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Published on February 26th, 2016 | by Ali Gharib5
Defenders of Democracy Turn To An Awkward Ally: Saudi Arabia
by Ali Gharib
So desperate to punish Iran are the hawks of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies that they’re willing to partner with one of the least democratic countries on earth to get it done. In an op-ed in the neoconservative opinion pages of the Wall Street Journal, FDD’s executive director Mark Dubowitz and senior fellow David Weinberg are positively giddy about what Saudi Arabia has to offer in the way of defending democracies. It’s, at first blush, a strange alliance, but not when one considers either FDD’s monomania and the geopolitics surrounding Iran.
Dubowitz and Weinberg, under the headline “Where Obama Fails on Iran Sanctions, the Gulf States Can Step In,” posit that “Saudi Arabia and its allies have potent financial weapons they can deploy against Iran.” They note that the “sectarian war between the Sunni and Shiite states”—read: Saudi and Iran and their allies—”is intensifying militarily” and that Saudi Arabia already cut off commercial and travel ties to Iran. So why not escalate things a little, huh?
There are lots of ideas here:
- “Saudi Arabia could make the financial players choose a side: They can have Riyadh’s business or Tehran’s, but not both”—which is exactly what the US did as it imposed sanctions on Iran leading up to the nuclear talks, but without the thorny complication of America holding the moral high ground, or the chronological problem of the desired result of American sanctions (a diplomatic resolution to ensure Iran doesn’t get nuclear weapons) having already been met.
- “Saudi Arabia has also become the world’s largest importer of weapons.” Dubowitz and Weinberg cited the sale by Airbus, the French company, of military helicopters to Saudi Arabia—to be sure, so that the Kingdom, the leader of the counter-revolution against the Arab Spring, can continue its own quest to “defend democracy” in the region. “Some observers,” they wrote, “see this as a reward for the tough line that Paris adopted in the nuclear talks.” Well that’s just fine and dandy as a way to give a brutal and strategically inept dictatorship a bunch of expensive weapons all the while enriching Western arms manufacturers—no doubt two basic tenets of “defending democracies”—but it’s not clear how this is about Iran at all. If you think hard, though, you might find two pathways: Western democracies can defend themselves, for a change, by being bribed into opposing diplomatic openings with Iran and, more to the point, there exists here an opportunity to also squeeze companies hoping to do business with Iran. Airbus, the same company that just sold the Saudis those democracy-defending military helicopters, also just inked a deal with Iran to restock its civilian airliner fleet. Amid Western sanctions, the Iranian fleet had deteriorated and air travel had become unsafe—and what kind of democracy defenders would we be if we hoped that vacationing Iranian families stopped dying because of airplane crashes?
- “The greatest financial lever, however, may be Riyadh’s control over investment within Saudi Arabia.” It’s a good thing the FDD guys, despite being right-wingers, aren’t “free-market” ideologues, because what they’re saying is that, instead of letting money talk, politics should determine whose capital stream should flow into their state-controlled stock market and their state-controlled companies. Phew!
What, in short, do the authors want? Because of Obama’s purported fecklessness—actually a willingness to impose sanctions with the goal of rolling back Iran’s nuclear program, then a willingness to roll back sanctions when that goal is achieved—what’s needed, we’re told, is “economic warfare.” Saudi Arabia may be more than willing to undertake these neoconservatives’ fight on their behalf, but the lionization of Saudi Arabia as the upright saviors of the policies demanded by a place purportedly dedicated to defending democracies is a bit rich.
It’s not, however, at all surprising. In the spirit of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” neocons these days embrace the Saudi kingdom pretty hard. It’s difficult not to see this as part of, as John Judis once put it, FDD’s bent as an “organization dedicated intellectually and politically to the defense of one particular democracy”—Israel. Israeli-Saudi ties, are of course, blossoming amid their mutual opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and their fear that it may portend closer ties between Tehran and the West.
One might thus be forgiven for thinking it’s all about the monomaniacal hatred of Iran shared by the Israeli and Saudi powers-that-be. Now, on the part of pro-democracy advocates, that hatred might be entirely justified—despite Friday’s elections, the Islamic Republic is not exactly a democracy, and its human rights record is pretty horrific. But it seems somewhat awkward for think-tankers purportedly dedicated to defending democracies to make such gleeful hay of the potential to have one of the world’s most retrograde dictatorships—indeed, the regional power most responsible for transforming the Arab Spring into the Arab Winter—as an ally in bludgeoning another one.
Photo: Mark Dubowitz