Saudi Arabia through a looking glass
© Getty Images

From 2009 to the present, the Obama administration has been committed to the withdrawal of American forces from the Middle East, replaced by the management of regional state players. But this position is entirely ahistoric. From the Romans to the Crusades, from the Mamelukes to the Ottomans, British and French, the Middle East has never ruled itself nor managed stability through nation-states.

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Hence, while the emergence of Saudi-Iranian hostility and the inability of these nations to reach an accord over Syria is a surprise to Secretary of State John KerryJohn KerryAs Congress adjusts to Trump, Iran put under the pressure it deserves Sharpton pressures Dems on Trump nominees Words are not enough — US must support Christians who survived genocide in Iraq MORE and President Obama, to regional states this is merely the continuation of history.

Saudi Arabia, at its core, and despite recent claims to the contrary, is a Wahhabist state that abhors Shiite Islam as a perversion of the true Islamic creed. When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action accord was signed, Saudi leaders believed they were sold out by the U.S. and Europeans, representatives who did not take into account Iranian imperial goals and the problem it causes for Saudi Arabia. As King Salman sees it, the United States cannot protect Saudi interests and cannot even secure their own interests.

As evidence, the Saudis cite violations of the accord such as Iran's advanced missile tests and an Iranian rocket fired close to the USS Harry Truman sailing in the Gulf of Hormuz. In none of these instances did the U.S. issue more than token protest. In fact, Iran was invited to the Vienna peace talks on Syria's future, despite the incidents.

Saudi leaders now openly contest an American security umbrella, believing that the U.S. has tilted its allegiance to Iran, feeling it is unmoored from any alliance.

Complicating the Saudi position is the Shiite minority that has demonstrated forcefully against the House of Saud. The execution of Nimr al-Nimr was an effort to challenge the fire-breathing rhetoric of Shiite leaders and, importantly, to demonstrate the hold Wahhabism maintains in the country.

It is not unnoticed that Saudi oil fields are mainly located in the eastern part of the nation, an area populated by minority Shiite members. When Iranian leaders talk about ethnic unification, it sets off alarm bells in Riyadh. This sentiment is aggravated by President Obama's assertion that strategic balance is needed between Sunnis and Shiites. Saudi leaders read this as a pro-Shiite statement.

Moreover, Saudi Foreign Minister Adil al-Jubayr, who is now heading the nation's diplomatic effort, was the target of an Iranian assassination attempt when he was the ambassador to Washington in 2011. Despite mild protests, this matter was ignored in the run up to the so-called Iran deal. That, too, hasn't been forgotten by the Saudi leaders.

For leaders on both sides of the Islamic divide, it is clear that the withdrawal of the U.S. from regional influence has consequences unanticipated by American analysts. This is not a free-for-all, but the Saudis have adopted the mantle of authority for Sunni interests and Iran is the putative authority of Shiites. Although the U.S. has clearly played its once-dominant hand maladroitly, creating tension where it might have been avoided, it is also clear that there are pathologies in the Middle East that all the diplomacy in the world cannot resolve.

The muscular pro-active Saudi foreign policy is coming into focus, based on the belief that the U.S. cannot be counted on, oil interests must be protected at all costs, internal dissention cannot be tolerated and Iran is an eternal enemy whose imperial goals must be stemmed.

If an American president understands these concerns, a modus vivendi with the Saudis might be achieved. If not, the Saudis will act in a manner that challenges U.S. goals, particularly in Syria. The Saudi voice in Washington at the moment is largely mute, but since events in this tumultuous Middle East region are so dynamic, one cannot be sure about tomorrow's scenario.

London is president of the London Center for Policy Research.