With political and civil unrest gripping Iran, what does the country’s neighbor and regional rival, Saudi Arabia, think? We asked Middle East expert Rachel Bronson, vice president of programs and studies at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, for her thoughts. Bronson’s book, “Thicker than Oil: America's Uneasy Partnership with Saudi Arabia” was published in May 2006 by the Oxford University Press.
How would you characterize the relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia right now?
It’s extremely strained. There’s geopolitical tension first and foremost. As Iran’s momentum has increased over the last several years in places like Afghanistan and Iraq, the Saudis see that as a direct threat. Then there’s the religious tension: One of Saudi’s claims is that it’s the custodian of the two holy mosques and that it speaks for Islam. Then when Iran became the Islamic Republic, it threatened that. Lastly, there are the ethnic differences between Arabs and Persians.
What are Saudi Arabia’s concerns right now about the current situation in Iran?
The Saudis are of a mixed mind about it. Anything that unsettles the leadership, particularly Ahmadinejad, who they view as a problem, is a good thing. They think he’s destabilizing, they can’t read him, they think he’s antagonistic. On the other hand, they don’t like instability in general. The masses in the streets make them nervous. They don’t love to see democratic movements leading to this kind of thing. If this was a quiet change of power, they would be more comfortable with it, even if it was Khamenei saying Ahmadinejad is out and Mousavi is in.
What about the idea of this widespread democratic movement, don’t they see that as threat to their own power, too?
They do, but it’s not foremost, as we assume. If there’s a popular uprising, if there are people massing in the streets, that’s nothing they want to see happen at home. But more important is the instability it breeds, the violence that’s right on their border. Why didn’t they like what we were doing in Iraq? It wasn’t that they thought we would succeed, but that we would fail. They thought there would be fighting and it would lure Saudi fighters. So in Iran, they’re less concerned about a democratic Eden than that it’s a pitched battle and it will galvanize the territory.
How does the Iranian instability impact the issue of oil in Saudi minds?
Gulf producers don’t like big swings in price, because it’s unsustainable. Peaks and valleys aren’t what they want. If oil prices spike because of this crisis, global attention goes to the Saudis. People ask: Why are you jacking up oil prices? And if oil prices go up, it puts a damper on demand.
In terms of stature in the region, Iran has been ascending. What are some of the dynamics affecting this?
The Lebanese elections have been interesting. The Iranians have taken a blow there and the Saudis will look to that as a good sign. They don’t like the Iranian presence there. [Iran’s rising stature] has also compelled the Saudis to step up. They like to operate in the shadows. But they’ve had to take a more prominent role.
What do they make of Ahmadinejad’s antagonistic posture toward Israel?
They feel it’s provocative. Their concern is that the Iranians use the Arab-Israeli conflict for their advantage, and so they build up Hezbollah and support for Hamas, which isn’t what the Saudis want. And it’s not helpful to have their rival claiming the mantle for the Arabs. Most important, it justifies Israeli overreaction and leads to leaders like Netanyahu.
How might the current strife in Iran play out on the issue of a nuclear weapons?
We give a lot of attention to the nuclear weapons, but as important for the Saudis are the conventional weapons. [But] on the nuclear, the Saudis are very concerned: Iran is being led by someone who’s unstable and very aggressive. It comes down to capability and intent. That’s always been the issue. It matters what they have, but also how they intend to use it. If Mousavi comes in, does it change capabilities? Maybe not, but it might change intent.
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