It’s far too dangerous to take sides in the proxy war between the two great Sunni and Shia states. In fact, our interests are more aligned with Tehran’s.
Only two Muslim powers remain standing in the Middle East, and suddenly they are on the brink of war. Our old friend, Saudi Arabia, carried out one of its routine mass beheadings last week, and among the victims was a revered Shiite cleric. Our longtime enemy, Iran, which is the heartland of Shiite Islam, was outraged. Furious Iranians burned the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. The next day, Saudi Arabia broke diplomatic relations with Iran.
The United States should do everything possible to avoid choosing sides in an intensifying proxy war between the dominant Shiite and Sunni powers in the Middle East. Though history tells us we should tilt toward Saudi Arabia, our old ally, if we look toward the future, Iran is the more logical partner. The reasons are simple: Iran’s security interests are closer to ours than Saudi Arabia’s are.
Most trouble in the Middle East emerges from ungoverned spaces—the disputed lands of Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Libya and other countries where many people live beyond the reach of legitimate government. This crisis is different. It pits two stable states against each other.
But taking Saudi Arabia’s side would be a disaster. True, militarily the two appear pitifully mismatched. Saudi Arabia is among the world’s best armed states. It has spent vast sums to buy the world’s most advanced war-fighting systems, most of them from the United States. Iran, by contrast, has been under heavy sanctions for decades. Its army is not much better equipped than it was during the Iran-Iraq War 30 years ago.
The confrontation becomes equalized, however, when motivation is factored into the equation. Saudis are notorious for their aversion to sacrifice. They hire foreigners to do most of the kingdom’s daily labor. Few Saudi men would dream of risking their lives for their country. For its war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia has recruited hundreds of mercenaries from Colombia. The Saudis have enough air power to devastate almost any country on earth. Wars are won on the ground, though, and there Saudi Arabia is pitifully weak.
The Iranians are different. If they believe their faith is under threat, they will pour onto battlefields even if they have to fight with slingshots. That difference in patriotic fervor makes sense. Saudi Arabia has existed for 83 years, Iran for more than 2,500.
Saudi Arabia’s decision to provoke this crisis was aimed at least in part at forcing the United States to take sides. Supporting Saudi Arabia over Iran, however, would be a way of harming our own interests.
Why does Iran make more long-term sense as a partner? Countries should fulfill two qualifications to become U.S. partners. Their interests should roughly coincide with ours, and their societies should look something like our own. On both counts, Iran comes out ahead.
Iran and the United States are bound above all by their shared loathing of Sunni terror groups. In addition, Iran is closely tied to large Shiite populations in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. It can influence those populations in ways no one else can. If it is brought into regional security arrangements, it will have a greater interest in stability—partly because that would increase its own influence in the region.
By almost any standard, Iranian society is far closer to ours than Saudi society. Years of religious rule have made Iranians highly secular. The call to prayer is almost never heard in Iran. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, it dominates life, and all shops must close during designated prayer breaks. Iranian women are highly dynamic and run many businesses. Saudi women may not even drive or travel without a man’s permission. The 9/11 attacks were planned and carried out mainly by Saudis; Tehran was the only capital in the Muslim world where people gathered spontaneously after the attacks for a candlelight vigil in sympathy with the victims.
Turning abruptly away from Saudi Arabia, however, would also be unwise.
Both countries have long been hostile to American interests—Iran publicly, Saudi Arabia privately, while pretending to be our friend. Americans have come to understand that Saudi Arabia is a harshly repressive state. Even worse, Saudis are the key financiers of the Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. They sponsor “charities” that build mosques and religious schools where boys in dozens of countries learn to chant the Koran and hate America. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asserted in a 2009 cable that “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide.”
Those terrorist groups are America’s principal enemy in the Middle East. Iran hates them even more than we do, since they want to kill every Shiite. Saudis support and promote them. Any policy to address the current crisis must recognize this essential reality.
At the same time, however, Saudi Arabia holds one of the keys necessary to unlocking a new future for the Middle East. We can turn that key only by working with Saudi Arabia despite all it has done to undermine our national security. Saudi-bashing is richly justified and emotionally satisfying, but would not be a wise basis for American foreign policy. Precisely because Saudi Arabia has been the principal supporter of abhorrent terror gangs, it has a measure of influence over them. No Christian or Shi’ite Muslim ever will.
Anyone who embraces Enlightenment values has reason to detest Saudi Arabia. The fact that it is pouring gasoline over the flaming Middle East is yet another reason. Detesting a country, however, is not reason enough to push it away. Diplomacy has nothing to do with affection. It is about advancing national interests.
The United States advanced its interests by reaching a nuclear deal with Iran last year. It will further advance them by building on that agreement to improve relations with Iran.
We cannot, however, turn our back on Saudi Arabia, because both countries are the main drivers of sectarian hatred in the Middle East. Some kind of understanding between them is a prerequisite to a calmer Middle East. Encouraging it should be a key goal of American diplomacy. Iran makes a better partner than Saudi Arabia—but we should do whatever possible to avoid having to make that choice.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. His books include “All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror” and “Reset: Iran, Turkey, and America’s Future.“