Tom Friedman made what I think is the key point being overlooked. "The idea that Iran is everywhere and our enemy and the Sunni Arabs are our allies is a mistake.....the Saudi leadership's ruling bargain is toxic.... the al-Saud tribe gets to rule and in return the Saudi Wahhabi religious establishment gets billions of dollars to transform the face of Sunni Islam from an open and modernizing faith to a puritanical, anti-women, anti-Shiite, anti-pluralistic one." Friedman points out that 15 of the 19 9-11 terrorists were Saudis; none, zero, were Iranians.
And if, as Friedman says, the US wants to bet on transforming one of the two countries into a genuine friend, from the perspective of half the population, women, Iran looks like a better bet long term.On women's empowerment, the differences are stark between Iran and Saudi Arabia:
- Women in Saudi Arabia are not allowed to drive. Iran not only routinely issues women driver's licenses; it also boasts Laleh Seddigh, a winning female race-car drive.
- Saudi women have been barred from voting, while Iranian women's suffrage started in 1963. Iran now boasts a female Vice-President, 3% of its cabinet is female. Women hold 5% of seats in parliament, a level reached in the US only in 1987. (Saudi women will be able to vote and run for office in municipal elections starting in September 2015.)
- In Saudi Arabia 64% of bachelor's degree graduates are granted to women and 51% of women receive such degrees but only 13% of women are in the work force. Iran does modestly better - 20-25%. Both give a majority of their college degrees to women, but even in Iran women with degrees are 1/3 less likely to work than men.
In both countries, cultural tradition seems more crucial in limiting women's opportunities than formal religious tenets. In Saudi Arabia, Nawaf Al-Dhabib, an expert at the Arab Society for Human Resources Management, says "the concept of women working is still relatively new. Many unemployed recent graduates choose to stay at home. We need authorities to open up women's employment in all sectors of the kingdom." Dhabib also believes that "the kingdom needs to open all sectors to women who want to participate in the two income family."
Samar Fatany, a Saudi friend and journalist who hosts a weekly radio program in Jeddah and author of her latest book "Modernizing Saudi Arabia" says "Customs differ, yet many originate from tribal traditions but are conflated with Islam." She is determined to update the image of Saudi women who are generally identified as "faceless women shrouded in black which immediately alienates them, and they rarely become internationally famous or engaged with the international community of women." Fatany brings home her message: "It is time that we recognize that there are Saudi women who have a more modern approach to life and do not subscribe to the rigid code of dress and a lifestyle that is based on extremist interpretations of Islamic rulings."
In Iran, Vice-President Masoumeh Ebtekar concedes "I do believe there are some difficulties understanding Sharia within the law .... Even the religious leaders, through three decades after the revolution, have tried to reinterpret Islam in favor of women." But Ebtekar also thinks Westerners focus on the wrong things. In an interview she once said to Matt Lauer of the Today show that "Westerners need to get over their obsession with the hijab," which she views, "as a social act required by Iranian law".
Ebtekar is in many ways a pivotal force in Iran's somewhat more progressive pathway. She was the media spokesperson for the radicals who took over the US Embassy in Tehran in 1979, is a medical professional, and served as a Tehran City Council member. She is the first woman to serve as a cabinet secretary in Iran and is currently Vice President who heads the Environmental Protection Organization.
Her writings on religion, society and the environment sound much like Pope Francis's new Encyclical, except that Ebtekar explicitly links a "one dimensional materialist and patriarchal approach" as the two key sins that have created the modern dilemma. She warns, "Global Warming will have a very dangerous process and will be followed by devastating impacts and consequences... resulting in rising water levels, reduced rainfall and the submerging of various regions." She also sounds the alarm on water shortages in 14 cities in Iran today.
Iran has yet to show how far it is willing to go in agreeing to lower its carbon footprint in the Paris climate talks. But even such reticence puts it far ahead of Saudi Arabia, which legendarily plays the obstructionist role at these talks and insists that if countries decide to put a price on carbon, they will have to compensate the kingdom for its foregone profits.
So here again, while Iran has a long way to go, it's hard to take the view that what America needs to do to meet its vital national interests is to strengthen the Saudi hand in the world while keeping Iran isolated. So as president Obama quoted Yitzhak Rabin "You don't make peace with friends." You make it with very unsavory enemies."
But making peace is what we need to do.