How Saudi Arabia Sees Iran and America

I recently returned from meetings in Saudi Arabia hoping to regain some understanding of their perspective on the Iranian threat and their views on the damaged relationship with the United States. My discussions ranged from briefings with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, diplomats, counter-terrorism experts, the National Security Presidency and the Rasanah International Institute for Iranian Studies.

For many in America, Saudi Arabia’s image is permanently tarnished by 9/11, the 1973 Arab oil embargo, the Khashoggi murder, and the recent refusal of President Joe Biden’s plea to pump more oil ahead of the midterm elections. As Senator Bernie Sanders told ABC News, “I just don’t believe we should have warm relations with a dictatorship like that.”

On the other hand, the Saudis believe that America does not realize how significant a threat Iran poses to the kingdom. They see their country at the crosshairs of the supreme leader with Iran’s desire not only for Saudi Arabia’s natural resources but also to replace Sunni control of Mecca and Medina with Iran’s revolutionary Shiite theology.

As a senior State Department official told me, “We are Iran’s primary target.” They see the Islamic Republic of Iran as “a revolution, not a state. When confronted, Iranians simply lie and deny.

The Saudis see a double standard. US continued concern over the ugly killing of journalist Khashoggi, which deservedly left the Saudi government with a black eye, does not rival Iran’s complicity in the Syrian genocide in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operates under the direct control of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. However, the Americans did not call for making Iran’s supreme leader a pariah.

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The Saudis cannot understand how our nuclear negotiators in Vienna treat the Iranian regime with the utmost respect, which calls for “Death to America.” At the same time, the government of Saudi Arabia is being publicly reprimanded, even though in Saudi Arabia’s eyes it does not show any public hostility toward America or its people. The Saudis believe that Iran’s expansionism is undermining Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq without incurring the wrath of the United States.

From the Saudi perspective, they see America’s offer of trillions of dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for a bad nuclear deal as an existential threat to their kingdom. Middle East expert Khaled Abu Toemeh points out that “the Saudis and their allies in the Persian Gulf are wondering why Biden is threatening them with ‘consequences’ just because they are trying to protect themselves from the imminent destruction of Iran.”

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During my meetings, one recurring issue seemed to annoy the Saudis more than anything else, and that was the lack of respect for the proud and independent Saudi people. Whether expressed as angry American statements or concessions, the Saudis see the attitude as contemptuous of the patron-client relationship, which seriously offends their cultural sensibilities.

They believe that the demand of the Americans to choose the US over the Chinese and Russia is unrealistic, since the Chinese are their most important trading partner, and Russia is a member of OPEC+. When they repeated the Saudi talking point that they are only one of twenty-three OPEC+ countries, I reminded them that in the past they have unilaterally changed oil production to help American interests by beating OPEC countries. They had no answer for that. The Saudis need to show some flexibility because they know their American weapons systems need to be maintained and replenished, and they cannot quickly turn to the Chinese.

What is not appreciated in the United States are the deep differences in how the monarchy has changed the attitude of clerical orthodoxy to become more tolerant and condemn radicalization. The Secretary General of the Muslim World League, Saudi Arabia, visited the concentration camp with the American Jewish Committee, a symbolic act that should not be underestimated. This is a welcome change after the preaching and financing of Saudi Arabia in the twentieth century, which was held responsible for the radicalization of Islamic communities around the world.

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As Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said: “Mohammed bin Salman has some legitimate grievances.” After Biden promised to make MBS a pariah and lifted the terrorist designation of the Iran-backed Houthis, the Saudis questioned America’s commitment to the relationship. However, they have been equally condemned by President Donald Trump for ignoring an Iranian attack on their oil facilities and removing US Patriot missiles from defense systems.

Accusations are not the way forward for American or Saudi interests. America should focus on supporting the Iranian people’s desire for regime change while repairing our vital relationship with Saudi Arabia’s national security interests.

dr. Mandel is the director of MEPIN (Middle East Political Information Network). He regularly briefs members of Congress and their foreign policy aides. He is the senior security editor for the Jerusalem Report. He writes regularly for The Hill and the Jerusalem Post.

Image: Reuters.

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