Saudi Arabia’s reaction to US President Donald Trump’s more confrontational posture toward Tehran was strikingly similar to Israel’s, highlighting the two countries’ common desire for a more determined American effort to counter Iranian influence in the region.
On Saturday, King Salman telephoned Trump to voice support for his “firm strategy” against “Iranian aggression and its [Iran’s] support for terrorism in the region,” the Saudi Press Agency reported.
“The king praised the Trump administration, which recognizes the magnitude of these challenges and threats and the need for concerted efforts on terrorism and extremism and its primary sponsor, Iran.”
That followed an announcement by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Friday that praised Trump for the same reasons and said the US president “has created an opportunity to fix this bad deal, to roll back Iran’s aggression and to confront its criminal support of terrorism.”
Since Trump’s election, the Saudis have been hoping for a tougher American posture toward Tehran, which they view as the great and growing threat to their interests.
In May, they gathered Islamic leaders for a summit with Trump in Riyadh that highlighted Iran as the epicenter of subversion and terrorism in the region. Trump’s decertification of the nuclear deal, his sanctioning of the Revolutionary Guards and his vow to stand up against Iran’s fueling of “conflict, terror and turmoil” are seen by the Saudis as initial crystallization of the more assertive, some would say, aggressive, approach they had hoped for.
The Trump speech was music to the ears of Abdulrahman al-Rashed, former editorin- chief of the London-based, Saudi-owned Asharq al-Awsat newspaper. He echoed Netanyahu’s choice of the word “courageous” to describe Trump’s approach.
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“It’s a correct beginning for regional corrections, or at least stopping the creeping of Iran,” he wrote of the speech in Asharq al-Awsat on Saturday.
“The project of Iran is expansive and it wants to have hegemony over the region. It is not only building its nuclear capability for defensive purposes,” Rashed wrote. “Iran is waging destructive military wars every day in the region. All of them are expansionist activities.”
In the view of Gabriel Ben-Dor, a Middle East specialist at the University of Haifa, “What the Saudis want from the US is what we Israelis want: to lean hard on Iran; to make sure they don’t cheat and find ways to bypass the nuclear agreement to develop nuclear weapons; to not allow them to develop long-range ballistic missiles unhindered; and to confront them on their support of terror and subversion.
“The Saudis feel that Trump’s assertive speech is a signal that the US is prepared to do something on these three things critical to the Saudi perception of national security. Their view is quite identical to what we Israelis feel about things on the agenda,” he said.
Ben-Dor said the Saudis are worried about Iranian subversion across the region: in Yemen, where Riyadh has gotten bogged down in its war with Iranian- backed Houthi forces; in Syria, where growing Iranian influence threatens Saudi allies; and in Bahrain, where there are outbreaks of unrest among the Shi’ite majority.
“These are immediate threats. The nuclear project and long-range missiles are not immediate, but they are very paramount in the Saudis’ thinking about their future,” Ben-Dor said.
In Ben-Dor’s view, the Saudis do not want to see the US pull out of the nuclear deal entirely. “They don’t see an alternative.
If the agreement collapses now without an alternative agreement and without an international coalition subscribing to an agreed-upon policy, then Iran gets a free hand to continue and develop its own nuclear ambitions more forcefully and without international inspection.”
Rather than it collapsing, the Saudis want the agreement “to have more teeth, a tougher inspection regime and to expand it to include Iran’s missile program,” he said.
While the Saudis are pleased with Trump’s speech as an endorsement of their stress on Iran as the main source of trouble in the region, they must be wondering what comes next, noted Bruce Maddy-Weitzman, a specialist on Arab politics at Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.
“On the gut level, they’ll say ‘Yes, this is a good thing, we’re happy he’s not Obama.’ But when they think it through they’ll say, ‘What does this mean? Where is it going to lead to?’ And if it leads to a more aggressive Iranian posture, that’s not something they’d like to see.
“Trump is dumping this to Congress. Meanwhile, the international community is not supportive. It’s not like Trump can lead a coalition,” Maddy-Weitzman added.
“No one knows what American policy will be in the next stage. Given his relations with Congress, you can’t assume he can dictate to Congress a new round of sanctions. Trump’s unpredictability has to leave every leader asking questions, shaking their heads and trying to figure out what’s next.”
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