Iran and Saudi Arabia, It Shouldn’t Be Either/Or
By Michael Rubin
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
But is the sad reality of Saudi Arabia reason to conclude,
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
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.