Don't Go Joe! Forget the Despotic Saudis, Turn on Iran's Oil Taps | Opinion

After promising to treat Saudi Arabia like a "pariah state" during the 2020 presidential campaign, it looks like President Biden has been brought to heel, just like virtually all of his predecessors, by America's unending thirst for cheap oil.

The administration announced Tuesday that the president will visit the Kingdom in mid-July, presumably to make nice with the country's cold-blooded autocrats. While the agenda will surely be crowded, there is only one reason for this trip, and that is a desperate gambit to convince Riyadh to increase its oil production to reduce historically high gas prices that have Americans in a sour mood just months before the 2022 midterm elections.

This is a terrible mistake, especially when an equivalent, if not larger, supply of oil could be unlocked by meeting neighboring Iran's terms for a new nuclear pact. Getting in deeper with the Saudis and refusing to address the underlying causes of America's dependence on oil, will only raise the costs of pursuing more sensible policies.

The price for mending fences with the Saudis will be high. Saudi Arabia is one of the most ruthlessly authoritarian countries in the world, whose hardline Salafi ideology, exported via the Kingdom's bottomless wealth, remains the single most important driver of violent radicalism in the region and beyond. The de facto sovereign in Riyadh, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ('MBS') is man who has shown little aversion to violence, ordering the brazen 2018 hit on Washington Post columnist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey. If that weren't bad enough, MBS has been prosecuting a bloody, pointless war in Yemen since 2015, one that has left an already-poor country completely devastated, all for the sake of Riyadh's regional rivalry with Tehran.

Outside Saudi Embassy
A human rights activist holds a sign protesting Saudi Arabia during an event to rename the street outside the Embassy of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Jamal Khashoggi Way on June 15, 2022, in Washington, DC. Nathan Howard/Getty Images

In almost every regard, Saudi Arabia is an albatross of an 'ally,' a country that is demonstrably less free and just than even deeply authoritarian Iran. Millions of foreign laborers work as serfs and need the government's permission to leave the country, women may not marry non-Muslims, can be put to death for adultery or premarital sex and must obtain the permission of a male 'guardian' for a variety of activities, including marriage.

Are things much better in Iran? Prior to Trump's sanctions and the pandemic, Iranian women had higher workforce participation rates, some religious minorities enjoy greater freedoms, and the country holds regular elections that are not free but can be competitive within the constraints imposed by the regime. To be clear, Iran still has an abysmal record on civil and political rights, but it is marginally better than Saudi Arabia's. There is no moral case to favor the Saudis over the Iranians and America's grievances with Iran are often more emotional than rational.

How much black gold can Biden squeeze out of the Saudis? Whatever the final number, it will certainly be less than can be obtained with even a grudging rapprochement with Iran. Last month, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) announced a production increase of 684,000 barrels a day, most of which will come from Saudi Arabia — nowhere near what's needed to bring down prices.

If a million barrels a day is what we're looking for, Biden could simply turn our eyes to the East. After the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), better known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, was implemented, Iran was putting 2 million barrels of oil a day onto international markets. After former President Donald Trump petulantly scotched in 2018 and reimposed sanctions, exports fell, and are predicted to be less than 1 million barrels a day over the course of 2022. Iran claims that it could produce 3.8 million barrels of crude per day if sanctions were fully lifted, and that number could almost certainly go higher with international investment.

What stands in the way of an agreement over Iran's nuclear program, the key to unlocking Iran's oil export potential? Reportedly, it is Israeli demands that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, a powerful corporate-military entity that sponsors and directs Tehran's regional mischief-making, remain on the State Department's list of foreign terrorist organizations. This policy has the enthusiastic backing of the Democratic Party establishment, and if the United States ends up watching Iran test a nuclear weapon under Biden's watch, the president and his allies will have only themselves to blame for their commitment to a categorization on a piece of paper rather than to America's national interests

The determination of the U.S. to garrison the Persian Gulf, including the catastrophic war in Iraq and other post-9/11 misadventures, will, according to some forecasts, cost more than the value of all of the oil imported into the United States since 1980. Had that cash been invested instead in policies designed to get Americans out of gas-powered cars and into electric vehicles, public transit and bicycles, the U.S. would not be in this pickle and a Democratic Party seeking to fend off the threat of a radicalized, authoritarian Republican Party would not be watching helplessly as its fate is determined by eye-popping fuel prices over which it has little immediate control.

Instead of flying to Riyadh and kissing MBS' ring, Biden should instead tell him to kiss off, do whatever has to be done to get Iran's oil production back online, and have Democrats promise a huge, 'cash for clunkers'-style initiative to transition to electric cars and hybrids. As unlikely as that sounds, it would be better than the spectacle of yet another American president begging Saudi autocrats for a lifeline.

David Faris is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Roosevelt University and the author of It's Time to Fight Dirty: How Democrats Can Build a Lasting Majority in American Politics. His writing has appeared in The Week, The Washington Post, The New Republic, Washington Monthly and more. You can find him on Twitter @davidmfaris.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.