Not Taking Sides in Saudi-Iran Fights

Many U.S. pols and pundits fret that Saudi Arabia’s feelings are hurt by the Obama administration’s opening to Iran, but they conveniently forget Saudi support for terrorism and other acts harmful to the American people, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

The recent intensification of Saudi-Iranian tension also has intensified the all-too-habitual urge, in debate about U.S. foreign policy, to take sides in other nations’ conflicts even in the absence of any treaty obligations to do so or good U.S.-centered reasons to do so. That urge has multiple sources.

Some may be common to humankind in general, growing out of ancient life amid warring tribes and clans. Other sources are more specific to Americans and are related to an American tendency to view the world in Manichean good-vs.-evil terms. The latter sources are rooted in several aspects of the American national experience. Whatever the combination of underlying reasons, the side-taking tendency is usually not good for U.S. national interests. The Saudi-Iranian rivalry illustrates why.

Iran's President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran's nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani celebrates the completion of an interim deal on Iran’s nuclear program on Nov. 24, 2013, by kissing the head of the daughter of an assassinated Iranian nuclear engineer. (Iranian government photo)

Any balance sheet that carefully takes account of the attributes, interests and objectives of Iran and Saudi Arabia does not yield a sound case for the United States to favor either side of that rivalry, and specifically not for the dominant tendency to consider Saudis as the good guys and Iranians as the bad ones.

Consider, for example, the political structure of each state. Saudi Arabia is one of the most undemocratic and politically backward countries in the world. It is ruled as a family enterprise in which ordinary citizens have barely begun to be granted any political role.

The convoluted Iranian constitutional structure also has undemocratic elements, especially in the power of the Guardian Council to disqualify arbitrarily candidates for public office. But it still has significantly more democratic qualities than Saudi Arabia, with elections for a legislature and the presidency that really mean something. By Middle Eastern standards, which isn’t saying a lot, Iran is one of the most democratic countries in the region.

Both countries have substantial deficiencies regarding consistent application of the rule of law. The secretive and politically manipulated judiciary in Iran leads to such injustices as the incarceration of American journalist Jason Rezaian. But Saudi justice isn’t appreciably better. Longtime Saudi watcher Thomas Lippmann writes of “Saudi Arabia’s record of mass arrests” and “secret rigged criminal trials.”

Personal liberties run into snags in both countries, but probably more so in Saudi Arabia, the country where women still are not even permitted to drive a car. In Iran, things have loosened up visibly since the early years after the Iranian revolution, with hijabs inching up to show more female hair and gatherings of people in public places looking somewhat more like scenes in the West.

In both countries the role of religion represents significantly different values from those of the United States. Saudi Arabia considers the Koran to be its constitution, and Iran calls itself an Islamic republic, with a disproportionate political role for Muslim clerics.

But of the two, religious restrictions are greater in Saudi Arabia, where legally there is zero freedom of religion. Any religious practice other than that of the approved version of Sunni Islam takes place only furtively and illegally behind closed doors in private residences.

In Iran there certainly is religious discrimination, most notably but not exclusively against people of the Baha’i faith. But the Iranian state officially recognizes religious minorities, including Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians and others, and permits them to practice their religion.

As for foreign policy, which is where hard American interests and not just American values are most involved, despite the habitual recitation of the familiar mantra about Iran “destabilizing” the region, the mantra simply does not reflect actual Iranian behavior. Destabilization is a term more accurately applied to Saudi actions in the region.

David Ignatius aptly writes that “Saudi Arabia’s insecurities have been a driver of conflict for 40 years. Fearful of domestic threats, the Saudis bankrolled PLO terrorism, jihadist madrassas, al-Qaeda’s founders and Syrian warlords.”

Looking specifically at international terrorism, Saudi policies and practices, including the intolerant Wahhabist ideology, the Saudi habit of foisting on to other countries the violent extremism that the ideology has incubated, and the actions that Ignatius mentions, have done much more to foster terrorism and specifically the brand of terrorism that most threatens U.S. interests today than anything Iran is doing. In Iraq and elsewhere, Iran is today on the opposite side of conflicts from that brand of terrorism.

The strong preference among many Americans to be on the opposite side from Iran of any conflict in which it is involved has multiple roots. Bad historical memories, especially of the 1979-1981 Tehran hostage crisis, have something to do with this. So does the political clout in the United States of certain Middle Eastern governments (not only, or even mainly, the Saudi one), that base their political and diplomatic strategy on eternally keeping Iran a bête noire.

Such reasons do not represent a rational pursuit of U.S. interests, and they do not take account of the considerations mentioned above when it comes to forming attitudes toward conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

It would be just as much of a mistake for the United States to tilt in favor of Iran in this conflict as it is to tilt in favor of Saudi Arabia. Taking either side in this rivalry, as with many other international rivalries, entails several disadvantages for the United States.

The fundamental disadvantage is that taking sides means the United States committing itself to objectives and interests that are someone else’s, and not its own. An objective such as getting the upper hand in a local contest for influence may be a very rational objective for a local power to pursue, but that is not the same as what is in U.S. interests.

Some of the objectives and policies, as is true with Saudi Arabia, may not even be very rational for the local power itself. Internal political weaknesses and rigidity may lie behind some of the local power’s policies, as is true of the apparent Saudi inability to recognize the long-term threat that radical Salafism poses to Saudi Arabia itself and to shape policy accordingly.

Sheer emotion may underlie other policies, as with how the Saudi obsession with toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is related to possible Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who had close ties with Saudi Arabia.

Another disadvantage for the United States of taking sides in a conflict is that doing so immediately subjects the United States to resentment and disapproval because of whatever baggage has come to be associated with the conflict, in addition to whatever the immediate issues ostensibly are.

The current state of Saudi-Iranian relations is a function not just of last week’s execution of the Shia activist cleric but of several other things. One of the most prominent sore points in recent months, for example, has been the fatal stampede at last year’s hajj, in which hundreds of Iranian pilgrims died. Iranians have been understandably infuriated with Saudi Arabia for letting this incident happen. Anyone taking Saudi Arabia’s side on anything at issue with Iran right now may seem to be insensitive to this tragedy.

Related to the point about associated baggage is the strong sectarian flavor of the conflict. For the United States to be seen taking sides in a conflict between Sunni and Shia, amid the highly charged sectarian tensions along this fault line in the Middle East, can only be a lose-lose proposition for Washington. The United States is much more likely to be seen as an enemy of some part of Islam than as a friend of some other part of it.

A further disadvantage of taking sides is that it reduces the opportunities for U.S. diplomacy, which serves U.S. interests best when the United States can do business with anybody and everybody. Shrewd U.S. diplomacy exploits local rivalries to obtain leverage and to play different rivals against each other for the United States’ own advantage.

Stupid U.S. diplomacy would cut in half the number of other countries the United States can effectively deal with by declaring half of them to be on the “wrong” side of local conflicts. Diplomacy does not work well when one is using only carrots with some countries and only sticks with others.

Finally, one should always be wary of the danger of getting sucked into larger conflicts because of involvement with the spats of lesser states. The European crisis in the summer of 1914 is the classic case of this.

An equivalent of World War I is unlikely to break out in the Middle East, but this is just one of the costs and risks that constitute good reasons for the United States not to make as its own the quarrels of others, no matter how deeply ingrained is the habit of talking about certain states as allies and certain others as adversaries.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

5 comments for “Not Taking Sides in Saudi-Iran Fights

  1. Abe
    January 8, 2016 at 14:30

    Iran is the main regional rival of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, and has been since the fall of the Shah back in the 1970s. Iran’s isolation since the revolution there has largely benefitted the house of Saud and those aligned with Saudi interests abroad, especially the United States and Britain. For the reader who is unfamiliar, Saudi Arabia is 90% Sunni Muslim and Iran is likewise 90% Shia Muslim, but the sectarian divide has been less acute than the political one for decades now. It is this most recent Sunni-Shia sore that has festered with the infestation of outside interests of late. Sheikh Nimr’s long history of Shia rights activism now sits in contrast to a Saudi government that is clearly on the road to extreme measures not simply internally, but toward perceived threats in the region and the world. The Saudi leadership faces multiple security challenges at home and abroad. Significant economic pressures now exist, and the Syria-Iraq situation has become a PR nightmare for the house of Saud given allegations of the government’s support of terrorists-rebels there. Logic suggests, there’s a lot more to the al-Nimr execution than a crackdown on dissent too. What is really behind this seemingly maniacal incendiary moment? If stability and peace are anyone’s goals, this is no time for creating martyrs. Al-Nimr’s execution does demonstrate unequivocally the “no tolerance” position of the ruling family toward any dissent, but it also sends an even more disturbing message. The Saudi definition of terrorism pointing to anyone not within more conservative Wahhabist power base of that regime seems poignant today. The Shia community in the east cannot be feeling secure at this moment.

    In the Shadow of Machiavelli

    The best clue as to “who stands behind” this new Saudi-Iran crisis comes to us from the Washington Post. For anyone still unaware, this Amazon owned media outlet is the perfect barometer of what is NOT true in the world of international affairs these days. Using “reverse news” psychology here, the article by Karen DeYoung tells us all we need to know about al-Nimr’s execution. If you will allow me this quote:

    “Obama administration officials expressed deep concern Sunday that the abrupt escalation of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran could have repercussions extending to the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, the diplomatic efforts to end Syria’s civil war, and wider efforts to bring stability to the Middle East.”

    Citing unnamed officials in Barack Obama’s administration has become the guiding principle of corporate media in America these last few years, and the Washington Post misdirects have never been more transparent than today. This piece is misleading, supportive of Saudi and US disruption in the region, and anti-Iranian to the extreme. The author continues using another source who is a “authorized to convey Saudi thinking on the condition of anonymity,” if you can imagine such a conveyance. According to the WP, Saudi Arabia is framed as the only nation “doing something”, and I quote:

    “Tehran has thumbed its nose at the West again and again, continuing to sponsor terrorism and launch ballistic missiles and no one is doing anything about it.”

    Then BAM! Steve Bezos’ newspaper barks the real intent of this propaganda bit bringing Russia into the fray with:

    “Iran, along with Russia, is the leading backer of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a member of a minority Shiite sect, and Riyadh views the civil war as part of Iran’s fight for sectarian dominance.”

    […] Riyadh’s actions of the last few days are part of an overall western strategy of unrest. If the Washington Post tells you Obama’s White House is worried over something, you can count on the Washington having been part of the cause of the event. In this case we see the “never say die” war against Assad and Russia in the works. It is a crazy bit of irony that WP’s editor Karen DeYoung was once quoted as saying; “We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power.“

    Meanwhile, at the newspaper (The Wall Street Journal) owned by billionaire Rupert Murdoch (who has energy investments in the region) we have another indicative report, or should I say “counter indicative?” Jay Solomon reports on the weeping sadness of Barack Obama that his non-existent peace plan for Syria may be derailed by Riyhad’s decision to sever ties with Iran. Within this report the “real” mission of the Saudis, and Washington’s current administration is revealed. I’ll rely on another quite to clue the reader. Referring to the John Kerry brokered “plan” the Wall Street Journal writer inadvertently betrays the Obama administration with:

    “Under the deal, Iran in the coming months is set to receive as much as $100 billion in frozen oil revenues, which could be used to support its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen.”

    To sum up here, the goal all along has been misdirect from Obama’s team. The Iran deal, the parlaying at various peace accords, all the State Department’s efforts have been designed to frame the United States as peace loving, with the teddy bear John Kerry as a sort of Mother Teresa of détente. Has anyone noticed yet how every deal the man makes goes south in the end? Now Iran coming out of decades of useless sanctions is on the rocks, as was planned so it appears. The WSJ piece further implicates (by inaccuracy) the White House’s Machiavellian strategies with.

    “ As the conflict deepened over the weekend, with Saudi Arabia officially severing ties with Iran, U.S. officials expressed skepticism over how much influence Washington had in heading off a conflict based on centuries-old religious divisions.”

    It is with this, and with the ad nauseam with which mainstream media parrots State Department rhetoric we find the true backers of terrorism and strife in the Middle East. The statement misleads readers into believing the situation in the Middle East is “out of the control” of Obama and Washington, when the reverse is absolutely true. The story goes on to plant the seed of military support for Saudi Arabia should the situation escalate, which it is certain to with the help of the lame duck Obama.

    Sheikh Nimr: Martyr of World War III
    By Phil Butler

  2. Joe Tedesky
    January 8, 2016 at 01:38

    America should have different went off the gold standard.

    • Joe Tedesky
      January 8, 2016 at 03:39

      Excuse error;

      America should have never went off the gold standard.

      • nexusxyz
        January 8, 2016 at 04:09

        They did and screwed up the global financial system and started stealing from the rest of the world via money printing and economic threats.

  3. b.grand
    January 8, 2016 at 00:20

    Another excellent article from Mr. Pillar, (although I hate to see David Ignatius being given credit for anything).

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