Even in a year of hyperbole, it is hard to overstate how dire Saudi Arabia’s security situation has become. It is ugly and is getting worse, and Riyadh badly needs a crisis to make it better.
Three events have left Saudi Arabia in this mess. First, Russian military forces have begun operating freely in the Middle East, unchecked by any great power for the first time in history. In the past, Russia’s southern probes have always been balanced by a rival: the United States during Yom Kippur in 1973; the British through the Qajar Shahs in Iran and in support of the Ottomans in the nineteenth century; and the Turks during the wars of 1914–18 and 1877–78 and before. But now, Russia’s only potential rivals in the area—the United States and Europe—are holding back, leaving the much weaker Saudi Arabia to balance Russia on its own.
Second, Saudi Arabia’s rivals are unified to an unprecedented degree across the Middle East. Those unchecked Russian forces are working in the field alongside Iran, and Iran is uniquely strong in the modern era. For the first time in the modern era, it is aligned with Iraq, and Iraq is aligned with Syria. The Iranian nuclear deal has furthermore given Tehran $150 billion in sanctions relief and reintegrated it back into the geopolitical mainstream without the country having had to relinquish any of its regional ambitions. The victory of Iran’s reformists in their March parliamentary elections will further accelerate the process, since it will reassure the West and solidify the deal.
Third, for the first time in history, Saudi Arabia is without a great-power protector. The United States is no longer tacitly guaranteeing Saudi security, nor endorsing its aims in regional conflicts like Syria and Yemen. The Saudis, effectively, stand alone.
That’s why Saudi Arabia needs something big to happen. A major crisis with Iran could strengthen Saudi Arabia in two ways.
First, there is a chance that it could derail Middle East that is rebalanced in Iran’s favor. It hasn’t tried to persuade the public, Congress, or Washington’s national security apparatus of the value of a rebalancing, however right it may be. And as such the administration has tried to have it both ways—a rapprochement with Iran and stability—which is an impossibility.
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