The US-Saudi romance is ’70s Iran remixed

United States President Donald Trump’s kinky relationship with Saudi Arabia echoes a previous US-Middle Eastern bromance between Richard Nixon and the Shah of Iran in the 1970s — and look how that ended. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

United States President Donald Trump’s kinky relationship with Saudi Arabia echoes a previous US-Middle Eastern bromance between Richard Nixon and the Shah of Iran in the 1970s — and look how that ended. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

To understand United States President Donald Trump’s kinky relationship with Saudi Arabia, we need to understand former US president Richard Nixon’s relationship with Iran in the 1970s.

A controversial president is in the White House. The US’s largest oil supplier is a monarchy, which is also the US’s largest arms customer. And US foreign policy in the Middle East is almost entirely dictated by its one-sided relationship with this oil-rich monarchy.

Although this sounds much like a description of the US’s slightly unnatural relationship with Wahhabi Saudi Arabia today, it is also an exact description of 1970s America’s relationship with the shah and the Iran over which he unbenevolently ruled.

And look how well all that ended.

It seems the US has a habit of becoming infatuated with Middle Eastern monarchies and forming unhealthy relationships with them that end in tears, drunken texting and foreign policy disaster.

In the 1960s the British Empire was gently disintegrating and London realised it could no longer afford many of the things it used to be able to afford.
These things included battleships, cigars, mistresses with double-barrelled surnames and the ability to keep a permanent military presence in the Persian Gulf.

The US was nervous.

It had become deeply dependent on oil from the region to fuel the constant growth on which US hegemony was built. But now that its bankrupt ally could no longer afford to keep the peace (and by that we mean make sure they got an ongoing supply of cheap oil), a strategic problem had emerged.

It was then that the US met its prince — the handsome, carefully coiffed Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. His family had ruled Iran for 2 500 years. Yes, that’s right — 2 500 years.

The alliance got off the ground under President Harry S Truman after World War II and was based on the principle that the US would guarantee Iran’s security in exchange for oil. The huge growth in the US economy after the war meant its oil requirements had ballooned, and Iran needed a muscular friend to help it survive in a rough neighbourhood. Initially, arms sales were limited, but by the 1960s Iran was the biggest buyer of US military hardware in the world.

The shah used smooth talk and guile to wrap the US around his finger. The US was aware of the deeply undemocratic and brutal nature of his regime, but he wooed them with oil and scared them with pillow talk about the Soviet and Arab nationalist threat to his rule, and thus to their oil supply. He could do no wrong. The guns kept coming and with it the implicit promise that the US would defend him from any threat.

But he was going down a dark road. And the US cheerily skipped down that road with him.

Eventually, the shah had managed to make enemies of the Islamic clerical hierarchy, the socialist left and the nationalists. Making enemies of all these groups was quite an achievement, and meant that (even with US support) he could no longer survive.

The fall of the shah’s unlovely regime may not have been hugely significant, but what was significant was the fact that, as his devoted “friend with benefits”, the US had now inherited every single one of his enemies. Thanks to its blind devotion to their handsome prince, the US had made enemies of almost everyone in the region.

By allowing him (and his oil) to shape their foreign policy, they found themselves in possession of a foreign policy that made no sense to the US and did not serve its interests well at all.

The disaster was so enormous that it triggered a hostage crisis, a brutal war between Iran and Iraq and 40 years of hostility between Iran and the US. It was the ugliest break-up imaginable.

The US was like someone who falls into an unhealthy relationship, gets a weird tattoo, ends up compromising far too much, lets their partner make all the decisions, loses every friend they have and then has to pay their ex’s gambling debts when it ends.

Sensible people learn from relationships like this, and take care not to fall into another one just like it.

The US, however, has not.

With the Arab nationalists and Ayatollah Khomeini (who, thanks to the public bromance between the shah and the US, now hated the US) controlling much of the Middle East’s oil, the US needed a new friend.

A friend with lots of oil, who needed protection. Saudi Arabia was that friend.

Just like it did with the shah, the US has completely compromised itself for the sake of this relationship. They’ve ignored gross human rights abuses, they’ve turned their back on moderate Muslim governments and allowed the most extreme wing of Sunni Islam to proliferate. They’ve even ignored the fact that Saudi money seems to have funded the Taliban and 9/11 attacks.

And now Trump has officially stated that, even if (as the CIA has told him) Saudi Arabia’s de facto head of state ordered the murder of a Washington Post journalist, it isn’t really that big a deal.

The US-Saudi relationship is deeply unhealthy — and it is sure to end badly.

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