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For the U.S., the Choice Between Saudi Arabia and Iran Should be an Easy One

Posted July 14th, 2015 at 2:59 pm (UTC-4)
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By Fahad Nazer

As the P5+1 nations seal an agreement with Iran over its nuclear energy program, some in the United States and Iran are hoping that an agreement over this contentious issue will usher in a new era in U.S.-Iranian relations. Some advocates of the nuclear deal are even suggesting that it could potentially transform Iran from an avowed enemy of the United States to its most important strategic partner in the Persian Gulf, supplanting the long-time U.S. ally, Saudi Arabia, in the process.

However, those envisioning such a scenario are overlooking two incontrovertible facts. First, although the United States and Saudi Arabia are not necessarily “natural” allies, the two countries have maintained close and mutually beneficial political and economic relations for seven decades. Second, since the outbreak of the Iranian revolution in 1979, Iran’s government has directly – and officially – supported various militant groups which have vowed to bring death and destruction on the United States. These organizations have killed hundreds of American military personnel and civilians. Unless the Iranian government is prepared to fundamentally change its policies towards the U.S., the notion that Iran represents a viable alternative to Saudi Arabia as a reliable partner to the U.S. in the Gulf, should give every American long pause.

While Saudi citizens comprised the majority of the perpetrators who conducted the terrorist attack against the United States on September 11th, 2001, and other Saudis continue to fill the ranks of terrorist organizations, including the so-called Islamic State, there is no evidence that the Saudi government supports militant groups that target American citizens and interests. Recently declassified CIA documents confirmed what Saudi government officials have long maintained. The documents concluded that there was “no evidence that the Saudi government knowingly and willingly supported al-Qaida terrorists.” This is consistent with the findings of the Congressional inquiry which concluded in 2004 that investigators “found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded” al-Qaida. As for the mysterious 28 pages of the “The 9/11 Commission Report” which are still classified, Saudi officials have supported their release, arguing that they would further exonerate them.

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. and the 2003 targeting of expatriate housing compounds inside Saudi Arabia, the Saudi government took measures to ensure that its citizens do not become easy prey for terrorist groups’ recruitment. This multi-pronged approach was part security operation, part public awareness campaign. It has led to the arrest of thousands of militants and the rehabilitation of hundreds more. The Saudis have also brought charities under tight regulations to curtail terrorism financing. In addition, the government has taken a hard look at what is being preached from its mosque pulpits and what is being taught in its schools.

Recently, as the so-called Islamic State has unleashed its wrath on the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has criminalized fighting in foreign conflicts and has participated in a very public manner in the U.S.-led airstrikes against Islamic State strongholds in Syria. That is not to say that the Saudis have vanquished religious extremism and militancy, as the recent bombings of two Shia mosques in the kingdom’s Eastern Province suggest.  However, both political and religious leaders have condemned terrorism in all its forms.

In addition, as the world’s top oil exporter, Saudi Arabia continues to be a major player in international energy markets, in which it has always favored moderate oil prices. Iran on the other hand has traditionally been a price “hawk”. Saudi Arabia has also purchased tens of billions of dollars’ worth of advanced U.S. weapons over the years. Just as importantly, the United States continues to be the favorite destination of Saudis pursing their education, with an estimated 70,000 students currently studying in the U.S., contributing $3-billion annually to the U.S. economy.

Iran on the other hand, has had a very different relationship with the United States. Iran is one of only three nations that is designated as a state sponsor of terrorism by the U.S. government. The Iranian government supports several militant groups in the Middle East and has been implicated in terrorist operations that targeted U.S. military personnel and civilians. In Iraq, the so called “special groups” with ties to official Iranian regime elements targeted hundreds of U.S. soldiers in 2007 and 2008. In Lebanon, the militant group Hezbollah carried out an attack against a U.S. Marines compound in Beirut in 1983, killing 241 American servicemen in the process. A federal judge ruled in 2003 that it was at the direction of the Iranian government. In 1996, Shia militants with ties to Hezbollah and Iranian intelligence officials killed 19 U.S. servicemen when they targeted their barracks in al Khobar, Saudi Arabia. Even in Yemen, Iran is supporting the rebel Houthis whose slogan contains the phrase “death to America”. It is also worth mentioning that U.N. officials have estimated that the Iranian government’s support for Bashar Assad’s murderous reign in Syria is costing it $6-billion annually. U.S. officials have correctly said that the world has not witnessed such savagery since the Holocaust.

Just as importantly, and despite the claim that Iran is on the same page as the U.S. in its opposition to the terrorist group IS, the fact remains that Iran has not been targeted by Islamic State  or even al-Qaida before it. It is also documented that some senior al-Qaida leaders sought refuge in Iran, including some close relatives of Osama Bin Laden, after they fled Afghanistan in 2001. While there is no evidence suggesting that Iran and Islamic State or al-Qaida are collaborating in some fashion, it is hard to believe that this anomaly is simply a function of the stellar work of Iran’s intelligence services.

The turmoil in the Middle East in recent years has forced many nations to reevaluate their relations with the countries of the region. It is only natural that the U.S. would do so as well. However, and despite their ideological and sometimes political differences, the U.S. and Saudi Arabia have managed to sustain what has been a mutually beneficial relationship. Iran on the other hand is yet to renounce its decades-long animosity to the U.S. and continues to support militant groups which have targeted Americans in the past. It took a modest step by no longer referring to the U.S. as the “great Satan”. However, its words must be matched by its actions.

(Fahad Nazer is a political analyst with JTG, Inc. and a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington, DC. His writing has appeared in Foreign Affairs, The New York Times, CNN and Foreign Policy and it has been published by The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, The Atlantic Council and The Middle East Institute.  His writing was also included in “The Kingdom: Saudi Arabia and the Challenge of the 21st Century” (Columbia University Press, 2009).

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