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It's the Saudis, not the Israelis, who should worry most

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visits the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility in 2008.

By Ian Bremmer *

Whenever Iran and its nuclear program make new headlines, the question of Israel’s vulnerability arises anew. The Israelis do have plenty to worry about these days. The interim deal over Iran suggests a final deal is possible, one that will begin to ease sanctions and provide Tehran with a bit more money to spend in support of Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria is now home to both well-armed Islamic militants and an angry regime that has begun to reconsolidate control of key parts of the country. Turkey has become much less friendly to Israel in recent years, and Egypt, of course, has become a lot less predictable.

Let’s be clear: a final deal on Iran’s nuclear program, if it can be achieved in months to come, would be a very good thing for the Middle East and for the world. It would lift the crippling burden of sanctions from Iran’s people. It would allow a new Iranian president to try to chart a new path. It would deter a threat that many Israeli officials insist is “existential.” It would sharply decrease the risk of nuclear proliferation in the world’s most volatile region. It would deliver the Obama administration and European leaders a much-needed foreign policy victory and help avert the risk of yet another war that no one can afford.

Yet, despite the potential for such good news, some of Iran’s neighbors fear that the easing of sanctions will simply free Iran to make more of the kind of mischief that is much harder to deter, and the country that will be most anxious about this is not Israel but Saudi Arabia.

After all, Israel already has both a nuclear deterrent of its own and better conventional weapons and military training than any country in the Middle East. Like Israel, Saudi security depends on US support, but Israel has a much more reliable relationship with the world’s military superpower than the Saudis do. The United States and Saudi Arabia do not share political values as Americans and Israelis do. In Israel, multiparty democracy is a way of life. For Saudis with an eye on Egypt and Iraq, multiparty democracy is the ultimate nightmare.

Instead, the Americans and Saudis share interests. First, the two governments have had an interest in containing Iran. That now is very much in question in Riyadh, where the Obama administration’s volte face on Syria and the Assad regime’s chemical weapons made Washington appear a less-than-reliable friend and where moves to take US and European relations with Iran in a new direction leave the princes in a panic.

Second, US-Saudi relations are bound, as they have been for many decades, by the oil trade. But as the Saudis are well aware, the surge in US energy production of recent years, brought about by domestic supplies of oil and gas made accessible by hydraulic fracturing and new horizontal drilling techniques, leaves America significantly less dependent on oil from outside the Western hemisphere. A Washington that no longer needs so much Saudi oil, and one that wants to build better relations with Tehran, is fast becoming a much less predictable partner for a Saudi kingdom already facing many long-term problems of its own.

The US will be buying Saudi oil for years to come, and Washington will still sell the Saudis weapons. But the Arab Spring and subsequent events have shown the Saudi royals that they are right to wonder what will happen if a future American president is forced to choose between old friends in Riyadh and a viable Saudi democracy movement.

If unrest one day comes to Saudi Arabia, as it came to Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, can the royals rely on Washington to back them? After Washington defended the elections that produced a Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt and denounced moves by the Egyptian army, a longtime recipient of US financial support, to remove Mohammad Morsi? This is not a hypothetical for the Saudis. Let’s remember that Bahrain has already faced several waves of unrest. Bahrain is a Saudi-supported Sunni monarchy which rules a restive Shia majority, and it sits just 25 kilometers across the King Fahd Causeway from Saudi territory. During the most violent of Arab Spring protests in Bahrain, it was Saudi troops who crossed the bridge to restore order. And whenever there is Shia agitation inside Bahrain, the Saudis suspect that Iran had a hand in fomenting it.

It is the Saudis who are actively competing with Iran for influence throughout the Middle East. That’s why it’s the Saudis who have most to lose from any easing of sanctions on Iran, any normalization of relations with the West, or any nuclear breakthrough that gives Iran the ultimate security guarantee. The Saudis have benefitted from an economically weak Iran—and they are not prepared to lose that advantage.

* Ian Bremmer is the founder and president of Eurasia Group, the leading global political risk research and consulting firm. His most recent book, Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World, details risks and opportunities in a world without global leadership. , Monday December 2, 2013 (16:53)  
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