- - Monday, September 16, 2019

This weekend’s attack by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen on Saudi Arabia’s critical oil infrastructure represents a significant foreign policy dilemma facing the leadership of America’s longtime ally. 

Should Riyadh counter the Iranian regime’s act of terror through an escalation of its proxy wars in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Syria or does Saudi Arabia embark on a new long-term strategy to this existential challenge by supporting the people of Iran who pose the greatest threat to the theocratic dictatorship?

As one of the consequential countries of the world, Saudi Arabia’s decision on how best to respond to this attack matters not only to its own economic well-being but also to the health of the global economy because the kingdom is the world’s most important anchor of energy security. Saudi Arabia is the world’s largest oil exporter and as such is the engine that keeps the global economy running.  

The Iranian regime’s decision to provide Houthi rebels with weaponized drones to target Saudi oil facilities is not just an attack on an American ally but is an attack on the global economic system. The fact that two of Saudi Aramco’s very important oil facilities were targeted is proof that the Iranian regime wants to create regional instability and panic on the global oil markets. And despite their denials, just a few days ago Hassan Rouhani, the regime’s so-called moderate president, boasted of supporting proxies in the region, including Yemen. 

In a phone conversation after this brazen attack, President Trump spoke with Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS). assuring him of American support. As a means to counter the ayatollah’s regime, Mr. Trump may once again suggest to MBS that his country buy more “beautiful American weapons.” Even though this may benefit American defense contractors, it will not solve the existential threat facing Saudi Arabia and the global economy from the Iranian regime. Tourists are not going to flock to pristine shores of the kingdom’s Red Sea if the threat of drones hangs over their heads.

Indeed, if the leaders of Saudi Arabia want to realize the goal of transforming their oil-driven nation-state into a dynamic, participatory and open economy, they must embark on a new strategic paradigm that focuses on investing in the people of Iran as the only hope for a fundamental change in Iran. A change of regime in Tehran will usher in a renaissance of unprecedented growth for the people of Saudi Arabia, Iran and the entire region. When the people of Iran take back control of their country they will undoubtedly cut off funding to the regime’s proxies in Lebanon, Gaza Strip, Iraq, Syria and Yemen thus eliminating a major source of regional instability for the past 40 years.  

In Iran today, a number of disparate movements for freedom are in play. For example, celebrities and famous athletes are expressing sympathy with Sahar Khodayari, who burned herself in protest over the regime’s ban on woman attending soccer stadiums. Another movement has formed around the theme “I am 15” named after the 14 dissidents who have been arrested for demanding an end to the dictatorship of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. And then there are factory workers across the country whose wages have not been paid for weeks chanting slogans such as “End corruption fill my food basket.” 

These trends inside Iran favor a robust Saudi policy of deploying every non-military lever of soft-power to demonstrate to the people of Iran that the kingdom is fully supportive of their aspirations for freedom. At a minimum Saudi leadership should consider the following options. 

First, King Salman or MBS should deliver an address to the people of Iran in which they expresses their deep desire for Iran being restored to its rightful place in the community of nations. They can mention that Iranians deserve a better future and that the kingdom differentiates between the people of Iran and its corrupt tormentors. This message can be crafted by the kingdom’s top Iran expert Mohammad Al Sulami. 

Second, King Salman or MBS should convene a meeting of the GCC states and announce the “Iran Reconstruction and Development Fund.” It should be made clear to the people of Iran that this money will flow into Iran once freedom is restored and will be deployed to rebuild their country. 

And third, Riyadh should rethink how best to deploy the financial resources it has committed to London-based Iran International TV. This Iranian-language news channel is meant to serve as Saudi Arabia’s soft power against the Iranian regime but has room to improve. Moving its operations to Washington, D.C., and changing editorial content can make Iran International TV a more effective tool in confronting the Iranian regime. 

Whether President Trump decides to meet with Iran’s president in New York next week is his choice. But for Saudi Arabia, whose existence is under threat by the thugs ruling Iran, the choice should be clear: Invest in the people of Iran because they are the best hope for fundamental change. 

• S. Rob Sobhani is CEO of Caspian Group Holdings.

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