I have to preface this post with some caveats about Tom Friedman, since I’m about to commend him. Friedman is a blowhard who has been wrong about a lot of things, most notably in his support for G.W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq. His writing tends to be more clever than smart. But he does know stuff, especially about the Middle East. So, he is more than occasionally worth reading, and today is one of those occasions. In his op ed, Friedman responds to an American general who denounced Iran as “the number one leading radical Islamic group in the world.” Friedman’s reply:
Sorry, general, but the title greatest ‘purveyors of radical Islam” does not belong to the Iranians. Not even close. That belongs to our putative ally Saudi Arabia.
Friedman is right. Saudi Arabia has long been in the business of promoting the doctrinaire, anti-modern Wahabi version of Sunni Islam throughout the Muslim world. In so doing, it has made its own indirect but significant contribution to the growth of jihadist terrorism. As Friedman notes, the leading Islamic terrorist groups—ISIS, Al Qaeda, and the Nusra Frpmt—“are the ideological offspring of the Wahhabism injected by Saudi Arabia into mosques and madrasas from Morocco to Pakistan to Indonesia.” Friedman concludes by dismissing “the nonsense that [Iran is] the only source of instability” in the Middle East.
I would take Friedman’s observations further. Even proponents of the Iran nuclear deal tend to solemnly affirm their realistic understanding of Iranian malevolence, against which we must continually be on guard. This stance falls in line with the good guys/bad guys view of the Middle East (and of American foreign policy generally) that prevails in this country: we are the world’s premier indispensable good guys, seeking always to restrain if not turn back the world’s bad guys. One problem with that Manichean view of the world is that so many bad guys, like the Saudis, are on our side. Another problem is that we’re not always so good ourselves.
The two biggest wars in the Middle East in recent decades were the bloody Iran-Iraq war of the 1980’s, started by Saddam Hussein who later gained the support of the US, and the US invasion and occupation of Iraq beginning in 2003. Iran, by contrast, hasn’t started any wars. The Iranian theocracy is ugly, but on balance not clearly all that worse than the Saudi and other Gulf autocracies. The accusation that Iran supports terrorism rests mainly on its sponsorship of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Invariably left unsaid is that both Hamas and Hezbollah emerged in response to Israeli actions—its illegal colonization of the Palestinian West Bank and its bloody invasion of Lebanon and subsequent occupation of the southern part of that country.
But unlike Iran, Israel hasn’t been subject to US-led sanctions or demands for nuclear disarmament. Quite the contrary: Israel is showered with American aid and diplomatic protection, without which Israel would very likely have had to give up its West Bank land grab long ago. Israel’s brutalization of the Palestinians is one of the major grievances the Muslim world harbors against the US, and is thus a leading cause of the rage that feeds jihadism. So, if we’re comparing trouble-makers in the Middle East, let’s by all means compare Saudi Arabia and Iran, but let’s not leave out Israel, or ourselves.