Home/Daniel Larison/Rebalancing U.S. Relations with the Saudis and Iran

Rebalancing U.S. Relations with the Saudis and Iran

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Capitol Hill speaking March 7 about the bill he has co-sponsored demanding vote on war in Yemen. (George O'Neill Jr.)

Benjamin Wallace-Wells has written an interesting profile of Sen. Bernie Sanders focused on the 2020 presidential candidate’s foreign policy:

His essential view of foreign policy seemed to be that the American people did not really understand how dark and cynical it has been—“how many governments we have overthrown,” as Sanders told me. “How many people in the United States understand that we overthrew a democratically elected government in Iran to put in the Shah? Which then led to the Revolution. How many people in this country do you think know that? So we’re going to have to do a little bit of educating on that.”

Sanders is probably right that most Americans don’t know much about the worst episodes in the history of U.S. foreign policy, but the bigger challenge in changing that is to get more people to understand how unnecessary our meddling abroad is for our own security and how often that meddling makes us less secure. It’s not just that our government has done some awful things, but it has often done them for the wrong reasons and ended up inflicting harm on both the U.S. and other countries at the same time. Even if you make more people aware of the worst policies, there will always be defenders of those policies that claim that these things have been required to keep the U.S. safe. It is important that Americans know what their government has done in their name now and in the past, but it is just as important that more people know that the justifications for these actions are typically bogus. For instance, it isn’t enough to remind people that the U.S. backed the 1953 coup or even that this led to the blowback of the 1979 revolution. It needs to be emphasized that the interference in Iran’s internal affairs was itself inherently wrong and it was done to try to control another nation’s political future without their consent.

Sen. Sanders has run into this during the debate over U.S. involvement in the war on Yemen. The Trump administration has consistently exaggerated the importance of supporting the Saudi coalition there, and they have been inflating the supposed threat from Iran from the beginning, and so they pretend that choosing to participate in the Saudi coalition’s war of choice is somehow inevitable. Bringing the war on Yemen to the public’s attention has been an uphill struggle over the last four years for many reasons, but something that has made it even more difficult is the conceit that the U.S. has no choice but to support its “allies” when they embark on a reckless and atrocious war. This belief that the U.S. is obliged to support its clients blindly for fear of “losing” them or letting their foes “win” is deeply ingrained in our foreign policy debates, and it is something that needs to be rooted out in order to avoid similarly catastrophic blunders in the future.

The senator proposes a more balanced handling of relations with Saudi Arabia and Iran:

Sanders was warming to a broader theme. Our position in the regional conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran should be rebalanced, he said. There has been, he went on, “a bipartisan assumption that we’re supposed to love Saudi Arabia and hate Iran. And yet, if you look at young people in Iran, they are probably a lot more pro-American than Saudis. Iran is a very flawed society, no debate about it. Involved in terrorism, doing a lot of bad things. But they also have more democracy, as a matter of fact, more women’s rights, than does Saudi Arabia.” As President, Sanders said, he imagined the U.S. taking a more neutral role in the countries’ rivalry. “To say, you know what? We’re not going to be spending trillions of dollars and losing American lives because of your long-standing hostilities.”

To build on these points, U.S. and Saudi interests have increasingly diverged from each other, and the U.S. and Iran have more interests in common than either government wishes to acknowledge. The U.S. relationship with the Saudis has long been sold as a stabilizing force for the region and of vital importance to our own security, but especially in the last several years the Saudis have become a destabilizing regional menace and the U.S. needs the relationship with Riyadh less than perhaps at any point in the last seventy-five years. Iran has been a more effective de facto partner in the fight against ISIS than Saudi Arabia ever was, and unlike the Saudis they haven’t launched a devastating war against their neighbors. The connection with the Saudis may have served some U.S. interests in the past, but that time is long gone. U.S.-Iranian animosity makes little sense for both countries, and both nations would be better served by having normal trade and diplomatic relations. At the very least, the U.S. could lift the sanctions reimposed last year and stop waging economic war on eighty million Iranians who have done nothing to us.

The Saudis have very little to offer us except to embroil us in their misadventures, and U.S.-Iranian cooperation could help resolve some ongoing conflicts and prevent others from breaking out in the future. Distancing the U.S. from Riyadh and pursuing engagement with Tehran would be best for advancing U.S. interests and it would likely benefit the region as a whole. Doing this would predictably provoke strong opposition, but it is encouraging that Sanders is talking about moving in this direction as a real alternative to the bankrupt status quo.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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