How Saudi Arabia Sees Iran and America

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

For many in America, Saudi’s image has been irreparably tarnished by the 9/11, 1973 Arab oil embargo, Khashoggi’s assassination and the recent refusal of President Joe Biden’s request to pump more oil ahead of the midterm elections. As Senator Bernie Sanders told ABC News, “I don’t believe we should maintain a warm relationship with a dictatorship like that.”

The Saudis, on the other hand, feel that America does not appreciate how significant a threat Iran poses to the kingdom. They see their country in the crosshairs of a supreme leader, distasteful not only for Iran’s Saudi natural resources but also for Iran’s revolutionary Shia theology with its desire to replace Sunni control of Mecca and Medina.

As a senior Foreign Ministry official told me, “We are Iran’s number one target.” He called the Islamic Republic of Iran “a revolution, not a state. When confronted, Iranians simply lie and deny.

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The Saudis see a dichotomy. The US continuation of the ugly assassination of journalist Khashoggi, which gave the Saudi government a deserved black eye, cannot be rivaled by Iran’s participation in the Syrian genocide that killed hundreds of thousands. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps operates directly under the control of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Yet there have been no American calls to replace Iran’s supreme leader.

The Saudis cannot understand how our nuclear negotiators in Vienna are treating the Iranian regime with the utmost respect for calling “Death to America”. At the same time, the Saudi government is publicly condemned, although in Saudi eyes they show no public hostility toward America or its people. The Saudis see Iranian expansionism as weakening Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, not provoking the ire of the United States.

From the Saudis’ point of view, they see America’s offer of a trillion dollars in sanctions relief in exchange for a bad nuclear deal as an existential threat to their kingdom. According to Middle East expert Khaled Abu Tomeh, “The Saudis and their allies in the Gulf are wondering why Biden is threatening ‘consequences’ for trying to protect themselves from imminent destruction by Iran.”

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During my meetings, one recurring issue that irked the Saudis above all else was the lack of respect for the proud and independent Saudi people. Angry American statements, whether expressed as condescension, are perceived by the Saudis as representing a patron-client relationship of contempt, which seriously offends their cultural sensibilities.

With the Chinese as their major trading partner and Russia as a member of OPEC+, they see American demand to choose the United States over the Chinese and Russia as unrealistic. When he repeated the Saudi talking point that he was only one of the twenty-three nations in OPEC+, I reminded him that in the past, he had unilaterally changed oil production to help American interests by overriding OPEC nations. He had no response to that. The Saudis need to show some flexibility because they know they have to maintain and replenish their American weapons systems, and they cannot transition quickly to the Chinese.

Less appreciated in the United States is the profound difference in how the monarchy has changed the orthodox attitude of the clergy to become more tolerant and condemn radicalization. The Saudi General Secretary of the Muslim World League visited the concentration camp with the American Jewish Committee, which should not be underestimated. This is a welcome change since Saudi conversion and funding in the twentieth century, which is perceived to have led to the radicalization of Islamic communities around the world.

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“Mohammed bin Salman has some legitimate grievances,” said Clifford May, president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracy. After Biden vowed to make MBS a pariah and de-designate the Iran-backed Houthis as terrorists, the Saudis questioned America’s commitment to the relationship. However, they are equally upset that President Donald Trump has ignored Iranian attacks on their oil facilities and removed US Patriot missiles from their defense systems.

Indictments 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 essential relationship with the Saudis for our 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 is a regular contributor to The Hill and The Jerusalem Post.

Image: Reuters.

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