It is increasingly likely that Saudi Arabia and Iran, longtime regional foes and proxies for the broader Sunni/Shiite theological divide in the Islamic world, could be heading for war. Both nations are governed by sharia-based legal regimes, and each has a troubled history when it comes to promoting, financing, and exporting Islamist extremism over the course of the past century. At first glance, one might be inclined to look at this internecine Islamic spat and conclude as Sarah Palin once did: “Let Allah sort it out.”
But cynicism of this magnitude is not actually warranted. The United States has a clear and strategically unmistakable interest in any potential armed conflict that were to escalate between the Saudis and the Iranians. That interest, put simply, is to stand firmly with our Saudi allies.
For decades, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was the preeminent funder and exporter of radical Sunni jihadism. The hardline Wahhabist- and Salafist-inspired brand of Sunni Islam that dominated the Saudi clerisy resulted in tangible detrimental outcomes for the liberal West. The Saudis funded more radical Sunni madrasas the world over than any other Arab nation and were oftentimes the leading miscreants in the Arab world’s decades-long (technically, still ongoing) diplomatic campaign against the legitimacy of Israel. Concomitantly, the Saudis were long viewed as the leading Arab cheerleaders for Yasser Arafat and his inherently jihadist “Palestinian liberation” cause. The Kingdom funded and promoted the global Muslim Brotherhood, the 20th-century progenitor of contemporary Sunni jihadism and the over-arching organization for which the genocidal death cult of Hamas merely serves as the Palestinian-Arab branch. Many Saudi elites and clerics famously mollycoddled al-Qaeda in the years leading up to September 11, 2001. And so forth.
That is all undoubtedly very, very, very bad. But it is crucial to recognize that much has changed in the Islamic world over the past decade or two.
Over the past ten to fifteen years, and rapidly accelerating under the recent leadership of the more forward-thinking and realpolitik-inclined Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS), the Kingdom has taken tremendous steps to diminish the influence of the Wahhabist clerics, to cease the funding and exportation of radical madrasas abroad, and to unequivocally distance itself from the Muslim Brotherhood. MBS has even gone so far as to (accurately) dub the Brotherhood an “incubator for all terrorists.” Jared Kushner and other Trump administration officials, seeing a natural anti-Islamist ally in the crown prince, have cultivated and nourished a reinvigorated bilateral relationship. The Saudis have also all but completely forsaken the noxious, anti-Jewish Palestinian-Arab “liberation” cause, preferring instead to dramatically warm up to Israel in hitherto unimaginable ways. The Saudis, while still prone to military and strategic crassness, are more so than ever before manifestly allied with the United States on our key geopolitical interests and priorities in the Middle East.
The elephant in the room for much of the Middle East’s broader realignment is, of course, the so-called “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” — then-President Barack Obama’s harrowing nuclear deal capitulation to the mullahs of the world’s number one state sponsor of jihadism, Iran. Obama, under the cataclysmic “guidance” of failed novelist Ben Rhodes, sought to reorient America’s interests in the Middle East away from Israel and its historic Sunni allies — namely, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt — and toward Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood. In addition to empowering the terrorist, jihad-exporting mullocracy in Tehran, Obama’s disastrous shift strategic also unshackled the region’s preeminent funders of the Brotherhood and Hamas: Qatar and Turkey. The increasingly public thawing of tensions between the Saudis and the Emiratis — each of whom considers Iran to be something akin to an existential hegemonic threat — and Israel, in addition to the still-ongoing embargo implemented (primarily) by the Saudis and Emiratis against the Brotherhood-funding Qataris, can only be understood through this broader prism.
Iran, furthermore, is as malevolent and vicious a global actor as ever before. The mullahs still seek nuclear weapons, routinely preach “death to America” and “death to Israel,” fund Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthi rebels, and all sorts of other jihadist outfits the world over, plot targeted assassinations across Europe and the broader West, and engage in deeply hostile and destructive acts of aggression and war against regional foes. The Islamic Revolutionary Iranian regime has been in a state of war against the West ever since the ayatollahs’ takeover in 1979, and Iran today remains one of the world’s two most rogue geopolitical actors, along with North Korea. It is a deeply hostile and repressive theocracy that has never missed an opportunity to fund jihadism against the West. Countering and thwarting Iran, in addition to the Brotherhood, is very much in America’s strategic interest.
Fundamentally, the bipartisan Wilsonian foreign policy ruling class must be tempered. There is a role for morality in foreign policy, but that role is minuscule when compared with the foremost goal of a nation narrowly pursuing its own self-interest. Yes, the Saudi regime is sharia-based and is oppressive in many ways. But no, that ultimately should not deter our pursuit and defense of an indispensable strategic alliance. As I wrote in April:
[C]onservatives must articulate a hard-headed foreign policy that, if need be, subordinates amorphous “values”-based concerns in favor of much more tangible — and much more legitimate — concerns about prioritizing and maximizing America’s national security. And in so doing, American foreign policy hands ought not to elevate the interests and clout of unaccountable transnational institutions. …
America ought to ally with self-sufficient nation-states who care about their sovereignty and share our core national security interests in deterring Russian hegemony, Chinese ambitions, and/or Islamist aggression. … [I]n the Islamic world, that means focusing more on nations like Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates than it does on Islamist-exporting, Muslim Brotherhood-cozy states like Turkey and Qatar.
Americans should not be duped by well-oiled Qatari duplicity or the Iran nuclear deal’s subversive Obama bro echo chamber. With Saudi-Iranian tensions flaring, America has an unambiguous interest in standing firmly with MBS and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.