Gen. Jack Keane said on Tuesday that Saudi officials have told him they believe the United States under the Obama administration would not defend Saudi Arabia if it came into conflict with Iran and are waiting for a new American president to take office.
Keane, who is a former Vice Chief of Staff for the U.S. Army, told Fox News host Bill Hemmer that the Iran nuclear deal and American disengagement from the Middle East, among other factors, have all contributed to the perception in Riyadh that Washington is trying to create a new strategic partnership with Iran at the expense of Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies in the region.
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"I can tell you for a fact because I've spoken to Saudi officials, they believe that the United States during this [Obama] administration … would not defend them if they got into a conflict," Keane said. "And that's a fact. They are waiting for this administration to go."
Keane made this statement while analyzing the ongoing Saudi-Iranian feud that has reached new heights after Saudi Arabia cut off diplomatic ties with Iran on Sunday, which was extended the next day to include all flights and trade.
These moves were triggered when Iranian protestors attacked the Saudi embassy in Tehran on Saturday, which was in response to the Saudi government executing a prominent Shiite cleric who had been calling for a new regime in Riyadh. Events of the past few days escalated the ongoing competition between the two Middle Eastern powers for geopolitical influence, a rivalry fueled in part by strong ethnic and religious differences.
Iran is a mostly Persian, Shiite country while Saudi Arabia is Arab and sees itself as the vanguard of Sunni Islam.
But the dispute goes beyond these factors, according to Keane. He argued on Fox News that seeing the Saudi-Iranian spat as simply a Sunni versus Shia conflict is a "superficial understanding of what's taking place."
"This is Iran seeking regional domination," Keane continued. "They have control and influence over four countries already – that's Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. And they are seeking to undermine the Sunni Arab countries in the region."
Keane believes the "accelerant" for this increasingly tense strategic environment has been the nuclear deal struck this summer between the United States, along with five other world powers, and Iran.
"That has been done at the expense of our Arab allies in the region."
Keane added that the Obama administration's "overall policy of disengagement from the region" has led to the Saudis' alienation with the United States, "which began politically with Iraq in 2009, militarily in 2011, and one thing after another. Not dealing with the Syrian issue early on in 2012, when his national security team had recommended arming and training the Syrian rebels, not responding to the chemical [red] line that was crossed over by [Syrian president] Assad's regime."
Analysts have also cited the lack of U.S. action in supporting former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak when he was ousted from power in 2011 as an important turning point in the downturn in relations between Riyadh and Washington. Mubarak was close to the Saudi government, and Saudi leaders were furious with the Obama administration over its handling of the Arab Spring in Egypt. Mubarak was also a strategic ally of the United States.
Beyond American policy, Keane told Hemmer that the other important cause of growing Saudi aggression to counter Iranian expansion is the new leadership in Riyadh.
The general described how Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, who came to power in January of 2015, and his son and deputy crown prince Mohammad bin Salman Al Saud, who is also Minister of Defense and rose to prominence after his father took the throne, have both taken a more aggressive posture toward Iran.
"That is why military action has taken place in Yemen against the Iranians. They were willing to push back very aggressively to do that."
Keane added that Saudi Arabia's recent decision to form a 34-nation coalition to fight terrorism is also the result of the Saudi leaders' outlook on the region.