Both Saudi Arabia and Iran Do Terrible Things: America Must Choose

by Hugh Fitzgerald

Eyal Zisser makes the case for realpolitik here: “The Moral High Ground Cannot Replace Foreign Policy,” by Eyal Zisser, Algemeiner, February 28, 2021:

A month after taking office, US President Joe Biden has decided to stop sitting on the sidelines in the Middle East.

However, it is not Iran — the aggressive force seeking to destabilize the region — that Washington has in its sights, but longtime US ally Saudi Arabia, which has been dealt one blow after another in recent weeks.

First, the Americans removed Yemen’s Houthi rebels from the list of terrorist organizations, despite the fact that the Houthis — an Iranian proxy on a par with Hezbollah in Lebanon — are waging a war of attrition against Saudi Arabia and could very well turn their Iranian weapons against Israel as well.

On February 5, Washington announced that it was removing the Houthis from the list of terrorist groups. Since then, the Houthis have responded by stepping up their attacks on Saudi targets, including civilians at airports and oil installations, several times a week; in Yemen itself, the Shia group has begun to lay siege to the city of Marib, the last city still in government hands. Now that they’ve been delisted from the American governmenrt’s list of terror groups, they have been emboldened enough to attack even more vigorously these mainly civilian targets; they know the Biden Administration won’t admit to its initial error by putting the Houthis back on the list.

I think Prof. Eyal Zisser’s description of the Houthis as “on a par with Hezbollah” overstates its strength, for Hezbollah possesses more conventional weapons than 95% of the world’s armies; this includes 150,00 rockets and missiles, some of them precision-guided, warehoused in civilian buildings — schools, hospitals, mosques, apartment buildiings — in Lebanon for future use against Israel. The Houthis have ballistic missiles and make frequent use of them, but their armory is much smaller than that of Hezbollah – it’s been much more difficult for Iran to deliver missiles to faraway Yemen than to Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Now, in what seems to be adding insult to injury, a US intelligence report has determined that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman approved an operation to capture or kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the royal family, in 2018 in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, citing the crown prince’s control of decision-making in the Gulf kingdom.

While the Biden administration did not penalize the crown prince personally, it did impose visa restrictions on 76 Saudis “believed to have been engaged in threatening dissidents overseas, including but not limited to the Khashoggi killing.”

The Americans chose to release the report whose contents everyone already knew: the Saudis killed Jamal Khashoggi, a dissident journalist. It was not his killing, but the dismemberment of his body afterwards, in order to remove his remains from the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, that seized the popular imagination and made the whole thing seem particularly atrocious. But the killing itself was not different from the summary executions, sometimes following torture, that the Iranians have been inflicting for forty years on thousands of political dissidents.

In the Middle East, the American measures are interpreted as a renunciation of the royal family. This is not too far off from the policy the United States adopted vis-à-vis the Shah of Iran in the late 1970s, thereby contributing to the fall of his regime and rise of the ayatollahs.

The late Shah of Iran had been painted in the West as a despot, whose secret police, SAVAK, were known to torture and kill political dissidents – and the charge was true. When Ayatollah Khomeini, from his exile in France, called on his followers to rise up, in an alliance with the leftist students who opposed the Shah (later Khomeini’s men would destroy those naïve leftist allies), and overthrow the Shah, the Americans didn’t come to his aid to suppress the revolt early on, with a combination of propaganda and military assistance, that had proved so useful in the 1953 coup, hatched by the Americans and the British, that deposed Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh.

One hopes that the Saudi royal family would rise to the challenge and not repeat the mistake of the Shah, who relied on the United States to help him in time of need….

Eyal Zisser is warning the Saudis not to rely, as the Shah did, on the Americans. He doesn’t name those whom they can rely on, though I think it’s clearly implied from his text, and we can say it for him: Israel. The Saudis need that strong regional ally – Israel — that feels even more keenly the same threat from Iran that the Saudis do. That ally has already factored the Khashoggi killing into its decision-making, and decided that despite that act of barbarism, there are important benefits to be derived from continuing, and expanding, relations with the Saudis. Not only does Israel have every intention of continuing its sharing with the Saudis of intelligence about Iran, but in early March it had begun talks about a possible defense alliance with Saudi Arabia, the U.A.E., and Bahrain.

There are times when statecraft requires a deal with the devil. When one is judging between two unsavory regimes, common sense tells us to choose to ally with the one that, for now at least, is on our side. What comes immediately to mind is how America helped the Soviet Union during World War II. Despite its ruler, the sociopath Joseph Stalin, who was responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of his people – by, for example, starving 10 million of them to death in the Ukraine famine of 1932-33 (Holodomor), and sending 250,000 of them to die, as slave laborers, in building the White Sea Canal, despite the NKVD, that enforced Stalin’s homicidal commands to “liquidate” enemies of the people, despite the Lubyanka prison in whose basement inmates, such as the celebrated poet Osip Mandelshtam, were dispatched with a shot in the back of the head, despite all that, nothing got in the way of the American decision to send to the Soviet Union, from 1941 to 1945, as part of Lend-Lease, enormous quantities of weapons and other useful supplies worth $180 billion. These supplies included:

  • 400,000 jeeps & trucks
  • 14,000 airplanes
  • 8,000 tractors
  • 13,000 tanks
  • 1.5 million blankets
  • 15 million pairs of army boots
  • 107,000 tons of cotton
  • 2.7 million tons of petrol products
  • 4.5 million tons of food

And no one, not the most rock-ribbed conservative, objected at the time to this part of our war effort. We put aside our objections to Stalin and his secret police, the same way, Eyal Zisser argues, convincingly I think, that the Americans should now put aside their moral objections to Saudi Arabia and continue to treat it as an ally in the war against the real threat to the U.S., to Israel, and to regional stability, the Islamic Republic of Iran.

The allies – or “allies” of the United States — who have in the past eliminated, by killing, dissident journalists, include the Shah of Iran, General Pinochet in Chile, and King Hassan in Morocco. Zisser simply wants to remind us that Saudi Arabia would not be the first American ally to have engaged in such practices, and yet we chose to keep them as allies.

The only mistake the Saudis made was getting caught by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — a champion of democracy if ever there was one.

Here I think Eyal Zisser is flaunting his amorality, in making light of, in dismissing qualms about, the killing of Khashoggi: “The only mistake the Saudis made was getting caught.” No, it was a dreadful act. He should stick to his point: both Saudi Araba and Iran have been guilty of terrible deeds. But Saudi Arabia has been our ally since the meeting of FDR with King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud on the U.S.S. Quincy on Feb. 14, 1945, while the Islamic Republic of Iran has been our sworn enemy for 41 years, ever since the regime of the mullahs began.

Those seeking the United States’ friendship must understand the sensitivities of the administration, which pays great attention to media and public opinion. But when this administration sets about to “right the world” by “destroying the old world,” it must understand that its actions have consequences.

In fact, the Biden Administration has done what Eyal Zisser advises: raison d’état has prevailed over moral purity. Despite the report linking the Crown Prince to the killing of Khashoggi, the American government has not, and likely will not, impose any sanctions on him. He’s too important to alienate. The Administration allowed itself to be seen as a defender of human rights, by releasing the damning report on Khashoggi’s killing that President Trump had kept under wraps. But it has so far carefully refrained from placing any sanctions on the Man Who Will Be King, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. The Biden Administration has shown itself willing to overlook a wrong, in order to achieve a greater good: the defeat of a determined enemy that threatens Saudi Arabia, Israel, and us – the Islamic Republic of Iran.

First published in Jihad Watch.


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