Despite Khashoggi's Murder, America Must Still Choose: Saudis or Iran? | Opinion

The report released last week by the U.S. director of national intelligence about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia, which tied the operation directly to the kingdom's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), makes for sobering reading. The killing of Khashoggi by the Saudi regime in its Istanbul consulate was remarkable primarily for the brazen nature of the crime, rather than for revealing anything new about the authoritarian nature of the Riyadh government.

The report gives a boost to the chorus of critics of the U.S.-Saudi relationship, who believe that the Khashoggi killing and the brutal war being waged in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels require Washington to downgrade ties with Riyadh. If America is to have a moral foreign policy rather than one based solely on cynical national self-interest—a widely accepted characterization of the Trump administration's policies—then many assert it is incumbent upon President Joe Biden to distance the United States from the Saudis.

But even for those who prioritize human rights and oppose the notion that America should be indifferent to the internal policies of those governments with which it does business, it's not that simple.

Kicking the Saudis to the curb and even sanctioning MBS, the country's de facto leader, is inextricably tied to the question of what to do about Iran—a nation that is likely an even worse human rights offender and is assuredly a much more aggressive Islamist nation that poses a threat to the rest of the Middle East, with or without the nuclear weapons it seeks. Just as complicated is the fact that hostility to the Saudis undermines President Trump's preeminent foreign policy achievement: the Abraham Accords, in which numerous Islamic nations, including Saudi-adjacent Gulf states such as the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, normalized relations with the state of Israel.

The choices available to Washington in Saudi Arabia are limited. President Biden must pick between autocrats, on the one hand, and Islamists linked to Iran and terror, on the other. There is no liberal option and, as President Barack Obama learned in Egypt amidst the "Arab Spring," pretending that Islamists are liberal or interested in democracy only leads to grief.

The Biden administration has touted a foreign policy based on the idea that "diplomacy is back," dedicated to drawing closer to traditional allies after what it views as Trump's neo-isolationism. But the exception to that rule appears to be the Saudis, relations with whom the White House has already indicated it intends to "recalibrate"—something that also applies, to some extent, with Israel.

The under-the-table ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia were strengthened by their common opposition to President Obama's efforts to create a rapprochement with Iran. They were further encouraged by Trump, as he shifted U.S. policy to create "maximum pressure" on Iran to force it to renegotiate the dangerously weak nuclear deal the regime struck with Obama in 2015. Trump also agreed with the Saudis' effort to push back against Iranian efforts at realizing their broader goal of regional hegemony, such as the war in Yemen against Tehran's Houthi allies.

Biden's foreign policy team, which is largely composed of Obama administration alumni, tends to think of the Abraham Accords as a distraction from its obsession with the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team realizes that the Palestinian Authority (PA) has little interest in making peace with Israel, as the PA has consistently turned down statehood if it also required giving up on its century-old war on Zionism. Biden staffers are not opposed in principle to Islamic nations deciding to no longer be held hostage to Palestinian intransigence and recognizing their mutual security and economic interests with the Jewish state, but they have little interest in fostering such ties so long as it is based on common hostility to an Iranian regime they wish to re-engage.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP via Getty Images

Indeed, the closer one looks at the Khashoggi affair, the more it is clear that attitudes about that crime have more to do with opinions about Iran than about the nature of the Saudi government.

Khashoggi's murder was, to quote the comment widely attributed to Talleyrand about Napoleon's similar decision to violate international norms in order to murder a political opponent, "Worse than a crime: It was a blunder." Killing someone with such prominent friends in the United States was an invitation to international opprobrium that far outweighed any illusory benefit the murder may have afforded MBS and his government.

It doesn't lessen the gravity of this crime to note that, contrary to much of the discussion about Khashoggi after his death, the notion that he was a human rights crusader simply is not accurate. As author Lee Smith has noted, Khashoggi was more of an intelligence operative than a journalist. At the time of his death, he was working closely with an operative of the Qatar Foundation, an agency of that eponymous Iranian ally that is led by a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader. Indeed, as The Washington Post, which published columns under Khashoggi's byline and which took up the case of his murder as a cause, admitted, his writing was as much the work of the Qatar Foundation's Maggie Mitchell Salem as it was his own.

Though MBS's decision to brutally slay a regime opponent was criminal, the idea that this justifies sanctioning him personally or downgrading relations with a key U.S. ally is motivated more by a desire to support outreach to Iran than to prioritize human rights. It's also true that for all of his high-handed contempt for international law that was demonstrated in the Khashoggi murder, MBS is still the driving force behind the domestic liberalization—such as allowing women to drive—that is now advancing in Saudi Arabia.

As was the case in Egypt, where a desire to advance the cause of democracy led Obama to undermine the regime of longtime dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011—thus setting the stage for a Muslim Brotherhood takeover that was ultimately overthrown by a popular military coup—it's a mistake to think the U.S. has more choices than either an authoritarian regime that is friendly to the West or an Islamist regime that is not.

That is not only true with respect to internal governance on the Arabian Peninsula, but also in terms of the regional balance of power. In damning MBS and recalibrating relations by ending weapons sales to the Saudis and their Emirati allies (who were promised F-35 jets as part of their decision to normalize relations with Israel, a pledge that Biden has already reneged on), Biden's foreign policy advisors may claim to be standing up for human rights. But undermining these U.S. allies merely advances the interests of Iran, a tyrannical theocratic regime with a human rights record—both in terms of internal oppression and its brutal record of adventurism abroad that aids the barbarous Assad regime in Syria, its murderous Hezbollah terrorist auxiliaries in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen—that is even worse.

Simply put, the United States has a binary choice in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. can swallow hard and stick with MBS and thereby support an unsavory ally who is nevertheless a force for internal moderation, acceptance of Israel and opposition to Iranian aggression. Or it can ditch the Saudis and thereby strengthen their Iranian enemies, who pose a direct threat to not just American interests, but to the stability of every moderate Arab regime in the region as well as to Israel (which Tehran has pledged to annihilate). Punishing the Saudis may make Americans feel good about themselves after Khashoggi and the devastation in Yemen. But helping Iran is not just a violation of realpolitik principles. It's also morally wrong.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS.org, a senior contributor to The Federalist and a columnist for the New York Post. Follow him on Twitter: @jonathans_tobin.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.