Some would claim that there is nothing to choose between Saudi Arabia and Iran, that they are Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both, it is argued, are authoritarian, dictatorial regimes, espousing their own extreme interpretation of sharia law – albeit one from a Sunni and the other from a Shi’ite perspective. Both persist in judicial beheadings, amputations, and whippings, while persecuting gays, imposing restrictions on women, and bearing down heavily on any dissenting voices. Now that the two rival bastions of Islamism are at daggers drawn, some might say a plague on both their houses.
Such an argument is simplistic. For whereas the Saudis over many years proved themselves staunch supporters of US policies. and are today still cooperating closely with the West on security and intelligence issues while maintaining the flow of vital oil supplies, Iran has consistently denounced America and Western democracies, pursued policies aimed at disrupting their governments, and sponsored numerous, and often horrific, terror attacks against the US and the West.
The Saudis’ decision at the start of 2016 to execute the Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, as well as 46 other prisoners convicted on terrorism charges, has provoked a major crisis between Saudi Arabia and Iran. The schism has long been brewing. In Yemen, the Saudis and their Gulf allies have spent most of the past year fighting attempts by Iranian-backed Houthis to seize control of the country. In Syria, while Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its puppet organization, Hezbollah, are fighting to support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Saudis are backing groups committed to overthrowing him – in line with the policy of the US and the West, who are convinced that there is no future for Syria while Assad remains in power.
So as between Saudi Arabia and Iran it should be a clear-cut no-option choice, but a major complicating factor is the long-term strategic objective of the Obama administration in the Middle East. President Obama came into office feeling guilty about America’s strength. He began his presidency by declaring as often as he could that he believed much was wrong with America. His apology tour began on April 3, 2009 in Strasbourg. Throughout the nation’s existence, he said, “America has shown arrogance and been dismissive even derisive” of others. If the power of the US could be reduced, then America would have the “moral authority” to bring murderous regimes such as Iran into the “community of nations”. So, claim some, he set about reducing America’s strength and authority in the world.
It is significant that he mentioned Iran at that early stage in his presidency. A widely-held view among political analysts is that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy”, as political scientist Amiel Unghar puts it, has been transforming US-Iranian relations.
Ungar traces this policy back to the 2006 Iraq Study Group headed by former US Secretary of State, James Baker, and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton. The great struggle of the time was against al-Qaeda, the Sunni Islamist terror organization that had been responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and was then totally disrupting American attempts to reconstruct Iraq. Baker and Hamilton dreamed up the clever-clever notion that a working relationship between America and the two major Shia powers, Iran and Syria, would encourage them to fight Sunni al-Qaeda for their own sake, thus incidentally assisting America’s struggle. Additionally, the group expected Iran ‘to use its influence, especially over Shia groups in Iraq, to encourage national reconciliation’.
Ungar believes that this recklessly flawed analysis is what has been behind Obama’s willingness to accommodate Iran on the political front, and to offer it major concessions on the nuclear issue. When the Obama administration came into office, its overt aim seemed to be to eliminate Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons. But was it in fact working to a different and secret agenda?
During 2014 it emerged that in secret correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Obama actually attempted to engage Iran in the anti-Islamic State conflict. In November the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama had written to Ayatollah Khamanei concerning the shared interest of the US and Iran in fighting IS militants.
“The October letter,” asserted the Wall Street Journal, “marked at least the fourth time Mr Obama has written Iran’s most powerful political and religious leader since taking office in 2009, and pledging to engage with Tehran’s Islamist government.”
By 2016 it had become clear that in the process of facilitating Iran’s journey out of the cold and into the comity of nations, the Obama administration had boosted Iran’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East, and in consequence had lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist.
Did Obama’s placatory approach result in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”? Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’, “ proclaimed Ayatollah Khamenei just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country.... Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”
So much for the assumptions and vain hopes of the 2006 Iraq Study Group, and for the policy of appeasement. Taking every concession offered in the nuclear deal talks, and subsequently reneging in several vital respects on the final agreement, Iran’s leaders have not budged an inch on their ultimate ambitions, namely to become the dominant political and religious power in the Middle East, to sweep aside all Western-style democracies, and to impose their own Shi’ite version of Islam on the whole world.
And yet, while the Saudis have time and again demonstrated the value of their alliance with the West, influential voices in the US and the UK are still arguing that since Iran has agreed a deal over its nuclear programme, the West’s long-term interests may be better served by building closer relations with Tehran.
Iran’s revolutionary regime is not, and never could be, an ally of the West. Its aim, like that of Islamic State, is to disrupt and eventually to dominate the democratic world. It has established a firm grip on the Iranian people and ruthlessly crushes all opposition – though the opposition exists, and one day may succeed in genuinely restoring Iran and its people to the community of nations. But as matters stand, between a staunch ally and a declared enemy, one might well wonder why there is any question of which to support. That the question even arises speaks volumes about the misconceived policies that have dominated Washington’s thinking for the past seven years.
Published in the Jerusalem Post, 18 January 2016:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 19 January 2016: