Our Middle Eastern ‘situational ethics’

If we are going to be outraged about human rights, then our outrage should extend to the entire region.

Jamal Khashoggi speaking in Washington, D.C., in March 2018. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Jamal Khashoggi speaking in Washington, D.C., in March 2018. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern
Sarah N. Stern is the founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a think tank that specializes in the Middle East. She is the author of Saudi Arabia and the Global Terrorist Network (2011).  

The Middle East is a brutal region. In December 2020, Ruhollah Zam, an Iranian journalist living in exile in France, was kidnapped and returned to Iran, where he was immediately brought before a cooked-up “show trial” and summarily hung. His crime? He was accused, as a journalist, of fomenting the 2017 protests against the government. He also established a dissident news feed, Amad news, which had more than a million followers. Such is the cost of freedom of the press in the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In 2014, much of the Western world was stunned by the trove of photographs brought out by former military police photographer with the pseudonym “Caesar” of more than 10,000 corpses brutally murdered at the hands of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad. What began as a fluttering of hope in 2011 of the “Arab Spring” has resulted in half-a-million deaths and more than 13 million displaced Syrians, many of whom are now living in sub-human, freezing conditions in Idlib province under Assad.

A friend of mine who had been a Syrian dissident told me that during the Arab Spring, parents of young dissidents had been sent something that resembled cans of dog food by the government with a note saying, “This is the remains of your child.”

In Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch, tens of thousands of government critics, including journalists and human-rights defenders, remain imprisoned under abysmal detention conditions, made even deadlier by the coronavirus pandemic, leading to the deaths of dozens of prisoners who never received proper medical care and, because of COVID, were denied visits from their attorneys. Female prisoners are often gang-raped. The government then wrecks their victims’ reputations by posting lewd photographs of them online. The Interior Ministry’s Security Forces arbitrarily arrest and torture citizens, including children, keeping them in atrocious pretrial conditions for inordinate amounts of time.

On Feb. 4 in Lebanon, the family of prominent anti-Hezbollah activist, Lokman Slim, began to worry when he went missing for several days. He was later found dead in his car. Medical authorities in Beirut said he had four gunshots to his head and one to his back. Such is the price of speaking out against the Iranian Shi’ite militia group that controls much of Lebanon’s commercial and political interests, as well as much of the military, Mafioso-style.

Last week, an intelligence report was released concerning the gruesome murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It just stopped short of directly implicating Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman with the murder and dismemberment of the Saudi journalist.

The Biden team is now considering canceling offensive arms sales to Saudi Arabia because of the gruesome murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. This is a considerable move. According to the Brookings Institute, between 2015 and 2020 the United States had agreed to sell approximately $64.1 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, averaging approximately $10.7 billion worth of weapons to Riyadh each year.

On Friday, the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Asset Control (OFAC) sanctioned Ahmad Hassan Mohammad al Asiri, the former head of Saudi General Intelligence, who coordinated with Saud al-Qahtani in Khashoggi’s murder, together with the members of the Rapid Intervention Force (RIF).

What happened to Khashoggi was indeed horrific. Yet why now is this report being released? And why not release similar intelligence reports concerning the abduction and execution of Ruhollah Zam from France? Or the sudden disappearance and execution of Lokman Slim in Beirut or the thousands of summarily executed dissidents in Syria. If we are going to be outraged about human rights, then our outrage should extend to the entire region. Yet we seem to be experiencing today a case of “situational ethics.”

After our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we should all be well aware of the fact that the Middle East is a particularly brutal place. And we also know that Iran is certainly no paragon of virtue.

However, there has been a slow emergence of real trust and of friendship between Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and Israel. These nations signed the Abraham Accords with Israel, opening up the region to an economic boom, to tourism and cultural exchanges, as well as to a meaningful peace, meant to endure for generations among those nations, and an alliance of strength forged with Israel during the dwindling months of the Trump administration.

Part of the answer to why there is this selective ethics regarding Saudi Arabia involves the makeup of the Biden administration, many of whom had felt that the Iranian nuclear deal was the crowning achievement of their years of working with the Obama administration.

Among them is Robert Malley, the new special envoy to Iran. He met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the opening of the U.N. General Assembly in 2019, a violation of the Logan Act. His appointment has been met with enthusiasm by the Tehran Times, and by NIAC, which Iranian President Hassan Rouhani calls “Iran’s lobby in Washington.” Another appointment, Ariana Tabatabai, senior advisor to the Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, comes from a family that is uncomfortably close to the Iranian regime. Her father is a professor at the University of Tehran and has consulted with the regime. No one should be guilty because of who their father is. However, Tabatabai herself is seen on a Tweet demeaning the role of the dissidents in their demonstrations against the mullahs and understating the role of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.

None of these people appreciate the profound significance of the dawning of the new era of the Abraham Accords. They are of the school who cannot dare to think outside of the conventional box and dare to entertain the concept that there might be a meaningful peace between Israel and the Arab world where the Palestinians are not the lynchpin. As former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “There will be no advance and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace. Everybody needs to understand that. That is the hard reality.”

And if today’s reality progresses to an enlightened thawing of relations between the Arab states and Israel, these people are determined to bend that reality back to the deep freeze of yesterday. All in order to conform to their tired, stale outdated paradigm.

Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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