“It’s not as if you have an Iranian alternative. And if you have no alternative, your best choice is to stop complaining about the Saudis.”
That’s a quote from a “senior Gulf Arab official” who spoke to The New York Times about Washington's position on the sectarian strife playing out across the Mid-East.
As a refresher, an already volatile situation took a decisive turn for the worst over the weekend when Saudi Arabia executed Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, sparking outrage across the Shiite community.
The turmoil couldn’t have come at a worse time for Washington.
The White House is desperate to salvage the narrative in Syria where Russia’s intervention has, i) highlighted America’s shortcomings in the “war” on ISIS and ii) laid bare the fact that the Sunni extremists the Western world generally identifies with terrorism are being armed and funded by a number of state sponsors, including Saudi Arabia.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is anxious to ensure that the implementation of the Iran nuclear deal goes smoothly. If the Iranians were to back out at the last minute, it would be a major blow to the President’s legacy during his last year in office.
As we put it on Sunday after Riyadh cut diplomatic ties with Iran in the wake of attacks on the Saudi embassy, “the Obama administration will have to make a choice: stick with the Saudis in order to preserve the prevailing Mid-East order and ensure that the ‘special’ relationship between Washington and Riyadh isn't damaged, or finally take the plunge and side with the Iranians with whom the administration is desperate to establish a cordial relationship after years of mutual distrust and hostility." Here’s The Times echoing our assessment:
The United States has usually looked the other way or issued carefully calibrated warnings in human rights reports as the Saudi royal family cracked down on dissent and free speech and allowed its elite to fund Islamic extremists. In return, Saudi Arabia became America’s most dependable filling station, a regular supplier of intelligence, and a valuable counterweight to Iran.
For years it was oil that provided the glue for a relationship between two nations that share few common values.
But the political upheaval in the Middle East and the American perception that the Saudis are critical to stability in the region continue to hold together an increasingly fractious marriage. So when Saudi Arabia executed 47 people, including Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, the dissident cleric, on Saturday, beheading many of them in a style that most Americans associate with the Islamic State rather than a close American partner, the administration’s efforts to explain the relationship became more strained than ever.
In 2011, Saudi leaders berated President Obama and his aides for failing to support President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt during the Arab Spring, fearing Mr. Obama might do the same thing if the uprisings spread to the kingdom.
The nuclear deal with Iran only fueled the Saudi sense that the United States was rethinking the fundamental relationship — and Saudi officials, on visits to Washington, openly questioned whether they could rely on their American ally
So ever since that accord was reached in July, the Obama administration has been offering reassurance.
When Mr. Kerry warned the Saudis against executing Sheikh Nimr, a Saudi-born Shiite cleric who directly challenged the royal family, he was ignored. “This is a concern that we raised with the Saudis in advance,” Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, acknowledged Monday. He said the execution has “precipitated the kinds of consequences that we were concerned about.”
The fundamental question is this: has preserving the relationship with the Saudis become more trouble than it's worth for the US? And if so, is it finally time for Washington to reimagine its Mid-East policy by doing the previously unthinkable and siding with Tehran over Riyadh?
For some, like Politico's Stephen Kinzer, the answer is "yes." Below, find excerpts from Kinzer's latest.
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Only two Muslim powers remain standing in the Middle East, and suddenly they are on the brink of war. Our old friend, Saudi Arabia, carried out one of its routine mass beheadings last week, and among the victims was a revered Shiite cleric. Our longtime enemy, Iran, which is the heartland of Shiite Islam, was outraged. Furious Iranians burned the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. The next day, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran
The United States should do everything possible to avoid choosing sides in an intensifying proxy war between the dominant Shiite and Sunni powers in the Middle East. Though history tells us we should tilt toward Saudi Arabia, our old ally, if we look toward the future, Iran is the more logical partner. The reasons are simple: Iran’s security interests are closer to ours than Saudi Arabia’s are.
taking Saudi Arabia’s side would be a disaster. True, militarily the two appear pitifully mismatched. Saudi Arabia is among the world’s best armed states. It has spent vast sums to buy the world’s most advanced war-fighting systems, most of them from the United States. Iran, by contrast, has been under heavy sanctions for decades. Its army is not much better equipped than it was during the Iran-Iraq War 30 years ago.
The confrontation becomes equalized, however, when motivation is factored into the equation. Saudis are notorious for their aversion to sacrifice. They hire foreigners to do most of the kingdom’s daily labor. Few Saudi men would dream of risking their lives for their country. For its war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has recruited hundreds of mercenaries from Colombia. The Saudis have enough air power to devastate almost any country on earth. Wars are won on the ground, though, and there Saudi Arabia is pitifully weak.
The Iranians are different. If they believe their faith is under threat, they will pour onto battlefields even if they have to fight with slingshots. That difference in patriotic fervor makes sense. Saudi Arabia has existed for 83 years, Iran for more than 2,500.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to provoke this crisis was aimed at least in part at forcing the United States to take sides. Supporting Saudi Arabia over Iran, however, would be a way of harming our own interests.
Why does Iran make more long-term sense as a partner? Countries should fulfill two qualifications to become U.S. partners. Their interests should roughly coincide with ours, and their societies should look something like our own. On both counts, Iran comes out ahead.
Iran and the United States are bound above all by their shared loathing of Sunni terror groups. In addition, Iran is closely tied to large Shiite populations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. It can influence those populations in ways no one else can. If it is brought into regional security arrangements, it will have a greater interest in stability—partly because that would increase its own influence in the region.
By almost any standard, Iranian society is far closer to ours than Saudi society. Years of religious rule have made Iranians highly secular. The call to prayer is almost never heard in Iran. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, it dominates life, and all shops must close during designated prayer breaks. Iranian women are highly dynamic and run many businesses. Saudi women may not even drive or travel without a man’s permission. The 9/11 attacks were planned and carried out mainly by Saudis; Tehran was the only capital in the Muslim world where people gathered spontaneously after the attacks for a candlelight vigil in sympathy with the victims.
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Images from candlelight vigils in Iran held on the evening of September 11, 2001 to mourn the Americans killed in 9/11: