What I’m going to say is going to come as close to blasphemy as we can get in this secular age, and it’s going to provoke an immediate and visceral reaction. Well, hear me out anyway.
Maybe it’s time for America to switch sides in the middle-east and back Iran. Let’s just partner up, take Iran as our strategic representative and local hegemon in the region.
Yep. I can hear the heads exploding all over America.
“But, but, but the hostage crisis…” Yep, that was back in 1979, forty-five years ago.
“But Iran is a THEOCRACY!!!” So is Saudi Arabia for all intents and purposes, with the added advantages of being a corrupt feudal monarchy. There’s not a lot to choose from in the middle east: Feudal monarchic dictatorships, basket cases, incredibly dysfunctional societies.
“Their human rights record!” Terrible. As is the human rights records of all the countries we support in the middle east, Israel included. And looking at the big picture, the political realities have lead to the US supporting or tolerating some read hose-bags around the world.
“But they’re our sworn enemies!” Yep. We have a lot of enemies and challengers. Russia, China are both much bigger and more dangerous than Iran. Everyone from Europe, to Brazil, to India and Indonesia is a competitor on some level. Hell, Pakistan is nominally in our corner, sometimes, and it’s a giant pain in the ass that sheltered Osama Bin Laden.
So let me make the case.
Back in the 1960s and 70s, Iran under the Shah actually was America’s regional hegemon. It had the largest population, the largest economy, far and away the best military, and it was perfectly positioned to block the Soviet Union, dominate the Persian Gulf and hold sway over the middle east. That worked very well for America for a long time.
When the Shah fell apart, America looked for a new local hegemon, a partner that America could rely on to look after its interests and keep the peace in the region, in exchange for back up and support from the most powerful nation on earth.
At first, we looked to Saddam Hussein and Iraq, which initially seemed promising. Sadly, Saddam as it turned out was a narrowminded incompetent idiot, incapable of reading a room, and by 1991, that over. He’d spent over a decade running his country into the ground in a pointless war, was mired in debt, and he took Ambassador April Glaispie’s comments as a license to invade Kuwait and destabilize the region. Fail.
We looked to Israel, and to some extent, we still do. But Israel has no relationships in the region, no economic ties, no political influence, no soft power, and its abuse of the Palestinians has made it a regional pariah. Its antics have made it a destabilizing force. We still back Israel, but they’re a problem to be worked around, not a solution.
Egypt had been a big player in the 50s, 60s and 70s, but in order to make peace in the region, they got bribed off the Board, and in the last 40 years have been a corrupt geopolitical non-entity. They’re on the take, but they’re useless.
That left Saudi Arabia…
Saudi Arabia. An incredibly corrupt, incredibly incompetent, feudal monarchy that was halfway to theocracy. The Saudi’s had neither the population, nor the sophistication or cultural cachet, but they had Mecca and they had oil, and they were the only game in town.
Unfortunately, they’ve been a massive failure, and they’ve gotten progressively worse over time. The Saudi approach was to throw incredible sums of money around at whatever causes they favored – which turned out to be Islamic extremism. They were one of the only countries to recognize the Taliban, for example. They supported Islamic extremism everywhere in the muslim world, promoting toxic Wahabism and Salafism. They were simultaneously America’s ally, and behind the scenes, America’s headache.
What they never did was put together a functional country, only tribal feudalism writ large based on bribery, marriage and occasional brutality. Over a third of the population are guest workers who keep the economy going. The rest of the country is propped up by oil money. But as oil reserves dwindle, the Saudi’s have attempted to compensate by throwing their weight around.
This has lead to them doubling down on funding and supporting of Islamic extremism everywhere. It’s also lead to them bullying their neighbors. They’re up to their elbows in the Syrian Civil War, they backed ISIL and are struggling for influence in Iraq. They’re deep into the Yemeni Civil War. More on Yemen later. They almost started a war on Qatar, going so far as to blockade the country. And they kidnaped and held the Lebanese Prime Minister hostage. They’re a disruptive force in Pakistan, Iran and Nigeria. Their efforts to maintain dominance of the oil markets has lead them to become an economic bull in a China shop, manipulating prices and supplies to try and bankrupt competition and destabilizing markets.
They’ve also proven themselves to be increasingly unstable and capricious at home, clamping down on critics and literally shaking down their own population. There was the time in 2017, when Mohamed bin Salman, the effective ruler, had 200 of the richest people and fellow princes arrested, kept at a luxury hotel and beaten until they handed over their money. Or the time he Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist for an American newspaper, murdered and dismembered at a Saudi Consulate. These sort of ham-handed, half baked tactics speak to a rulership which is basically thuggish at heart, without subtlety or insight. As Saudi Arabia’s internal and external problems mount, and they have nothing but problems, their instinctive response is brutishness, repression and extremism.
The crown jewel of Saudi ineptitude is of course, Yemen. Yemen is a poor arab country, unfortunately without oil, sitting on the red sea and occupying a southern corner of the Arabian peninsula. In 2011, Yemen began to destabilize, a situation that proceeded rapidly, until by 2014, the Houthi’s had taken control of the north and the government had resigned.
That was when Mohamed bin Salman decided to intervene, assembling an Arab coalition that amounted to mainly Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Republic. In the last eight years, they’ve done nothing but prolong the civil war, intervening militarily, costing incalculable lives, using starvation as a weapon of war, sending troops in and bombing the country with their own air force. Has it worked out well?
From the fact that the Houthi’s are happily hurling missiles at shipping in the Red Sea right now? No.
Basically, as an American ally, Saudi Arabia has one job – help keep the region stable, and they’re blowing it.
It’s questionable what kind of meaningful future Saudi Arabia has, or how viable the equally corrupt and incompetent feudal monarchies of the Gulf are going to be. Saudi Arabia’s value as an American proxy largely outweighs its merits.
On the other side of the coin, we’ve got Iranian ascendance. Like it or not, despite sanctions and best efforts, the Iranians have steadily risen to become a significant influencer in the middle east.
Part of this, a big part of this is America’s own fault. Destroying Iraq meant destroying the only real counterweight to Iranian influence. Under Saddam Hussein, Iraq was a Sunni dominated state, large enough and powerful enough to be both a rival and a barrier to Shiite dominated Iran. Saddam was also a toxic idiot who America eventually swept away.
But removing Saddam from power and futilely occupying the country for eight years destroyed it as a functional state, and has allowed Iran to effectively exert influence in a population that was 65% Shiite.
America’s sentimental support of the Iraqi Kurdish movement in the north also caused problems for American interests in the region and benefitted Iran. A quarter of Turkey’s population is Kurdish, and Kurds are large minorities in Iran and Syria. Promoting Kurdish nationalism in Iraq produced a backlash from Turkey, alienating that country from America, driving closer relations with Iran and leading to Turkey’s anti-Kurdish military operations in the Syrian civil war… all at cross purposes to America’s interests.
America’s policy has also failed in Syria, the American program of supporting ‘democratic moderates’ ran up hard against Saudi Arabia’s support of Islamic extremists, and Turkey’s actions against Kurdish separatists and failed. The end result is a severely weakened Assad regime deeply indebted to and dependent upon Iran and Russia. Syria has gone from an ally of Iran to a puppet.
Mishandling in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon and Yemen, have basically driven an expansion of Iranian influence through the region. This is driven in part by bad decisions by the United States, and in part by Saudi Arabia’s own ineptitude and its penchant for acting at cross purposes to America by supporting Islamic extremism.
So the question is, isn’t it about time to ditch an ally that is unreliable and ineffective, an ally that half the time sabotages your own interests?
Maybe it’s time for America to change horses, and switch alliance to Iran. Could they do a better job of keeping a lid on the region than Saudi Arabia? Could they offer a better platform for American power in both the Middle East?
A large proportion of the populations of several Persian Gulf feudal monarchies are Shiite. The oil producing areas of Saudi Arabia are Shiite. Sunni/Shiite tensions in the region have caused problems. Perhaps a functional relationship with Iran will be a stabilizing force, in contrast to the Saudi’s destabilizing antics.
Among other things, allying with Iran offers more prospects for American influence in Central Asia. Under the Bush II administration, the US pushed aggressively into this region, using Pakistan and Afghanistan. Well, Pakistan is unreliable, Afghanistan turned into a shambholic dog’s breakfast. American policy in Central Asia has fallen apart, even while Russia’s influence has waned.
Iran can even claim to be somewhat of a Democracy in the region. In contrast to Israel, for instance, everyone in Iran has a right to vote. And while Iran’s constitution contains strong theocratic elements, there are active elections, political parties and a move towards liberalizations. We’re not going to see any of that from Saudi Arabia.
Finally, the United States actually has genuine leverage to offer Iran and cement an effective alliance. The opportunity to revitalize their economy, to bring them back into world trade networks, to build a cooperative relationship will be very tempting.
Fifty years ago, Iran was America’s ally and right hand in the middle east. Maybe it’s time should come around again.
Because, let’s face it, Israel is a headache, not a help, and Saudi Arabia is worse than useless.