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US-Saudi alliance stays strong after Iran deal

Spencer KimballAugust 3, 2015

Will the Iran nuclear deal strain ties between Saudi Arabia and the US? Hardly. The alliance between the world's largest absolute monarchy and its oldest constitutional republic remains strong, Spencer Kimball reports.

Saudi Arabia-US: John Kerry & Kingg Salman in Riad
Image: Reuters/A. Harnik

One is an officially Islamic nation ruled by the same family for 83 years, where religion dictates who drives (men) and what women may wear (abayas, or full-body cloaks); the other is a mostly, but not officially, Christian country where voters pick their leaders and often even enact local laws. Enemies and interests may be the only two things Saudi Arabia and the United States do have in common, and these have proved the basis for a long and largely loyal strategic partnership.

"It has survived every possible provocation that might have brought it down, including [US President] Truman's recognition of Israel in 1948," Thomas Lippman, a former Middle East bureau chief for the Washington Post, told DW.

Lippman believes that the relationship will also survive its latest test: the deal world powers signed in July to ease sanctions on Iran in exchange for international monitoring of the country's nuclear program.

On Sunday, US Secretary of State John Kerry left for Qatar, part of his first trip to the Middle East since he and fellow negotiators reached the historic agreement with Saudi Arabia's main rival for regional influence.

Before and after the deal, Kerry repeatedly reaffirmed the US's commitment to the security of its Gulf partners. Just last week, the State Department approved the sale of 600 Patriot missiles, worth $5.4 billion (4.9 billion euros), to Riyadh.

The Patriots will help counter Iran's missile program, Lippman said, though he doesn't believe that the sale is necessarily related to the nuclear deal.

"I have no doubt that the Saudis despise Shiites and are nervous about the Iranians and are unhappy about Iran's activity around the region - that's no secret," Lippman said.

"They also understand perfectly which side their bread is buttered on, and that's the US side," he continued. "Nobody else is going to sell them 600 patriot missiles."

Less about nukes

Regional apprehension about a deal with Iran isn't as much about the technical nuclear details as many reports have made it out to be, according to Richard Murphy, a former US ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

In fact, the Gulf Cooperation Council - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates - endorsed the nuclear deal during a summit hosted by US President Obama at Camp David in May.

US: Obama, GCC in Camp David
At Camp David, Obama was able to secure the GCC's approval of a nuclear deal with IranImage: Reuters/K. Lamarque

Instead, the Gulf countries are worried that lifting economic sanctions will embolden Iran's support of Shiite militias in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen, where Saudi Arabia in particular is competing for influence.

"There's a very tangible concern over the amount of money that will be coming into Iranian hands, and they suspect the worst from Iran," Murphy told DW.

"They remember the words of the Ayatollah in the first few years of the revolution, calling for the overthrow of the corrupt governments in the Muslim world," Murphy said. "If you took his words literally, there was only one decent government, which was his own."

Comrades-in-arms, lucratively

Saudi Arabia spends four times more on its military than Iran does, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Together, the Gulf Cooperation Council spends six to seven times as much as Iran does. And the US plays a key role in all that spending.

In 2010, the Obama administration proposed the largest weapons deal in US history with Saudi Arabia. Worth $60 billion, the deal included up to 84 new F-15 warplanes and upgrades to 70 more, 70 Apache attack helicopters, 72 Black Hawks, and 36 Little Bird helicopters.

Aden, Yemen
Saudi Arabia is engaged in not-so-soft diplomacy in YemenImage: Reuters/F. Al Nasser

"Arms sales have been a constant in our relationship," Murphy said. "It's become a very lucrative market for our arms manufacturers."

Murphy said Kerry would likely emphasize the US's security commitments to its Gulf partners on the visit: "The readiness to supply arms as needed will be reiterated."

'Marriage of convenience'

It's all part of what Lippman calls a "marriage of convenience." And Saudi Arabia's oil reserves aren't as important as they once were to that marriage. The US is no longer dependent on the Gulf for its energy needs, he said.

What's more important is a security quid pro quo. The Saudis receive defense guarantees from the US, and in return Riyadh supports peace with Israel - in principle - and counterterrorism efforts against al Qaeda and "Islamic State," also known as IS or ISIS.

"Their first objective always is self-preservation," Lippman said. "They know that ISIS wants Mecca. They know that al Qaeda wants their heads. And therefore they are going to fight them."

The nuclear deal in combination with Tehran's role in fighting Islamic State has led to speculation that, over time, the US could seek to deepen ties with the Iranians at the expense of the Saudis. But Murphy calls that idea "nonsensical."

"Iranians aren't looking for that kind of relationship, and neither are we," Murphy said. "But that's on their minds in the Gulf."