(This text was adopted, and edited from an article written and published by Stephen Kinzer on Politico (January 2016) with a slightly different title and different conclusion)
It’s far too dangerous to take sides in the proxy war between the two great Sunni and Shia states. But In fact, our interests are more aligned with Tehran’s.
Only two Muslim powers remain standing in the Middle East, and suddenly they are on the brink of war. While our old friend, Saudi Arabia, carries out routine mass beheadings, and palace coups, including killing a much-revered Shiite cleric.
The United States should do everything possible to avoid choosing sides in an intensifying proxy war between the dominant Shiite and Sunni powers in the Middle East. Though history tells us we should tilt toward Saudi Arabia, our old ally, if we look toward the future, Iran is the more logical partner. The reasons are simple: Iran’s security interests are closer to ours than Saudi Arabia’s are.
Most trouble in the Middle East emerges from ungoverned spaces—the disputed lands of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Libya and other countries where many people live beyond the reach of legitimate government. This crisis is different. It pits two stable states against each other.
But taking Saudi Arabia’s side would be a disaster. True, militarily the two appear pitifully mismatched. Saudi Arabia is among the world’s best armed states. It has spent vast sums to buy the world’s most advanced war-fighting systems, most of them from the United States. Iran, by contrast, has been under heavy sanctions for decades. Its army is not much better equipped than it was during the Iran-Iraq War 30 years ago.
The confrontation becomes equalized, however, when motivation is factored into the equation. Saudis are notorious for their aversion to sacrifice. They hire foreigners to do most of the kingdom’s daily labor. Few Saudi men would dream of risking their lives for their country. For its war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has recruited hundreds of mercenaries from Colombia. The Saudis have enough air power to devastate almost any country on earth. Wars are won on the ground, though, and there Saudi Arabia is pitifully weak.
The Iranians are different. If they believe their faith or country is under threat, they will pour onto battlefields even if they must fight with slingshots. That difference in patriotic fervor makes sense. Saudi Arabia has existed for 83 years, Iran for more than 2,500.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to provoke this crisis was aimed at least in part at forcing the United States to take sides. Supporting Saudi Arabia over Iran, however, would be a way of harming our own interests.
Why does Iran make more long-term sense as a partner? Countries should fulfill two qualifications to become U.S. partners. Their interests should roughly coincide with ours, and their societies should look something like our own. On both counts, Iran comes out ahead.
Iran and the United States are bound above all by their shared loathing of Sunni terror groups. In addition, Iran is closely tied to large Shiite populations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. It can influence those populations in ways no one else can. If it is brought into regional security arrangements, it will have a greater interest in stability—partly because that would increase its own influence in the region.
By almost any standard, Iranian society is far closer to ours than Saudi society. Years of religious rule have made Iranians highly secular. The call to prayer is almost never heard in Iran. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, it dominates life, and all shops must close during designated prayer breaks. Iranian women are highly dynamic and run many businesses. Saudi women may not even drive or travel without a man’s permission. The 9/11 attacks were planned and carried out mainly by Saudis; Tehran was the only capital in the Muslim world where people gathered spontaneously after the attacks for a candlelight vigil in sympathy with the victims.
Turning abruptly away from Saudi Arabia, however, could be unwise except for some mitigating circumstances we find ourselves in today.
Both countries have long been hostile to American interests—Iran publicly, Saudi Arabia privately, while pretending to be our friend. Americans have come to understand that Saudi Arabia is a harshly repressive state. Even worse, Saudis are the key financiers of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. They sponsor “charities” that build mosques and religious schools where boys in dozens of countries learn to chant the Koran and hate America. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted in a 2009 cable that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Those terrorist groups are America’s principal enemy in the Middle East. Iran hates them even more than we do, since they want to kill every Shiite. Saudis support and promote them. Any policy to address the current crisis must recognize this essential reality.
Saudi-bashing is richly justified and emotionally satisfying, but would not be a wise basis for American foreign policy. Precisely because Saudi Arabia has been the principal supporter of abhorrent terror gangs, it has a measure of influence over them. No Christian or Shi’ite Muslim ever will. Until recently this was an important key to working with Saudi Arabia, i.e. we (US) needed them to influence these terror gangs in our favor. ISIS after all was doing ‘America’s’ dirty strategic work by undermining a soviet puppet in Syria.
But ISIS lost. Saudi influence has essentially become useless to the U.S. The Saudi’s have been on the losing side of every proxy war U.S. has instigated in the middle east. Saddam Hussein was supposed to annihilate Iran’s Mullahs and lost, despite Saudi financing and arms. ISIS was supposed to annihilate Syria, but lost, despite Saudi support.
More importantly, as the world migrates towards complete transformations of industries caused by information technology, we are on the verge of eliminating Oil as a strategic commodity. As cars electrify and become autonomous, oil as an energy source for transportation will be gone! Saudi Arabia’s oil reserves will be meaningless. The Saudi’s in effect offer nothing to the U.S. as America builds a completely new future.
Anyone who embraces Enlightenment values has reason to detest Saudi Arabia. The fact that it is pouring gasoline over the flaming Middle East is yet another reason. Detesting a country, however, is not reason enough to push it away. Diplomacy has nothing to do with affection. It is about advancing national interests.
The United States advanced its interests by reaching a nuclear deal with Iran last year. It will further advance them by building on that agreement to improve relations with Iran. If Iran makes a better partner than Saudi Arabia—but we should do whatever possible to avoid siding with Saudi Arabia.
Now, I am not saying the Mullahs are America’s best and greatest partners, but I believe that a two-step process with Iran will lead to tectonic shift on the ground in Iran. The time for war with Iran are gone. I, for one, used to believe that an invasion of Iran was the key to regime change; but after observing U.S. actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, I am convinced U.S. can not make it work. I was wrong, and the U.S. needs a completely new approach.
The best way to explain the new approach is through an analogy. The analogy I use, is how do you get a child (son) that has gone rogue as a teenager back on track? First, you as a parent need to get involved in their lives. You must engage. Then, most importantly, you must use your influence (through engagement) to shift him towards ‘positive’ friends. Good friends will influence your son far more effectively than you can! It’s the same with Iran. First, there must be engagement (an embassy, exchanges, visas etc.). If we could have embassies in the former USSR during the cold war, then surely, we can have an embassy in Tehran. Secondly, we need to push Iran to engage with good friends, positive friends – like South Korea, Japan, dare I say Turkey … Why are we pushing Iran into Putin’s lap or toward North Korea?
A reformed, democratic and stable Iran is the best Ally U.S. could want in the region. It will be a critical part of unlocking Central Asia and open the region economically. This in turn will turn the region into one of the hottest, fastest growing economic regions – poised to absorb U.S. goods and services – and serve as an engine of new growth globally. Iran is a regional ‘node’! Iran can be a counter balance to Chinese and Russian influence. Iran is the key.
It is my humble opinion that this upstart, usurping, impetuous and impulsive 32-year-old prince (MBS as he is known)– come King of Saudi Arabia, will take the country down with him. U.S. would do well to shift alliances as soon as possible. The human catastrophe he has caused in Yemen, Syria, soon Lebanon, and now by locking up of key U.S. partners in Saudi Arabia (from Turki Al Faisal, to Al Waleed) this past week speaks volumes about who MBS is and how he operates.
If MBS can shift alliances inside Saudi Arabia so quickly, then he will shift alliances with the U.S. just as quickly and cozy up with Putin or China … and leave the U.S. in the dust! He is very dangerous.
Mark my words, U.S. needs to think and act quickly.