For the last decade, Iran has been a rising power in the greater Middle East. Tehran’s influence now stretches across the “Shia Crescent”—the half-moon-shaped part of the Mideast in which many Shiite Muslims reside (and therefore have a nominally religious allegiance to Iran). U.S. military operations in the region have only exacerbated Iran’s rise. Today, Iran has strategic positions in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, which threaten our allies in Israel, Qatar, Afghanistan, and Yemen.
To counter this growing threat, the United States has had to turn to its regional allies, primarily Israel and the Sunni Arab states led nominally by Saudi Arabia. Yet, to be truly effective in deterring and containing malign Iranian influence, the Sunni Arab states must build up militarily as well as connect with their one-time rival, Israel.
President Trump and his administration have fostered some of this since 2017, repairing the U.S. relationship with Israel and bolstering our strategic ties with Sunni Arab nations. But that progress is being jeopardized as a bipartisan group in Congress threatens to end arms sales to Saudi Arabia over human rights concerns.
In effect, Washington’s bipartisan fusion party has decided to replace viable statecraft in the Persian Gulf with what George F. Will famously called “soulcraft.” It is an embarrassment and it will lead to more deaths—probably American ones.
Building an Israeli-Sunni Arab Alliance
The Iranian threat has made for strange bedfellows. The last half of the 20th century was dominated by headlines of various Sunni Arab military alliances attempting to drive the Jews of Israel “into the sea.” Now, for the first time, there is real hope not only for a lasting peace between these two sides but for a genuine alliance to be born.
Much like NATO at the dawn of the Cold War, this alliance would be born out of real strategic needs: nations drawing closer to deter an ideological foe from threatening their interests and territory, while preserving and perhaps building upon what little stability exists in the region.
Even three years ago, this budding alliance would have been unthinkable.
During the Obama Administration, the United States marched down the feckless path of retrenchment and realignment away from Israel and the Sunni Arab powers and toward Iran.
Thanks to the consistent efforts of the Trump Administration, the Saudis have been reinforced with American weapons, training, and greater intelligence-sharing while the Israelis have been reassured that the United States is not looking for the chicken switch when it comes to Iran.
Saudi Arabia Does America’s Dirty Work
In Saudi Arabia, particularly, the internal political dynamic is finally working in America’s favor. Long a hotbed radical Islamist sentiment and jihadist activity, Saudi Arabia under the leadership of the 32-year-old, Georgetown University-educated Mohammed Bin Salman (MBS) has taken real steps toward modernity. While he is castigated for jailing political opponents, MBS has shepherded several reforms meant to make life better for the long-repressed women in his country. MBS is also striving to move Saudi Arabia from a single-resource petro-state to a leading modern economy in the region.
Western pundits excoriate MBS for the pace of his efforts (after all, MBS has merely allowed women to drive in the country—why aren’t they yet burning their bras?) What’s more, the political opponents MBS has jailed (and, at times, tortured or killed) have had deep ties to the jihadist communities throughout Saudi Arabia and the wider region.
Notably, Western elites appear incapable or unwilling to forgive MBS for his apparent role in the heinous slaughter of Islamist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey. As gruesome as the murder was, it by no means stands out among the most horrific things that a Mideast state has done.
More importantly, though, Saudi Arabia under MBS is now serving U.S. geostrategic interests without question.
The Saudis have taken the lead in rolling back malign Iranian influence in both the Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar and in the ongoing Yemen civil war. Yemen has served as the festering wound in the inaptly named “Global War on Terror” since former President Obama declared his administration’s anti-terrorism campaign in that country a “success.”
After much neglect by Obama, Yemen had to endure the terror of Iranian-backed forces tearing through the Yemeni countryside and destabilizing the entire country. This occurred as Iran spread its reach across neighboring Iraq into Syria. Saudi Arabia acted quickly and decisively to prevent Yemen from falling completely into Iran’s orbit.
Statecraft Is Not Soulcraft
The conflict in Yemen has lasted years. And, since Bin Salman’s rise to power in Riyadh, the Saudis have renewed their struggle against the Iranian-back Houthi rebels with vigor.
Yet, in the United States, the threat of American retaliation against its ally persists out of concerns over human rights violations. Confusing statecraft with soulcraft, a bipartisan group of American political leaders have taken to the House and Senate Floors to decry Saudi excesses in their fight against the Iranian scourge in Yemen.
These politicians, who are more interested in making sure people know that they think the Saudis are not morally pure than in protecting real American interests, routinely threaten the vital military aid that the United States gives to the Saudis, demanding that MBS supplicate himself on the altar of Western ethical standards. This isn’t helpful.
Of course, the loss of innocent life in Yemen is detestable, just as was the death of Khashoogi. Such atrocities are also commonplace in the region, and Saudi Arabia is hardly alone among Arab nations in spilling civilian blood in the course of fighting its enemies. Nobody passes the purity test.
Saudi resistance to Iran in Yemen has prevented an Iranian encirclement of the Gulf states. Threatening the military readiness of Saudi Arabia in order to display one’s purportedly superior morality makes the situation in the region worse by denying vital equipment and assistance to forces that are acting in America’s interest.
What’s more, Saudi Arabia’s military is primed to fight against terrorists in their own land. Bolstering their capabilities so as to build a credible threat to a rival state, like Iran, on a battlefield outside of their territory, like Yemen, means that their military will make mistakes—and that those mistakes will lead to many innocent people dying. But, the alternative is that we keep Saudi Arabia down, they lose their fight against Iran, and we either have to accept Iranian hegemony in the region or commit more of our forces to yet another distant battlefield.
These are not tenable solutions.
Far better, in this instance, for Washington to back Riyadh in its efforts both to modernize its society and military while they resist Iran, rather than blow up a valuable alliance because Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) want to look good by demonstrating their “higher” morality.
This isn’t a moral issue. This is about preserving U.S. interests in the region.
Photo Credit: Xinhua/Nidal Eshtayeh via Getty Images