How to manage Saudi anger at the Iran nuclear deal
The author recounts the experience of U.S. diplomacy to reassure Western Germany during negotiations with the Soviets and argues that the model provides guidance for assuaging Saudi Arabia's concerns about warming U.S.-Iranian relations.
The U.S. experience with West Germany during the Cold War offers important lessons for its current approach toward Saudi Arabia. Just like West Germany, Saudi Arabia depends on the United States and its partners for arms, training, and support.
As a result, Washington could credibly threaten a military embargo to deter Riyadh from acquiring nuclear weapons, exploiting Saudi officials’ existing anxieties about how committed the U.S. is to their country’s security. Moreover, an embargo threat would be backed by U.S. law, which forbids U.S. military or economic aid to any country that acquires nuclear explosive devices.
In principle, Riyadh could try to discourage a military embargo by threatening to cut off or cut down the supply of oil to the United States. But rapid growth in North American hydrocarbon production has reduced U.S. dependence on oil imports, undermining Saudi Arabia’s economic leverage.
To be sure, the two situations are not precisely the same. Unlike West Germany, Saudi Arabia does not rely on U.S. troops or nuclear weapons to protect its territorial integrity, and it can seek advanced armaments from suppliers other than the United States.
Finding adequate substitutes for U.S. conventional arms will be difficult, however, because Saudi Arabia’s existing stocks of U.S. military hardware are not necessarily interoperable with hardware from other countries, and because these systems rely on U.S. spare parts and technical assistance to remain functional. If the U.S. decides to end its military assistance and cooperation, it could cripple Saudi Arabia’s military forces.