Saudi-Iran Conflict Is Not America’s Fault

Souring relations between Tehran and Riyadh, never cozy, threaten American efforts at diplomacy.

Anti-Saudi demonstration in Tehran, Jan. 4, 2016. Abedin Taherkenareh/epa/Corbis

Anti-Saudi demonstration in Tehran, Jan. 4, 2016. Abedin Taherkenareh/epa/Corbis

Global powers agree: diplomacy with Iran is essential, and it has proven successful. Saudi Arabia, however, begs to differ. It leads a group of countries that can be counted on one hand who refuse to budge from their zero sum position. As Kurt Vonnegut would say: So it goes. We love it, the Saudis hate it—one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. And yet, a quixotic mix of excuses is being used to blame America for the Saudi-Iran conflict. This is nonsense. Scratching below the surface shows that Riyadh needs to take a long, hard look in the mirror—and take responsibility for its own actions.

To hear the Saudis tell it, Washington has unleashed the hegemonic Iranians to run roughshod over the Middle East. But a cursory glance reveals neither betrayal, nor concerns based on science or substance. The Saudi argument is bipolar. First they argued that Washington should “cut off the head of the snake” and bomb Iran in order to stop it from building nuclear weapons and taking over the region. Now they argue that a deal preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons empowers its efforts to take over the region. Riyadh put President Barack Obama in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position, and he wisely chose the path that prioritized American interests.

To that end, Riyadh crying betrayal over Washington opening a back channel with Tehran in 2012 without its knowledge vindicates the Obama administration’s decision. Why inform the Saudis of such a back channel when you know they will publicize it in an effort to kill it? Discretion is the better part of valor when trying to simultaneously kick start negotiations and sidestep political landmines. Saudi Arabia knows this because it set up its own successful back channel with Iran in the mid-1990s, adding a tinge of absurdity to its claims of American betrayal.

After the Saudis publicly accepted the nuclear deal—while simultaneously using lobbyists in an effort to kill it—their protests zeroed in on Iran’s “aggressive behavior” in the region that Washington supposedly enables. However, one could just as easily argue that America is enabling aggressive Saudi policies. Vice President Joe Biden has openly stated that Saudi Arabia is arming and funding groups in Syria that America designates as terrorist organizations, including Al-Qaeda and the Nusra Front. And yet, the United States and Saudi Arabia work together to fund, arm, and train rebel fighters in Syria.

Meanwhile, in Yemen, a leaked United Nations report says that Saudi Arabia’s campaign is targeting civilians with air strikes in a widespread and systematic manner, deliberately starving them, and chasing and shooting them with helicopters when they try to flee. And yet, Washington continues to supply Riyadh with weapons, intelligence, and logistics despite such support raising war crimes concerns. Moral of the story: the Obama administration rightly recognizes the aggressive regional policies of both Iran and Saudi Arabia. But here’s the catch: Tehran has been willing to negotiate de-escalation for nearly three years. Washington has encouraged it. To date, Riyadh has refused.

And therein lies the rub. It is not a goodwill gesture for the Saudis to sit at the table with Iran as part of Syria peace talks, or any other negotiation. On the contrary, UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan De Mistura said Saudi Arabia—not Iran—is obstructing the Syria peace talks. Across the board, Riyadh is refusing to accept Diplomacy 101: durable solutions to conflict require the buy in of every actor with the capacity to wreck the solution. Saudi Arabia’s unwillingness to seriously engage shows that it is not interested in conflict resolution. Blaming the Obama administration is a cop out.

That is precisely why the Obama administration has been wise to frame Saudi Arabia’s spat with Iran as a bilateral issue. Riyadh wants to create conflict, suck Washington in, and derail any further improvement in U.S.-Iran relations. The Saudis are worried that the United States has rightly come to the conclusion that working with Iran makes sense in areas where interests overlap. Instead, Riyadh is telling Washington to choose sides. One former Saudi official channeled his inner George W. Bush, saying: “You’re either with us, or against us.”

If Riyadh is trying to send a message to the Obama administration that it no longer feels compelled to go along with U.S. efforts in the Middle East, then they are likely plagiarizing an identical message they received from Washington years ago. The days of Saudi Arabia free riding on an American-enforced regional security framework based on Iran’s exclusion—a framework that contradicts the natural balance of power—are over. Washington’s unwillingness to tip the balance of power in Riyadh’s favor is a prudent prioritization of American interests. The Saudis should not mistake their diverging interests for disengagement or a power vacuum in the region.

The Iran nuclear deal did not pre-ordain regional conflict. Saudi leaders have chosen it. Blaming America does not change an inconvenient truth stressed by European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini: “I understand very well the concerns of many Arab countries, not only Arab countries in the region on the role of Iran. But I am also convinced that it would be naïve to imagine that a country like Iran could simply disappear from the map.” Obama is not losing an ally—Washington and Riyadh will remain deeply intertwined long after his presidency concludes. But, by refusing to take responsibility for its own actions, Saudi Arabia is losing support in Western capitals.

Reza Marashi is research director at the National Iranian American Council in Washington, DC. His articles have appeared in the New York TimesForeign PolicyAtlantic, and National Interest. On Twitter: @rezamarashi.