Saudi facepalm over US pursuit of deals with Iran, Syria

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: Several nations in the Middle East are worried about where future talks between the U.S. and Iran may lead. Israel, for one, isn’t happy about them. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was at the White House today urging President Obama to stick to a tough line when it comes to dealing with Tehran. Others in the region are just as concerned. Saudi Arabia has long seen Iran as an enemy and the two nations are competing for power across the Middle East in a kind of mini-Cold War. To help us get a handle on all this, I am joined by Gregory Gause. He is a professor of political science at the University of Vermont. So, Gregory, remind us briefly why Iran and Saudi Arabia see each other as enemies and is it as simple as a Sunni-Shia divide? I mean, Sunnis in Saudi Arabia, Shias in Iran?

Gregory Gause: I think that's part of it but I think we tend to overestimate that. I do think that this is a balance of power conflict between two states that are looking to be the main actor in their part of the world. Now, the fight between them is played out in the domestic politics of states that have weak governments or that have had domestic upheavals like Iraq, like Syria, like Lebanon, like Yemen, like Bahrain. In these weak states, the Sunnis tend to look to Saudi Arabia for support and the Shias tend to look to Iran. And so, it's from within these kinds of very divided and conflictual domestic/political societies that we get, I think, the sectarianism. But, I think at the top levels in both Iran and Saudi Arabia, I think they see it more as a balance-of-power fight.

Werman: So, tell us what the reaction has been in Saudi Arabia to this little but big thing last week - a conversation between the U.S. President and President Rouhani of Iran. How did Saudis react?

Gause: Well, the telephone call between President Rouhani and President Obama has been very much in the news in the Gulf States; has been seen by some commentators as the beginning of a huge geo-political shift. I think that this is an exaggeration, but I think that the government of Saudi Arabia and of the smaller Gulf States; those governments worry that the United States will not be a reliable ally, that it will quote-unquote sell out their interests in a deal with Iran. I think that this is an exaggerated view, but I think that there is a fear that the U.S. will go further than it actually will in accommodating the Iranians.

Werman: Another thing I want to ask you about is how Washington and the Saudis see Syria? I mean, Washington first came up with this threat of imminent military action on Syria's use of chemical weapons, then a U.N. Security Council resolution to destroy those weapons last Friday. How is Saudi Arabia seeing all of this?

Gause: I think that the general reaction among the chattering class in Saudi Arabia has been real disappointment that the President backed away from the threat of military force. There is a lot of strong public opinion support in Saudi Arabia for the rebels in Syria; a lot of sympathy for what they have gone through and there was a sense that now, finally, the United States was going to do something about it. And so, I think that this just plays into the perception of some people in the Gulf that President Obama is somewhat weak, somewhat naive. I am not sure that that shared at the very top levels of government, but I am sure that there is something of that disappointment particularly given the fact that the Saudis were out front publicly saying before the event that they would support an attack. So, I think they probably felt that the rug got pulled out from under them.

Werman: Gregory Gause, professor of political science at the University of Vermont, thank you for your time.

Gause: My pleasure.