Headline: “Saudis Deny Discussing Pressure on China over Iran with US”

Sometimes headlines really do convey powerful messages.  That was certainly the case with an AFP story, which appeared late last week under the headline, “Saudis Deny Discussing Pressure on China over Iran with US.”   The story was prompted by Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ visits to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates last week.  During a stop in Abu Dhabi the day after he had held meetings with Saudi King Abdullah bin ‘Abd al-Aziz and Defense Minister and Crown Prince Sultan bin ‘Abd al-Aziz in Riyadh, Gates offered some public observations about the Obama Administration’s efforts to persuade both Saudi Arabia and the UAE to use their economic leverage with China to persuade Beijing to be more supportive of imposing additional international sanctions against Iran.   Specifically, Gates said, with references to the Saudis and Emiratis, “I have the sense that there’s a willingness to do that.”  The next day, Saudi authorities dispatched an “official source” to the Saudi Press Agency to state that “this issue is not true, it was not discussed during the visit of the Secretary of Defense who was in the kingdom recently.”

So, America’s most important Gulf Arab ally does not even want to acknowledge that it might have discussed what remains of the Obama Administration’s imploding strategy to persuade China to support tougher sanctions against Iran.  This is a profoundly negative comment on the Administration’s diplomatic strategy and performance.

We have written frequently and extensively, both on www.TheRaceForIran.com and elsewhere, on why China will not support the imposition of sanctions against the Iran that would harm what Beijing sees as fundamental economic, energy, and strategic interests.  We have also written about why, from a Chinese point of view, getting the Saudis and the Emiratis to commit to pumping sufficient additional oil to cover what Iran currently exports to China will not persuade Beijing to drop its energy ties to the Islamic Republic.  We do not want to belabor here the Obama Administration’s apparent lack of appreciation for the realities of China’s strategic calculations regarding Iran, energy security, and foreign policy.

But the Saudi reaction to Gates’ remarks in Abu Dhabi reveals how badly out of touch the Obama Administration is with Saudi strategic calculations about Iran, China, and the United States.  Last week, we published an outstanding guest post by Jean-Francois Seznec that laid out why the Saudis do not support a military strike against Iran.

The Saudis are no less resistant to the idea of expanding sanctions against the Islamic Republic.  Last month, at a joint press conference with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her most recent visit to Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal referred skeptically to additional international sanctions against Iran as a “long-term solution,” noting that “we see the issue in the shorter term because we are closer to the threat. . . .  We need an immediate resolution rather than a gradual resolution”.  To clarify that the Kingdom was unenthusiastic about both additional sanctions and a military strike against Iran, Saudi authorities had a senior “Saudi foreign policy official” tell the media that “there is no point in our spending all our time on sanctions which will not have an effect in the short term.  We need something more tangible.”  The senior “Saudi foreign policy official” then said that “we don’t want a military strike . . . a military strike, we still believe, will be very counter-productive.”

What would the Saudis support?  The senior “Saudi foreign policy official” was commendably clear: “We need to do something on Israel and the Palestinians. . . .  For instance, the US could get Israel to halt settlements” on the occupied West Bank.”  The Saudi official noted that “there is a credibility issue with the US administration on promises it cannot fulfill.”  At his public appearance with Secretary Clinton, Prince Saud was equally forthright in saying that U.S. efforts to rid the Middle East of nuclear weapons needed to apply to Israel as well as other countries in the region — a reiteration of longstanding Saudi advocacy for the creation of a nuclear-weapons free zone in the region, perhaps starting in the Persian Gulf but ultimately extending across the whole region.

But, of course, the Obama Administration has already shown its lack of seriousness on the settlements issue, and could not possibly consider supporting an initiative for a nuclear weapons free zone in the Middle East.  And so the United States is left with policy options that have no chance of succeeding in the real world.

Flynt Leverett directs the Iran Project at the New America Foundation, where he is also a Senior Research Fellow.  Additionally, he teaches at Pennsylvania State University’s School of International Affairs.  Hillary Mann Leverett is CEO of Strategic Energy and Global Analysis (STRATEGA), a political risk consultancy.  In September 2010, she will also take up an appointment as Senior Lecturer and Senior Research Fellow at Yale University’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs.  This article was first published in The Race for Iran on 15 March 2010 under a Creative Commons license.

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