Advancing a Free Society

Are the Saudis Playing Both Sides of the Street in Iran?

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A hugely consequential development in the Obama Administration’s “sanctions only” strategy for Iran has been Saudi Arabia’s assurance to purchasers of Iran’s oil that Saudi -- the only country with the capacity to do so -- would meet all calls for supply.  That has given buyers the confidence to forego contracts with Iran knowing their needs will be met.

The Saudi pledge was essential in persuading EU countries to commit to shifting away from Iranian oil purchases.  Europeans are among the largest purchasers of Iranian oil, and the biggest purchasers are Europe’s shakiest economies.  Even with their economic worries and the deadline for giving up Iranian oil not kicking in until June, Italy has already reduced its purchases by 12% and Spain by 37%.

But Saudi Arabia’s oil minister appeared to be drawing back from their substitution pledge, saying, according to the Wall Street Journal, that the kingdom will respond to its customers' demands for more oil, but "it doesn't want to get involved in the politics behind the sanctions.”

What accounts for the recalibration of Saudi Arabia’s position on Iran?  News reporting has focused on posturing in advance of a producers meeting that includes Iran at which quotas will be renegotiated, but that is an unlikely precipitator.  The Saudis are pretty far down the road of supporting both sanctions and the threat of military force against Iran (recall the memorable leak from U.S. diplomatic documents in which the Saudis tell us to “cut the head off the snake.”)

It seems likelier an incidence of timing in the wake of President Obama’s declaration to American-Israeli Political Action Committee that U.S. policy will not settle for containing a nuclear Iran.  The President’s earlier basketball court tough talk that he doesn’t bluff wasn’t adequate to dispel concern that has bluffing about preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, and so at the AIPAC meeting he publicly disavowed the policy option favored by many in his administration, and many of his supporters outside it, who argue that Iran can be contained as a nuclear-armed Soviet Union was contained, as a nuclear-armed China is contained, as a nuclear-armed North Korea is being contained, as a nuclear-armed Pakistan is being contained.

That President Obama felt the need to rule out acceptance of a nuclear-armed Iran is not at variance with Saudi policy.  But the Saudis may be getting uncomfortable at the extent to which talk of Iran is a tense and visible U.S.-Israeli dialogue.  More than once the Saudis (and other Arab states) have suggested they would look the other way if Israel were to attack the Iranian nuclear program.  But it is significant that they are beginning to hedge their political support even for the sanctions regime.  We may be reaching the limit of what the Saudis are willing to sign up for, and that will place significant restrictions on the Administration’s current strategy.

(photo credit: A. Davey)