US-Iran Rivalry: Addressing the Source of Instability in the Middle East

US President Donald Trump
US Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at a rally organized by the Tea Party Patriots against the Iran nuclear deal in front of the Capitol in Washington, DC, on September 9, 2015. AFP PHOTO/NICHOLAS KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)

For the United States, the relationship with Saudi Arabia comes first and has to be safeguarded against all odds.  Recent events show that America guards her relationship with this key ally in the Middle East and prioritizes it under all circumstances. Since the US and Iran have bad mutual ties, their animosity steals the show in the Middle Eastern state of affairs. The other vital issues gain less attention.

President Trump’s support for Saudi Arabia following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi proves the existence of strong bilateral ties. Khashoggi, a Saudi dissident and a US resident, was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey on October 2. Reportedly, a squad of fifteen Saudi officials had come from Riyadh to kill the journalist under a planned operation. America approached the incident half-heartedly, giving Riyadh the benefit of doubt so that the good ties with the kingdom remains unhurt.

Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS) was suspected to be behind the murder because Khashoggi had been a severe critic of the Crown Prince. The killing caused a global outcry that the killers be punished, forcing the Saudi authorities to accept that Khashoggi was murdered inside the consulate. Although the hit squad members have been arrested, questions arise: whose brain was behind the murder? And what is the status of the dissenters in Saudi Arabia?

Though the Saudis deny the hand of MBS in the murder, America’s CIA concluded that the prince was behind the murder. US President Donald Trump has been under great pressure to hold the prince responsible but Trump has ignored this all, saying Saudi Arabia’s strategic and commercial partnership is more important to America. Washington rejected the narrative that the prince be held accountable because of two primary reasons: one, MBS is a de-facto ruler of Saudi Arabia and good ties with him mean better economic benefits for the US. Two, the prince has liberalized his country to a certain extent. He has permitted women to drive, brought in music and culture and has gone against the hardliners.

While the US herself has a bad record of human rights abuse, she usually takes a strong notice of human rights violations if any other country, which is not a US ally, is involved. For example, China whose alleged abuse of human rights of her citizens- the Uighur Muslims- is strongly condemned by America. However, Washington has brushed aside Saudi Arabia’s abuse of human rights including the murder of Khashoggi.

Conversely, President Trump keeps doubling down on Tehran.  Regarding Iran as its number one enemy and taking along Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf states, Washington has made its hostility with Tehran a center-stage in the Gulf region. That has pushed to backseat the other major issues of the region, e.g. the Palestinian crisis, Syria and Yemen wars. Iran has been isolated and cast as a rogue state in the region. President Trump on November 20 stated, “The world is a dangerous place and the country of Iran, as an example, is responsible for a bloody proxy war against Saudi Arabia in Yemen, trying to destabilize Iraq’s fragile democracy, propping up the dictator Bashar Assad in Syria and much more. Iran states openly ‘Death to America!’ and ‘Death to Israel!’ Iran is considered as the world’s leading sponsor of terror.”

Despite a critical situation in the Arab region due to the growing Palestine-Israel antagonism, the Arab states no longer consider Israel as their common enemy. Many Gulf States have established overt relations with the Jewish state. Recently, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman on October 26 and held discussions with King Qaboos and three days after, Israeli culture and sports minister visited the UAE. Riyadh has never condemned any actions by Israel against the Palestinians. Israel’s strong ties with the US, encourage it to get closer to the Arab states and improve its relations with them. In this endeavor, Israel finds little opposition even though the Palestinian problem is unresolved. No Middle Eastern country except Iran opposes Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. When Trump moved US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, there was little resistance from the Arab states. Only Iran and Turkey, the two Russian allies, criticized the move.

For the Arab states, Iran is an enemy as is clear from their behavior towards the country. A Saudi Arabia-led alliance of about nine Arab states is fighting against Iran-backed Houthi outfit in Yemen. To beat Tehran in this power struggle, the US has been leading the alliance of the Gulf States from behind. A victory in Yemen will put Washington on the driving seat in the region while Iran will lose face and fall behind Riyadh in regional dominance.

Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) of 2015 and imposed unilateral sanctions on Iran to cripple its economy. America’s Arab allies did not criticize the move. They continue to treat Iran in the same vein as Washington.

Although Trump stopped the export of oil from Iran, he has exempted eight countries from the US sanctions and also has exempted the Chabahar project because of its strategic importance. Yet, US-Iran tensions cannot ease because Washington appears in quest of a regime change in Tehran.

The regime change will be welcomed by the Arab states which see Iran as a regional threat to their strategic interests in the region. Saudi Arabia sees herself as a regional power, able to lead the region and the entire Muslim world. In this power game, Riyadh sees Iran as a capable rival and would like to support all endeavors aimed at containing her. It is here that the US-Iran antagonism comes handy for Riyadh which always seeks to cement her ties with America.

Iran is giving a tough fight to Riyadh in Yemen and Syria. Tehran has not stopped supporting Hamas in the Palestinian issue and is a key player in Lebanon. Tehran’s support for Hezbollah and Hamas gives a severe beating to the US which always backs the Saudis competing with Tehran.

Iran’s close ties with Russia are no secret. Moscow had strongly criticized Trump’s pullout from the Iran nuclear deal and said that there was no question of discussing new UN Security Council sanctions on Iran. Tehran’s pro-Russia position has also negatively affected US-Iran relations since Washington sees Moscow as an adversary.

In fact, for decades, America has for material gain ignored Riyadh’s record of human rights violations and has sought to maintain good relations with it. Even the 9/11 attack whose 15 of the 19 attackers were said to be Saudis did not break the ties because the US never wanted to lose economic gains in its relationship with Riyadh.

The bottom line is that the US- Saudi Arabia ties have overcome blows and crises. It is the US-Iran rivalry, manifesting itself in the Gulf region’s wars, that continues to dominate the Middle East situation and shape its politics.

Header Image: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images