Khashoggi-gate and U.S. Persian Gulf Strategy

Jamal Khashoggi (HansMusa via Shutterstock)

by Robert E. Hunter

The October 2 kidnapping and probable execution of Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul continues as the number one topic in the Western media. It is not just the grisly details emerging from Turkish sources, now apparently confirmed by U.S. intelligence. Much of the attention derives from who Khashoggi is, or more likely, was: a journalist. And not just any journalist, but one living mostly in the United States and writing for The Washington Post.

Thus, what Saudi Arabia has done to Khashoggi is not just criminal but also highly symbolic: an assault on the Fourth Estate and free media. That fact largely explains the intensity of reportage and commentary through the media megaphone.

This scandal promises to be more than a one-week wonder in an era of short attention spans and if-it–bleeds-it-leads journalism. It also raises questions about how Saudi Arabia’s leaders and especially its effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MbS), see the kingdom, MbS’s role in it, and Saudi Arabia’s place in the world. These questions go to the heart of a set of issues even more enduring than the abomination of what the Saudis appear to have done to Khashoggi. President Trump thus faces the worst foreign policy crisis of his presidency, requiring not just damage control but a major rethink of his whole Middle East strategy. For decades, the United States has centered much of its foreign policy in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf in particular on the role of Saudi Arabia. This became even more important following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and the continuing troubles between its regime and so many of its neighbors and others, notably the United States.

This administration and President Donald Trump personally are not the first to place heavy U.S. bets on Saudi Arabia. This focus on Riyadh has served various purposes. One, of course, has to do with the flow of oil at a “reasonable” price, where for decades Saudi Arabia has played a greater role than any other country. A second is containing Iran, which for years has been the most important bugaboo in the region for the United States and some other states.

This containment policy has been merited by some of Iran’s behavior in the region as well as by rhetoric coming from its clerical leadership, from characterizing the United States as the Great Satan to denouncing the “Jewish state.” Whether Iran would turn words into direct military action against Israel, beyond the support it gives to the Syrian government, to Hezbollah, and to a lesser degree Hamas in Gaza, is only part of the problem for all countries concerned about reducing threats to security in the Middle East. It has long been clear that there can be no reconciliation between Iran and the United States so long as the assault on Israel continues, whether verbally or in the form of military support for Israel’s enemies.

Negative Saudi Behavior

In U.S. assessments, which began well before the Trump administration, Saudi Arabia has been one of Washington’s key pivots in the Middle East. Oil security? Check. Anti-Iran? Check. Moving toward Israel? Check.

Given these three factors, the United States has been willing to turn a blind eye to other things that either Saudi Arabia or its citizens have done, especially rich supporters of Wahhabism who have bankrolled this extreme form of Islam and its malign behavior all over the Sunni world. This has extended from the Taliban in Pakistan and Afghanistan to al-Qaeda to the Islamic State (IS), as well as Wahhabi movements and terrorism in parts of Africa and Southeast Asia.

There is also the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar, home to America’s most important military base in the Middle East, because Doha has tolerated the Muslim Brotherhood (which the Egyptian military dictatorship also opposes), maintains some ties to Iran, and, perhaps worst of all, runs the only relatively free media operation anywhere in this part of the Arab world. Yet according to the State Department country reports on terrorism, the blockade “had a negative impact on regional counterterrorism cooperation.” But when the U.S. secretaries of state and defense tried to get the Saudis, the UAE, and others to end the blockade of Qatar, the Saudis refused.

Further, the United States (along with Britain and France, also major arms suppliers) has tolerated the Saudi military role in Yemen, on the grounds that it counters Iranian inroads. There is some merit in that. But more important is that the Saudis have hankered after control of Yemen for decades. Their ambitions go back at least as far as opposing Egypt’s incursions in Yemen in the 1960s. But what Saudi Arabia is doing in Yemen is exacting a steep price, particularly in the toll of civilian deaths caused by Saudi forces, with clear evidence of U.S.-supplied weapons being involved . The UN has warned that Yemen faces “the worst famine in 100 years.” Blanket U.S. support for the Saudi air campaign means that it cannot escape its own share of responsibility.

On the counter-terrorism front, the Saudis have in recent years promised to cooperate with various efforts. This included the highly-publicized opening of a Global Terrorist Financing Targeting Center in Riyadh in May 2017, with Trump helping to officiate. Yet on the issue of financing terrorism, the State Department, in its most recent annual assessment, reported that

While the Kingdom [of Saudi Arabia] has maintained strict supervision of the banking sector, tightened the regulation of the charitable sector, and stiffened penalties for financing terrorism, some funds are allegedly collected in secret and illicitly transferred out of the country in cash, sometimes under the cover of religious pilgrimages.

That last clause helps to explain how Saudi citizens continue to be the leading supporters of terrorism in the Islamic world.

Perhaps longstanding U.S. tolerance for Saudi behavior that works directly against American interests in some important areas, including counterterrorism, is justifiable in light of the major objectives listed above: oil, Iran, and Israel. But maybe not. Certainly the policy should now be put under a microscope, which has only become politically possible because MbS has crossed the line of forbearance in the Western world. He counted too much on being the “modernizer” of the Kingdom, for instance allowing women to drive automobiles, while at the same time jailing some of the female activists who campaigned for that right. In fact, the Saudi action in Istanbul resembles the Russian attempt to kill an ex-KGB agent in Salisbury, England.

What Should the Trump Administration Do Now?

Saudi Arabia has served up a lemon to those Americans who have placed so much trust in it as a valid partner for the United States. But on the principle of “if you are given lemons, try making lemonade,” Khashoggi-gate creates an opportunity, indeed a requirement, for the United States to reassess its entire strategy in the Persian Gulf region.

Within the overall framework of U.S. policy—oil, Iran, and Israel—the leading focus for years has been to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons. At least for many years ahead, that was achieved through the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from which Trump withdrew last May. He said he did so in order to work “with our allies to find a real, comprehensive, and lasting solution to the Iranian nuclear threat” and because of other Iranian activities the United States finds unacceptable. Of course, he was also motivated by domestic political pressures in the United States from the oil-state and Israel lobbies. The European signatories of JCPOA, plus the other two, China and Russia, accept the agreement’s efficacy and have refused to follow Trump’s lead.

Nevertheless, the United States will most likely prevail when, on November 5, it imposes further sanctions on Iran. This step will also involve secondary sanctions on countries that want to continue dealing economically with Iran. In Trump’s words, which apply directly to America’s closest allies: “Individuals or entities that fail to wind down activities with Iran risk severe consequences.”

Maybe U.S. pressure on Iran, which goes far beyond anything contained in the relevant UN Security Council Resolution, will work. It will certainly impoverish the average Iranian. But will this intensified U.S. pressure lead to regime change in Teheran? That is highly debatable. Will it result in a “better deal?” On the nuclear issue, the JCPOA already meets all that the United States (and other states) need, so there is no point, even if such a “better deal’ could be negotiated. With regard to Iran’s development of ballistic missiles, everyone else would be better off if this work stopped. Iranian ballistic missiles could be useful to it in a conventional war, but they would be the equivalent of pop-guns without nuclear warheads, which the JCPOA proscribes.

There was added irony. At about the moment the world learned about the kidnapping of Jamal Khashoggi, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo repeated U.S. charges about Iranian “malign behavior,” claiming that it uses “money to foment terror around the world.” Around the world? This is as off-the-mark as Trump’s claim that Iran supports the Taliban and al-Qaeda, Sunni terrorist organizations that draw their inspiration and support from Saudi sources, not Shia Iran. Iran is no white knight, but this exaggeration came just at the moment when America’s ally in the region was caught with its pants down regarding Khashoggi. If that isn’t “malign behavior” and “terrorism,” what is?

So, can anything good come of what Saudi Arabia has done in showing that it will go to any length to silence its critics? For starters, the United States can stop relying so heavily on any one country or even a small group to protect American interests in the Middle East. In the words of Henry Kissinger: “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests.”

The current administration, notably President Trump and Secretary Pompeo, needs to think carefully before continuing to issue a blank check to Saudi Arabia and a handful of other regional countries. This approach, plus ramping up rhetoric against Iran as Pompeo does in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, only stiffens the Iranian clerical leadership’s anti-U.S. obduracy. Along with a tightening of economic screws, this practice, mimicking Trump’s stock-in-trade at home, is opposed by all of America’s key allies and could lead to war, by accident or design. That another war in the region would not be popular with the American people is obvious; that it would not serve any American interest should be equally obvious. Even if the United States were to succeed in crushing Iran, then what? The administration (like its two predecessors) has had nothing to offer for the region’s security that could lessen tensions or prevent escalation to conflict. Fifteen years of post-conflict failure in and around Iraq should have proved that point.

But by creating acute embarrassment, both for Saudi Arabia (if it is capable of feeling embarrassment) and for the United States, maybe Khashoggi-gate can prompt the Trump administration to conduct a thorough review of U.S. interests in and policies toward the Middle East, based on what is truly important to America. Let’s hope that Trump and his team will use the lemon the Saudis have served up to produce at long last some lemonade in the Middle East that is palatable to the United States and its strategic, economic, and political needs.

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. Mr Hunter, Iranians have suffered more under 39 years of Ayatollah sanctions of all forms than anything else. You make it look as if it is all the fault of others.

  2. Ambassador Hunter’s ramble adds to my suspicion that the two topics on the agenda for Sec Pompeo’s Riyadh visit were: how can we work together to cover up and close out the Kashoggi matter; and how can we move forward on military action against Iran. Call that ‘fake news’ if you will.

  3. ” an assault on the Fourth Estate and free media.”

    Khashoggi was no “journalist.” He was a spook, part of the Saudi-American intelligence community. He had a home near Langley, Virginia – CIA headquarters. I know, just a coincidence !

  4. Ambassador Hunter, Khashoggi was no “David” rising up against the Sheikdom of SA! Rather he was an insider who turned on MbS for reasons of his own. The Salman family were scared shirtless of Khashoggi because he was an insider and he could spill the beans about a lot of MbS’s bad behavior specifically about the detention of Lebanese PM last year and his war crimes in Yemen. Khashoggi was in favor of MbS killing of the only Saudi Shiite leader and detention of previous monarchy’s family and milking them for $billions and even killing a couple of them who refused to empty out their pockets! So why did Khashoggi turned on MbS? I’m betting on MbS either destroyed one of Khashoggi’s family member financially or killed him for his money. The sheikdoms in SA have always been ruthless and vengeful of their enemies or perceived enemies! BTW, vengeance is a building block in the Ibn-Saud’s family DNA.

  5. Is it possible that it is not in the USA’s “interest” to burn 750,000,000 gallons of oil every day?

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