi interests.
“They see that in Egypt. They see in Syria where there is a lot of angst about Syria in the Saudi population, not just the government. And certainly, the deal with Iran greatly heightens these tendencies, as does the ongoing energy revolution, increasingly making the US self-sufficient in energy, and Middle Eastern officials are wondering, is the US going to care about our interests? Will they have our backs when we need them?”
LeBaron said the question is whether the US is going to sit down with the Saudis and others in the Arabian Gulf and really think through how the world is changing and think about how their roles need to change.
“For example, with a Saudi Arabia and a [United Arab Emirates] that are much better armed than ever before, whether and how they’re going to better coordinate those forces with ours into a really an integrated defense system,” he said. “It’s been very patchy so far and the cooperation in the GCC has been not as good as it should be. So we need to explore all of those things as a new sort of relationship emerges.”
Pavel added that America has been consulting less with its Middle East partners.
“There is a need for the US to consult a lot more than has been occurring, perhaps. And I think in the Middle East in particular, they want that consultation to be at the highest levels,” he said. “They want the president to pick up the phone and call their leaders, not just in a crisis when they’re needed, but as a routine matter so that you can build trust, and trust is very important in this region.”