Can the West Afford to be Simultaneously Tough on Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia?


There is no doubt that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seized the attention of the international community. Western powers, some of whom have hesitated cutting ties completely with Russia, has shown its willingness to stand with Ukraine by sanctioning Russia and providing more indirect military assistance. Of course, they have stopped short of sending troops to Ukraine as they fear this would provoke a direct military confrontation or even nuclear war. While some optimists applaud the unprecedented large-scale sanctions on Russia – the likes of which have not been seen since the Cold War – and hope that they will contribute to the collapse of Vladimir Putin’s dictatorship, their side-effects on the West are certainly noticeable. Specifically, there is concern that the West will face an increasingly serious energy crisis, which will draw them closer to other authoritarian energy powers such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, weakening their position over human rights demands in the Middle East.

The Side Effects of Sanctions

In reality, the West has no “painless” option, despite doing its utmost to strike a balance between offering a helping hand to Ukraine and avoiding bearing the costs of war directly. Although the US and some of its allies were quick to impose tough sanctions on Russia, Germany and a number of other European states were initially reluctant to suspend imports of Russian energy. In fact, the value of German gas, oil, and coal imports from Russia stood at about 1.8 billion euros a month, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz claiming that sanctioning Russian energy would hurt Germany more than Russia. Russia clearly understands that many countries in Europe are heavily reliant on its energy exports and are thus using it as a weapon to silence them. For instance, Russia has created a list of “unfriendly states” and is demanding they pay for Russian energy in rubles as a countermeasure to the sanctions.

Once Russian-perpetrated war crimes and atrocities came to light, the US expanded their Russian sanctions. Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania – the three Baltic states – responded by stopping imports of Russian natural gas, and the EU is planning to ban the import of Russian coal from August 2022. However, the EU has yet to formally sanction Russian oil and natural gas, despite it being reported that Germany is aiming to ban the import of Russian oil by the end of 2022, highlighting the difficultly that many countries have in terms of finding viable alternatives to Russian energy in the short term.

Although the US announced earlier that it will release 1 million barrels per day of strategic oil reserves for six consecutive months starting in May this year, Bloomberg columnist David Fickling has questioned whether the amount would be adequate to satisfy global energy demand. Fickling also points out that other members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries could cut the amount of oil production in order to keep energy prices high and protect their own interests. As such, he believes that the US’ attempt to relieve the global energy crisis by releasing its strategic oil reserves is wishful thinking and more likely to fail.

Appealing to Other Authoritarian States for Energy

The US government anticipated the shock on the global energy market of sanctioning Russia. According to The Wall Street Journal, President Biden called the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad Mohammed, and the then Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (now the president of the UAE), immediately after signing an executive order sanctioning Russia in an attempt to lobby them to increase energy production in their states, but they refused to answer the calls. Other reports claim that Western countries are considering improving their relations with Iran and Venezuela, which are themselves under sanctions, apparently in the hope of purchasing energy to minimize the side effects of sanctioning Russia.

Frankly, Western attempts at improving relations with Venezuela is more of a political gesture, since it is well-known that, due to poor management, Venezuela is incapable of producing the amount of energy needed in the short term. It should also be noted that the close ties between Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Putin is another main obstacle to mending the rift between Venezuela and the West.

In contrast, it seems more sensible for the West to improve relations with Iran. For example, in light the International Atomic Energy Agency’s confirmation of Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, the EU has reservations about former US President Donald Trump’s unilateral sanctions on Iran. It has been reported that Germany, France, and even current US President Biden intends to revive the Iran nuclear deal. Now they have an even greater incentive to do so.

Iran and Saudi Arabia Are the Lesser of Two Evils, but They are Still Big Evils

Nevertheless, despite efforts towards reviving the Iran nuclear deal, a range of factors which cannot be ignored have obstructed negotiations. Iran has repeatedly insisted that the West should unconditionally lift sanctions against Iran because it was the West which broke its promise. However, anti-Iran hawks emphasize that lifting Iranian sanctions would be like “releasing a trapped tiger back into wild” as Iran would then be more able to obtain funds and the raw materials needed for nuclear development, in turn, making it more aggressive. Even some moderates realize Iran’s increasing ambition of developing nuclear weapons and are urging Biden to add additional restrictions to the original nuclear deal. Nevertheless, seeing Western countries being deterred by Russia’s nuclear weapons is only emboldening Iran’s hardline conservatives in terms of Iran becoming a nuclear state. For US hawks, Russia’s nuclear deterrence is already a massive headache. If Iran were to also possess nuclear weapons, the consequences would be disastrous.

In addition, Iran’s presidential election last year was “rigged.” Specifically, the 12-member Guardian Council, which is completely controlled by “absolute loyalists” who are handpicked by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, disqualified all candidates who posed any threat to Ebrahim Raisi, the only favored candidate of Khamenei. Raisi, a “torture mastermindwho has executed numerous Iranian dissidents over the years, has been a long-time recipient of US sanctions, and his appointment signals a further crackdown on dissents. Consequently, if Biden relaxes sanctions on Iran to focus on confronting Russia, he would likely be criticized for compromising the US’ principle on protecting Iranian human rights.

It is worth mentioning that the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi are no less brutal than Iran, with dissidents being deprived of their freedoms, facing charges of terrorism, or being executed.

Last year, the Biden administration suspended the sale of arms to the Saudi–UAE coalition over the Yemen war. It then declassified a US intelligence report identifying the Saudi Crown Prince as being behind the murder of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Biden’s moves have been interpreted as a recalibration of Trump’s excessively pro-Saudi Middle East policy. However, due to Saudi Arabia’s huge strategic value to the US, Biden has restricted sanctions to the lesser players out of fear of disrupting US–Saudi relations, thereby drawing criticism from a number of human rights groups.

The Price of Defending Global Freedom and Human Rights

The current global political situation is certainly frustrating human rights groups. In the past, some have suggested that authoritarian regimes can be diminished through global trade and tough sanctions – the carrot and stick approach. However, globalization has caused the West to become increasingly reliant on authoritarian regimes for economic trade and energy. Consequently, the West will themselves suffer from the tough sanctions they impose.

For instance, Donald Trump’s hardline approach towards Iran was based on a different relationship between the West and Russia, one that had not deteriorated to the point it is today. Now, although Iran is shifting back towards Islamic Fundamentalism, the West is being forced to consider lifting sanctions in order to relieve the pressure of a potential global oil shortage, not to mention altering their tough stance on Saudi Arabia’s human rights issues. Even if Saudi Arabia and the UAE maintain their ties with Russia, there is not much the West can do to punish them. Ultimately, the West cannot simultaneously maintain a tough stance against Russia, Iran, and Saudi Arabia in the short term.

Empirical evidence indicates that eliminating every authoritarian regime is impossible. More than 70 years ago, the West joined forces with the Soviet Union in order to defeat the Axis Powers. While this decision led to victory for the allies in WWII, more than 40 years of Cold War with the Soviet Union followed. The end of the Cold War gave rise to a short-lived vision of the permanent victory of liberal democracy, but as the West has become increasingly accustomed to peace, the gradual return of dictatorships has made the situation complicated.

The Ukraine crisis challenges the concept that it is good enough for dictatorships to “not appear in my backyard.” In short, signs of a worldwide retreat from democracy in recent years are testing the determination and capabilities of the democratic bloc in terms of standing with the oppressed.

An earlier Chinese version of this article appeared in udn Global (Taiwan) on April 12, 2022. This version adds other relevant content and removes outdated information.

T-Fai Yeung
T-Fai Yeung
T-Fai Yeung is a researcher at the Global Studies Institute Hong Kong, a frequent contributor to, a guest contributor to the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Linhe Zaobao (Singapore), Ming Pao Daily News, The News Lens and UDN Global (Taiwan), and a former blogger for Stand News (2015–2021).


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