January 9, 2016

Will Washington Ultimately Be Forced To Side With Saudi Arabia Over Iran In A War?

"By almost any standard, Iranian society is far closer to ours than Saudi society. Years of religious rule have made Iranians highly secular. The call to prayer is almost never heard in Iran. In Saudi Arabia, by contrast, it dominates life, and all shops must close during designated prayer breaks. Iranian women are highly dynamic and run many businesses. Saudi women may not even drive or travel without a man’s permission. The 9/11 attacks were planned and carried out mainly by Saudis; Tehran was the only capital in the Muslim world where people gathered spontaneously after the attacks for a candlelight vigil in sympathy with the victims." - Stephen Kinzer, "The United States Shouldn't Choose Saudi Arabia Over Iran," Politico, January 4, 2016.

"In general, the United States should support Saudi Arabia in resisting Iran’s encroachments in the region, but it should not take sides in the broader sectarian struggle. This is someone else’s civil war. After all, Washington’s principal ally in the fight against the Islamic State is the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. And besides, the single greatest threat to the United States emanating from the Middle East remains radical Sunni jihadists — many of whom have drawn inspiration, funding and doctrine from Saudi Arabia." - Fareed Zakaria, "The United States shouldn’t take sides in the Sunni-Shiite struggle" The Washington Post, January 7, 2016.

The Iranian people's natural affection for America should not be ignored or underestimated by American officials and policy makers, nor Iranian officials and policy makers. The tools are there to rebuild burned bridges between these two countries. The nuclear deal is an encouraging sign that shows that the ruling elites in America and Iran are not totally insane, and that they are in charge of semi-rational states that are not emotionally wedded to the idea of perpetual conflict between each other.

Of course, nothing in diplomacy is certain. Positions and policies can change for the worse. We still must be on the lookout for false flags, areas of miscommunication, and events taking on a life of their own.

History is full of wars where neither side was geared to go but had no choice because issues of honour and pride got in the way of rational calculations. Wars can start even after successful diplomatic deals. Once preparations and threats are made, the battles usually follow. That is why talk of red lines is so dangerous.

And let's not forget another important reason why wars are sometimes fought with reluctance: alliances.

The U.S.-Saudi alliance is a perfect example of one ally seeking to entangle the other in its battles to the detriment of both.

There has been a lot of talk recently about Washington having to choose between Saudi Arabia or Iran in their proxy war, and eventually, direct war. For many the choice is easy: choose the ally. But in this case it's more complicated than that. If a decision has to be made, Washington has to pick between two societies, not two regimes.

Hopefully the next U.S. administration is smart enough to not get emotionally invested in the battles of other countries and drag the U.S. into more unwanted wars.

If Saudi Arabia and Israel attack Iran, and really set off apocalyptic fires in the Middle East, they will not hesitate to bomb American ships and say Iran did it as retaliation and thus force Washington's hand in the situation. Their propaganda agents in Washington and other Western capitals are ready to go with the scripts. They will try to pressure the United States to go in guns blazing against Iran, and "cut off the head of the snake" as the last Saudi King put it. But that would be a mistake. Such a big war won't go well for anybody involved.

Video Title: Toby Matthiesen: US Relations with Saudi Arabia & Iran. DU Center for Middle East Studies. Date Published: December 17, 2015. Description:
Toby Matthiesen is Senior Research Fellow in the International Relations of the Middle East at St Antony’s College, University of Oxford. Previously he was Research Fellow in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of 'Sectarian Gulf: Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the Arab Spring That Wasn’t' (2013) and 'The Other Saudis: Shiism, Dissent and Sectarianism' (2015). This presentation was co-sponsored by the Denver Council on Foreign Relations and the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.