The escalation of the Iran-Saudi Arabia conflict offers several sobering lessons in Mideast politics. It further complicates this already explosive region and raises the question of whether, and how, the U.S. will react.
The fact that the U.S. response to Saudi Arabia’s execution this week of 47 people, including a leading Shiite Saudi cleric, has been so muted underscores the hypocrisy of Washington’s human rights policy when it comes to the oil-rich monarchy. Beheadings for alleged crimes of sedition, after pro forma trials, is just one example of the Saudi way of governing. Another glaring example of the U.S. double standard is tolerating the fundamentalist Wahhabi form of Islam practiced widely in Saudi Arabia that finds all non-practitioners of the faith heathens and enemies. Even as the Riyadh government seeks to show its more liberal side, like allowing women to vote in some elections, it continues to fund Wahhabi schools around the world, exacerbating the problem of Islamic fundamentalism.
Those who continue to view the Israel-Palestinian conflict as the chief cause of Mideast tensions should note the increasingly violent Sunni-Shiite divide within Islam. It is evident throughout the region, most notably between the Sunni Saudis and Shiite Iranians. The feud, which goes back centuries over who are the rightful spiritual heirs of the Prophet Muhammad, is now playing itself out in the Syrian civil war, with Iran backing President Assad and Saudi Arabia insisting on his ouster. The U.S. and Russia are on opposing sides, and the diplomatic split between Iran and Saudi Arabia appears to put a dagger in any immediate prospects of alleviating the bloodshed and suffering in Syria.
In addition, Saudi Arabia is attributing its new, more aggressive foreign policy to its belief that the Obama administration is not a reliable military ally, having backed off of its Syrian “red line” and signing on to the nuclear deal with Iran. The Saudis believe the pact is disastrous for the region because Tehran cannot be trusted.
Even key Democrats in Washington are upset with the latest action — or inaction — by the White House in holding off on promised sanctions against Iran for two ballistic missiles tests that violated a U.N. Security Council resolution. After informing Congress that it would impose penalties for the clear infringement, the White House changed its decision and did not say when the sanctions would take place.
Rep. Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democrat in the House of Representatives, said he was “disappointed” by the White House delay. “We are always in a sensitive moment in our dealings with Iran and there is never a perfect time to undertake such actions,” he said.
The strong sense in Washington, though, is that the Obama administration is so heavily invested in the nuclear deal that it is fearful of taking other actions that might upset Iran and jeopardize the agreement. In the meantime, America’s allies and adversaries are mindful of the more restrained U.S. foreign policy and taking their own steps to fill the void.