Ah, Saudi Arabia! The country that spawned 15 of the 19 terrorists that executed the atrocities of September 11, 2001. The country we in America are told is an ally, even though, when it comes to values, we have virtually nothing in common with the reactionary oil billionaires running the place. The country whose oil supplies us, for the moment, with about 13 per cent of our annual energy needs. The country with one of the most abysmal human rights records in the world, which bans any religion other than Islam, which imports slave labor from the Indian subcontinent, and which subjects women to what can only be described as gender apartheid.
That's why it's hard to feel any sympathy with the Saudis when it comes to their current spat with the Obama Administration. Sadly, however, the continued threat posed by Iran and its Syrian and Hezbollah allies, and the absence of any coherent Middle East strategy on Washington's part, compels us to hold our noses and pay due attention to the Saudi complaints.
Earlier this month, the Saudis refused to take up one of the ten seats on the U.N. Security Council reserved for non-permanent members. There was a rare agreement among regional analysts that this was an odd move to make, but most of the attention focused on the explanation the Saudis offered as to why.
Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi intelligence chief, said that frustration with the U.S., and not the U.N., was the reason for the Saudi decision. Two justifications were given: firstly, the tiresome ritual objection that the Palestinian question remains unresolved, something the Saudis feel duty-bound to cite in order to underline their Arab credentials. Secondly—and now we're getting somewhere—a profound frustration with Obama's Syria policy, which the Saudis correctly feel will simply empower the Iranians at a time when our Administration is being seduced by the overtures of the new President, Hassan Rouhani.
Ultimately, there is nothing remotely attractive about either the Saudi or Iranian models of Islamic government. The Saudis impose the fanatical Islamist doctrines of Wahhabism, while the Shi'a Islamist revolution of the Iranians has been a recipe for domestic oppression and regional aggression, carried out by the Assad regime in Damascus and Hezbollah. Yet it is too easy to say, "a plague on both their houses."
In the icy moral universe of geostrategic considerations, there is a clear advantage for Israel built into these Saudi objections. Nearly all the Arab states live in perpetual fear of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Like the Israelis, they don't trust Rouhani or Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But if Arab governments are the ones nagging the U.S. about Iran's malicious intentions, it takes the spotlight off Israel and reminds the world that the Iranian threat is a real, ongoing concern for Iran's immediate neighbors.
Additionally, the current situation rather forces the Arabs to acknowledge that they have common interests with Israel. That's always been the case—Israel's decision to strike Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981 resulted in private praise and public condemnation in Arab capitals—but this point is driven home even more explicitly in the Iranian case. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has already hinted in the Knesset that secret talks have been taking place between the Israelis and the conservative Arab regimes, adding that there is renewed appreciation for Israel's role in maintaining regional security.
What's telling is that the assumption that Israel and these Arab regimes would eventually realize their common purpose under American auspices has been exploded. Incredibly, it now looks as if Israel and its Arab neighbors could come together over Iran not just without the U.S., but in spite of it!
All the same, let's not count the Americans out just yet. Obama hasn't reached a deal with the Iranians, and chances are that the current round of making nice with Tehran will go the same way as his previous overtures in in 2010, because any agreement would likely collapse through Iranian reluctance to accept a strict monitoring arrangement of their nuclear facilities.
The democratization of the Middle East, and the acceptance of Israel as part of the region, remains a long way off. Absent that outcome, hardheaded calculations based on immediate interests will rule the day. That's why it's helpful that a chorus of Arab voices, led by the Saudis, are telling Obama that Iran under its current regime was, is, and remains the greatest threat to this part of the world.