I bet some of you are wondering why this blog post is being written, in light of the title. Surely, you are probably saying, there is no contest. Iran meddles in the affairs of other countries, supports terrorist groups like Hamas and Hizballah and is trying to acquire nuclear weapons. And then there is that Shia death cult to worry about. Since the Iranian revolution of 1979, the mad mullahs have been bent on local and regional hegemony, no?
There is no question that Iran has been demonised in the media – and especially the Arab press – for decades. Remember when the Jordanian king warned of a “Shia crescent” ranging from Iran, through Iraq, into Syria and Lebanon? How can we not see Iran as a threat?
It is clearly true that the reign of the ayatollahs has spawned terrorism in a number of countries, both in the region and further afield. The 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Buenos Aires, in which 85 were killed and hundreds wounded, is believed to have been carried out in part with the help of the Iranian embassy in Argentina. Iran continues to support the brutal Assad regime in Syria and Iranian clerics regularly call for the destruction of Israel. All in all not an upstanding international citizen.
But Saudi Arabia has to answer for its sins as well. I alluded to its hateful and extreme version of Islam in my previous blog. It, too, interferes in the affairs of its neighbours. Saudi Arabia’s launch of a war in Yemen, justified by trumped up and demonstrably false accusations that Iran was using local Shia to gain influence, has led to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and has brought a country already on the precipice of economic and environmental disaster to the point of collapse (and also allowed both Al Qaeda and Islamic State affiliates to grow). Thousands of Saudi citizens have radicalised and fought in jihads ranging from Afghanistan in the 1980s to Bosnia in the 1990s to Iraq in the 2000s and now Syria. The country remains backwards in terms of the rights of women (despite the for-show elections lately in which women were allowed both to vote and to run for office), religious freedom and its treatment of minorities. And a hell of a lot more terrorists have become suicide bombers based on Sunni Islam then on Shia Islam. Thus, neither is it an upstanding international citizen.
So who is worse?
It’s funny how history unfolds. Prior to 1979, Iran was a huge ally of the West (and of the US in particular) and the bulwark for Western interests in the Middle East. Then came the revolution and an erstwhile friend became public enemy #1. This animosity, fed by the hostage crisis, prevented the US from seizing a golden opportunity to relaunch relations in the 1990s under a nicer cleric, President Khatami (yes, yes, I know that the Iranian government is convoluted and that the president holds only so much power, but nevertheless it was a huge mistake not to deal with him). But events dictate our position and things are what they are. Iran is a devil and Saudi Arabia is….well not quite a saint but…
We are stuck with the regimes we have (since we – ahem the US – do not move pieces on the chessboard as blatantly as we used to, putting in puppets where it served our interests of the time) and as a result, Saudi Arabia is our ally and Iran must be contained. For now.
One last point. If we are concerned about the growth in ideologically-based extremism, then the primary perpetrator is not hard to pinpoint. It is Saudi Arabia. The AQ/IS/Al Shabaab/Boko Haram/Taliban take their religious cues from Saudi-style Salafism. I am not saying that the Saudis sponsor or condone this extremist interpretation of Islam. But it does come from them. Whereas in all my years studying the Middle East I never once found a situation where Iran was trying to spread its version of Shiism through a terrorist group. Not one.
So, who is our real friend? Alas, neither.