There are few issues in the Middle East that divide American policymakers as thoroughly as the question concerning Saudi Arabia and Iran. Typically, analysts either support reviving the JCPOA nuclear deal with Iran or they push for expanding the Abraham Accords to include Saudi Arabia. The two options are generally understood to be exclusive. One either brings Iran into the international community, rendering a Saudi-Israeli partnership redundant, or one normalizes relations between Riyadh and Jerusalem, further isolating and emboldening Tehran.
The Biden administration is pushing against this zero-sum narrative. By pursuing both goals, it is embarking on the most ambitious diplomatic agenda the region has seen in decades. Laudable though it may be, the administration must be prepared for the improbability of achieving both. If forced to choose between the two objectives, recent interviews with Saudi and Iranian leadership should show that the Saudis remain more promising partners.
Last week, Fox News aired an exclusive interview between host Bret Baier and Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). Conducted entirely in English, the rare interview offered a glimpse into the crown prince’s domestic vision for Saudi Arabia and how he reads the regional map. On the domestic side, MBS was his usual hype man. He spoke enthusiastically about the economic potential of Saudi Arabia, celebrating its continued growth and confidently pointing to the progress of his Vision 2030.
This is typical fanfare. MBS has experience adopting the guise of an energetic businessman, eager to tempt big donors. But the repeated messaging should not distract from (indeed, it should rather reinforce) the fact that the prince wants to refashion the fabric of Saudi society by fostering a new, gentler political personality. To cut to the chase, MBS wants energetic entrepreneurs in Riyadh who keep a Qur’an on the shelf and a bottle of booze in the cabinet instead of Wahhabi seminarians roaming the streets eager to catch a woman showing too much ankle. As uninspiring as this goal may be, we should keep in mind that it was a similar ambition that liberal enlightenment figures pursued as an antidote to Christian religious violence centuries ago in Europe. Distracting men with the shiny promises of commerce directs their energies toward peaceful acquisition, yielding religious tolerance. Such tolerance is precisely the factor most needed in a kingdom founded on religious exclusionism. MBS may be more of an Enlightened despot than a liberal reformer, but this goal is worth celebrating and encouraging.
This emphasis on stability and tolerance was further echoed in MBS’s comments on the Middle Eastern map. He was remarkably frank when talking about Israel, for example, a country Saudi leaders historically have denounced. He called prospective normalization “the most historic deal since the end of the Cold War” adding that an agreement with Jerusalem was getting “very close.” On Iran he emphasized his desire to bring Tehran “into the Middle East” and spoke about the warm reception the Saudi soccer team received in Iran this summer. To be sure, MBS continues to see Iran as a threat, evidenced by his widely-circulated statement “if they (Iran) get one (a bomb), we have to get one.” But the thrust of his discussion focused on accepting reality rather than changing the regional map.
MBS’s pragmatism and hopes for stability contrast rather sharply with CNN journalist Fareed Zakaria’s interview with Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi this past weekend. The dialogue revealed that Raisi continues to balk at liberalizing reforms which his people so fervently desire and that he continues to see the world through a Khomeinist Manichaeism where the forces of evil (Israel and the United States) work to disrupt the ambitions of a perfectly just Islamist regime.
These views were crystal clear when Zakaria pressed Raisi on the country-wide protests in Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini for violating the hijab law last year. Asked whether the hundreds of millions of Muslims who do not view head coverings as obligatory in Islam were Muslims, Raisi did evaded the question. He instead launched into a diatribe against Western media for portraying the “riots” and “serious crimes” as legitimate protests. According to Raisi, the protesters were very few in number, and deviated dramatically from the large majority of “enlightened people of faith” who want to live piously under the law. Where MBS says starkly “we are not proud of all our laws,” Raisi is intent on maintaining theocratic law in Iran.
Raisi’s backward domestic take is mirrored in his views on geopolitics. In the Zakaria interview, he repeated the tired argument that the Middle East’s woes are due to the “Zionist regime” funded by the insidious Americans. He stopped short of simply damning the existence of Israel, insisting instead that it was Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land that yields so much trouble. But of course, one need not be adept at esoteric interpretation to realize that Raisi sees no peaceful coexistence with Israel as legitimate. He opposes any normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors, presumably on the grounds that doing so would heighten security risks. The truer reason, however, is more conspiratorial and characteristic of Khomeini’s legacy. Proudly holding up a Qur’an at the United Nations General Assembly, he declaimed a “global war against Islam.” Where MBS is moving the Gulf into a post-Islamist era, Raisi remains an Islamist spokesman.
These interviews with Salman and Raisi were opportunities for each leader, both of questionable repute, to signal to American policymakers their readiness to engage in cooperative efforts to de-escalate tensions in the Middle East. Should Washington seek either pluralism or the humbler objective of stability in the region, these interviews make clear that it should put its chips on Saudi Arabia, at least for now.