If one were to attempt to understand the Middle East solely by means of the rhetoric of the White House and State Department, it would be reasonable to assume that Saudi Arabia is an unlikely ally, slowly making its way towards Democracy, while Iran is a tyrannical regime bent on military expansion and hegemonic rule.
Of course, this framing conceals a far more complex state of affairs and does so on behalf of the Trump administration’s interests in both countries.
The differing attitude of President Trump – and by extension the US foreign policy – towards these two countries was demonstrated in two events last year, the May withdrawal from the Iran Deal, and the December murder of Jamal Khashoggi. The first apparent difference between these conflicts is that while Khashoggi was clearly assassinated by the Saudi government, perhaps even at the request of its Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), Iran never violated the Iran Deal, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The responses were similarly disproportionate. The Trump administration has done everything in its power to isolate Iran, sanctioning the Iranian energy, shipping, and financial sectors, leading to a drought in foreign investment in the country. Britain, Germany, and France have found a way to circumvent the sanctions to import food, medical goods, and humanitarian aid into the country, but this may not be enough to rationalize Iran’s continued participation in the Iran Deal.
For a few weeks following Khashoggi’s murder, US lawmakers gathered on cable news to condemn Saudi leadership, the fawning profiles of MBS and his “revolution” came to a halt, and Saudi Arabia’s Future Investment Initiative conference – once hyped as “Davos in the Desert” – was largely boycotted. However, as Trump explained in a statement which opened with a denunciation of Iran and cited the billions of dollars worth of arms the Saudis have bought from US arms companies Boeing, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon, “[Saudi Arabia] have been a great ally in our very important fight against Iran. The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and other partners in the region.” There were no large-scale sanctions of the Saudi government, and the story faded away.
This unequal attitude towards the two countries is not new. Saudi Arabia has long been the number one buyer of US arms, even if it required President Obama to slip arms deals past Congress as they returned to their home districts for the 2010 midterms. This patronage has not bought the United States enough goodwill from the Saudi government to prevent them from suppressing Arab Spring protests in Bahrain or enforcing a brutal military campaign and blockade on Yemen, the poorest country in the Middle East, which has led to a massive famine and cholera outbreak considered by the UN to be “world’s worst humanitarian crisis.”
Hostility towards Iran, however, has been a key component of US foreign policy for decades, with neoconservatives threatening and joking about attacking Iran since the fall of Saddam Hussein. In Washington its accepted without question that Iran is the ultimate source of evil in the Middle East, and war is inevitable. US support of Saudi troops in Yemen, which was stated by one former CIA official to be the deciding factor keeping Saudi Arabia in the war, are excused on the basis of curtailing Iran’s influence in regional affairs. However, this justification is flimsy considering the tenuous connection between Iran and the Yemeni Houthis. In fact, the fear-mongering about the dangers of Iranian expansionist ambitions is dubious as a whole. Iran has relatively limited military capabilities, as most of its military assets are left over from the cold war, and militant groups such as Hezbollah act independently, not as the pawns of Iran they are described as. The anti-Iran Middle Eastern coalition of Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates vastly outperform Iran economically, and wield state of the art militaries. Even if Iran wished to significantly expand its influence, a Shiite country in the largely Sunni Middle East wouldn’t have much success. If we remove the distorting filter of the US government’s rhetoric on Iran, we see a country striving for some semblance of independence and stability in an unstable region, not a world power with imperialist dreams.
The real danger to the stability of the Middle East lies in the United States refusal to accept Iran’s sovereignty. By constantly placing so much importance on countries like Saudi Arabia due to their anti-Iran attitude, we overlook egregious violations of human rights. If the neoconservatives do get their wish, and goad Saudi Arabia and Iran into war, it might not turn out as well as they hope. Saudi Arabia is perched on an uneasy alliance between the oil-rich House of Saud and the extremist Wahhabist religious establishment. Through the funding of oil profits, most of the Saudi population enjoy basic social provisions, with the exception of foreign workers and Shiites. The Mullahs provide divine endorsement for the House of Saud in return for their government’s spreading of fundamentalist Islam in the region. Mass support for the government is faint, and can vanish in the event of a crisis. The Saudi government has abandoned much of its ambitions of diversifying the economy away from oil, a short-sighted approach in the era of rising ecological crisis.
Iran’s government enjoys far more support from its population, largely due to its allowance of democratic control of large parts of the government. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was re-elected in 2017 with a higher margin than the previous election, and US antagonism will only increase domestic support in the face of foreign intervention. If the Trump administration doesn’t start playing fair with Iran, they may get the war they’ve been striving for, but it may not go their way. We have seen the devastation created by proxy wars such as Syria and anti-insurgency efforts such as Iraq. A war between powerful states, between Sunnis and Shiites, each with complicated sets of interests and alliances across the region, could give rise to a level of destruction that we’ve never seen in a region known for its destructive conflicts.
- Peace Action: A grassroots peace network which has helped reduce US aggression towards countries such as Iran.
- Equality Now: An international network of lawyers, activists, and supporters holding governments responsible for ending legal inequality, sex trafficking, sexual violence & harmful practices against women.