American policymakers must be smiling from ear to ear. In a country with 56 million eligible voters, more than 41 million Saudis voted in their presidential elections last Friday – the 12th such election over the past 38 years. Despite a litany of obstacles arbitrarily imposed by unelected religious zealots, 73 percent turnout served as a catalyst to re-elect the pragmatist Saudi president with 57 percent of the vote. Moreover, reformists and moderates dominated city council elections across the kingdom. In the city housing Saudi Arabia’s most holy religious shrine, a woman won a council seat using the campaign slogan, “Let’s vote for women.” In one of the most conservative provinces, 415 women won village and local council seats, an increase from 185. In one village there were no men on the ballot at all.
Of course, none of this took place in Saudi Arabia, America’s long-standing partner of choice in the Middle East. Rather than holding meaningful elections, Saudi Arabia was fueling dangerous sectarianism, rejecting diplomacy and preparing to instigate a conflict with its Arab neighbor, Qatar.
"Iranians overwhelmingly chose to pursue peaceful, indigenous change through the ballot box... When juxtaposed with Saudi Arabia, the contrast is stark."
The electoral outcomes mentioned above all happened in Iran, with whom the U.S. has been at odds with since 1979. And as Iranians danced in the streets to celebrate Hassan Rouhani’s re-election, Donald Trump danced to the steps of a war dance as he met with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Israel to denounce Iran and call for its full-scale isolation. To borrow from Barack Obama – Iranian society extended its hand to the world, and the governments in Washington, Riyadh, and Tel Aviv responded with threatening clenched fists.
This highlights the biggest – and most overlooked – problem regarding Trump’s emerging policy on Iran and the Middle East at large: America’s continued obsession with regimes in the region at the expense of societies. In the case of Iran, there is no denying the myriad political, economic, and social obstacles created by the government ― from indiscriminate vetting of electoral candidates to media censorship to inflated budgets for the security apparatus. Nor is it a regime that has been an exemplary actor in the region. But then again, no such actor exists in the region. From Israel - who has occupied Palestinian lands for more than 50 years - to Saudi Arabia, Middle East powers all have blood on their hands. Western powers are no less innocent: they instigated the invasion and occupation of Iraq, and have provided decades-long support to authoritarian regimes who brutally repress their political, economic, and social dissent
That is precisely why hope in the Middle East lies not with the regimes, but the societies. And what Iran’s society just achieved despite the obstacles it faces is remarkable.
Rather than violently revolt, engage in terrorism against the state, or boycott elections that are neither free nor fair according to international best practices and standards, Iranians overwhelmingly chose to pursue peaceful, indigenous change through the ballot box predicated on moderation at home and abroad. When juxtaposed with Saudi Arabia, the contrast is stark. The kingdom does not permit meaningful elections, therefore making assessments of Saudi society more challenging. Certainly women have little say in driving the political agenda, or indeed driving themselves. Not to mention that Saudi Arabia is the birthplace of both Al Qaeda and, according the U.S. government, the source ISIS’s seed money.
For its part, Israel is a real democracy where the undemocratic obstacles Iranians face do not exist for Israeli citizens. Yet, its society produces results that are wildly different from what transpired last week in Iran: Since 2001, Israelis have voted for increasingly right-wing governments that double down on occupation, launch wars of choice, and reject international law. As Iranian society time and again rejects extremism from its government, Israeli society repeatedly elects it.
All of this highlights a dereliction of duty by successive U.S. administrations. Sticking blindly to its regional partnerships without considering the conduct of their regimes or illiberal trends within their societies (Israeli right-wing extremism), while ignoring the trends within societies of countries on America’s enemy list, has created a chaotic and contradictory web of relationships in the Middle East that neither serve U.S. interests nor are compatible with its values.
This does not mean that Washington should end its working relationships with regional partners or turn a blind eye to its current conflict of interests with Iran. But it should recognize that the trends in Iran’s society serves America’s long-term interests as well as stability in the region. Continued enmity with Iran because of America’s current entanglement in antiquated Middle East security partnerships risks costing the U.S. not only a valuable friend in the future, but it may also earn it a much more potent foe down the road ― as a more democratic Iran is likely also going to be a more powerful Iran.
Iranians overcame significant undemocratic obstacles to cast their vote in favor of engagement. Meanwhile, the Saudi government chose to shut the door on diplomacy and bully Qatar to acquiesce to Riyadh’s hardline on Iran. Donald Trump should not take Iran or Saudi Arabia’s side in this conflict. But his administration should recognize where the long-term source of moderation in the region is ― and that acquiescing to Riyadh’s rejection of dialogue makes the risk of America getting dragged into another war in the Middle East all the more probable.