The September 27 United Nations Security Council vote which ended any foreseeable prospect of military intervention in Syria, and the subsequent telephone conversation between President Barack Obama and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, have caused such alarm in West Asia that the region’s political map is changing rapidly. Saudi Arabia has expressed obvious anger over these events and over Mr. Obama’s suspension of arms aid to Egypt after the military coup which overthrew the elected President, Mohamed Morsy, in July. Riyadh has threatened to reduce its collaboration with Washington and has taken the unprecedented step of refusing an elected seat on the Security Council, saying the world has failed to act effectively on Syria. Israel is said to have been acting for some time as a conduit for Arab leaders’ messages to Washington, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu now claims the Arab world recognises that Israel is not “the enemy of Arabs”. His claim would be reinforced if Tel Aviv’s neighbours were to invite him to the Manama dialogue in December. In addition, Turkey, an associate member of Nato and generally on good terms with Israel, is well aware that Iran is its single largest neighbour, with a significant Kurdish minority whose kinfolk across the Turkish border have long struggled for an independent Kurdistan.
These are all high-risk strategies, particularly for Saudi Arabia and Israel. The former bought U.S. arms worth $33.4 billion in 2012 and could put pressure on Mr. Obama with the threat of even a partial boycott of U.S. arms manufacturers, but could thereby end up feeling less well defended against its regional arch-rival, Iran. Secondly, its oil is not the weapon it once was, as the U.S. now imports under 6 per cent of its oil from Saudi Arabia. Iran has some of the world’s largest oil and gas reserves and U.S. oil majors would no doubt be very keen to resume working there. Further, Iran might then have an interest in influencing the Shia Alawite government in Syria to reach a peaceful deal and in persuading Hezbollah to engage openly in political processes. As for Israel, Mr. Netanyahu knows that he cannot control a U.S. president whose mind is made up. Détente between Washington and Tehran could make his country less important to U.S. interests, which in turn would inevitably give Mr. Obama more weight in his efforts towards an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. All in all, some of the world’s most dangerous tensions could be greatly reduced; Mr. Obama and Mr. Rouhani must therefore do all they can to reach a lasting agreement.