U.S. sanctions on Iran are scheduled to go back into effect on Nov. 4. On that day, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) will breathe a massive sigh of relief.
After weeks of international backlash over the murder of my colleague Jamal Khashoggi, MBS will read Trump’s punitive measures against Iran as a green light for him to once again do as he pleases.
But that doesn’t have to be the case.
For years, Saudi Arabia has gotten away with funding terrorism and extremism, suppressing the rights of its people and silencing its critics, often by killing them. These are all activities for which the United States rightfully punishes Iran. But it allows the Saudis to do the same things without reproach.
It is time for that double standard to end.
The butchering of Khashoggi and Riyadh’s attempts to cover it up offer a necessary moment of clarity. They remind us that our relationship with Saudi Arabia is purely transactional, not one based on common values.
Our relationship with Israel is strong and deep because of our shared Judeo-Christian values — and the many citizens of both countries who embody them. Our alliance with Saudi Arabia is based solely on oil, weapons and money.
This is precisely why Saudi Arabia has spent decades and many millions of dollars cultivating its foothold in Washington. Its strength is its ability to wine and dine influencers, underwrite the pet projects of powerful Americans in and out of office, and organize large-scale PR campaigns (including online disinformation).
Unfortunately, as a result, the Washington consensus on security in the Middle East has been hijacked by Saudi Arabia and its backers, whose primary argument is that the kingdom is needed to counter the threat of Iran.
The rise of MBS coincided with President Barack Obama’s engagement with Iran. The kingdom’s aged rulers, realizing that the Iran deal had weakened their regional position, saw the need to strengthen their waning influence by appointing a young and forceful leader. Saudi and Israeli paranoia deepened in proportion to Obama’s engagement with Tehran.
The possibility of detente with Iran now seems nearly impossible. The Israelis get that, Riyadh not so much. It was that shared need to suppress a possible Iranian rise that drove Saudi Arabia and Israel closer together, the strangest of bedfellows. Now the two are solidly aligned.
The existential threat that Benjamin Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman saw in Iran had little to do with the threat of nuclear war. Both, instead, feared that an Iran engaged in dialogue with the West would undermine their status as essential Middle Eastern partners.
While Israel knows its unique bond with the United States is unbreakable, Saudi Arabia has more to worry about. An Iran that is allowed to trade and talk with the West would pose a direct threat to the kingdom’s status.
Like Saudi Arabia, Iran has massive oil and gas reserves. But it has many other advantages that the Saudis do not. It has a highly educated population, including many women. It actually produces and exports goods besides energy, including agriculture and cars. It has a political system that, though incredibly narrow in scope and repressive in practice, encourages popular participation.
Any rational thinker would conclude that Iran is a much better long-term partner than Saudi Arabia — as long as Iran is compelled to abandon its most destructive behavior.
The nuclear deal presupposed that Iran would become, if not a partner, at least a more constructive rival. And there was reason to believe this would happen. The United States and Iran cooperated to fight both the Taliban and, later, the Islamic State — both, it should be noted, Saudi-funded terrorist enterprises that undermine global security.
None of the world leaders involved in the Iran nuclear negotiations considered the agreement to be a miraculous panacea to our disputes with Iran. They saw it as an opening, a test worth taking in part because the relationship with Saudi Arabia was becoming untenable.
A rebalancing has long been in order, and that happens only if we can craft a working relationship with Iran.
On Nov. 4 — which quite conspicuously happens to be the anniversary of American diplomats being taken hostage in Tehran in 1979 — the prospects of finding a new modus operandi with Iran will diminish dramatically, as we tacitly grant MBS approval to keep up his reign of terror.
Imagine if Trump were to make that a day of reckoning for both Tehran and Riyadh. He could do so by choosing to reduce the power wielded by all oil-rich, terror-sponsoring, murderous, human-rights-ignoring, Islamist powerhouses.
How? By punishing their atrocious behavior and rewarding real progress.
He should delay the start of sanctions on Iran until the Saudis give an honest accounting of what happened to Jamal Khashoggi. And he could boldly offer Iran fresh negotiations conditioned on the release of Americans and other prisoners of conscience long held captive there.
We desperately need to put an end to the era of unchecked extremism in the Middle East, which has its roots in Tehran and Riyadh. We should adopt a realistic and rational approach, free of double standards, that holds both capitals accountable for the chaos they sow, while incentivizing them to act like responsible global powers.