A vicious feud between Iran and Saudi Arabia has been raging for years. The two governments support opposite sides of several civil wars, in what amounts to a regional power struggle between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. One might think that the United States would adopt a “plague on both their houses” attitude toward a quarrel between two repulsive, authoritarian regimes. Indeed, that policy would best serve genuine American interests.
But such discreet neutrality does not describe Washington’s stance at any point since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. Instead, U.S. administrations have tilted decisively in favor of the Saudis. That point was exemplified most recently with President Trump’s fawning visit to Riyadh. Both the president and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson went out of their way to denounce Iran and to reiterate the need for strategic cooperation between the United States and the Kingdom. Trump underscored Washington’s commitment by signing a new $110 billion arms-sale agreement .
Although neutrality would be the best option for America, if U.S. leaders feel that they must meddle in a Middle East power struggle, then they should at least pick the less objectionable side. Instead, they have consistently backed the more dangerous, corrupt, vicious and duplicitous regime. Such an approach deserves an award for myopia.
There are numerous reasons why both Washington and the American people have no love for Tehran. Americans recall the searing images of the U.S. American diplomats who were held hostage at the end of Jimmy Carter’s administration. And Iran was implicated in attacks on U.S. forces in the Middle East, including the bombing of the Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983 and the 1996 bombing of the Air Force quarters in the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia. The American people have developed a visceral hatred of Iran, and political leaders have fanned that hatred by insisting that Iran was (and remains) the chief state sponsor of terrorism . The reality is that the Iranian government backs assorted factions that have attacked either Israeli or Saudi interests. U.S. officials automatically equate such insurgencies with terrorism, which is, at best, an excessively simplistic view.
Washington’s hostility has ebbed just slightly following the agreement between the P5+1 powers and Iran concerning Tehran’s nuclear program. Even that modest rapprochement is now in danger given the Trump administration’s open skepticism about the accord and the increasingly anti-Iranian rhetoric coming from U.S. officials. There is also a concerted lobbying effort by pro-Israeli and pro-Saudi forces in the United States to rescind Washington’s adherence to the agreement and to maintain a hostile stance toward Tehran generally.
The anti-Iranian, pro-Saudi bias has helped entangle America in the complex, bloody conflicts of the Middle East. The bitter rivalry between Tehran and Riyadh is apparent on multiple fronts. A few years ago, Saudi Arabia intervened militarily to prop-up the Sunni ruling family in Bahrain against an increasingly angry majority-Shia population supported by Iran. Riyadh continues to back that corrupt, minority regime.
More recently, the Saudis have led a coalition of Sunni states in the Gulf to intervene in Yemen’s civil war. Riyadh has launched air strikes against Yemen’s Shia Houthis to prevent a victory by that faction, which has received backing from Iran. Saudi Arabia’s military campaign has been marked by a massive human-rights violation and has triggered such chaos in the country that a major famine appears imminent. Yet Washington has backed that war of aggression by providing Saudi forces with intelligence information and logistical support.
The civil wars in Iraq and Syria also constitute theaters in the Sunni-Shia campaign for regional dominance. Iran has supported Iraq’s post-Saddam, Shia-dominated government both financially and militarily. Tehran has provided even greater support to extremist Shia militias in that country. Conversely, Saudi Arabia early on aided the Sunni tribes in Anbar Province and elsewhere in western and northern Iraq that resisted the authority of the new government. Some of those groups eventually coalesced to form ISIS.
The Saudi-Iranian proxy war is even more evident in neighboring Syria. Assad heads what amounts to a “coalition of religious minorities” regime. The main components of that coalition are Christians, Druze and Assad’s own political base, the Alawites, a Shia offshoot. That faction receives strong support from Iran, as well as Tehran’s ally in neighboring Lebanon, Hezbollah. Arrayed against that coalition is an overwhelmingly Sunni insurgency. The rebels have received extensive financial and logistical support from Saudi Arabia and another leading Sunni power, Turkey. Much of that aid has flowed to extremely radical factions. Some of the recruits filled the ranks of ISIS. Others formed the basis of the Jabhat al-Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria and other, smaller Sunni Islamist groups.
Washington has waffled in its position regarding the Iraqi government. U.S. official support for the Shia-led government remains intact, but the United States has also increased its military backing for Iraqi Kurds , whose secessionist agenda could badly undermine Baghdad’s authority. Washington’s policy in Syria aligns more closely with Riyadh’s objectives, with both the Obama and Trump administration’s openly favoring the insurgency against Assad’s government.