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Are the Saudis Dragging Us Into Their Ideological War Against Iran?

03/12/2015 02:42 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2015

President Obama's decision to cut short his historic trip to India in January to fly to Saudi Arabia can be attributed to two reasons. The first involves diplomatic courtesy and international respect: paying our nation's respects upon the passing of 90-year-old Saudi King Abdullah, cherished ally in times of turmoil in the Middle East.

The other reason involves an increasingly hazy future in the Middle East: cementing ties with King Abdullah's successor and half-brother, Salman bin Abdul Aziz. The urgency of the Obama visit reflects not only the sprawling region's chaotic state -- instability in Yemen, Iran's ongoing negotiations with the West, conquest by ISIS, civil war in Syria, upheavals in Libya and Egypt -- but court intrigue as King Salman manages a crisis of succession.

King Salman, who belongs to the Sudairi tribe, seems intent on following the policies of his predecessor, who died Jan. 23. Yet the United States is only now catching on to the dangerous political storm brewing in Riyadh with the takeover of the Sudairi tribe. Of particular interest is King Salman's appointment of his full nephew, Prince Mohammed bin Naïf, to two important posts: deputy crown prince and minister of interior. He has also appointed his son, Mohammed bin Salman, as defense minister and head of the royal court.

To the outside world, King Salman signals no change of direction for the kingdom. However, the new appointments within suggest much deeper tensions among Saudi factions. The shrewd purpose of King Salman's government reshuffle is to ensure direct Sudairi lineage that will rule unchallenged for years to come. The question for the United States is what sort of foreign policy these tumultuous events will prompt in the long term.

To add to the confusion: King Salman's awarding of a prestigious prize to Zakir Naik, a controversial televangelist and religious scholar from India who has stated that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were an "inside job" and that, incredibly, then-President George W. Bush was behind the plot. Does this absurdity provide an insight into King Salman's foreign policy thinking?

All of this assumes greater relevance as the Saudi king navigates a perilous Middle East policy, especially as the expansion of Iran's influence in the region leads to a virtual cold war between longtime rivals Iran and Saudi Arabia. Whatever policies the new king pursues months from now, concerns are already emerging from neighboring countries.

For instance, what is one to make of the absence at King Abdullah's funeral of the United Arab Emirates' Khalifa bin Zayed, his deputy Mohammed bin Rashid, and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed? In a culture that counts heavily on tribal relations and loyalties, the message these absences sends to the new king could be interpreted as a warning. Other countries in the region -- mainly the Gulf states -- no doubt took notice of the underlying threat behind these snubs.

Despite all this, Maziar Behrooz, associate professor of Mideast and Islamic history at San Francisco State University and author of "Rebels With A Cause: The Failure of the Left in Iran," argues that the kingdom will weather this uncertainty and emerge strong and united. King Salman has already followed the example of his predecessor, who survived the tumultuous "Arab Spring" partially through a $100 billion handout to his people.

Upon his own ascendency to the throne, King Salman issued a royal decree providing all government employees with a bonus: two months' salaries. Students of higher education, both in the kingdom and abroad, have also benefited from his royal generosity. But is this a way to mask the kingdom's efforts to undermine grassroots democracy? Likely so. After all, the kingdom worked tirelessly to support the Egyptian military coup, primarily in hopes of preventing democracy from taking root in the most populated country in the Arab world.

So where does the United States fit into this equation? The answer is anyone's guess. In the case of the Egyptian military coup, the United States had no real option but to support what the Saudis decided to do. Otherwise, our military hardware sale to the Saudi kingdom might be in jeopardy, resulting in billions of dollars in U.S. revenue being lost.

Yet the United States presumably still has a moral obligation to support the principles of democracy upon which it was founded. Yes, one can understand the need to strategically and pragmatically address realities as they unfold in the Middle East, but principles do matter. Credibility counts. And even people in the streets of some far-off Middle Eastern country can recognize hypocrisy when it appears.

Add it all up and you have a desert wilderness in which the United States often seems lost, surrounded by forces of hostility that may well take our aimless policies and ungrounded principles as signs of weakness and lack of character. One can be fairly certain that, behind closed doors, Saudi leadership will have at least some say regarding the fine print of any agreement between the United States and the Saudis' chief rival, Iran.

Whatever role the Saudis play in ongoing negotiations over Iran's nuclear potential, the Saudis will likely bolster their strong ties with Pakistan, a nuclear state that will live up to its longstanding commitment to the kingdom's security. This explains why King Salman recently summoned the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to Riyadh. My bet is that Saudi Arabia wants to secure its unrestricted access to Pakistan's nuclear capabilities. After all, the kingdom has provided Pakistan with billions of petro-dollars over the years. It's always been understood that Pakistan would return the favor if and when asked. Given that the Saudi kingdom is rallying Egypt and Jordan to fight Islamic State terrorism, one can only wonder if the king has Iran in its long-range sites.

Amidst all this, the United States must come up with a strategy to deal with all these developments rather than wasting time, energy and resources in senseless political bickering back home like we saw over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit last week. If U.S. leaders aren't careful, problems abroad could quickly boil our petty squabbles at home down to size.