By Yug Yadava
Image Credit: Lobe Log
The United States’ relationship with the two dominant forces in the Middle East, Iran, and Saudi Arabia has seen its fair shares of highs and lows over the past fifty years. Iran and the United States had a working relationship with each other from 1953 to 1979 after the overthrow of Iran’s democratically elected leader. The two countries worked together in terms of oil production and, at one point in time, the United States government even helped Iran develop Nuclear weapons! At the same time, the U.S also had a working relationship with Saudi Arabia, mainly through its oil industry that was growing stronger each year. However, after the Iranian revolution of 1979, the U.S and Iran became enemies, giving Saudi Arabia the opportunity to take Iran’s place as the ally who could fulfill American interests in the Middle East. As of today, US-Saudi Arabian relations are strong while Iran and the US are still sworn enemies despite efforts to establish a level of peace. However, some Americans feel that Saudi Arabia is also an underlying enemy to the United States and that Iran could serve as a more beneficial and strategically. With that in mind, is Saudi Arabia truly the more useful ally to the United States?
Checking in on Human Rights and citizens’ views of America in each respective country, Saudi Arabia has a human rights index score of -1, and Iran has a -1.38, indicating that they have more human rights violations compared to other countries. While it may seem like Saudi Arabia has won in this regard, the United States has a friendly relationship with India who has a human right index score of -1.39. Moreover, when it comes to direct terrorist activity against the United States, Iran has not directly attacked any Americans since its bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, in which twelve Americans were killed. Rather, Iranians have only used verbal attacks against the USA with chants of “Death to America” on the streets of Tehran. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has its fair share of atrocities committed against the United States: 15 of the 19 terrorists from 9/11 were from Saudi Arabia, and there is evidence linking the Saudi royal family to Al-Qaeda. As well, the October 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was of Saudi descent, by the Saudi government was nearly ignored by the United States despite Khashoggi being a U.S resident and two of his children being American citizens. The United States should have alliances with nations who align with its principles of Human Rights, democracy, and freedom. By analyzing human rights and attacks on the U.S. alone, the aggression might be justified, but having a friendly relationship with the Saudi Kingdom is hypocritical on America’s part.
Despite human rights violations by both countries, Iran has offered something that Saudi Arabia does not: stability. In Iran, ethnic minority communities have a partial say in the government with a few seats designated towards the Persian Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. More so, Iran has settled many political squabbles in the country and participates in some level of democracy with the people electing a president and a parliament with the president only being allowed to serve two consecutive four-year terms: just like the U.S. presidential system. Even more so, Iranian society is starting to become more moderate as the country has allowed the use of Instagram, many women wearing loose hijabs with western clothing than burkas, and being one of the top countries for plastic surgery and gender reassignment surgery. Unlike Iran, Saudi Arabia is a direct monarchy with a history of low tolerance for other religions, men having control of women’s independence and assets, along with strict enforcement of the burka and having separate quarters for men and women in places like restaurants. It might seem to the United States that Iran is actually the one with a more accepting society than its far-right friend Saudi Arabia.
Arguably, the main reason why the United States is so interested in Middle Eastern relations has nothing to do with human rights and democracy, and everything to do with oil production. Since the 1930s, American companies have invested in Saudi Arabia’s rich and vast oil fields with companies such as Exxon and Mobil, which still have close ties with the now nationalized Saudi oil company Aramco. For a period of time from the 1950s to the 70s, the United States also had oil-driven relations with Iran. Today, Saudi Arabia is ranked second in oil reserves with an estimated 267 billion barrels, while Iran comes in fourth with 155 billion barrels in reserve. It must be noted that Iran is also continuing to find more oil reserves, which could bump up its rankings. For American interest, oil has a huge commodity and with American daily life dependent on oil, it might be of keen interest to restore the once “two-pillar” approach to the Middle East; as the saying goes, “two is better than one”.
Even though Iran has growing advantages over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the biggest reason the U.S. has stalled on restoring positive relations is Iran’s growing capability to produce nuclear weapons and its involvement in a lot of proxy wars. The so-called Islamic Republic has been extracting uranium to become a nuclear power. Iran has also been backing Syria’s dictator Al Assad and supporting American recognized terrorist groups, such as Hamas, which has resulted in many around the world calling Iran what George W. Bush called the country in his 2002 State of the Union Address: “an axis of evil”. The hypocrisy of the United States to utter these words is laughable as its ally Saudi Arabia has been linked to funding extremist groups and is currently involved in the Yemeni Civil war. This war has created millions of refugees and has caused thousands of children to die from preventative health complications, such as malnutrition.
All in all, Saudi Arabia might seem to be a great ally for the United States with its strategic location in the Middle East, cooperation with western governments, and oil reserves. However, going deeper, we see that Saudi Arabia is no better than what America sees in Iran. It might be time to recognize that no, the Arabian Kingdom is not the sole helpful ally to America in the Middle East, as they go against everything that the red, white, and blue stand for. Maybe it is time to restore relations with Iran, but with conditions, so that the once “two-pillar” diplomacy effort is fruitful in bringing a sense of relief and peace to both the Middle East and the Western world.