Analysis & Opinions - Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Saudi Arabia Isn't Cuddly; Neither Is Iran

| Nov. 08, 2018


A Hebrew-language version of the op-ed appeared in Haaretz on October 31, 2018. The translation was provided by the author.

Eureka! Saudi Arabia, as the "enlightened" international community has recently learned, is not a cuddly country. Its regime is probably the most heinous on earth, but it took the gruesome murder of one journalist, Khashoggi, to offend international sensibilities. Not the beheadings of 146 people in 2017 alone. Not the thousands of lashes meted out for such horrific transgressions as the belief in atheism. Not the women, who can now drive, but still cannot leave their hometown, or receive medical care, without the approval of their male guardian.

Nearly all other news, including the Trump administration's recent efforts to contain Iran, were drowned out by the self-righteous indignation that consumed the international community. Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh's sexual misconduct had a similar effect as President Trump's and Prime Minister Netanyahu's recent speeches on Iran in the UN. The very same Iran that is no more cuddly than Saudi Arabia, that is guilty of extreme human rights violations and continues to pursue both regional expansionism and an unacceptable nuclear capability.

Whereas past U.S. administrations have customarily completed major policy reviews during their first half year in office, the overall contours of Trump's strategy towards Iran are only now emerging. Heated rhetoric aside, Trump is actually no more avid to confront Iran militarily than his hated predecessor and has thus adopted the same policy instruments that Obama wielded until the 2015 nuclear deal — sanctions, sanctions, and more sanctions. To his credit, this now includes the Basij militia, the primary instrument of brutal domestic suppression.

There are, however, two critical differences between Trump's policy and Obama's. First, the European Union and Russia are doing everything they can, this time, to undermine U.S. sanctions, admittedly with limited success so far, by establishing special trading mechanisms designed to circumvent them. Second, Trump has refrained thus far from the ultimate measure adopted by Obama, in the form of sanctions on Iranian use of the international financial clearinghouse, known as SWIFT. The international sanctions regime led by Obama proved sufficient to bring Iran to the negotiating table and to make significant compromise is, but not to forgo its nuclear infrastructure or long-term nuclear aspirations. The administration has yet to explain why a less comprehensive regime would now yield greater concessions.

Netanyahu believed that Obama was too quick to reach an agreement with Iran and presumably hopes that Trump will now stick to the hardline approach longer, prior to reaching his stated goal of an improved agreement. Experience with Trump to date is not necessarily encouraging. Be that as it may, the specter of lost access to the U.S. market has proven so daunting, that the multinational corporations have already significantly cut trade ties with Iran, even before U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil, due in early November, come into effect. Iran's economy has already entered a tailspin.

A further difference between Obama and Trump, is that the former sought to engage Iran, whereas Trump appears bent on regime change, primarily through sanctions. The administration has yet to adopt regime change as its official policy, but senior officials have resorted to every possible rhetorical flourish just short of this. It has also begun an intensive campaign to delegitimize the regime, including a special report entitled "Outlaw Regime: a Chronicle of Iran's Destructive Activities," which sets forth all of its misdeeds in the nuclear, missile, cyber, human rights, and other realms.

There is just one small, pesky, problem. Thirty-nine years after the Iranian revolution, no one has any idea how to bring about regime change, despite the intensive efforts that have been devoted to this. The administration has presumably tasked its best and brightest with a review of issue, much as its predecessors have done, but readers would be well advised not to wait in breathless anticipation. The regime, for its part, has responded by announcing a "resistance economy."

The administration has also begun trying to establish a Sunni axis to contain Iran, an essential move, which was tried by its predecessors with notably little success. The differences between the Arab states that prevented effective cooperation in the past, as well as the limitations of their true capabilities, have only grown worse. Qatar is under Arab boycott, Oman maintains good relations with Iran, Egypt is preoccupied with its own domestic travails, and the Saudis have now gone from being the poster child of reform, to a rogue state. One would be hard-pressed to overstate the vehemence of anti-Saudi sentiment both in the U.S. media and Congress.

Israel was never intended to be a part of the putative Sunni axis, but both its and the administration's hopes of containing Iran were predicated on broad, if quiet, strategic cooperation between it and Israel. The primary Saudi contribution was to have been an increase in oil output, once the U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil went into effect, designed to prevent a rise in prices that might have both hurt the international economy and undermined domestic support for the administration’s policy. The international outcry following the Khashoggi affair may prove to be a strategic turning point in the attempt to contain Iran.

The administration is also reportedly completing, belatedly, a review of its policies toward Syria and Iran's involvement there. Under the new policy, the administration will supposedly call for political change in Syria, without making this contingent on Assad's removal, for an end to Iranian involvement in Syria, without calling for a complete severance of ties, and for as yet unspecified measures to deter Syria from using chemical weapons and hasten ISIS's destruction. The small U.S. military contingent deployed in Syria will remain in place to prevent Iranian territorial contiguity, and sanctions will be imposed on Iranian and Russian firms that invest in Syria's reconstruction. The United States, for its part, will stay out of Syrian reconstruction, until the administration's conditions are met. The new policy reads like a playbook borrowed directly from Obama.

The administration continues to present Iran with a list of twelve demands, all of which are eminently desirable, but entirely unrealistic, and the lacunae in its approach remain such that it is very difficult to speak of a coherent policy. The deployment of S300 missiles in Syria, along with President Putin's repeated rejections of Netanyahu's requests to meet, demonstrate the limitations of Israel's Russian option. The good news is that the importance that Iran attaches to its ties with Europe and Russia have forced it to continue adhering to the nuclear agreement, despite the U.S. withdrawal, although it is unclear for how much longer. Israel should be grateful that the nuclear agreement has enabled it to strike Iran's growing military presence in Syria repeatedly, before it has succeeded in going nuclear.

It is incumbent upon those of us who believed — and still believe — that the nuclear agreement was the best of the bad options available to now support the administration's efforts. Only the outcome matters. Nevertheless, and as welcome as Trump's hardline approach towards Iran may be, Israel cannot rely on such a mercurial president.

Indeed, the bottom line may very well prove to be that Israel will essentially stand alone against Iran, but with greater limitations on its freedom of action over Syria. Israel must, therefore, define its priorities carefully, first and foremost, preventing Iran from going nuclear at almost all costs and only secondarily, dealing with its missiles, presence in Syria, and Hezbollah. To this end, it must continue building its own independent capabilities.

Statements and views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Harvard University, the Harvard Kennedy School, or the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

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For Academic Citation:

Freilich, Chuck."Saudi Arabia Isn't Cuddly; Neither Is Iran." Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 7, 2018.