One of the most depressing aspects of the US feud with Iran – of which Donald Trump’s speech in Saudi Arabia serves as merely one more example – is that by any objective measure Iran is a far more democratic and modern society, observing political and social norms far closer to those of the West, than Saudi Arabia is or can ever be.
Here are some of the differences between the two countries:
(1) Saudi Arabia is an autocratic monarchy; Iran is an Islamic Republic;
(2) Iran has contested elections – indeed it has just had one – whereas Saudi Arabia not only does not, but any political challenge to the ruling family is fiercely suppressed;
(3) Iran has a written constitution, an elected President, and a national parliament. Saudi Arabia has none of these things;
(4) Iran’s clerical institutions – the Supreme Leader, the Guardian Council and the Assembly of Experts – are subject to a limited though real measure of popular accountability. Members of the Guardian Council – which vets candidates standing for election to the Presidency and the parliament – are elected by the Iranian Parliament from a shortlist proposed by the Supreme Leader, whilst members of the Assembly of Experts – which appoints and can dismiss the Supreme Leader – are directly elected by the Iranian public from a shortlist also proposed by the Supreme Leader. Saudi Arabia allows for no accountability of its clerical or judicial establishment whatsoever;
(5) The practice of religions other than Islam such as Christianity and Judaism is tolerated in Iran and is protected and regulated by law. In Saudi Arabia religious minorities have no right to practice their religion whatsoever;
(6) In Iran, women’s access to education has steadily expanded, with women now forming the majority of the university student body. In Iran women can vote, work and even be elected to parliament, are allowed to drive cars, and can be out in public. By contrast women’s access to education in Saudi Arabia remains severely restricted, as are women’s rights generally;
(7) Despite restrictions Iran has a very active political life and civil society, and political debate there is lively and open. In Saudi Arabia political activity is tightly controlled as is any expression of political views;
(8) Iran has developed its own substantial industrial and technology base. Saudi Arabia’s economy remains purely an oil economy;
(9) Contrary to repeated claims, Iran does not export terrorism and is the implacable enemy of the two most dangerous Islamist terror groups: Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Saudi Arabia has at various times supported and bankrolled both of these groups;
(10) Iran has effective armed forces and successfully defended itself during the long and gruelling Iran-Iraq War. It has also intervened to real effect in the Syrian conflict. Saudi Arabia’s bloated military cannot defeat the lightly armed Houthi militia in Yemen, or even capture Yemen’s capital Sana’a.