In the ongoing debate over whether the interim agreement now being discussed with Tehran will or won’t effectively slow Iran’s nuclear program, U.S. policymakers seem to have overlooked one major issue: Even if they’re convinced that Israeli and Saudi concerns about the deal are unfounded, America’s own interests would be undermined by a deal that leaves Jerusalem or Riyadh too unhappy–and especially the latter. Indeed, an agreement Saudi Arabia can’t live with ought to be every American’s worst nightmare. And nothing illustrates this better than last week’s BBC report that the Saudis have nukes “on order” from Pakistan, ready for delivery whenever they give the nod.
Even if this particular report is false, foreign-policy experts generally agree that if Iran does succeed in obtaining nukes, or even becoming an acknowledged threshold state, Saudi Arabia will swiftly follow suit. As long as the current regime retains power in Riyadh, this would merely be detrimental to American interests: More nuclear states in the Middle East would further destabilize an already unstable region. But as the Arab Spring showed, even in the Mideast, repressive regimes don’t last forever, and when they fall, the people most likely to initially take over are the Islamists, since they are the best organized. And Saudi Arabia’s Islamists happen to be the same people who provided 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11.
Preventing al-Qaeda from taking over a government with nukes is clearly a supreme American interest. But revolutions tend to happen swiftly, and altering their course is difficult and messy. Thus once a Saudi revolution starts, the chances of America being able to prevent an al-Qaeda takeover drop to near zero.
The easiest way to prevent this nightmare scenario is thus to prevent Riyadh from acquiring nukes in the first place. In principle, that’s not hard; the Saudis have hitherto shown little interest in getting the bomb. But they’ve made it very clear that their calculations will change if Iran’s nuclear program isn’t effectively halted–and on this issue, they aren’t prepared to take Washington’s word for it. Hence a deal with Tehran that leaves the Saudis fuming is liable to have far worse consequences for America than no deal at all.
The ramifications of a deal that leaves Israel unhappy are less severe, but still non-negligible if the Obama administration is serious about wanting to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran. As I’ve written before, Israel’s history proves that if it feels pushed to the wall in the face of an existential threat, it will launch a preemptive strike even in defiance of its major patron. Jerusalem obviously considers Iranian nukes an existential threat, and a deal that it interprets as leaving Iran with a clear path to the bomb could easily make it feel its back is to the wall.
An Israeli strike on Iran obviously isn’t in the same league as al-Qaeda getting the bomb. But since the Obama administration has repeatedly declared that such an attack would be “incredibly destabilizing” (to quote former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen), it presumably has an interest in forestalling such a situation.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, who often channels the administration’s thinking, declared last week that “We, America, are not just hired lawyers negotiating a deal for Israel and the Sunni Gulf Arabs, which they alone get the final say on. We, America, have our own interests.” But one of those interests is making sure the deal leaves neither Jerusalem nor Riyadh so unhappy that they are driven to take steps America would rather avoid. And forgetting that could prove a serious blunder.