A linchpin of America's foreign policy in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia is a crucial component of President Donald Trump's plan to isolate Iran. The White House needs Riyadh to stabilize the energy market when U.S. sanctions on Iranian oil production take place in November.
But if the U.S.-Saudi relationship turns sour over accusations that Riyadh killed Khashoggi, Trump's strategy may not go as planned — and that could lead to economic and political gains for Tehran.
"The fallout from Jamal Khashoggi's disappearance is the latest political misstep from Saudi Arabia that will geopolitically benefit Iran," Sanam Vakil, a senior consulting research fellow at U.K. think tank Chatham House, wrote in a note this week. "Saudi Arabia has already threatened to retaliate against [U.S.] sanctions by using its leverage here, and oil prices have accordingly risen, thereby benefiting Iran in its last few weeks of oil sales before sanctions take effect."
Khashoggi, a Washington Post columnist and Saudi national, was a critic of the kingdom's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was last seen entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. Turkish officials allege that he was murdered by a team of Saudi operatives, but Riyadh has denied those accusations.
There have been growing calls for the U.S. to punish Riyadh if the allegations were found to be true. "What I would do, I know what I'm going to do, I'm going to sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia," Republican Senator Lindsey Graham from South Carolina said on Tuesday. Trump, whose close links to the kingdom has been scrutinized, may now be forced to act amid international and domestic pressure.