The perils of following Saudi Arabia’s lead on Iran, post-Jamal Khashoggi


The killing of Virginia resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in cold blood by a Saudi Arabian death squad has unleashed a political earthquake in Washington. And this earthquake threatens to create a massive upheaval, one which has the potential to engulf the Trump administration’s entire Middle East policy in a cavernous pit.

And what exactly is this Middle East policy? In a word: Iran. That is the core of it. Everything else is subordinate to the view that if Iran is “stopped,” all will be fine in the region. And there is good cause to be concerned about Iran. Its political manipulation of Iraq, physical presence in Syria and military activity in Yemen is not to be ignored. Add to that its unending domestic repression and support for global terrorism, and one can easily understand why American policymakers look at it with critical eyes.

Yet this is nothing new, and is not a partisan view. It’s been 40 years since the U.S. Embassy hostage crisis in Tehran, and America hasn’t really ever let its guard down since.

The problem, however, is that instead of working on Iran by strengthening productive alliances, such as those with Europe, we have torn them apart by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal. The result is that we have become much more dependent upon other countries to help us with Iran — countries who have less of an interest in American diplomacy towards Iran and more of an interest in American confrontation with Iran.

Which brings us to Saudi Arabia. Americans may still think of Saudi Arabia as a conservative, cautious kingdom, one that keeps a low profile and doesn’t take international risks. That Saudi Arabia no longer exists.

Instead, we have a Saudi Arabia that is aggressively prosecuting a proxy war against one of the poorest countries in the world, Yemen, in order to ostensibly stave off the Iranian proxy Houthi tribesmen. To do this, Saudi Arabia has depended upon American military largesse, including the resupply of its air force, as well as intelligence sharing. The result is that Yemen is now in the midst of the worst humanitarian crisis in the world, with famine threatening millions. We Americans are complicit in this catastrophe.

We are also dealing with a Saudi Arabia that has aggressively blockaded its neighbor Qatar, a country that houses a major American military air base, Al Udeid, of more than 11,000 U.S. servicemen and women. This base has been used to project American power in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, including in the fight against terrorist organizations and in support of our military operations in Afghanistan.

Yet despite the American national security agencies’ support for our relationship with Qatar, the Saudi blockade remains. We Americans are complicit in this blockade of an ally.

Which brings us to Iran. Iran is Saudi Arabia’s chief rival in the Middle East. There is no doubt that Iran is a challenge for the region. Yet this is not a problem that can be solved overnight. And it is not a problem that will somehow be magically resolved through military action.

We must remember that Iran is three times the size of Iraq. Just look at how well the Iraq invasion went in order to understand the risk of military action towards Iran. We must therefore not follow Saudi Arabia’s reckless behavior on Iran, as we have on both Yemen and Qatar.

The Trump administration has continued to argue in the wake of the Khashoggi killing that it needs a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia in order to confront Iran. When President Trump made his definitive statement on Nov. 20 about how America would stand by Saudi Arabia, he cited Iran as his top reason for doing so.

“The world is a very dangerous place! … Iran … is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile attempt at democracy, supporting the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon, propping up
dictator Bashar Assad in Syria … and much more.”

Iran had nothing to do with the murder of Khashoggi, yet the president used Iran to justify American support for Saudi Arabia. This is why standing up for American values and interests by punishing Saudi Arabia for the murder of Khashoggi is so important. It was a reckless act committed by a country that is pulling us in the wrong direction in much of the Middle East.

We must be clear eyed and not allow the same reckless behavior to drive us into a war with Iran.
We must find a way to deal with Iran, but we cannot do it the Saudi way. Doing so will make the Khashoggi earthquake currently swallowing up Saudi Arabia in Washington look like a bare tremor compared to what it will do to us in the Middle East.

Joel Rubin is a former deputy assistant secretary of state and is a town councilman in Chevy Chase.

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