In every region of the world – states, nations, countries and economies vie for dominance, be that political, economic or cultural. Same is true for Middle East where two major regional powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia, for decades have been engaged in safeguarding their interests by allying with powerful nations, like the US. For America, the relationship with Saudi Arabia comes first and it tries to safeguard it against all odds. Recent events indicate that America guards her relationship with this key ally in the region of Black Gold. For a brief period only, ties between the US and Iran saw a thaw, but that didn’t last long as the two are again on the opposite ends with sanctions and missile tests determining their new and old relations.
The killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a point in the case. Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and US resident, was killed in Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2. Investigations so far have revealed that a squad of fifteen Saudi officials had come from Riyadh to kill the journalist under a planned operation. Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) of the kingdom was suspected to be behind the murder as Khashoggi was said to be a strong critic of Saudi prince’s policies.
The killing caused a global outcry that the killers be punished, forcing the Saudi authorities to admit that Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate. Although the hit squad members have been arrested, questions arise: whose brain was behind the murder? And what is the status of dissent in Saudi Arabia?
Though the Saudis deny involvement of MBS, America’s CIA concluded his complicity in the murder, pressurizing president Trump to hold the prince responsible. But Trump ignored this all, saying Saudi Arabia’s strategic and commercial partnership is more important to America. Though the US herself has a bad record of human rights abuse, it usually takes a strong notice of human rights violations by any other country. For example China whose alleged abuse of human rights of its citizens – the Uighur Muslims – is strongly condemned by America.
Conversely, America has never lost its focus on Iran. Regarding Iran as its number one enemy and taking along Saudi Arabia and some other gulf states, Washington has put its animosity with Tehran at center-stage in the gulf region. That has pushed to backseat other major issues -Palestinian crisis, Syria and Yemen wars in the volatile region.
Iran has been isolated and cast as a rogue state in the region. Trump on November 20 stated: “The world is a dangerous place and the country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile democracy, propping up the dictator Bashar Assad in Syria and much more. Iran states openly ‘Death to America!’ and ‘Death to Israel!’ Iran is considered the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”
Despite the flashpoint situation in the Arab region due to the unresolved Palestine-Israel conflict, the Arab states no longer consider Israel as their common enemy. Many Gulf States have established overt good contacts with the Jewish settlement. Recently, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman on October 26 and held discussions with king Qaboos and three days after, Israeli culture and sports minister visited the UAE. Riyadh has never condemned any action by Israel against the Palestinians.
For the Arab states, Iran is an enemy as is clear from their behavior towards it. A Saudi Arabia- led alliance of about nine Arab states is fighting against the Iran backed Houthi in Yemen.
Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 and imposed sanctions on Iran to hurt her economy. America’s Arab allies did not criticize the move. They treat Iran in the same vein as Washington.
Although Trump stopped the export of oil from Iran, he has exempted eight countries from the US sanctions and also has exempted the Chabahar project because of its strategic importance. Yet, America-Iran animosity cannot end because Washington appears in quest of a regime change in Tehran to forward its interests.
The regime change will be welcomed by some Arab states which see Iran as a regional threat to their strategic interests. Saudi Arabia sees the kingdom as a regional power able to lead the region and the entire Muslim world. In this power game, Riyadh sees Iran as a capable rival and would go on supporting all endeavors aimed at containing her. It is here that the US-Iran antagonism comes handy for Riyadh that always seeks to cement ties with America.
Iran is giving a tough fight to Riyadh in Yemen and Syria. Tehran has not stopped supporting Hamas in the Palestinian issue and is a key player in Lebanon. Her close ties with Russia are no secret. Moscow had strongly criticized Trump’s pullout from the Iran nuclear accord and said that there was no question of discussing new UN Security Council sanctions on Iran.
After Khashoggi’s murder in Saudi consulate, it was feared that the Washington-Riyadh ties may nosedive. But that has not been the case despite the CIA conclusion of the murder and the mounting pressure on the US. Trump said, “The United States intends to remain a steadfast partner of Saudi Arabia to ensure the interests of our country, Israel and all other partners in the region.” True, if the two allies’ ties sour, US may lose billions of Saudi dollars flowing into her economy through weapons trade and investments.
For decades, America has for material gains ignored Riyadh’s record of human rights violations and has sought to maintain good relations with it. Even the 9/11 attack whose 15 of the 19 attackers were said to be Saudis did not break the ties.
Washington rejected the narrative that the prince be held accountable for Khashoggi murder. Reasons being two: one, MBS is a de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and good ties with him means better economic benefits for the US. Two, the prince has liberalized his country to a certain extent: he has permitted women to drive, brought in music and culture and has gone against the hardline.
The bottom line is that the US-Saudi Arabia ties have stood blows and crises. It is US-Iran animosity which may continue to dominate the Middle East situation and shape its politics.