Since the 1979 Iranian revolution replaced an American-allied monarchy with a virulently anti-American theocracy, U.S. foreign policy in the oil-rich Persian Gulf has rested on two strategic pillars: enmity with Iran, and amity with Saudi Arabia. In light of the recent interim nuclear deal with Tehran, are we on the verge of a strategic realignment?
The short answer is not yet.
The anomaly of the U.S.-Iran-Saudi triangle is the fact that Tehran and Washington share common enemies—including the Taliban and Al Qaeda—both of which took inspiration from the intolerant Wahhabi religious sect of Saudi Arabia.
Whereas Iran and Saudi Arabia have a genuine geopolitical rivalry, the U.S.-Iran conflict has been driven by an antiquated ideology. Since 1979, Iran’s Islamist leadership has often prioritized revolutionary dogma—namely the rejection of American influence and Israel’s existence—over national interests.
While Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei has seemingly endorsed a tactical nuclear détente in order to alleviate Iran’s economic suffering, a full rapprochement with the United States—which would require Tehran to cease its belligerence toward Israel and support for groups like Hezbollah—would oblige the 74-year-old Khamenei to abrogate the values he’s stood for his entire political career.
U.S.-Iran enmity is not indefinite, however. Indeed, Iran is one of the few countries in the Middle East where America’s strategic interests and democratic values align, rather than clash. Whereas a representative government in Saudi Arabia has the potential to bring about a political system that’s even less tolerant, and less sympathetic to U.S. interests, than the status quo, in Iran a more representative government would likely auger both greater political and social tolerance and a more cooperative working relationship with Washington.
For this reason, it’s eminently possible to foresee a day in which an energy self-sufficient America renews its alliance with Tehran, and downgrades its rapport with Riyadh. In the near future, however, the largest economy in the world (the U.S.) is not going to abandon the world’s key energy producer (Saudi Arabia) to form an alliance with a country (Iran) that remains torn between resistance and reintegration.