The Saudi-Iran War Comes to Washington

In the battle for Middle East supremacy, Tehran and Riyadh are pulling out all the stops.

US President Donald Trump (R) and Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
US President Donald Trump (R) and Kuwait's Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Jaber al-Sabah take part in a bilateral meeting at a hotel in Riyadh on May 21, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / MANDEL NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran is consuming the Middle East in proxy conflicts from Yemen to Syria — and now in a diplomatic spat with Qatar. But their struggle is also one of narratives, a war of words that has reached the shores of the United States and is raging in the nation’s capital.

The recent juxtaposition of images of Donald Trump in Riyadh — showered in Saudi ostentation, his hands on a glowing orb — and of jubilant Iranians on the streets of Tehran celebrating the re-election of President Hassan Rouhani provoked a flare-up of Twitter volleys and op-eds over a few days defending or attacking the Iranians and the Saudis.

In response to praise on Twitter about Iran’s elections, Ali Shihabi — a former Saudi banker who recently set up the Arabia Foundation in Washington, D.C. — shot back: “Iran had a revolution, killed hundreds of thousands of its people, ‘elections’ to posts with no power while unelected Supreme Leader rules.”

Reacting to the images of Trump swaying next to Saudi King Salman with his sword in a welcome dance, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum described it as a “sinister all-male” ritual, while Amy Hawthorne from the Project on Middle East Democracy tweeted: “Personally, I find the images from election parties in Iran today vastly more appealing than all-male, monarchical scenes from Saudi Arabia.”

There is, of course, much to criticize about both countries. But Gulf watchers in Washington are camped on their positions, with little room for nuance — mirroring the deep schism in the region itself.

The spin in the United States also occurs in subtler ways. When a series of exhibits and events showcasing stunning Iranian art and film came to Washington, for instance, friends whose thinking is more aligned with the Arab Gulf countries complained to me that it’s just propaganda to help the Iranians polish their image in the United States. Or when Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif repeatedly gets published in the New York Times, including just after Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, Saudi friends and diplomats see media bias, fed by former President Barack Obama’s opening toward Iran and his perceived condescension toward the Saudis.

In response, the Saudis have started flooding the United States with money, officials, art, and pundits. In the last few months, Washington played host to a slew of events — from cultural talks with Saudi art curator Mona Khazindar, the first woman ever to head the Paris-based Arab World Institute, to a one-day conference titled “Saudi Arabia Transforming,” showcasing social and economic developments in the kingdom by the United Arab Emirates-funded Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

The debate about whether Saudi Arabia or Iran would be a better American ally has mostly centered on which country is better placed to lead the fight against extremism. Zarif never misses an opportunity to remind the world that 15 of the 19 hijackers behind the 9/11 attacks were Saudi citizens, hurling that fact in the face of his Saudi counterpart during a meeting. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) even accused Saudi Arabia of being responsible for the twin attack in the center of Tehran last week. The Saudis, meanwhile, are quick to bring up Iranian support for Shiite militias in Iraq today and armed groups like Hezbollah, going back to the U.S. Marine barracks bombing in Beirut in 1983.

The Saudi message does have resonance among U.S. policymakers. One American nuclear negotiator told me that whenever he was in the room with the smiling and suave Zarif, he pictured, standing in a corner, the menacing Qassem Soleimani, the head of the IRGC’s powerful Quds Force, which operates the Shiite militias in Iraq and Syria — a reminder of Iran’s more nefarious role in the region.

The Saudis are also working hard to polish their own image. Their goal is to separate the understanding of Wahhabism — a word often used to describe the austere version of Salafism in the kingdom — from extremism. The kingdom’s advocates have recently pushed this line aggressively in op-eds and events like the one the Arabia Foundation hosted on June 7: “Wahhabism and terrorism: Is Saudi Arabia the arsonist or the fireman?” The debate slanted heavily in favor of Saudi Arabia as the fireman.

Saudi officials have awoken to the idea that they need to beat Zarif at his own game. They have gone from harping only on Iran’s bad behavior to putting forward a more positive message about reform and Saudi Arabia’s cultural richness, made slightly more plausible recently by the drive for reform under the young deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

Beyond the fight against extremism, the question beneath the surface is: Which country holds the most promise in the long term? Which of Iran or Saudi Arabia can be the most “like us” in the West?

Until recently, the answer from U.S. decision-makers seemed to be Iran, no matter how imperfect the road ahead. That was what you heard from Obama administration officials in private — if not in public — as they defended the larger context of the nuclear deal. In a country with presidential, parliamentary, and municipal elections, a vibrant civil society, and centuries of rich history, U.S. officials quietly intimated, the nuclear deal could allow the most pro-American population in the region to slowly exercise greater leverage over an autocratic system.

But to the cynics in both the Obama and Trump administrations — or as they would describe themselves, realists — the limitations to liberalization in the Islamic Republic are simply too difficult to overcome. The IRGC has infiltrated all aspects of political life and has a firm grip on the economy; the supreme leader has the final word on almost everything; and the idea of “exporting the revolution” is baked into the Iranian constitution. The changes required for Iran to transform into an accepted player on the international stage — such as the IRGC relinquishing control and the position of supreme leader becoming a more ceremonial role — are simply not on the horizon.

But no matter how dismal the situation in Iran may appear, until recently there was almost no effort to build a more liberal future in Saudi Arabia. The kingdom is governed by sharia, or Islamic law, supplemented by a Basic Law of Governance enacted only in 1992. It has hundreds of princes who weigh down the system, has only ever held municipal elections twice, and its civil society is sclerotic. The influence of religion is overwhelming, and society is much more conservative than its rulers. (And, yes, women can’t drive and face a plethora of restrictions — but as Saudi women activists have told me, what they really need, beyond the right to drive, is a system that recognizes the rights of all citizens.)

The kingdom, however, has a marginally better case to make now than it did a few short years ago. It has a deputy crown prince who is trying to implement a plan of economic and social reform and who says he wants to roll back the trend of extreme religious conservatism in the kingdom that started in 1979. The Saudi cabinet last year dramatically curbed the powers of the religious police, and Mohammed bin Salman says he has a plan for countering any backlash from religious clerics unhappy with the reforms. Concerts, comic shows, and art exhibits have been taking place in the kingdom in recent months, drawing rebukes from clerics but also tens of thousands of Saudis complaining on social media.

The last time the country embarked on an extensive modernization and reform program, including the introduction of television in the 1960s, it eventually led to the assassination of King Faisal in 1975. The House of Saud indefinitely shelved reform plans in the wake of the Iranian revolution and the attack against Mecca by Saudi zealots in 1979 when the kingdom feared that upsetting its own clerical establishment would threaten the survival of the royal family.

Whatever resistance Mohammed bin Salman is facing today, he has for now managed to keep going. There is concern that it’s too much, too quickly, one Saudi royal told me, but the goal is maximum exposure — trying to bring along as much of the Saudi population as possible. If the young prince can sustain it, then change from the top in Saudi Arabia could overtake the slow effort to erode the supreme leader’s grip over Iran.

But while Saudis and Iranians are busy vying for America’s recognition and approval, the ferocity of their rivalry outside their borders has also meant a crescendo of war, violence, and sectarian divisions across the region. So even as the two sides write op-eds calling for moderation and reform, arrange dueling concerts and art exhibits for foreigners, and tweet snark at each other, Syria and Yemen are being reduced to ruins — and who knows where the spat with Qatar will lead. But at least Saudi Arabia will soon have a Six Flags amusement park, and we can all swoon over a couple of young buskers playing an electric version of Radiohead’s “Creep” on the streets of Tehran.

It’s a shame young Saudis and Iranians can’t at least be excited about the changes taking place in each other’s countries. That would require another sword dance like the one a young Prince Salman once held for the visiting Shah of Iran in 1978 when the two countries were friendly competitors — an era that now feels like ancient times and another world.

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Kim Ghattas is a BBC correspondent covering international affairs and a senior visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. She is the author of "The Secretary: A Journey With Hillary Clinton From Beirut to the Heart of American Power." Twitter: @BBCKimGhattas