Khashoggi Affair: Will US Now Put Its Interests First in Middle East?

Mike Pompeo in Riyadh (State Department)

by Robert E. Hunter

Yesterday, President Donald Trump snapped back all sanctions on Iran that were removed as the U.S. part of the bargain under the July 2015 nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA). That agreement trammeled for years ahead any aspirations Iran might have to build nuclear weapons. But Trump’s act puts the United States in direct violation of the JCPOA, even though on May 12 he unilaterally withdrew from that agreement. Worse, by his actions he has also reduced chances of limiting the North Korean nuclear threat, as Pyongyang sees that U.S. commitments in this area cannot be relied upon.

Iran is not a white knight in the Middle East, from its ballistic missile developments and deplorable human rights at home to support for Hezbollah and Hamas, verbal abuse of the United States and Israel, and military involvement abroad that include Yemen and Syria. Now come charges by the Danish government that the Iranians were plotting to kill representatives of an Iranian separatist group.

This is a long list of allegations. But first, does the punishment fit the crime, even if Iran is guilty as charged? Refuting  Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s extraordinary claim that the sanctions do not target “the people of Iran,” the Financial Times wrote this week that those who will suffer from U.S. economic sanctions will be the poorest of Iran’s poor. That almost always happens with economic sanctions, which rarely achieve the objectives set for them. Of course, sanctions do enable the countries imposing them to feel good that they are doing something to punish what they judge to be bad behavior that is at variance with their national interests or desires.

Second, as with so much of U.S. policy toward the Middle East over many years, there is no convincing evidence that what Washington is doing adds up in terms of American interests. On September 2, Saudi Arabia killed one of its leading critics, Jamal Khashoggi, in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. This would have passed for just another routine Middle East assassination, except that Khashoggi was a journalist—and not just any journalist, but a Washington Post columnist. In terms of their carefully cultivated aspirations to be seen as a respectable nation, the Saudis badly miscalculated.

In exposing aspects of Saudi behavior around the region and beyond, maybe Khashoggi did not die in vain. It has been clear for years that Saudi Arabia, through its Wahhabi clerical establishment, has been far-and-away the leading supporter of terrorism anywhere in the world, extending from Southeast Asia all across the Middle East and the Maghreb to the heart of Africa. But until now, the United States has chosen to ignore this record. Relations with Saudi Arabia have been too important, as has been the Saudi-Israeli partnership to counter Iran.

The Anti-Iran Coalition

President Trump has put his anti-Iran policies near the top of his to-do list, not least to undo any good work done by President Barack Obama. Top members of the Trump administration dutifully follow suit, almost always going over the top to the point of losing credibility. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has built a career on chopping at the underpinnings of U.S. relations with other countries, including America’s allies, has warned Iran that “if you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens …there will indeed be hell to pay.” Secretary Mike Pompeo has listed 12 demands that Iran must meet, a sure deal-killer for any nation. For his part, Secretary of Defense James Mattis recently told an intensely anti-Iranian Arab audience in Bahrain that “Iran supports, prolongs, and expands the conflict in Yemen, adds to humanitarian suffering… and disrupts efforts for sustainable peace.” Any serious analysis by a senior U.S. official seeking to convince skeptics and not just the converted would have at least named Saudi Arabia in the same breath.

It is not just the Trump administration that engages in anti-Iran hyperbole. Much of the U.S. mainstream media has joined in, as has a large part of the U.S. foreign policy elite. Thus, former Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, writing recently in Haaretz, argued that Iran is “a country led by a malevolent regime that continues to promote terror and regional instability,” and, notably, is a country “maintaining the ability to relaunch its nuclear weapons program.” Yet any threat of Iran’s developing nuclear weapons is precisely the product of Trump’s trashing the JCPOA, which is an historic achievement endorsed by almost all of the world’s leading powers. But it has been intensely opposed by Abrams and others who ignore its vital strategic importance to the United States.

Ironically, Abrams and several others who urge the United States to crush Iran and perhaps even dismember it were leading supporters of the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq. That proved to be the worst foreign policy mistake in modern US history, with the possible exception of the Vietnam War. Thousands of Americans died, plus hundreds of thousands of Middle Easterners. The invasion was also the direct cause not just of today’s continuing mess in Iraq but also the civil war in Syria and the rise of the Islamic State. The United States, however, too often indemnifies its officials, no matter how big their failures in foreign policy, most recently those who lied the United States into the Iraq invasion. Even now, they continue prescribing Middle East policy at the nation’s leading think tanks, on op-ed pages, and on Sunday TV talk shows. Some, like Bolton, are even returned to high-level government jobs.

All this could be worth it to the United States, if the policy of crushing Iran could be expected to work without exacerbating the current chaos in the Middle East. But the historical record of the use of sanctions is poor, with only a handful of exceptions. Nor is one essential quality present this time: that all the world’s major trading nations follow suit. Already, key allies in Europe have parted ways with the United States, while Russia and China gather up the spoils of continuing to do business with Tehran. To protect the U.S. consumer against higher gasoline prices, the administration has also had to give eight countries a 60-day exemption to the ban on importing Iranian oil.

Further, the United States never gave the JCPOA a chance to work in changing Iran’s behavior, though its clerical leaders might have refused to do so in any event. President Obama was sabotaged by people in his own administration who ensured that the United States would not fully meet its sanctions-lifting obligations. Iran’s ayatollahs and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps were naturally delighted by this reinforcement of their domestic political message against the United States.

The argument made by supporters of reintroducing all sanctions against Iran is that, under enough pressure, the Iranian people will rise up against the medieval clerical regime and assert their natural preferences. Historically, that has almost never happened. As concluded by the US Strategic Bombing Survey in Europe after World War II, the bombing of Germany did not loosen the Nazi grip on German society. Rather, the regime provided the only structure to which almost all Germans could cling for survival.

But, then, those countries in the Middle East that want the United States to show no quarter to Iran and its people are motivated as much as anything by their own competition for regional dominance. In Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Turkey, and Israel, getting the ayatollahs to change their ways is at best a secondary objective, lest it lead to an opening between the United States and Iran that could legitimize Tehran as a competitor for regional influence.

The Devil’s Bargain

The Khashoggi affair has shone light on the devil’s bargain struck with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS). For his part, he has been expected to start modernizing his country, to meet Western needs in oil production at reasonably stable prices, to make massive purchases of U.S. armaments, and, for Israel, to abandon the Palestinians. In exchange, MbS has been accorded full-throated U.S. support in laying all the region’s ills at Iran’s doorstep, a benefit that others, including the UAE and Israel, also welcome. But the butchery at the Saudi Istanbul consulate has revealed the moral and political bankruptcy of this devil’s bargain.

In particular, Saudi Arabia’s behavior in the Khashoggi affair has brought to stage-front its war of aggression in Yemen, which is a continuation of a half-century’s efforts to dominate that country. Under the last two administrations, the United States has been fully complicit, now shown in visuals of horrendous suffering and the killing of civilians by U.S.-supplied bombs, dropped from U.S.-refueled Saudi warplanes, and involving U.S. targeting.

Secretary Mattis has now announced a deadline of 30 days (by the end of November) to see “everybody around a peace table based on a ceasefire, based on a pull back from the border, and then based on ceasing, dropping of bombs.” Secretary Pompeo, meanwhile, has said that “coalition air strikes must cease in all populated areas in Yemen,” but only after the rebel Houthis end attacks on Saudi Arabia. The qualification vitiates his proposal.

With all the uncertainties in the Middle East and Saudi Arabia’s continuing importance in global oil markets, it is not realistic for the United States to abandon the kingdom. But henceforth the United States needs to stop giving a free pass to any of its regional partners and demand that they show due deference to America’s own national interests. Further, it finally needs to advance serious ideas for a truly regional security system, however difficult and however long it takes. The alternative is for the United States indefinitely to be deeply engaged militarily in guaranteeing regional security.

But there is no evidence that this administration (like its two predecessors) has thought through the overall Middle East problem. It can’t be put off any longer.

Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.



  1. It is always interesting to read Ambassador Hunter’s ideas, even when repetitive. One new tidbit is his writing about the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul: “This would have passed for just another routine Middle East assassination.” Now there is an honest assessment of reality.
    His continued hope that the Trump administration will rethink “the overall Middle East problem” is kind of sad; I can only think that he knows it won’t happen, but still wants to give a little push in that direction anyway. Rather, the reality is that time for regime change in Tehran is passing by for this administration and its anti-Iran collaborators, and the increasingly unreal antics of the president make it less and less sure that their once-in-a lifetime chance won’t be all over in January 2021.

  2. Ambassador, how exactly do you find it “ironic” that arch-neocon and Israel- firster Elliott Abrams strongly supported Iraq II and is now pushing hard for Iran I?

    These leopards never change their spots.

    If only they could even momentarily switch their allegiance to the interests of the United States rather than Israel’s.

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