Apologies for posting this late, I’ve been very busy all day. This will be the last of the Best of the Week series for the time being. It has been really enjoyable and interesting responding to various news articles, whether briefly to a selection of articles, or analysing one or two in more detail. But I really want to be more creative on this blog, so I’ll be doing more original posts on Sundays. Also, I’ll be posting more about Iran and the Middle East over the coming months, largely because I’m taking a module on Iranian history at university.
We’re very critical of Saudi Arabia here on the Epicurus Blog. Only yesterday, Robert wrote an excellent piece on how the Saudis are increasing water shortages in Arizona by driving up food production there, instead of growing food locally. We strongly disapprove of the Saudi interpretation of Islam, Wahhabism, which roots out individual freedom and is often the ideological backbone of many terrorist organisations. Nor do we find favour with the Saudi bombing of Yemen, which has resulted in extraordinarily high civilian casualties. Saudi Arabia is one of the most authoritarian and oppressive societies on earth- it’s demise is all but inevitable in our view.
So it makes little sense for the governments of the West to give the Saudis such strong support. They don’t share our values or promote Western interests. They’re a declining power. And their hostility to Iran is driven by the Sunni-Shia divide and a rivalry for influence in the Middle East, not a benign opposition to Iranian-sponsered terror, and certainly not for a love of Israel.
The common defence of the NATO-Saudi alliance is as follows. Saudi Arabia provides us with key intelligence we need to defeat terrorists. We need their oil, or at the very least, we need global oil prices to stay low. And we need the Saudis to oppose Iran and the Iranian desire to spread Islamism across the Middle East.
Personally I don’t buy any of that. Saudi intelligence may be somewhat useful, but far more intelligence comes from Israel and Jordan. We don’t actually buy much oil directly from the Saudis, so even if global oil prices were to spike in the event of our alliance ending, our supply of oil would remain intact. With the rise of renewables, the days of oil are numbered. And I don’t believe that Islamist governments are all that much worse than secular dictatorships. The regimes of Saddam Hussein, Gadaffi and Assad have been just as cruel as the Iranian government. In fact, Islamist governments tend to have more popular support and sympathy than secular dictatorships because at least in theory they base their policies on the Qu’ran- which resonates with any Muslim-majority nation.
So if Saudi Arabia isn’t worthy of Western backing, what should our Middle East policy be? For John Bradley, the obvious answer is to ally ourselves with Iran. https://www.spectator.co.uk/2017/09/forget-our-misguided-friendship-with-saudi-arabia-iran-is-our-natural-ally/pugpig_index.html Although Iran is an authoritarian regime, it it fundamentally different to Saudi Arabia insofar as it does not try to export its ideology. Shia militias like Hezbollah, while aggressive and unstabilising, do not pose an existential threat to the West the way Sunni extremists like ISIS and Al-Qaeda do. Rather, Iran has done far more to fight groups like ISIS than Saudi Arabia, largely because it is willing to commit boots on the ground and not just funding.
To an extent, the West’s alienation of Iran has been driven by Israel’s disproportionate influence on our foreign policy. Israel sees Iran as mortal enemy. For the most part, this is justified- Iran has repeatedly promise to annihilate Israel. But frightening as that sounds, Iran will not be able to destroy Israel, even if it acquires nuclear weapons. Israel is already a nuclear power, Iran is rational enough not to risk MAD. What the pro-Iran scholars overlook is Iran’s support for Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which want to destroy Israel and have actively engaged war with the country, mostly because of an ideological opposition to Israel’s existence. So if we want to ally ourselves with Iran, we must be prepared for significantly worsened relations with Israel, even if the rabidly anti-Iran Netanyahu administration were to be replaced by a Zionist Union-led government.
Overall, I agree entirely with Bradley’s critique of Saudi Arabia. I also sympathise with his opprobrium of Western foreign policy more broadly. But I wouldn’t go as far as to endorse a formal alliance with Iran. I certainly approve of the Iran deal, which is a far more effective way of preventing a nuclear Iran than any other means. Israel and Saudi Arabia need to realise that due to its economy and population size, Iran will inevitably be a regional power. What the West and Israel need is a policy of containment- both towards Saudi Arabia and Iran. We should have good diplomatic relations with both countries, while preventing either one from dominating the Middle East. This approach would be much like Britain’s policy towards Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In a region where no major power shares our values, a moderate, pragmatic approach is best.