Memo to Biden: Saudi Arabia is a bad actor, but Iran is worse - analysis

This should not be an additional cause for US president-elect Joe Biden to realign America’s Mideast policy, and move its orientation away from countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and toward Iran.

US PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden announces Pete Buttigieg as his nominee for secretary of transportation in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT-ELECT Joe Biden announces Pete Buttigieg as his nominee for secretary of transportation in Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday.
Saudi Arabia sentenced prominent women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul to nearly six years in prison on Monday in a move that led to world outrage.
Hathloul was arrested and held since 2018 after leading a campaign calling for the right of women to drive and putting an end to male guardianship laws that restricted the rights of women to travel freely. She was convicted on conspiracy charges.
Even though the court suspended nearly three years of her sentence, and included in the sentence time already served in detention, the fact that she only has three months left to serve is still something for which the Saudis should be taken to task and made to realize is simply unacceptable.
However, this should not be an additional cause for US President-elect Joe Biden to realign America’s Mideast policy and move its orientation – as did then-president Barack Obama – away from countries such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia and toward Iran.
Saudi Arabia is an extremely problematic regime, as its involvement in the 2018 murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi bore out. But it is an important bulwark in the region against Iran, which is many times more of a threat to regional and world security than Saudi Arabia.
Biden, already during his campaign, made clear that he is interested in reassessing Washington’s ties with the Saudis, saying at one point that the kingdom should have the pariah status it deserves and that it should no longer get passes for its human-rights abuses.
“I would end US support for the disastrous Saudi-led war in Yemen and order a reassessment of our relationship with Saudi Arabia,” he told the Council on Foreign Relations in 2019. “It is past time to restore a sense of balance, perspective and fidelity to our values in our relationships in the Middle East. President Trump has issued Saudi Arabia a dangerous blank check.”
And during a Democratic primary debate in November of 2019, he said he “would make it very clear” that the US would not sell weapons to the Saudis, which would make them “the pariah that they are.”
The irony is that this is the same Biden who wants to reengage with the Iranians and reenter the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The deal essentially opened the door for Iran to reenter the family of nations, even as it was working to gobble up nation after nation in the Middle East, from Iraq to Yemen, Syria and Lebanon.
It would not only be an irony but an error to give Saudi Arabia “pariah status” while removing that status – via reentering the JCPOA and lifting sanctions – from Iran.
What Israeli officials want the Biden administration to understand is that as problematic an actor as Saudi Arabia might be, it definitely is not as bad as Iran in terms of human-rights abuses, in terms of destabilizing factors in the region and in terms of posing a danger to world security.
MANY OF the voices who will now be raised against Saudi Arabia in the US, including in Congress, because of its human-rights abuses (and they are many) are the same voices who are urging Biden to reenter the Iranian nuclear deal, despite the country’s ocean of human-rights abuses, including the most recent the kidnapping and hanging of dissident journalist Ruhollah Zam.
US foreign policy, as former CIA station chief Haviland Smith wrote in a 2011 article in the Internet quarterly American Diplomacy, vacillates between being dominated by the “realist” and “idealist” schools of thought.
“Foreign policy in any given country at any time is a reflection of either the national interests of that country, or the values of its peoples,” he wrote. “There are essentially two distinct approaches to foreign policy. First, a ‘realist’ foreign policy [that] places national interests and security above ideology, ethics and morality. The second or ‘idealist’ school posits that foreign policy must reflect the ethical, moral and philosophical values of the country.”
Smith argued that the administration of George W. Bush was in the realist camp, while that of Obama was in the idealist one. Tellingly, both made major missteps in Israel’s immediate neighborhood that led officials in Jerusalem to bewail what they termed American diplomatic naiveté.
In 2005, after Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the US urged Israel and the PA to allow Hamas to compete in Palestinian legislative elections in 2006. Both Israel and the PA were opposed, but Bush and then-secretary of state Condoleezza Rice insisted, convinced that democratic elections were a sure formula to a pro-Western government.
And as Israel and the PA had warned, Hamas won the election and a year later overthrew Fatah in Gaza. Washington’s good intentions led to a disastrous result.
A similar dynamic was at play in 2011 with the outbreak of the Arab Spring and the protests in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.
Israel, concerned about what would come in the wake Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, was less than enthused at what many in Washington and around Europe were breathlessly characterizing as the Arab springtime of democracy.
The calumny dumped on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for urging caution and not abandoning longtime allies – even if they were unsavory – was epitomized in a 2011 column by The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.
In a column headlined “Postcard from Cairo, Part 2,” he lambasted Israel, castigating it for not being more supportive of the Tahrir protesters.
“The children of Egypt were having their liberation moment,” he wrote, “and the children of Israel decided to side with Pharaoh – right to the very end.”
Wrong. Israel wasn’t supporting Pharaoh, but rather was deeply concerned that following the Egyptian revolution, Sinai would turn into a terrorist base, the Egypt-Israel gas pipeline would be a constant target of attack, the Israeli Embassy in Cairo would be ransacked, and the Muslim Brotherhood – and Salafists to their right – would win the country’s parliamentary election.
All things that duly transpired.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is no great democrat. But neither was the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, whom he overthrew. Egypt under Sisi might not be a bastion of human rights, but it is far better for Israel and regional stability that he, and not the Muslim Brotherhood, is in control. And it is not as if an Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood would be a human-rights beacon, either.
As so often happens in US foreign policy, the predilections of one administration are replaced by another with an entirely different preferred direction. US President Donald Trump moved US policy away from the idealist approach of the Obama years to a more realistic approach that forged relationships based on interests, not ethics.
Biden’s hints of where he is taking US policy toward Saudi Arabia are an indication that he may swing US policy back to the idealist school. Or, at least, that may be how it is being portrayed.
But this is contradictory. Because how can taking steps that will essentially move toward the rehabilitation of Iran – an abusive regime with hegemonic designs on the Mideast and which wants to wipe Israel off the map – be considered an “idealist” foreign policy?