U.S. President Barack Obama’s efforts to secure an agreement with Iran over its nuclear program have exposed rifts with America’s long-standing Middle Eastern partners, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel. While these three countries share important security interests with Washington, they are by no means fully aligned with the preferred American vision for the region.
For its part, Saudi Arabia has always feared Iranian hegemony in the Middle East, no matter who sits in power in Tehran. Riyadh was no more supportive of Iranian claims to regional leadership, and in fact opposed efforts to enshrine Iran as America’s Middle Eastern “deputy” when the country was ruled by a secular and pro-American shah. After the 1979 Revolution, the Islamic Republic’s pronounced anti-Americanism and violent opposition to U.S. interests pushed Washington to embrace the Saudi view on Iran. Yet the Saudis worry that American antipathy to Iran, as opposed to its current government, is not deeply rooted.
Indeed, Washington might not have any real objection to a more pro-American government in Iran retaining a significant nuclear infrastructure and exercising a more dominant position in the region. The Saudis only have to look across the Indian Ocean to see how U.S. policy toward India’s nuclear weapons turned on a dime—from outright condemnation and sanctions when New Delhi tested weapons in 1998 to acceptance in 2007—as India was cultivated as a counterbalance to a rising China.