he Saudi mass beheadings on January 2 proved nothing new to a world that well knows Saudi Arabia is still a tribal police state with a moral code of medieval barbarity. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni-Muslim country that executes people for witchcraft, adultery, apostasy, and homosexuality (among other things). And the Saudi regime is perfectly willing to torture and kill a Shi’a-Muslim cleric for the crime of speaking truth to power, knowing that that judicial murder will inflame his followers and drive the region toward wider war. The Saudi provocation is as transparent as it is despicable, and yet the Saudis are held to no account, as usual.
Yes, the predictable reaction in Iran included street protest and breaching the security of an annex to the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Protestors ransacked the annex and set it on fire. Police responded quickly, put out the fire, and arrested some 40 protestors. No Saudis were hurt or taken hostage. (This was not Iran taking US hostages in 1979, despite the ritually repeated echo of that event as the Times wrote falsely: “ransacked and set fire to the Saudi Embassy….”) As such things go, the annex attack was pretty much a non-event – but it was enough for diplomats and media to create a false equivalency, as if vandalizing an empty building carried the same moral weight as the ISIS-style execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr for nonviolent protest against a brutal dictatorship.
Hiding behind this false equivalency, governments around the world call for both sides to act with restraint, even though Iran has acted with restraint all along, while Saudi Arabia threw restraint to the winds from the start with the deliberate provocation of a political murder. Of course there’s nothing inherently wrong – ever – with both sides exercising restraint, it’s just a meaningless bromide as applied here, with a caution bordering on cowardice. These are, after all, the same people who mostly say nothing in opposition to the Saudi coalition’s brutally aggressive war against Yemeni fighters and civilians alike in daily violation of international humanitarian law.
The speed with which Saudi Arabia seized on the embassy attack as a pretext for cutting off diplomatic relations suggests that this was a Saudi goal from the start. The diplomatic break also complicates (or even scuttles) this month’s peace talks that contemplated Saudi Arabia coming to the same table with Iran to discuss the wars in Syria and Iran. The Saudis are fighting in both wars. Iran has fighters with Iraqi and US forces fighting the Islamic state in Iraq, and Iraq has something like “advisors” supporting President Assad in Syria. The Saudis allege that Iran has troops in Yemen on the side of the Houthis there, but there is no persuasive evidence that this is true. Whatever the reality on the ground, any restraint on Iran resulting from the Saudi provocation would likely help the Saudis in their unrestrained wars, neither of which is going all that well. The Saudis unilaterally ended the ceasefire in Yemen, killing more civilians there the same day it beheaded 43 prisoners and shot four others at home.
When does US complicity in Saudi violence come to an end?
The long game for the Saudis – regional dominance – requires relative Iranian weakness. The sanction-enforced weakness forced on Iran in recent years is about to end as a result of the multinational nuclear agreement between Iran and most of the civilized world (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the US – the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – plus Germany and the European Union). The return of Iran to the world community can only increase its challenge to Saudi regional hegemony. Whether this is good or bad for the rest of the world is arguable, but the current Western conventional thinking that Saudi Arabia is a force for stability in the region is pure fantasy.
There is not a lot of moral high ground in the Middle East, where the most democratic nation is Israel, which treats its Palestinians worse (perhaps) than the Sunni dictatorship of Bahrain treats its Shi’a majority (with the blessing of the US 5th Fleet based there). When it comes to executing people, Iran and Saudi Arabia are #2 and #3 globally, behind China, and followed closely by Iraq, North Korea, and the US.
In the midst of this moral quagmire, President Obama once again has an opportunity to actually earn that Nobel Peace Prize he received in 2009 in anticipation of his someday doing something to deserve it. He can act to contain and calm the nations of the Persian Gulf. Instead of relying on mealy-mouthed bromides from low-level State Department officials, the President of the United States could step up to defend his administration’s signal accomplishment to date, the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran, by telling the Saudis to behave like a mature nation and stop beheading clerics just to annoy the neighbors.
The White House website has no searchable comment about recent Saudi actions. On January 4, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest commented on the mass beheadings with seemingly helpless plaintiveness more reflective of weakness than any kind of leadership:
“And, you know, this is a concern that we raised with the Saudis in advance, and unfortunately, the concerns that we expressed to the Saudis have precipitated the kinds of consequences that we were concerned about.”
Well, if the White House had been truly concerned about heading off mass executions, or even just heading off the beheading of Sheikh al-Nimr, the White House could have done any number of things to give the Saudis pause, something other than what it did, including approving another $1.2 billion in arms sales.
US has the choice of not abetting Saudi war crimes in Yemen
Instead of weeping for American children already beyond his help, President Obama could act immediately to save still-living Yemeni children by withdrawing US support of the Saudi-led war on Yemen (carried out with weapons from the US and others). President Obama has been complicit in the Saudi criminal war since the US helped launch it in March 2015. The US could end its role in the naval blockade that keeps Yemenis from fleeing the war zone, a blockade that keeps food and other humanitarian aid from Yemeni children and adults alike, a blockade that enforces mass hunger and one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. For the US merely to abstain from its active role in crimes against humanity in Yemen would allow it to seize something like the moral high ground in a region where almost none exists. Pulling back from mindless support for one of the most depraved governments in the Middle East would seem, by contrast, like reaching a moral mountaintop. Why does the US support the Saudis anymore anyway, when the Saudis are most useful now for heating the world beyond habitation?
The Saudis have demonstrated time and again that the US has no significant influence on Saudi Arabia. In 2001, when Saudis hit the World Trade Center, Saudi Arabia (with the connivance of President Bush) withdrew its people from the US before the FBI could have a word with any of them, even those who had had contact with the dead terrorists. Again and again, the US bows to Saudi pressure on issues large and small (with some magnificent exceptions like the multinational nuclear agreement with Iran). At some point the US should ask itself: if we have so little influence with Saudi Arabia, why should we let the Saudis make us look like their puppet?
Saudi betrayals of trust and good will have a long history
There has been no doubt about Saudi duplicity at least since 1996, when the Khobar Towers bombing killed 19 Americans (wounding some 500) and the Saudis obstructed the FBI and other American investigators every step of the way, even though the Saudis knew from the start the identity of the Saudi terrorist who planned the attack. Even so, the US eventually indicted 14 people (13 Saudis and one Lebanese), but blamed it all on Iran. Iran denied any involvement, and also promised no further attacks. Having obstructed the investigation, after the indictment Saudi Arabia refused to extradite any of the suspects. According to Bruce Reidel, then a deputy assistant secretary of defense, at that time the Saudis were most worried about the US starting another Gulf War by attacking Iran and acted to avoid that escalation:
“In my meetings with senior Saudi officials in Dhahran in the days immediately after the attack, they pointed the blame at Saudi Hezbollah. It became clear the Saudis had a great deal of information on the group and had probably foiled an earlier bomb attack without telling Washington. The Saudis were certain it was not the work of Osama bin Laden. They knew Mughassil was the mastermind from the start.”
Now, in 2016, President Obama asks in vain for the Saudis to join the peace talks on Syria, but authorizes billions of dollars of arms sales to Saudi Arabia to pursue its covert support for the Islamic State (ISIS) and its criminally brutal war on Yemen. And Secretary of State Kerry asks in vain for the Saudis to spare the life of a cleric whose crime is speaking truth to power, but Saudi Arabia cuts off his head along with 42 others, just to make a point. Saudi Arabia has long since broken with the US whenever it felt like it. Will the US finally get it this time that our Saudi ally is not only unreliable but is not an ally?
The multinational nuclear agreement with Iran is, if it holds, an actual achievement worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. Yet this President acts as if the Saudi kingdom of corruption and war is somehow more worthy of protection and support than a world with a diminished threat of nuclear war.
William M. Boardman has over 40 years experience in theatre, radio, TV, print journalism, and non-fiction, including 20 years in the Vermont judiciary. He has received honors from Writers Guild of America, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Vermont Life magazine, and an Emmy Award nomination from the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.