Secretary of State John Kerry has sought to reassure America’s Arab allies that a nuclear deal with Iran will not involve a “grand bargain” with the Shia state for power in the Middle East.
Earlier this month, Kerry told Saudi officials in Riyadh that the United States will not take their “eye off of Iran’s other destabilizing actions in places like Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula” in case world powers reach an agreement with Iran about its nuclear program.
Iran insists its nuclear program is peaceful but Arab and Western powers suspect it intends to build weapons. The United States is leading a diplomatic effort to secure a long-term agreement with Iran under which international sanctions on its oil-based economy would be lifted in exchange for assurances that it won’t build atomic bombs.
Saudi Arabia worries that the deal will be harbinger for better relations between its most important Western ally and Iran, its regional foe.
The Reuters news agency reported last year that Saudi princes were horrified to see President Barack Obama reach out to Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s newly-elected president who is considered to be relatively moderate in the West.
“The Saudis’ worst nightmare would be the administration striking a grand bargain with Iran,” said Robert Jordan, a former American ambassador to Riyadh.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are locked in a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. The conflict is informed by contrasting religious views. The Saudi monarchy sees itself as the guardian of Islam and conservative Sunni hierarchy; Iran’s rulers consider themselves the vanguard of an Islamic revolution.
The struggle has played out across the region.
In Iraq, Saudi Arabia resisted Iran’s growing influence in Baghdad during the prime ministership of Nouri al-Maliki, a Shia Muslim who spent decades in exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein was in power.
In Syria, they support opposing sides in a civil war: Iran backs the minority regime of President Bashar al-Assad while Saudi Arabia, working with the United States, supports the largely Sunni opposition.
The Saudis also see Iran’s hand in the Houthi rebellion in their impoverished neighbor Yemen.
The oil kingdom is concerned that America may be willing to accept Iran’s strategic gains in these places in order to get a nuclear deal.
Obama’s negotiators have tried to keep the nuclear dossier separate from other issues but the emergence of a self-declared Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has made that more difficult. Iran and the United States both regard the Islamist militant group as a threat and both are involved in military operations against it, although they do not cooperate.
Saudi Arabia was previously alarmed when Obama withdrew his support from Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak, another Sunni ally, in 2011 and stepped back from involving America in Syria’s civil war in 2013.