by Thomas R.Pickering & William H. Luers
Published: My Sanantio, 30 November 2017
The growing tension and confrontation between Saudi Arabia and Iran present the U.S. administration with multiple and contradictory challenges to U.S. security interests in the Persian Gulf.
The Saudis, who have been America’s friends and wealthy oil partners since 1944, are experiencing domestic changes and foreign adventures unique in their history. They have a young, new and untested leader who is planning a dramatically new political economy for the kingdom in the face of an anticipated long term decline in Saudi wealth and influence.
Iran is a powerful American adversary several times larger than its neighbors with a significant military ground force plus an expanding network of pro-Iranian militant groups operating outside of Iran, particularly Hezbollah. Iran has a growing economy, greater international support, particularly from Europe, Russia and China, and the potential for being even more influential in the region.
Many have accepted the conclusion that there is no contest about where the United States has and should continue to place its support between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Yet there are components of this regional competition that require acute understanding and astute management to enhance U.S. long-term interests.
First, no regional conflict can be resolved militarily. A political outcome will require Saudi Arabia and Iran to reach some modus vivendi. By throwing its full weight behind the Saudis against Iran, the U.S. assures that no regional agreements will be reached without the unlikely capitulation of Iran.
Second, by encouraging a more aggressive and militarized Saudi stance against Iran, the U.S. undermines the important plans of the new Saudi leader to build a more constructive and modern political economy for the kingdom. With Yemen already a quagmire, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman does not need the burden of an additional costly foreign adventure. Should war occur, the United States will face the Hobson’s choice of a highly unpopular third on-going war in the region or abandoning a critical ally with all that means for reduced U.S. influence in the Gulf and globally.
U.S. support for the Saudis against Iran would almost certainly destroy the nuclear agreement with Tehran. A nuclear armed Iran would be far more threatening and dangerous for Israel and the region and for nuclear proliferation generally.
Despite these realities, the administration has joined Saudi Arabia in defining Iran as a common enemy. Israel is apparently a willing participant in that unofficial but clear mission to push back Iran.
This polarizing American policy sets the U.S. on a flawed and dangerous path in the Middle East. U.S. armed forces and allies will now have to recalibrate their roles in Iraq and Syria with the elimination and dispersal of ISIS forces. The major challenges for the United States will be to strengthen and stabilize Iraq and reach a political solution in Syria. These strategic goals cannot be achieved if combined with a conflict with Iran. While a more assertive military approach to Iran might offer opportunities for Israel to move against Hezbollah, the opportunities for an unwanted, unforeseen escalation are legion in that chaotic part of the world.
The administration, after careful analysis of U.S. interests, seems to have quietly recognized the value of preserving the nuclear agreement with Iran. It should now give similar careful and critical thought to selecting wise options to protect America’s traditional friends, enhance America’s constructive political role, and assure that Iran is without a nuclear weapon, while avoiding actions that will lead to a third, concurrent, unwinnable and costly war in the Middle East.