On Iran and Saudi Arabia, It Shouldn’t Be Either/Or

By Michael Rubin

Washington Examiner

October 12, 2018

 

SULAYMANI, Iraq — Earlier this week, I compared the apparent murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi allegedly on the orders of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the 1990 execution of British journalist Farzad Bazoft by Saddam Hussein, who, like bin Salman, politicians and pundits once painted as a moderate reformer, blinding themselves to his sociopathic and murderous nature. That shows misjudgment by columnists like the New York Times’ Tom Friedman and the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and also shows how autocratic regimes trade access for public relations.

But is the sad reality of Saudi Arabia reason to conclude, as Iran partisans in Washington havesuggested or hinted, that the United States would be better off oriented toward Iran? Indeed, because of the long-standing ethnic and religious rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia, much of the broader U.S. debate surrounding policies toward Riyadh and Tehran are cast in either/or terms. The Twitter feeds of the National Iranian American Council and its officers, for example, while they purport to support the civil rights of Iranians in the United States, seem far more consumed with criticizing Israel and Saudi Arabia in line with Tehran’s policy than they are with their stated mission.

Khashoggi’s murder will have ramifications on Saudi Arabia in Congress, perhaps greater than the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. After all, while the Saudi government could deny direct responsibility for Sept. 11 and instead argue that Riyadh and Washington faced the same enemy in al Qaeda, the evidence leaked so far suggests direct Saudi government culpability in Khashoggi’s murder. Nor will Saudi Arabia anymore openly cultivate A-list policymakers: Those who once flaunted invitations to Riyadh or dinners with the Saudi ambassador are now as embarrassed to be seen with him as they would be with Venezuelan, North Korean, or Syrian government representatives.

But does Saudi Arabia’s fall from grace mean reorientation toward Tehran? Hopefully not. While critics of Saudi Arabia are right to point out its atrocious human rights record — public beheadings are seldom a sign that liberal reform has taken hold — the rate of public executions in Iran is almost nine times as high. Whether the method is a sword or slow strangulation from a crane, it is all the same for the victims in the end.

Nor is Iran much more democratic. Saudi Arabia has meaningless elections at some minor level, but the crown prince (the king has Alzheimer’s disease) calls the shots. The same is true in Iran, where the supreme leader and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps control any meaningful policy, and the elected offices are window dressing. Does Saudi Arabia still support extremism? Perhaps, but they did clamp down sincerely after around 2004 when they began to face the blowback inside the kingdom from the evil they had for decades exported. Today, when it comes to sponsorship of Sunni radicalism, Qatar and Turkey are far more to blame.

But does the fact that Saudi Arabia supported extremism before mean that Washington should pivot to Tehran?

No. Because, after all, the Islamic Republic of Iran spreads extremism with as much enthusiasm as do Salafis in Riyadh. That the flavor of Iranian-sponsored extremism is slightly different, once again, does not matter much to its victims.

The point is this: Saudi Arabia should be held accountable for the murder of Khashoggi. But to suggest that Saudi malfeasance somehow makes Iran clean by comparison is ludicrous. It behooves Washington not to choose sides in a battle between sectarian extremists and, instead, simply oppose extremism no matter who its sponsor is.