President Obama’s trip to Saudi Arabia during the last week of March offers an occasion for reflection of the Middle East security situation, with special reference to the threat from Iran to the Saudi Kingdom and how to counter that threat by reaching out to the Iranian people.
The Kingdom is fearful of the nuclear dialogue Washington has with Tehran, irrespective of whether such negotiations are fruitful or not. On one hand, Saudi Arabia should be relieved because success in the nuclear talks would mean Iran agrees to abandon its quest to be a nuclear weapon state. On the other hand, Saudis even fear success because it signals Washington’s later disengagement, permitting Shiite Iran to embolden Shiites in the mainly Sunni-ruled Arab world.
Washington’s “pivot to Asia,” adds to disbelief in Riyadh about the credibility of the American commitment to stay engaged in the region. The Saudis are also concerned with perceptions of indecision in Washington about staying the course in the Middle East. Washington replaced London after it withdrew from “East of Suez,” which especially denoted the Gulf States.
The 1967-1968 UK decision under a center-left government was the significant final step in the country’s retreat from a worldwide role. Likewise, center-left politician, President Barack Obama, is more interested in economic issues in the “Middle West” of the United States than strategic concerns in the “Middle East.”
While Saudi Arabia is fearful of nuclear dialogue adding to unrest in the Arab world, the White House informed the Kingdom that nuclear talks with Iran helped quell Iranian threats to regional stability. But such an optimistic reading overlooks a precipitous American withdrawal from Iraq, which opens the door to al Qaeda and Iranian-sponsored militias. The Kingdom also is concerned about failure to use American force against Bashar Assad when he crossed Obama’s red line about use of chemical weapons.