Both Tel Aviv and Riyadh viewed Washington’s reorientation towards Asia with concern. They feared it would weaken Washington’s commitment to their security while also potentially making the United States more inclined to reach an accommodation with Iran. Those fears rose dramatically as Obama resisted the Saudi and Israeli push to bomb Iran, and instead opted for diplomacy. To the Saudis, Obama had sided with Iran. The details of the nuclear deal were irrelevant to Riyadh: the problem was the very idea of the United States striking a deal with Iran, which by definition would signal the end of Washington’s policy of fully balancing Iran and leave Saudi facing its Persian rival without unreserved American backing.
Saudi Arabia’s only prospect of balancing Iran today remains the same as it was ten years ago: by dragging the United States back into the region militarily. If Iran’s nuclear program or its role in Iraq won’t compel Washington to bomb Iran, the Saudis must instigate a crisis that will force America back into the squabbles of the Middle East. Lebanon can serve this purpose precisely because it brings in a critical factor absent in both Iraq and Yemen—the Israeli angle and its American political potency. What the American public needs to fully understand, though, is that Riyadh is not seeking a one-off in Lebanon but rather a perpetual U.S. confrontation with Iran, a never ending war on behalf of Saudi Arabia.
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As Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2010, the Saudis “want to fight the Iranians to the last American.” Why the Saudis would see this as attractive is clear. Why Netanyahu would like to go along with this also follows a certain logic. That is not the mystery in this drama. The mystery is why the president of the United States would go along with something that so clearly contradicts U.S. national interest.
It is not the Saudi crown prince that is acting irrationally. It’s the president of the United States.