Not for the first time in its myriad international relationships, the U.S. finds itself caught between the demands of security and high morals.
But the weight which has been assigned to realpolitik – the necessity to uphold international alliances – in this present crisis has been badly distorted.
It is true that Saudi Arabia is an extremely important ally.
As the world’s second largest oil producer – after the U.S. – it raised oil production to an all-time high in November to comply with U.S. President Donald Trump’s pressure. The U.S. wants to maintain high production with low price levels to meet the economic downturn overseas as well as to continue to supply the American domestic market with cheap energy.
That’s possible now that that shale oil has again made the U.S. the world’s No. 1 producer and a potential exporter. But with the U.S. tightening sanctions against Iranian oil exports as a weapon against Tehran’s subversive activities in the Middle East and elsewhere, the markets might react with higher prices were the taps not wide open.
In mid-November Washington did call for the death penalty for seven individuals in the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi. American action came just hours after Saudi prosecutors said they would seek the death penalty for five people charged in the abduction and murder of the member of a prominent Iranian family, who was a contributor to The Washington Post.
“The Saudi officials we are sanctioning were involved in the abhorrent killing of Jamal Khashoggi,” said Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. “These individuals who targeted and brutally killed a journalist who resided and worked in the United States must face consequences for their actions.”
That is why Washington has reacted strongly to the brutal killing and barbaric dissection of the body of the Iranian journalist. Details of his murder in the Iranian consulate-general in Istanbul have come to light, piecemeal, through secret intercepts released by the Turkish government. The irony, of course, is that Ankara under the increasingly authoritarian Pres Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is waging a campaign of persecution against officials, teachers and civil servants. A recent poll showed 70 percaent of Turkey’s teachers feared losing their jobs due to the dismissal of 140,000 civil servants, since an unsuccessful coup in July 2016.
True, Washington needs Saudi cooperation in holding the line on oil prices, its huge market for arms, and its huge investment portfolio of petrodollars. [Saudi Arabia is America’s No. 1 weapons buyer; between 2013 and 201718 percent of total U.S. arms sales or about $9 billion and huge new sales presumably in the offing.]
But Saudi, with a native population of less than 30 million, is dependent on American security guarantees despite its central role as Islam’s “guardian of the holy places”, the cities associated with Mohammed’s life, and its traditional role as leader of Islamic religious activity. Despite the fact that only 10% of the world’s 1.2 billion Moslems are Shia, both Saudi’s eastern neighbors, Iraq with its 40 million and Iran with 82 million, are now led by Shia radicals The enmity between the two major Islamic sects derives almost from the religion’s origin in the 7th century, approximately 600 years after the founding of Christianity. The two sects have cohabited peacefully for long periods but over recent decades tensions have risen, and sectarianism is at the root of much of the present-day violence in the Middle East.
The Saudis, therefore, are under threat from a variety of armed and militant Shia regional enclaves – whether in Yemen where a civil war rages, the militant and well-armed Hezbolla minority in Lebanon, a militant Shia-majority Iraq next door, or among the Shia in their own southeast where most of its oilfields are located. Tehran’s influence has even become dominant in Gaza since the Israeli withdrawal [in 2005 after its victory in The Six Days War in 1967], plays a role in the growing conflict between two local Hamas factions.
All this to say that the Saudis need and must pay for an American Middle East shield as if not more than other entities in the region much – including the Israelis – in a world of growing militancy of armed minorities.