Magann: The New Middle East

As Iran and Saudi Arabia vie for influence, does America know where it stands?

by Matthew Magann | 9/28/18 2:00am

Iran is “sowing death, chaos and destruction” around the world. That much President Trump made abundantly clear in his recent speech to the United Nations. At the General Assembly, the president doubled down on the Iranian threat, urging the international community to support sanctions against the regime.

On a purely factual basis, Trump is correct: Iran’s government brutally represses dissent and imposes strict theocracy on its people. This is, after all, a country that executed a man for suggesting that the story of Jonah and the whale might be a metaphor. Iran’s influence extends across the region, with Iranian-backed groups like Houthi rebels and the Assad regime committing some of the worst atrocities in the Middle East. That said, violent governments aren’t so uncommon in the region. America’s long-standing ally, Saudi Arabia, is arguably just as bad. 

Saudi women just earned the right to drive. They still need a male guardian to approve many basic life decisions, so the gesture is of limited use; still, Trump can tout it at the UN as “bold new reform.” Unlike Iranian elections, which feature some true competition (albeit subject to clerical approval), Saudi elections are essentially theater. Iran might profess political Islam, but Saudi Arabia is full-on Salafist ­­— its religious ideals aren’t far from those of jihadists like the Islamic State and al Qaeda. While Iran funds terror abroad, Saudi-funded religious schools encourage militant fundamentalism, and private Saudi wealth props up extremist groups. That’s not to say that Shi’a militarism is a non-issue — look at Hezbollah — but when it comes to America’s greatest enemies, like IS, Saudi Arabia’s ideology poses a more substantial threat.

To be clear, I don’t advocate a break with Saudi Arabia. Repressive as the Saudi regime might be, it forms an important bulwark in American-Middle East policy. The grim truth is that, if the U.S. insists on having ethical allies, it won’t have a single friend left in the Middle East. Even Israel, the closest thing the Middle East has to a liberal democracy, maintains a decades-long military occupation of a civilian population. I visited the West Bank a few weeks ago, and the Palestinian people there, chained down by checkpoints, settlement and violence, can hardly claim to live in a free country. In this context, America’s Middle Eastern alliances cannot rest on shared moral principles, but on strategic calculation of self-interest.

In this arena of realpolitik, the Trump administration’s singular, supposedly-humanitarian focus on Iran seems suspect. Consider Trump’s General Assembly speech: “Iran’s neighbors have paid a heavy toll for the agenda of aggression and expansion,” the president said. “That is why so many countries in the Middle East strongly supported my decision to withdraw the United States from the horrible 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimpose nuclear sanctions.” Those countries that strongly supported Trump are Iran’s regional adversaries: Saudi Arabia, its Sunni allies and Israel. That bloc has increasingly squared off with Iran, and when conflicts arise the U.S. tends to side with its traditional allies. There’s danger here, though, and America should tread carefully before investing itself in this emerging regional conflict.

The rising tensions between Iran and the Saudi-led bloc don’t bode well for the Middle East. Historical ties bind the United States to the Sunni Arab states, but the Saudi-led side isn’t necessarily any better than Iran. Look at the catastrophic war in Yemen, where Saudi-backed forces target Iranian-backed Houthis as each vie for control of the country. Both sides commit war crimes, and Yemenis suffer horribly for it. With infrastructure destroyed and humanitarian aid frequently denied entry, cholera and famine have broken out across the country. Tens of thousands of children have already starved to death, with millions more people at immediate risk of famine. America’s allies, the Saudi coalition, shoulder much of the blame for the humanitarian catastrophe, though plenty falls on the Houthis as well. Both sides destroyed Yemen, wasting countless lives in order to shift the balance of power.

The United States provides military assistance to the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. U.S. army troops even manned the Saudi border, targeting Saudi Arabia’s enemies, the Iran-backed Houthi coalition. The Saudi-led coalition drops bombs on schools and hospitals. It denies entry to humanitarian aid, committing war crimes under America’s watch with American support. None of this is to absolve Iran. Both sides commit atrocities in Yemen, and elsewhere. Both Saudi and Iranian regimes are totalitarian theocracies, repressive governments with little concern for human rights. America can maintain its strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia, but that doesn’t mean it should involve itself in the kingdom’s proxy wars. Above all, the nation shouldn’t delude ourselves into thinking that this ally is in any way more moral than Iran.

The developing Saudi-Iran conflict pits theocracy against theocracy. The United States can uphold its alliance with Saudi Arabia, but it should never pretend that that alliance rests on shared values. The choice of Saudi Arabia over Iran is a purely strategic one. America can remain committed to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states without involving itself in a power struggle between two totalitarian systems. So long as it can maintain its alliances, the United States should stay out of this conflict; if it joins, it stands only to lose.