“The views expressed are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the U.S. government or Department of Defense.”
As American fiction writer F. Scott Fitzgerald once insightfully opined, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
U.S. decision makers have often had to apply this kind of mental dexterity in crafting foreign policies toward Saudi Arabia—an authoritarian country that obviously does not share Western democratic traditions and even occasionally acts to undermine American national security interests in the region. Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers have been much less adept at adopting a more complex view of Iran. They openly admit to the challenges posed by Tehran’s troublesome behaviors in the region, but also clearly recognize the opportunities to cooperate for mutual benefit.
Complexity in Dealing with Riyadh
The gruesome murder of Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, is only the most recent and vivid example of this divergence in values.
However, U.S. policymakers have also long struggled with the dilemma that Saudi Arabia has been an essential, but also extremely problematic, partner in the global campaign against violent radical Islamic terrorist organizations. William McCants, author of the ISIS Apocalypse and expert on militant Islam, notes that Saudis play the role of “both the arsonists and the firefighters.” Powered with billions of dollars in oil revenue, the Saudis have for decades worked to establish religious schools throughout the Middle East and Asia exporting an intolerant, militant, and fundamentalist version of Salafi or Wahhabi Islam. Many of today’s most dangerous Islamic terrorist groups including al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) ground their theology and justify their violent attacks in a distorted interpretation of this Saudi strain of Islamic interpretation and practice. Farah Pandith, the first-ever special representative to Muslim communities at the U.S. Department of State, who traveled to 80 countries between 2009-2014, wrote in 2015 that the Saudi “Wahhabi influence was an insidious presence” and called for U.S. policies that would “disrupt the training of extremist imams . . . reject free Saudi textbooks and translations that are filled with hate . . . and prevent the Saudis from demolishing local Muslim religious and cultural sites that are evidence of the diversity of Islam.” The Trump administration’s nearly unqualified support of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is undoubtedly driven at least in part by his as yet unrealized pledges to moderate these extremist Wahhabi influences.
Senior U.S. government officials from both parties have acknowledged the reality that Saudi Wahhabi fundamentalist theology has had a destructive influence in the region and beyond. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden have on separate occasions criticized Saudi Arabia and other Arab Gulf allies for providing funding and logistical support to a range of Islamic terrorist groups in Syria. Republican Senator Rand Paul, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, recently threatened to block a $110 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia in large measure because of its alleged continued funding of terrorist groups. An international watchdog group, the Financial Action Task Force, released a report in September 2018 extremely critical of Saudi Arabia’s selective and incomplete efforts to sever private money laundering activities that continue to fund Islamic terrorist groups outside the Kingdom.
Despite this rather checkered history, terrorism experts today are also quick to credit Saudi Arabia with having transformed itself into a crucial partner in the fight against Islamic terrorism. This shift has been especially pronounced since al-Qaeda successfully staged a series of attacks in the Kingdom in 2003. Georgetown University Professor Daniel Byman notes the progress that Saudi Arabia has made since then in stemming the flow of Saudi fighters to the Islamic State, restricting the flow of Saudi monies to Islamic terrorist groups, monitoring social media accounts used to facilitate terrorist recruitment, and creating programs that seek to rehabilitate terrorists and reintegrate them into society. In particular, Byman also points to the crucial role that Saudi intelligence played in disrupting the 2010 plot by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) to place bombs on American and European cargo planes.
Over the decades, senior American policymakers, including former and current presidents, have maneuvered to successfully wrestle with these inherent tensions and problematic Saudi actions to forge a productive U.S. bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia. Confronted with growing and sharp public criticism of the Kingdom in the wake of the ugly Khashoggi affair, President Donald Trump and other senior U.S. officials have publically emphasized the benefits of maintaining an effective relationship with the leaders in Riyadh. Secretary of State Pompeo said that President Trump “has made very clear not only do we have important commercial relationships, but important strategic relationships, national security relationships with the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and we intend to make sure that those relationships remain intact.”
Complexity in Dealing with Tehran
Unfortunately, the Trump administration refuses to view Iran with a similar intellectual agility that simultaneously grasps both the challenges and opportunities posed by Tehran’s regional policies and actions. Nor is President Trump the only American leader to confront Iran’s troublesome behavior in the region. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, leaders in Washington and Tehran have been nearly perennially locked in mortal combat. Washington formally designated Iran a state sponsor of terrorism in 1984, and Tehran has been subject to a range of unilateral and multilateral economic sanctions as a result. Multiple U.S. government reports on global terrorism have regularly labelled Iran as the world’s top state sponsor of terrorism. U.S. policymakers are justifiably concerned about this history of Iranian actions that have undoubtedly killed scores of American citizens.
However, alongside this troubled history, Iran also has a track record of taking steps in support American and regional efforts to combat radical Sunni terrorist groups. In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks, Iran actively facilitated U.S. military planning and operations by supplying reliable intelligence on the Taliban, arresting al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters, enabling the transportation of needed humanitarian aid, and providing search and rescue for downed U.S. aircrew. After the ouster of the Taliban regime in Kabul in late 2001, Iran also played a crucial role in support of American-led international efforts to establish a new Afghan government and has invested heavily in Afghanistan’s reconstruction.
More recently, Iran has been an effective ally in the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq. Supporters of Iranian-backed Shi‘a militias known as the Popular Mobilization Units (or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Arabic) credit these groups for coming to Iraq’s rescue when ISIS occupied nearly one third of the country and directly threatened Baghdad. Iranian-backed Hezbollah forces have also successfully battled al-Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated groups along the Syrian-Lebanese border. In Syria, Hezbollah has fought against an array of Salafi-Jihadi groups. Of course, these groups have certainly not been an unalloyed good from the U.S. standpoint as they also bolster Iranian leverage within Iraq and these groups could readily target U.S. forces in the region.
The emerging prospect of an ISIS resurgence in both Iraq and Syria may well make these Iranian-backed militias even more critical to the counter-terrorism fight in the future. A November 2018 U.S. inspector general report evaluating the progress made in the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria determined that local security forces would need “years, if not decades,” to become self-sufficient at the same time that Congressional appropriations for Operation Inherent Resolve are declining. This emerging gap between capabilities and resources will need to be filled by outside contributions wherever they can be mustered.
Friends, Partners, or Foes?
Of course, there are reasons beyond the important but narrow confines of counterterrorism that argue for a sophisticated and holistic approach to U.S. policies with both Saudi Arabia and Iran. Most obviously, Saudi Arabia possesses the vast majority of the globe’s spare oil production capacity that has historically been used to compensate for falling output elsewhere and consequently served as an important stabilizer of global oil prices. While the U.S. today has itself become a major producer of oil and natural gas, a significant portion of the world’s energy needs will continue to be satisfied by Saudi energy exports. Additionally, for decades, Saudi Arabia has been the top purchaser of American military equipment and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman recently offered to invest as much as $400 billion in the U.S. economy.
However, Iran too has the raw, if unrealized, potential to play a constructive role in support of U.S. security interests in the Middle East. According to the CIA World Factbook, Iran possesses the world’s fourth largest proven oil reserves and second largest natural gas reserves. It is only U.S. policies sanctioning the sale of Iranian oil that keeps these massive energy resources off the international market. Rather than relying solely on Saudi Arabia’s excess production capacity, Iranian oil and gas would represent another important global reserve in times of increased demand and would put further downward pressure on global energy prices (which is precisely why Moscow and Riyadh are thrilled with the prospect of reduced Iranian exports). Iran also has a large population of some 80 million who are well-educated and a majority of whom favor restored diplomatic relations and unconditional negotiations with the United States. Moreover, an end to the destructive civil wars in both Syria and Yemen will inevitably require cooperation from Iran in restraining its regional proxies and pressing them for political concessions. Finally, Iran has the economic potential (if freed from sanctions) to contribute substantially to the massive economic reconstruction required to rebuild and repair worn-torn societies and economies from Iraq, to Syria, to Yemen.
Of course, looking beyond the misdeeds of leaders in Riyadh and Tehran will not be easy, and the downsides of doing so should not be taken lightly. However, both Saudi Arabia and Iran have played constructive roles in the past. The challenge confronting U.S. policymakers is to craft policies that punish and discourage counterproductive behaviors while offering incentives for actions that advance U.S. national security interests in the region. Admitting to the inherent complexities and tensions in America’s relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran is an important first step in this process.
As Daniel Byman keenly observes, “Saudi Arabia is a key partner, not a friend.” At the same time, a sophisticated U.S. policy on Iran would extend beyond the simplistic view of Tehran as an inherently implacable foe. Instead, U.S. policy would be better served by adopting what some scholars have dubbed a policy of “contagement” that combines elements of constructive engagement with actions designed to contain or roll-back the most offensive behaviors of Tehran. Opponents of such a policy will justifiably criticize it as being internally inconsistent. However, as F. Scott Fitzgerald suggested, it also might be the first indication of an intelligent policy that admits to two opposing facets of Iran’s activities in the region.