Entering the Twilight Zone in the Middle East

When friends become foes and foes become friends, something is very wrong

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April 22, 2019

The deep schism over American policy toward Iran was evident on Monday, when the Trump administration announced that it would no longer allow several countries to buy Iranian oil. "We will no longer grant exemptions," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned. "If you don't abide by this, there will be sanctions." The White House said the decision is meant to bring Iran's oil exports down to zero, "denying the regime its principal source of revenue."

Naturally, the move triggered either praise or outrage, with little room for middle ground. Many Republicans, and others with hawkish views toward Iran, applauded the administration's move. "This decision will deprive the ayatollahs of billions of dollars that they would have spent undermining the security of the United States and our allies, building up Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile programs, and financing global terrorism," said Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas).

Most of the political left, meanwhile, along with the isolationist-leaning right, decried the announcement. Rob Malley, a former special assistant for the Middle East under President Barack Obama, lamented how the Trump administration is doubling down on a "failed policy" of maximum pressure through sanctions and, in the process, runs "the risk of escalation or seeing Iran walk away from the nuclear deal."

In recent years, policy toward Iran has become one of the most partisan, divisive issues in the United States. Those who support a tougher posture toward Iran are branded bloodthirsty warmongers. Those who support more engagement are called naïve appeasers. How can Washington create effective policies in such an environment?

Frankly, Obama is largely to blame for this split. As I wrote in February, "the chief legacy of Obama's foreign policy is not the Iran nuclear deal, but rather the visceral partisanship that he fostered at home while trying to defend the deal." Recall how Obama demonized critics of the accord and made support for the agreement a litmus test of loyalty for Democrats in Congress.

These critics were not the only targets of Obama's demonization. The 44th president carried on a similar campaign against America's traditional allies in the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia. Obama's contempt for the Saudis is well documented. From this contempt, his obsession with reaching a rapprochement with Iran, and his general worldview, Obama developed a strategic vision for the Middle East. "The competition between the Saudis and the Iranians—which has helped to feed proxy wars and chaos in Syria and Iraq and Yemen—requires us to say to our friends as well as to the Iranians that they need to find an effective way to share [emphasis added] the neighborhood and institute some sort of cold peace," Obama told Jeffrey Goldberg while serving as president.

This notion—of Iran and Saudi Arabia getting over their differences and "sharing" the Middle East—endured past Obama and is now an established part of left-wing foreign policy. Just look at Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.), who is now trying to portray himself as the left's leader of international affairs. Speaking to the New Yorker earlier this month, Sanders argued that the United States should rebalance the regional conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia and be more neutral. There has been "a bipartisan assumption that we're supposed to love Saudi Arabia and hate Iran," he said. "And yet, if you look at young people in Iran, they are probably a lot more pro-American than Saudis. Iran is a very flawed society, no debate about it. Involved in terrorism, doing a lot of bad things. But they also have more democracy, as a matter of fact, more women's rights, than does Saudi Arabia." Sanders is far from the only progressive to express this view.

As Sanders's quote indicates, this idea has, in practice, manifested as simply efforts to appease Iran and to punish Saudi Arabia. In February, for example, the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution calling on the United States to re-enter the Iran nuclear deal, and several Democratic presidential candidates have already indicated they will re-join the accord if elected. Former officials in the Obama administration have even met with Iranian counterparts and discussed how to respond to the Trump administration's aggressive posture toward the Islamic Republic. Left-wing pundits and politicians defend so-called "moderates" within the theocratic regime, and even describe Iran as a stable, quasi-democratic state. Meanwhile, these same voices describe Saudi Arabia as a modern-day Nazi Germany, and they push bills to damage (if not destroy) the alliance, despite its strategic importance. Over the weekend, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D., Hawaii), a presidential candidate, would not say a negative word about Iran during an interview, even when asked about its support for terrorism; instead, she devoted her time to demonizing the Saudis, portraying Iran's Islamist dictatorship as no threat.

So the left has a strategy of rebalancing the Middle East by distancing from Riyadh and drawing closer to Tehran, and in practice this means demonizing the former and appeasing the latter.

This strategy, an idealistic fantasy masquerading as hard-nosed realism, is deeply flawed for several reasons. Most importantly, it misses an obvious point: Iran is an enemy of the United States, and Saudi Arabia is an ally. The regime in Iran is fundamentally, to its core, anti-American. That is why the chants of "death to America" and labels of the "great Satan" have never gone away. Indeed, for the last 40 years, Iran has seen itself at war with the United States, and does so today. Saudi Arabia is of course a problematic ally, but it also helps the United States fight Islamist terrorism—despite what Sanders and Co. say on television, Riyadh has taken important steps to stop promoting extremism. The Saudis also buy American arms and are essential to the global oil market. Not to mention that the House of Saud is a pillar of Middle Eastern stability. (Yes, the region could still become far less stable.)

The chief reason why Iran and Saudi Arabia are enemies now is because the Saudis are friends of the United States. This is the key point that so many observers do not seem to understand. The two countries do not fight proxy wars mainly because the regime in Iran is Shi'ite and the House of Saud is Sunni. Tehran has no problem working with Sunni terrorist groups—from al Qaeda, to Hamas, to Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and beyond. If Saudi Arabia were hostile to America, then Iran would gladly join with them to drive the Americans out of the Middle East. It is precisely because the Saudi government is pro-American that Iran opposes it—and yet the left thinks tilting toward Iran will actually pacify the situation! The whole concept is nonsense.

The fact is distancing the United States from Saudi Arabia will invite more Saudi recklessness, not less. Recall that Riyadh launched its war in Yemen at a time when it felt Washington, during the Obama administration, would not support it. Furthermore, drawing closer to Iran will do absolutely nothing to change the regime's view of America. The only way to do that is to change the regime—otherwise, deterrence and pressure are the ways to counter Iranian belligerence.

Above all, the Saudis welcome an American-led order in the Middle East, and the Iranians want to upend that order. One supports American interests; the other opposes them. So what is this enlightened strategy that makes friends into foes, and foes into friends? Only in the Twilight Zone would such a policy make sense.

At its core, the left's strategy for the Middle East is an indictment of American power, and of the American-led regional and global order. That system is based on American supremacy, which is anathema to progressives. To many on the left, the Saudis, like the Israelis, represent an outdated outpost of an American empire that is not meant for the 21st century. Does it make sense that the Islamic Republic, a country ruled by murderous, anti-Semitic totalitarians, would be better at fostering a stable, peaceful Middle East? Of course not, but that is precisely the point: the strategy's math does not add up.