Saudi Arabia and Iran continue to turn their national struggle into a religious conflict. The first is dangerous. The second could be catastrophic. Yet Riyadh, America's nominal ally, has demonstrated that it is the more reckless of the two states, by executing an important Shia cleric and severing diplomatic relations with Iran.
There is much bad to say about Tehran's Islamic regime. It is authoritarian at home, dominated by intolerant fundamentalism, politically repressive, and a persistent persecutor of minority faiths. The Islamists are interventionists abroad, backing Hezbollah and Syria's Bashir al-Assad. Long antagonistic to the U.S., Iran has displayed a disturbing interest in nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.
Unfortunately, Washington inadvertently set Iran on its present course. In 1953 the U.S. helped oust Tehran's democratic government and turn the Shah into a despised despot, who suppressed political liberals and religious conservatives alike. After his 1979 overthrow the Reagan administration backed the even more loathsome Saddam Hussein in Iraq's invasion of Iran, which ended in stalemate after the death of perhaps one million Iranians. Since then Washington has supported sanctions on Iran for its nuclear research and threatened war if Tehran tried to develop nuclear weapons. Today the U.S. backs efforts to overthrow the Assad government, one of Tehran's only three allies (along with Iraq and Lebanon's Shia movement) in the Middle East.
Iran may be a threatening actor, but American officials have unintentionally made it as threatening as possible. Even worse, however, Washington has considered Saudi Arabia to be a valued ally and partner.
For decades U.S. officials have treated the Saudi royals, who conveniently sit atop vast oil reserves, as dear friends. The monarchy's relationship with the Bush clan, including both Presidents H.W. and George, was particularly intimate. After vowing war against Islamist terrorism in the aftermath of 9/11, George fils allowed Saudi nationals to flee the country while Americans were grounded. After the death of King Abdullah early last year, Obama administration officials offered slavish praise of the departed, speaking of his moderation, courage, tolerance, vision, and asceticism. Recently reported the Washington Post: "the administration felt that, despite the occasional bumps, its relations with the kingdom had reached a smooth cruising speed since King Salman took over last January."
Yet Republican Party presidential candidates don't believe that President Barack Obama has genuflected low enough to the Saudi monarchy. For instance, Jeb Bush insisted on the need to rebuild "our relationships with allies and key relationships in the Middle East, including the Persian Gulf states." The Saudis and others are "important partners." New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie complained that the Saudi king did not attend the administration's Gulf summit last fall and demanded that America "stand with those who share our values and interests," in this case apparently theocracy and dictatorship. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal, while allowing that "the Saudis are often difficult allies," asked "who lost the Saudis?" But America never won them. Rather, the royals consistently triumphed, brilliantly manipulating the U.S. to advance their interests.
The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is essentially a totalitarian state which acts as a tool of plunder for some 7000 princes and their families. Riyadh's execution of noted Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who had the temerity to advocate democracy, set off riots across the Shiite world. Among al-Nimr's alleged crimes: "disobeying and breaking allegiance to the ruler." Still awaiting death by beheading is Nimr's 21 year-old nephew, Ali al-Nimir, arrested at age 17, and 19-year-old Abdullah al-Zaher, who at age 15 also demonstrated for democracy. In 2014 liberal blogger Raif Badawi was sentenced to ten years in prison and 1000 lashes for allegedly insulting Islam. Then the latter's lawyer, Waleed Abul-Khair, was sentenced to 15 years for "undermining the regime and officials" and "inciting public opinion." His ex-wife and Badawi's sister was just arrested, apparently for aiding Abul-Khair.
Freedom House rates the kingdom at the bottom in terms of both civil liberties and political rights. Last year's report noted that Riyadh had "tightened restrictions on dissent and freedom of speech" and "intensified criminal penalties for religious beliefs that veer too far from official state orthodoxy." Purported "antiterrorism" legislation allowed the "authorities to press terrorism charges against anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent."
Last year Human Rights Watch reported that Saudi Arabia continued "to try, convict, and imprison political dissidents and human rights activists solely on account of their peaceful activities. Systematic discrimination against women and religious minorities continued." The "antiterrorism" law "can be used to criminalize almost any form of peaceful criticism and the authorities as terrorism."
Amnesty International said much the same: "The government severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly, and cracked down on dissent, arresting and imprisoning critics, including human rights defenders. Many received unfair trials before courts that failed to respect due process."
The U.S. State Department devoted 57 pages to the Saudi monarchy's human rights (mal)practices. Noted State: "The most important human rights problems reported included citizens' lack of the ability and legal means to change their government; pervasive restrictions on universal rights such as freedom of expression, including on the internet, and freedom of assembly, association, movement, and religion; and a lack of equal rights for women, children, and noncitizen workers." There were other violations as well, though even with the U.S. government's help it's hard to keep track of them.
The Saudi royals are, if anything, even more repressive when it comes to matters of faith. The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom named Saudi Arabia a "Country of Particular Concern." The regime "remains unique in the extent to which it restricts the public expression of any religion other than Islam." The monarchy "privileges its own interpretation of Sunni Islam over all other interpretations and prohibits any non-Muslim public places of worship." The KSA also "continues to prosecute and imprison individuals for dissent, apostasy, blasphemy, and sorcery," while the antiterrorism legislation "classifies blasphemy and advocating atheism as terrorism."
In its latest religious liberty report State noted that citizens are required to be Muslims and that apostasy may be punished by death. Non-Muslim foreigners and non-Sunni Saudis "must practice their religion in private and are vulnerable to discrimination, harassment, detention, and, for noncitizens, deportation." The law criminalizes "calling for atheist thought" and "calling into question the Islamic religion." Obviously, "freedom of religion is not protected under the law." Essentially, Saudi Arabia is an early version of the Islamic State which won social acceptance in the West.
Unfortunately, Riyadh doesn't keep religious repression at home. The licentious royals long ago made a deal with fundamentalist Wahhabis to enforce repressive Islamic theology at home and fund its propagation abroad in return for clerical support. Pre-9/11 the KSA backed the Taliban regime, which shared Riyadh's enthusiasm for brutal implementation of 7th century Islam. Some wealthy Saudis went further, funding al-Qaeda before the attack on America, yet the Bush administration classified the section of the 9/11 report detailing these activities. According to Wikileaks, no less an authority than Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later confirmed that money continues to flow from well-heeled Saudis to terrorists. And the monarchy has generously supported, with money and weapons, Syrian rebels, mostly those who range from jihadist to more extreme.
By turning the American military into the Saudi royals' bodyguard, Presidents Bush, Clinton, Bush, and Obama spurred terrorism and attacks on Americans The first Gulf War was directed more to safeguard Saudi Arabia than liberate Kuwait; the U.S. garrison left in Saudi Arabia stoked Osama bin-Laden's anger and was later targeted by terrorists in the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing. (Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz cited the withdrawal of these troops as an important benefit of the Iraq invasion.) Subsequent sanctions against and bombing of Iraq supported the meme of a U.S. war on Islam. Finally, invading that nation created the murderous al-Qaeda in Iraq, which became a prolific employer of suicide bombers and morphed into the Islamic State.
At least as an energy producer Saudi Arabia is supposed to be friendly. However, the royals market their oil because they need the money, not because they like Americans (or Europeans or any of their other customers). Any successor regime also would sell the oil, since drinking it isn't an option and the revenues would be necessary in order to stay in power. Moreover, with the transformation of the international energy marketplace and America's move toward becoming an oil exporter, Washington need not worry about reduced Saudi oil exports. One of the most positive geopolitical impacts of the fall in prices is weakening malign energy autocracies and kleptocracies, including the kingdom.
As for foreign policy, Riyadh is proving to be as problematic as Iran. The execution of al-Nimr for opposing the al-Saud dictatorship sparked protests in Beirut (Lebanon), Baghdad (Iraq), and Manama (Bahrain), as well as Tehran. Killing a Shiite cleric for standing up to the oppressive Sunni monarchy moves the region closer to multinational sectarian conflict, which is far more dangerous than a bilateral struggle between nation states. Other governments began to take sides, as Sunni-ruled Bahrain also broke diplomatic relations while Sunni-majority United Arab Emirates downgraded bilateral ties. On the other side, Nouri al-Maliki, former prime minister of Shia-majority Iraq, predicted that the execution "will topple the Saudi regime."
Intensifying the Saudi-Iran conflict will undermine Washington's battle against the Islamic State, an extremist Sunni group. In practice, the U.S. must rely mostly on Shiite and other non-Sunni forces--the Baghdad government, Assad forces, various Kurdish fighters. America's other supposed allies, notably Saudi Arabia, along with the smaller Gulf States and Turkey, have done far more to back ISIL and other radical groups in Syria. By taking a step Riyadh surely knew would discourage any improvement in relations with Tehran, the royals have made a diplomatic settlement far harder, if not impossible. Yet Washington's only hope of squaring the circle--defanging if not destroying the Islamic State, marginalizing if not ousting Assad, moderating if not converting Assad supporters Iran and Russia--requires a political solution.
Saudi Arabia also is as ruthless as the Soviet Union in suppressing democracy and human rights in friendly regimes. For instance, Riyadh intervened militarily to back Bahrain's Sunni monarchy in suppressing the majority Shia population, which sought a share of power. The royals lavished money on Egypt's al-Sisi dictatorship, which has proved to be more brutal than Hosni Mubarak's rule.
Even worse has been the KSA's brutal intervention in Yemen's long-running civil war. Giving new meaning to the word "hypocrisy," the Saudi monarchy engages in deadly meddling even as it complains about Iran's troublemaking. Riyadh intends to reinstate President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi, overthrown by a combination of Houthi insurgents, who have been in rebellion for decades, and Hadi's predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who once battled the same Houthis. The conflict long was tribal more than sectarian, as the Houthis do not fit easily with either Sunnis or Shiites. But by treating the civil war as yet another proxy fight between Shia and Sunnis, Saudi Arabia encouraged Tehran to join. And Washington foolishly backed its "ally."
As of the end of October at least 2400 civilians had been killed, a large majority--including three-fourths of children, by United Nations count--from misdirected Saudi airstrikes. Other estimates were closer to 3000. Reported journalist Bryan Schatz: "The Saudi coalition has repeatedly targeted schools, hospitals, and religious buildings. Civilian infrastructure, including a camp for displaced people, water supplies, and power stations, have been destroyed. Civilian hospitals--overloaded with patients injured by airstrikes yet painfully under-supplied because of coalition blockades--are nearing collapse."
At least 1.5 million people have been displaced. Most of the population has been reduced to poverty and hunger; the World Food Programme warned that a quarter of Yemenis are approaching starvation. Peter Maurer, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, said "Yemen after five months looks like Syria after five years." Amnesty International concluded that "All the parties involved in the conflict raging across the country have committed widespread human rights abuses, including war crimes."
Yet the U.S. acts as if it needs a repressive, unprincipled, myopic, and meddlesome ally more than the latter needs the U.S. In fact, the royals cannot be sure that their combination of bribes and brutality will forever preserve today's ostentatious kleptocracy. Indeed, the regime's vulnerabilities are only likely to grow. Which is why the Saudis look to Washington for support. President Obama lauded the late King Abdullah's "steadfast and passionate belief in the importance of the U.S.-Saudi relationship as a force for stability and security in the Middle East." Of course, every Saudi king believes that. It's cheaper for the royals to borrow U.S. troops than to hire bodyguards. While Washington requires Riyadh to pay for its weapons, so far logistical support for the Yemen war has been free.
Instead of being treated as an ally, Saudi Arabia "should be a pariah," argued Freedom House President Mark Lagon. At the very least, U.S. officials should drop the faux intimacy and treat Riyadh as Washington once treated Moscow. An important power to be engaged, not supported, endorsed, praised, subsidized, and reassured. Regime change in Riyadh is as necessary, indeed, perhaps even more so, than regime change in Tehran.