The al-Sauds and Trump are playing fast and furious with facts. The al-Sauds accuse Iran of being the backer of extremism, the exporter of terrorism, the oppressor of Muslims and the top meddler in the Persian Gulf. Trump has embraced this story and is gearing up to put America’s reputation on the line in support of his “Sunni” friends against “Shia” adversaries. Saudi claims are patently false, or more accurately relatively false when contrasted with Saudi performance on the same dimensions. But in looking out for business opportunities Trump and his National Security Advisor have landed America smack in the middle of the sectarian and ethnic divide that could slowly but surely suck the U.S. into a wider Middle East war.
The al-Sauds embraced Wahhabism in order to rule what is today Saudi Arabia. It is an undisputed fact that Wahhabis preach the most extreme fundamentalist (and hateful) version of Islam, a version of Islam that even some Sunni scholars label satanic. Even the U.S. government estimates that Saudi Arabia has invested billions of dollars in mosques, schools and foundations around the world to brainwash Muslims toward their extreme interpretation of Islam. Such Saudi funding has in turn encouraged terrorism around the globe. For further proof of Saudi Arabia’s immediate terrorist offspring, just remember al-Qaeda and ISIS and for more distant offspring look at al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in Somalia, in Yemen and in Iraq, among others. Note that these are all Sunni terrorist organizations linked to Saudi Arabia! The best the U.S. and Saudi Arabia can do is to call Hezbollah a Shia terrorist group an attribution that the majority of Lebanese dispute. So when the al-Sauds enlist America’s help, it is not to extinguish Iranian (or Shia) extremism and terrorism but is instead to confront Saudi-created terrorist entities and to weaken Iran through lies and limited military confrontation.
Who is the chief oppressor of Muslims? Sadly, there is limited political freedom and little respect for human rights throughout the Muslim World, yet the al-Sauds are at the apex of Muslim oppressors with U.S. support. In Islam, a ruler can claim legitimacy if he is obedient to the rules advocated in the Quran and if he has the community’s approval. Ironically, the al-Sauds, who espouse the Sunni belief in community-elected successors upon the prophet’s death (as contrasted with the Shia belief that the Prophet selected his own successor), exercise their own hereditary and absolute rule. No elections here! In Islam, God gave humanity its greatest gift—freedom. No freedom in Saudi Arabia! While Islam prohibits corruption and opulence alongside poverty, al-Saud corruption and opulence (funded by oil wealth and not hard work) is legendary and on full view during Trump’s visit. Although Iran’s political system is flawed—a supreme leader who is not elected at large, a restricted list of candidates for high offices, limited personal freedoms, wide inequalities and rampant corruption, it is still more Islamic on these dimensions than what is on display in Saudi Arabia.
Iran’s alleged meddling in the affairs of other countries—Iraq, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, and Yemen—has probably received the biggest condemnation from Saudi Arabia and the United States.
The minority Sunnis had ruled Iraq since its formation as a nation state after WWI, a country with a 65% Shia majority and a long border with Iran. Sunni rule, especially under Saddam Hussein, oppressed the Shia. When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Abu Dhabi funded Saddam Hussein’s aggression along with America’s tacit support. After Saddam Hussein’s overthrow, Iran wanted to make sure that the minority Sunnis would not again rule supreme next door and invade Iran. Iran supported Shia militias and the Shia politicians who had sought refuge in Iran. Yes, Iran supported these militias with weapons as they fought Americans, while Saudi Arabia supplied funds and weapons to Sunni tribes and provided extremist Saudi recruits who killed Americans and opposed the Shia government of Iraq. Who could blame Iran for supporting the government of Iraq and its Shia brethren next door while America travels over 6,000 miles to support Saddam Hussein and the Saudis?
Yes, Iranians should be ashamed of their support for Syria’s Assad but here again Iranian motives are understandable. During the Iran-Iraq War, the U.S., Europe and the Persian Gulf Arabs all supported Saddam Hussein’s brutal onslaught of Iran. Syria’s minority Alewite (a Shia sect) were Iran’s only allies. Iran could not abandon its only ally in the region, if not in the world. While Iran supports Assad, the Persian Gulf Arabs and the United States fund and send advisors in support of the opposition. When Iran supports the sitting government of a country it is called foreign interference but when the Saudis and the U.S. support and arm the opposition it is not called interference.
What has happened since 2011 and is happening in Bahrain is shameful and constitutes crimes against humanity as attested by numerous NGOs. The Sunni minority that rules Bahrain brutally confronted peaceful protestors with Saudi troops. While the U.S. and the rest of the West initially condemned their atrocities, Trump has now put all pretenses in support of human rights aside to back America’s Sunni friends with more sophisticated arms. The al-Sauds have claimed Iranian interference but with no evidence.
While Saudi Arabia’s actions fit a well-known pattern, Trump’s heartfelt embrace of Saudi extremism and Sunni righteousness has ominous implications for the United States and the region. Trump’s America has abandoned support for human rights and representative governance. America supports dictators as long as they are America’s dictators, they buy American arms and put their money in America, in turn fueling anti-Americanism in the Middle East and providing an endless source of Sunni terrorist recruits. America is turning against the Shia regime it helped to install in Iraq in favor of its Sunni friends, and is now squarely in the middle of a historic Iranian-Arab ethnic divide and sectarian conflicts, with ominous implications for the future of American troops and advisors in Iraq.
If Trump continues on this path, the future is clear—more anti-Americanism, terrorism and upheavals in the region. In the face of this, Iran and Iraq may have little choice but to cooperate ever more against the Sunni onslaught. The alternative to taking sides and supporting Trump’s Sunni friends should be an America that exudes impartiality, refrains from arming Sunnis, counsels cooperation and reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia with small confidence-building measures that address recent conflicts and disputes, and encourages Muslim reforms toward representative governance and respect for freedom and human rights.