Dr. David Cowan
Iran is running a global and spectacularly successful charm offensive, opening its business to all who will leave their principles and sanctions at the front door. The United States, Canada and others are among the many countries now being encouraged to do business with Tehran. At the same time, the governments of these countries are being urged not to go ahead with multi- billion dollar arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of human rights abuses, and that the leaders of the world should be telling Riyadh they must change. It is hard to see what is the difference between doing business with Tehran and Riyadh.
This is indeed a morality tale for our age; a tale of two moralities we might say.
It is inevitable Mr. Obama should find himself waltzing (or is it a Tango?) around the Gulf trying to repair damage done by a dithering foreign policy and the ebb and flow of red lines. It is also inevitable that the US, Canada and others will agree to lucrative business deals with Iran.
In America’s case, there is very little Mr. Obama tour will achieve, though he might enjoy a trip out to the plush green golf course in the desert on the outskirts of Riyadh – though be warned Sir, the road there is rocky. And a rocky road it is in the days and months ahead while America decides if it wants Hilary Clinton, Donald Trump or whoever to manage the future relationships in the region. Riyadh will wait for that change and politely dismiss Mr. Obama, especially since the kingdom has problems of its own to resolve with a huge economic challenge created by a dramatically falling oil price.
In Canada's case, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who is seeking the mantle of global savior from Mr. Obama, is moving his government to work to repair damage done attributed to the Harper government era, but it is proving very controversial in Canada as the ink has already dried on a $15 billion Saudi arms deal. A new government and new Prime Minister will doubtless ease the path of relationship and speed up this process of rebuilding economic and political ties in the region. We could argue this is a good thing, since Canada can try and influence human rights and other reforms. The key word here, however, is “try,” because there is little to evidence of any likelihood there will be any change in attitudes.
Relationships in countries with human rights abuses are in part based on the pretense that western liberal democracies can have influence on human rights and other abuses in the region. There is little evidence that there is much influence in these matters, and the Iranian trajectory will certainly go in the same direction. The Saudi human rights question has come very much to the fore in recent weeks. While Human Rights Watch in their World Report 2016 recorded that Saudi Arabia had made positive changes for women and foreign workers in 2015, this is overshadowed by Riyadh conducting 158 executions, 63 of which were for drug crimes. The real outrage has come since that report, after the 2 January 2016 execution of 47 men for terrorism-related offenses, most notably the Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, and a United Nations report on civilian killings during bombing raids in Yemen.
Yet, if we compare the human rights of the two nations, there is little to choose between Saudi and Iran. The same Human Rights Watch report noted that by Nov 1 2015, Iran had executed more than 830 prisoners, the majority for drug-related offenses. Other offenses included “insulting the Prophet,” apostasy, same-sex relations and adultery. Even adding the shocking January numbers, Riyadh seems to have a little catching up to do with Tehran, which is executing people at three times the rate of the Saudis.
So, in this tale of two moralities, why the love-in with Iran and the fall-out with Saudi?
In international relations there is always a reason for taking sides, and we should not be fooled that from the Saudi perspective it looks like the United States, Canada and other western democracies are now taking the side of Iran, and this will create more pressure in the region. Losing Saudi as an ally is not a particularly good idea, especially when the reasons for taking sides seem quite arbitrary. There are those who may feel it makes good economic sense to work equally with both sides. Others may feel it makes good political sense to play one side off the other, though that’s a dangerous game. Of course, there are those who say it makes moral sense to deny human rights abusers, and then they would have to backtrack on both Iran and Saudi, but then again in the world of political realism what has the morality got to do with it?
Obama was in Saudi just a year ago after the death of King Abdullah Full story