WASHINGTON – Sunni Saudi Arabia, which is conducting proxy wars against Shiite Iran on a number of fronts, including Syria and Yemen, is showing support for a possible international agreement to prevent Tehran from producing nuclear weapons.
Riyadh has publicly welcomed Secretary of State John Kerry’s assurances that the United States and the other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – Russia, China, Britain and France – plus Germany, known as the P5+1 countries, any deal with Iran does not an overall rapprochement.
Quietly, however, Riyadh is marshaling leaders of the five Gulf Arab countries of Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates, as well as Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, into a major Sunni bloc to contain any threat from Iran.
Saudi Arabia also opposes the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a Shiite-Alawite, who is backed by Shiite Iran.
In addition to Syria, the Saudis see Iran extending its influence into Lebanon, Iraq and now Yemen with the recent takeover by the Iranian-backed Houthis which, like Tehran, Damascus and now Beirut, are in an increasing conflict with ISIS and such al-Qaida-affiliated groups as Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula and Jabhat al-Nusra.
Newly installed Saudi King Salman bin Abdul-Aziz, who just succeeded King Abdullah after his death, also sees the Sunni bloc as confronting the threat to their respective monarchies from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, even though many Saudis with connections to the royal family help finance ISIS.
Similar financing also comes from Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
Outward opposition to ISIS, however, creates internal problems for Riyadh toward Turkey as it seeks to push Egypt to be the more moderate voice of Sunni Islam to stem ISIS’ rise in the region.
The Turks have been helpful to ISIS in funneling financing and fighters into Syria.
“The Saudis recognize that a successful deal between Iran, the U.S., Russia, China, Britain, France and Germany will enjoy broad international backing and United Nations endorsement,” according to Middle East expert Bruce Ridel, director of the Intelligence Project at the Brookings Institution.
Ridel said that the Saudis don’t want to be “isolated in a dissenting minority” with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against an agreement backed by the international community.
“The royal family despises Israel, and Netanyahu is regarded as a war criminal by most Saudis,” Ridel said. “Any hint of mutual interest with Israelis unpalatable in the kingdom.”
As a consequence, Ridel and other regional experts say Riyadh will seek to strengthen its regional alliances with Sunni allies in what it sees as a potential, if not inevitable, conflict with Tehran.
In seeking to strengthen its regional alliance with the Gulf Arab countries, it has two weak links, with Oman and Qatar, which have strong bilateral and, as Ridel calls it, “lucrative” ties with Iran.
Nevertheless, Saudi’s King Salman will seek to have them hold the line and maintain a united front as a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
As the Saudis seek to develop a foreign policy independent of U.S. security, Riyadh will look to two of the other two largest Sunni power players in the region, Egypt and Turkey.
While the Saudis maintain relations with Ankara, they especially look to Egypt taking the lead because of Riyah’s serious differences with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party, or AKP, government not only supports the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, whom the Saudis deplore, but also back the Tripoli government in Libya while the Saudis back the government in Tobruk.
In effect, Middle East expert Fehim Tastekin said, Erodgan is being dragged into Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iran Sunni bloc, even while the Turkish president seeks to expand already existing economic and political ties with Tehran.
“The new Saudi-Turkish alliance seems to be an effort by the Sunnis to form a bloc against the Shiite world,” Tastekin said. “Turkey, which succeeded in staying away from sectarian conflicts until the AKP came to power, is now becoming a part of a sectarian polarization for the sake of blocking Iran.”
For its part, Turkey has major problems with Saudi-backed Egypt, whose president, Fattah el-Sisi, ousted the Muslim Brotherhood-backed Egyptian president, Mohamed Morsi, two years ago.
Salman now is attempting to reconcile the differences between Erdogan and Sisi, but Erdogan is resisting.
“Whether Salman will succeed depends on his ability to end the hostilities between Erdogan and Sisi,” Tastekin said. “But the first political encounter between Salman and Erdogan did not yield that outcome.
“Salman met with Sisi a day before meeting Erdogan, in an effort to keep the Egypt issue on the sidelines, while nurturing the Saudi-Turkish friendship,” Tastekin said. “Before taking off for Riyadh, Erdogan, when asked if he was going to meet Sisi, replied ‘You must be joking. For such a thing to happen, there must be serious, positive steps.’”
Erdogan reportedly said the Saudis had asked him to reconcile with Egypt but didn’t insist.
In Erdogan’s effort to become part of the Saudi Sunni bloc plan, Tastekin said their mutual goal of a Syrian opposition victory against Assad will not convince Washington’s effort to prioritize action against ISIS instead of ousting the Syrian president.
“As the Islamic State becomes a true threat to everyone, it simply does not look feasible for Turkey to persuade even one of its NATO allies, let along the U.N. Security Council,” Tastekin said.
Tastekin believes Erdogan holds Iran responsible for failure to realize his regional ambitions, even though they will continue to maintain a relatively stable relationship, especially on economic and trade issues.
“The two countries have not been engaged in a border conflict since 1639 and realize the importance of understanding each other, and somehow getting along,” Tastekin said.
“Persisting with a bankrupt Syria policy, which brought with it major problems, and entering into a sectarian alliance, which will provoke a complicated confrontation with Iran,” he said, “can only be a new and critical miscalculation that will shift Turkey from its course that it has been so proud of until now.”