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Rebalancing U.S. Relations with the Saudis and Iran

Benjamin Wallace-Wells has written an interesting profile [1] 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.

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4 Comments To "Rebalancing U.S. Relations with the Saudis and Iran"

#1 Comment By Falls Junction On April 13, 2019 @ 9:02 pm

“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. “

Distancing us from Riyadh? By all means. One of the most repellent governments in the world, its value to us grossly oversold.

But “pursuing engagement with Teheran” would be unwise.

Our deepest engagement in that part of the world has been with Israel, a relationship that has done us incalculable damage. We seem incapable of engaging diplomatically without becoming involved militarily. As attractive as the “diplomatic option” is and ought to be, we must face facts: in the end, our diplomatic engagement in the Middle East was the prelude to two decades of catastrophic, staggeringly expensive military and strategic failure.

The last thing we need now is to insert ourselves between the Israelis and Iranians, for whatever reason. We have demonstrated both diplomatic and military incompetence in the Mideast for going on two decades. America cannot “help” without harming itself and untold numbers of innocents.

Those are facts.

So yes to distancing from Saudi Arabia, no to engaging with Iran, and, above all, break the death-grip that Israel has on our foreign policy.

We need to get out of the Middle East and stay out.

#2 Comment By Kouros On April 13, 2019 @ 9:28 pm

As the Russians said, the US is not an agreement trustworthy partner. Iran should not and could not ever trust US, even if an detente ensues. Its partners, China and Russia will always remind that is the case.

Plus, the US doesn’t want Iran as it is, sovereign and independent (as a matter of fact doesn’t want any other country in that position), so rapprochement will not work. US will have to have a total personality change, which is not going to happen, unless many heads get chopped.

#3 Comment By rayray On April 14, 2019 @ 2:44 pm

@Falls Junction
“As attractive as the “diplomatic option” is and ought to be, we must face facts: in the end, our diplomatic engagement in the Middle East was the prelude to two decades of catastrophic, staggeringly expensive military and strategic failure.”

Our diplomatic engagement was never issue, the problem is military intervention, either covert or overt. If by getting out and staying out you mean ending our military interventions, I am 100% agreed. And the best way to do that is diplomatic engagement.

#4 Comment By Oleg Gark On April 14, 2019 @ 7:40 pm

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel are Diversity & Inclusion failures, but Iran has minority rights enshrined in their Constitution. Ironically, we may soon go to war with a country that more closely shares our values than our supposed allies.