One of the more compelling arguments against President Obama’s Iran deal is that it will upset our Saudi and Israeli allies.
And indeed it has. Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan warned that the nuclear agreement will “wreak havoc in the Middle East” while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it was a threat to his homeland. Do they have a point?
The short answer is that they do. The long answer is that, while both have valid complaints, Israel’s are worth listening to while the Saudis’ are less relevant.
Let’s start with Saudi Arabia, the desert kingdom that’s long presented itself as the Middle East’s bastion of Sunni Islam. It’s had tense relations with the largely Shiite Iran for decades and many analysts have recently characterized the two nations as immersed in a cold war. Iran is propping up the embattled Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad while Saudi Arabia is bankrolling Sunni rebels fighting him. Iran is (tenuously) linked to the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen as Saudi Arabia attempts to bomb them out of existence.
Now, thanks to sensitive documents released by Wikileaks, we know the quarrel between Saudi Arabia and Iran runs even deeper than we thought—it’s become one of the primary animating forces behind Riyadh’s public policy. The New York Times reports:
The documents from Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Ministry illustrate a near obsession with Iran, with diplomats in Africa, Asia and Europe monitoring Iranian activities in minute detail and top government agencies plotting moves to limit the spread of Shiite Islam. …
Recent initiatives have included putting foreign preachers on the Saudi payroll; building mosques, schools and study centers; and undermining foreign officials and news media deemed threatening to the kingdom’s agenda.
At times, the king got involved, ordering an Iranian television station off the air or granting $1 million to an Islamic association in India.
So single-minded is the Kingdom about stymieing Iran that it’s proposed a program to stop the spread of Shiite Islam in China and blocked Iranian carpets from being used at holy mosques.
This isn’t just a geopolitical clash. It’s a fundamental disagreement between two competing brands of Islam, one that traces back more than 1,200 years. For Americans, accustomed to viewing Islam as a foreign religion, the Sunni-Shia loggerheads can seem like a pointless family feud. But it’s actually much more than that. Peter Hitchens recently traveled to Iran and noted this in a beautifully written essay at the American Conservative:
This divide is far more important than most of us realize. We are aware of it mainly because of the Shia majority in Iraq and the influence that Iran can exercise through them. But what I did not properly appreciate before visiting Iran is that Shia Islam is for all practical purposes a separate religion. …
In the great Shia pilgrimage city of Mashhad, on the old Silk Road to China, I understood for the first time that this was something utterly apart, as separate from Sunni practice as a Sicilian Roman Catholic might be from a Scotch Calvinist.
Sunnis and Shias worship in deeply distinct ways, yet both claim to be the heirs of the Prophet Mohammed. It’s a brew that’s inevitably led to accusations of heresy and religious violence, which have found their latest iteration in the Saudi-Iranian conflict. When Saudi Arabia worries about Iran signing a nuclear deal, what it’s really leery of is a Shiite state being given the same credence by the United States that it’s enjoyed for some time.
That’s a valid point for the royals in Riyadh, but to us, national interest must take precedence over the recondite rifts of Islam. We should remain allied with the Saudis, of course, but we should recognize that their rivalry with Iran stems from different causes than ours does.
Israel, on the other hand, is a far simpler case. Tel Aviv doesn’t consider Iran a competitor because it wants to relentlessly export Judaism throughout the Middle East. Its concerns are security-based, not religion-based. Iran, through Hezbollah, fought a proxy war with Israel as recently as 2006 and its leaders have occasionally been known to engage in eliminationist rhetoric towards the Jewish state. Israel takes the Iran threat seriously. It has every right to.
That’s not to say that Israel should have veto power over the president’s deal, and neither is it to deny that Netanyahu has a habit of inflating the problem. But Israel is an ally of the United States and its concerns aren’t ungrounded. They deserve our consideration (though not our fealty).