April 29, 2009

Iran and Obama - the view from Riyadh

President Obama with Saudi King 'Abdullah

Despite President Obama's bow to the Saudi king during the G20 summit in London earlier this month, King 'Abdullah remains concerned about the new American president and his overtures to Iran.

Saudi Arabia faces several threats in the Persian Gulf region. These threats include terrorist attacks from al-Qa'idah and other fundamentalist Islamist groups and attacks on the oil infrastructure from Shi'a separatists in the Eastern Province, but the most serious threat by far is the ascendancy of Iran as a major power broker in the region.

The Persian Gulf is not a large body of water. It is all that separates the two key players in the region - the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Both are essentially Islamic states, one an adherent to the strict Wahhabi school of Sunni Islam, and one following the strict tenets of Twelver Shi'a Islam. Both sit on enormous oil reserves. One - Iran - is attempting to acquire nuclear weapons and the missiles to deliver them throughout the region.

The other - Saudi Arabia - had been relying on its relationship with the United States for its national security. That calculus changed shortly after the new American president took office and made it clear that he wants to change U.S.-Iranian relations. That change will likely be at the expense of the Gulf Arab states, long-time American allies in the region.

Although Obama said during his campaign that an Iran with nuclear weapons was "unacceptable" and the world should take steps to prevent that from happening, the Saudis have concluded that the talk will not translate into effective action. While the West talks to Iran, Iranian centrifuges continue to enrich uranium in defiance of the world - that very world that the president hopes will prevent the development of a bomb. Did we learn nothing from North Korea?

What are the Saudis to do? Given their enormous wealth, they might try to buy a nuclear capability, much like they purchased virtually every other military capability they have. They might enter into a strategic alliance with the United States, hoping to fit under the American nuclear umbrella. Or, they might just accept the fact that Iran will be the major power broker in the region and figure out how to deal with the mullans in Tehran.

Whatever the Saudis decide to do, they realize full well that the American administration is not going to do anything other than draft speeches calling on the international community to do something about Iran's nuclear ambitions. In the absence of American leadership, nothing is going to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.

The distance between Riyadh and Washington just got a bit greater.