Reevaluating U.S. Policy in the Middle East
President Donald Trump said Wednesday that he has instructed the U.S. Navy to “shoot down and destroy” any Iranian gunboats harassing American ships, in the wake of a tense encounter in the Persian Gulf last week—they repeatedly crossed in front and behind the U.S. vessels at extremely close range and high speeds, including multiple crossings of one ship, the Puller, with a 50-yard closest point of approach and within 10 yards of another ship.
Trump has not been shy to exercise his hardline stance against Iran, as demonstrated when he pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal or when he had Iranian General Qassem Soleimani killed with a drone missile. Some have criticized Trump’s Wednesday threat as unhinged arguing it would start an unnecessary military conflict, especially in light that he said earlier in the month that the regime was planning a “sneak attack” on U.S. troops in Iraq. They should know that encounters, such as last week’s have gone on for years without any loss of life.
Tehran does control Strait of Hormuz, which is a vital passage where a third of the world’s oil supply travels. Yet because the demand for oil has taken a nosedive with the COVID-19 outbreak, consequently lessening its value, there is little reason to fear that temporary disruption to the supply from the region would create a serious problem. Not to mention, the regime is economically battered by U.S.-led sanctions, domestic unrest, serial government lying and an inept response to the pandemic. Hence, Iran will not get itself into a war it knows it cannot win and it can hardly expect help from its usual patrons: China, Russia and North Korea—China is now an international outlaw facing a severe recession, Russia is reeling from crashing oil prices, and North Korea is embargoed and broke. Iran’s longterm goal, as is with its authoritarian allies is to incite the U.S. into bogged down standoff in the Middle East standoff during the coronavirus panic during this election year with the hope that Trump will be gone in 2021.
While Iran still has in influence in the region, particularly with Hezbollah in Palestine and Shi’ite militias in Iraq, President Trump should not pursue a pugnacious policy towards Iran only. He should also reevaluate U.S. rapport with a more draconian regime in the Middle East: Saudi Arabia.
Given the collapse of global oil industry as a result of low demand during the coronavirus pandemic, the effective-ruler of Saudi Arabia, Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), had simultaneously launched a price war that may cripple one of America’s most innovative industries.
For the last several years, Saudi Arabia and Russia have cooperated to hold down oil production and bolster global crude prices. Earlier this month, the Russians hesitated to agree to further cuts. MBS responded by slashing the price of Saudi oil and ramping up production, a move designed to launch a price war on competing producers. While the target of MBS’ ire was Russian oil companies, his move only accelerated America’s economic collapse—the same could be said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, especially after Trump used sanctions to prevent the completion of a pipeline linking Siberia’s gas fields with Germany, known as Nord Stream 2.
What makes it more imperative for America to reevaluate its rapport with the Saudis, as experts Gil Barndollar and Sam Lon explained, is that for three decades the U.S. has constantly come to Saudi Arabia’s aid. U.S. troops, 700,000 of them, kept Saddam Hussein at bay in 1990 and then crushed Iraq’s army in the Gulf War a few months later. In 2015, former U.S. President Barack Obama backed Saudi Arabia’s bloody, failed intervention in Yemen, providing vital support to the Saudi military—Saudi forces have failed to defeat Yemen’s Houthi rebels, strengthening Iran’s position in the process. And though President Trump has thus far refused to go to war for Saudi Arabia, he has deployed thousands of American troops to bolster its defenses.
America’s protection of Saudi Arabia is both impetuous and capricious. Since MBS began his ascent five years ago, hubris and recklessness have become the hallmarks of Saudi decision-making, at home and abroad: imprisoning and shaking down his own relatives-princes, kidnapping foreign prime ministers, and, in the judgment of the CIA, murdering and dismembering the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who also happened to be a permanent U.S. resident. Let also not forget MBS still suppresses political activists who seek freedom of speech, as well as any religion outside Islam—while Iran has both churches and synagogues, Saudi Arabia has neither.
Saudi oppression is mirrored in its Wahhabi version of Islam, which essentially provides the theological groundwork for almost every violent jihadist group. Its goal is to replace our democratic institutions with fundamental Islamist ones, in addition to being the main driving force behind the radicalization of young Muslims in the world today.
It is true that the U.S. has worked with totalitarian governments in the past, sometimes out of genuine necessity as it did with the Soviet Union in World War II; other times because it was considered expedient for the sake of a larger policy goal, as it did when it backed former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War or with radical Muslim tribesmen, as it did with the Mujahideen and CIA operative Osama bin Laden to oppose the Soviet influence in Afghanistan. Yet the America has usually come to regret such compromises. Our relationship Saudi Arabia, which is pretentious at best, serves no such purpose now if it ever did, and the U.S. gets no benefits from it at all.
George Washington, in his Farewell Address of 1796, cautioned Americans against either “a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness” for any other nation. The coronavirus pandemic has lead Americans to reevaluate, if not question our relationship with Communist China. While Trump should not relent on Iran, at the same time he should reconsider how the U.S. proceeds with the Saudis.
Mario Alexis Portella is a priest of the Cathedral of Santa Maria del Fiore and Chancellor of the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy. He has a doctorate in canon law and civil law from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome; he also holds a M. A. in Medieval History from Fordham University, as well as a B.A. in Government & Politics from St. John’s University.
* Sources no cited may be found in my book Islam: Religion of Peace? – The Violation of Natural Rights and Western Cover-Up.