As Iran Rattles Its Saber, Should the U.S. Still Ally Itself with Saudi Arabia?

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Ebrahim Norouzi / Jamejamonline / Reuters

An Iranian long-range shore-to-sea missile called Qader (Capable) is launched during Velayat-90 war game on Sea of Oman's shore near the Strait of Hormuz in southern Iran January 2, 2012.

The White House’s Dec. 29 announcement of a $30 billion sale of 84 F-15SA fighter jets to Saudi Arabia came with a lot of subtext. The deal, part of an earlier $60 billion arms agreement between Washington and Riyadh, is slated to pan out over the course of a decade, bolstering the Kingdom’s defense forces and creating some 50,000 American jobs at home. It followed a day after regional bogeyman — and longtime Saudi foe — Iran rattled a blunt saber, threatening to close off the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic passage that sees much of the world’s oil exports flow past. On Jan 2., the Iranians raised temperatures further after successfully testing a naval cruise missile during a ten-day exercise in the Strait; the next day, officials in Tehran warned the U.S. to keep an aircraft carrier away from the Persian Gulf.

Saudi Arabia’s enmity and rivalry with Iran is well documented and, in many respects, shapes much of the Middle East’s geopolitical landscape. But the question begs: following a year of uprisings for democracy worldwide, should the U.S. still be so much in bed with the repressive Saudi monarchy?

D.C. hawks answer “of course!” The oil-rich Saudis have long served as moneyed, America-friendly interlocutors in the Middle East, supposed fellow combatants in the war against terror and a bulwark against the Shi’a theocracy in Iran. The cloistered Saudi monarchs are known entities in Washington and the tacit consensus forged between the two sides dictated much of the political status quo in the region until the seismic upheavals of the Arab Spring.

Iran’s behavior, meanwhile, may prove increasingly erratic. Tehran’s isolation has deepened following new rounds of sanctions aimed at curbing its nuclear program. A looming power struggle within the regime — most recently, authorities arrested the daughter of reform-friendly former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani for “making propaganda” against the state — may lead to more public displays of chest-thumping bravado such as the recent missile tests. A stronger Saudi Arabia, then, hedges against whatever threat the Islamic Republic may pose. Andrew Shapiro, the U.S. State Department’s assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, said the arms deal “will send a strong message to countries in the region that the United States is committed to stability in the gulf and broader Middle East.”

But that commitment to “stability” comes, in effect, with a moral price. The Saudis played a conspicuous role during the democracy uprisings in the Arab world last year: they offered safe haven to ousted Tunisian autocrat Zine el Abidine Ben Ali; attempted to exert pressure on the U.S. and other actors to protect Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who eventually was forced out; and spearheaded a military intervention into restive Bahrain, helping quash widespread protests against the ruling Sunni monarchy there. The country’s draconian religious laws are among the world’s most stifling and its rulers have occasionally curious ideas about human rights. And, in some respects, Saudi Arabia is part of the strategic dilemma — not solution — facing policy planners in Washington. After all, private Saudi donations and funds from other pliant Gulf states are at the heart of the fundamentalist radicalization seen in countries like Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Moreover, as revealed by diplomatic cables leaked by Wikileaks, the Saudis have long sought to turn Western fears surrounding Iran in their favor. The specter of Iran does not require such a massive commitment of arms and fighter craft — the strike forces of the tiny Gulf states could alone prove a sufficient deterrent. Tehran’s menace lies in asymmetric capabilities — its ties with groups like Hizballah, for example — that can’t be addressed by conventional deployments. And the recent Iranian bluster has far more to do with Tehran’s desire to project power than any intent to actually wield it. As this map of U.S. military installations in the region would suggest, it’s the Iranians who have far more immediate cause to feel threatened (to be sure, some of the locations indicated as “bases” are only rumored facilities or yet to be developed by the Pentagon).

Ultimately, the Obama administration’s arms deal with the Saudis may be the result of a far more cynical, pragmatic calculus. Faced with shrinking budgets at home, Washington sees a win-win scenario in arming supposed allies, outsourcing its security interests while pooling in a fair amount of cash. Some analysts suggest that weapons sales have become a pillar of a new cold-blooded White House foreign policy, which explains in part the depth of diplomatic despair expressed by the Americans last year when India — a democracy keenly wooed by Washington — axed a $12 billion deal for U.S. fighter jets in favor of a package proposed by E.U. competitors. A world full of customers is far lonelier than one full of friends.