On Monday, Trump tweeted that he had spoken to King Salman, “who denies any knowledge of whatever may have happened” to Khashoggi, a Saudi citizen and U.S. resident. “He said that they are working closely with Turkey to find answer. I am immediately sending our Secretary of State to meet with King!”
The Khashoggi affair represents a dramatic change in fortunes for Saudi Arabia, which until just two weeks ago was being lauded for its social and economic reforms. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MbS, was widely being acclaimed as the face of the modern kingdom. He gave interviews in which he outlined his plans, took the opportunity to say Iran’s supreme leader “makes Hitler look good,” and accused Iran of being behind “any problem in the Middle East.” There was a darker side to the announced Saudi reforms, however—arbitrary arrests, a costly war in Yemen, a clampdown on dissent. But that drew little rebuke from the West as long as Iran maintained its support for terrorist groups; its influence in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen; its ballistic-missile program; and its continued threats against Israel.
Saudi Arabia is not only a close U.S. ally: President Trump and Jared Kushner, his son-in-law and senior adviser, have boasted about their closeness to the kingdom and its royal family, and the Trump administration has generally remained quiet over Saudi Arabia’s internal repression, its military intervention in Yemen, and its blockade of Qatar. But the alleged killing of Khashoggi was different. Not only did his alleged murder occur in Istanbul; he is also a U.S. resident and a prominent journalist with a column in The Washington Post.
In other words, Saudi Arabia has allegedly done what it and others regularly accuse Iran of doing. The Islamic Republic might be better known for its abysmal human-rights record—it executes gays, arrests dissidents, and persecutes minorities—its support of Hamas and Hezbollah, and its backing of Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war, but it also allegedly sends assassination squads to kill dissidents overseas and was said to be behind the 1995 bombing of the Argentine Israelite Mutual Association, a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires, that killed 85 people.
It is for reasons such as this that the United States and its allies have sanctioned Iran heavily over the years. Relations improved somewhat in the Barack Obama years because of the nuclear agreement, but they have worsened dramatically since Trump withdrew the United States from the accord in May. Last week, Mike Pompeo, the U.S. secretary of state, said the object of U.S. pressure was to convince “Iranian leaders to behave like a normal nation.” Yet Iran has watched mostly in silence as Saudi Arabia is being excoriated in the West precisely for not behaving like a normal nation.