The killing of a Shiite cleric by the authorities in Sunni Saudi Arabia followed by the attempted take-over of the Saudi’s Teheran embassy in Shiite Iran followed by the break-off of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia is more than a fight in the family or a disputation over Islamic tenets. It is political, religious, and economic.
This tension has been present under the surface for years; probably since before World War II. It has been active since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980’s and was very much part of the rationale why the Saudis were prepared to invite the Western infidels into their country to fight on their behalf in Operation Desert Storm against Saddam Hussein in 1992. The Saudis have always coveted the Iraqi oil reserves and were prepared at all costs to prevent Iran from eventually accessing them. The difference today is that the West and especially the U.S. is no longer is tethered to Saudi oil production and Saudi Arabia knows that its historic foe, Iran, is about to elevate its own production– which had been severely curtailed due to the West’s sanctions.
In addition to the fact that the Saudis opposed the P5 +1-Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), the Saudis now find themselves in a drawn out confrontation in Yemen, reduced oil revenues, and afraid that a liberalizing movement may be on the verge of erupting in one of the most conservative kingdoms in the world.
All of this does not really address the two things that truly are irking the Saudis at this time. First, they are genuinely afraid of the growth and spread of radical Islam as now championed by ISIS. The potential threat that it poses to the Saudi regime is palpable. Even more disturbing to the Saudis, however, is that fact that their Iranian foe has or is on the verge of possessing nuclear weapons. This condition is something that the Saudi kingdom may be very ready to rectify immediately by obtaining nuclear weapons from either Pakistan or North Korea. If they opt to go in that direction, neither the U.S. nor any other Western power will prevent them from going nuclear in very short order. For Iran, if the U.S. condones the Saudi acquisition of nukes, the likelihood of the JCPA remaining in force is nil. The planned late January talks in Vienna concerning the military situation in Syria and Yemen—which were to include Iran and Saudi Arabia—will be postponed–at best.
As the President has returned from Christmas in Hawaii, it is apparent from the quiet, pro-forma, diplomatic remarks coming from the White House that his major, national security decision-makers were taken aback by this sudden turn of events. With further action today in reductions or severances of diplomatic relations between Bahrain, Sudan, and the U.A.E. with Iran, American interests in the Gulf are being further tested. If the Saudis opt to acquire nuclear weapons, the U.S. will not be able to thwart them. The JCPA may have worked with Iran due to Iran’s own economic needs, but that is not the case for the Saudis.
The U.S. could well be in for double trouble in the Middle East. It could see the failure of the JCPA on the one hand and an even more fundamental crisis Saudi Arabia on the other. Instead of the possibility of Iran going nuclear, the world could be witnessing the possibilities of these two major adversaries possessing nuclear weapons which would constitute a threat not only to the West, to Israel and to each other, but to the entire region.