by Haviland Smith
It is clear that there are powerful people both in the United States and in Iran who would like to force a real confrontation between our two countries. What is completely unclear is whether or not those hawks on both sides want a modified Cold War type confrontation, built perhaps on cyber warfare, or an all-out military confrontation. What this situation, with all its incredibly profound dangers and possible disastrous outcomes, has done is once again prompt the question, “what is the United States doing in the Middle East and what precisely are our goals there?”
Americans tend to ethnocentrism. If something is good for us, it has to be good for everyone else. The problem here is that the Middle East is perhaps the most politically, ethnically and religiously complicated geographic area on the face of the earth. It will not bend easily to amalgamation or regime change.
Let’s start with the year 634 AD when the Muslim prophet Mohammad died. Most of his followers (those who evolved as the Sunnis) wanted the Muslim community to choose his successor while a minority (those who became the Shia) favored Ali, Mohammad’s son in law, to be the new caliph. The Sunnis won and chose the first caliph, Abu Bakr. This simple disagreement became the single most divisive reality in the Middle East with fewer than 250 million Shiites (10-15% of all Muslims) pitted against the remaining 85-90% of Muslims, or 1.5 billion, who are Sunni.
Clearly, most of the Middle East is Sunni, while the Shia are concentrated in Iran and Iraq with significant minority populations in Lebanon, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Pakistan and India.
Iran is almost 100% Shia and is non-Arab at the same time. Their power in the Gulf is contested by the Saudis who are Arab and Sunni. During the Cold War and in the spirit of winning without hot war, both the USSR and the USA sought to develop and maintain international relationships that strengthened themselves and weakened their enemies. Both sides had acolytes – ours largely in Western Europe, the Soviets’ in Eastern Europe. When either side seemed to be developing helpful acolytes around the world, the other side sought to disrupt the developing or ongoing relationships in question.
The same principle is in full force in the Middle East. Iran, definitely the minority player, sees it as critical to their survival, both as Shia and as non-Arab Indo-Europeans (Persians), to support and maintain all the Shia communities in the region. Hence their support of the Shia Alawite government in Syria, the Shia government in Iraq, the Shia in Lebanon, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. They are bonded together by their religious beliefs against the Sunni world led by Saudi Arabia.
Their support goes largely to paramilitary organizations like the Houthis, the Syrian rebels, and Hezbollah, all of which are fighting what are essentially paramilitary struggles. This has the unfortunate effect of allowing their enemies, the USA included, to label them as “terrorist” organizations and Iran as a “terrorist” government. If Iran supports terrorism, it must be bad. Thus, it plays emotionally on the minds of many who are concerned about the true forms of terrorism that threaten so many of us in the West.
Of course, the real issue between US and Iran lies in the joint l953 American/British overthrow of Premier Mohammad Mossadegh, the only democratically elected leader the Iranians have ever had. That questionable act saw the reinstatement of the royal Pahlavi family in Iran and the immediate degradation of what democracy existed there. That lasted until the 1979 revolution, which saw the Shah’s ouster and the installation of the regime that rules Iran today. With that history, it is really hard to figure out how they could possibly be favorably disposed toward the USA.
But the Sunni-Shia split does not end the issue. There are other matters that add to regional instability. Long established contradictions plague the region. We will examine just a few of the situations that make the design and implementation of foreign policy difficult at best.
One – Kurdistan. With a population of 40 million spread out mostly over Turkey, Iraq, Iran and Syria, they are the largest ethnic group in the world that does not have a state of its own. They are designated “terrorists” by the Turkish government simply because any Kurdish state would include parts of Turkey. At the same time, they are integral to our policies in Syria where with our support, they have been active combatants against ISIS, ultimately gaining control of much of northeastern Syria. This has deeply strained America’s relationship with Turkey, a longtime ally and NATO member.
Two – Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. ISIS was a product of the US invasion of Iraq, which had a large majority of Shia but was controlled by Saddam Hussein and his fellow Sunnis. With the overthrow of Sunni rule and with support from Saudi Wahabis, ISIS was created by the Iraqi Sunnis with the US and Iran as its primary enemies.
Three – Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is the home of Wahabism, which is a highly puritanical form of Sunni Islam. Combined with the wealth created by the sale of petroleum products, Saudi Wahabis have long supported the most conservative movements in Islam, including some that we in the west would think of as terrorist organizations. Prior to his election as president, Trump said that “world’s biggest funder of terrorism” was Saudi Arabia. It is further alleged that the Saudis have been a critical financial support base for al Qaida, the Taliban, Lashkar-e-Taiba and other terrorist groups, including Hamas. Whatever the facts, Saudi Arabia clearly undertakes activities and supports groups that add to the instability of the region. In addition, the dismemberment of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and Saudi support of the violent Sunni coalition that fights against the Shia Houthi in Yemen, provide an additional look at the true nature of the country. None of that addresses the extraordinarily repressive rules that govern behavior in the homeland.
Four – Israel. Americans have always supported the concept of a democratic, Jewish state. Under the current Israeli regime, the country has moved sharply to the right, building additional illegal settlements in the West Bank and thwarting any and all moves toward a two-state solution. The Trump administration has supported this newly conservative Israel through an ambassador who encourages Israeli expansion and through the move of the American Embassy to Jerusalem. The ambivalence of the situation can readily be seen when, during the 2006 war in Lebanon, the Saudis encouraged the Israelis to go ahead and hit Hezbollah!
Five – Iran. One of the first things the Trump administration did in the Middle East was withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) governing Iranian nuclear activities that it had entered into under the Obama administration with Iran, China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom and Germany. Our withdrawal was followed by sanctions that have been devastating for the Iranian economy. Unbelievably, having withdrawn from JCPOA, the Trump administration is demanding that Iran stick to its commitments thereto! Going back in history, Iran simply hates the USA and has for decades since we and the British engineered the 1953 overthrow of the Mossadegh regime. Curiously, the way things are shaping up right now, the Iraqi government, in effect created by the United States, will support fellow Shia Iran in its disagreements with the United States.
Six – the USA. America’s deep involvement in the Middle East came as a result of 9/11. Presumably thinking that our invasion of Afghanistan to bring justice to Al Qaida and Osama bin Laden was not enough, we blundered into an additional war in Iraq. Sixteen years later, we are still there, involved in military matters across the region.
Our objectives appear to be to severely limit Iran’s influence, to disrupt the operations of terrorist organizations, to guarantee Western access to oil and natural gas, and to increase the ability of national military establishments to defend their own territories. Finally, we are presumably interested in reducing instability in the region. In fact, we have supported Israeli expansion, supported an increasingly suspect Saudi Arabia, and brought ourselves to the brink of conflict with Iran.
One of Trump’s early goals, he said, was to get out of Afghanistan and the Middle East. In fact, he has announced the impending dispatch of 1,000 additional troops to the region and has made moves that can only be viewed as increasing instability and the prospects for conflict in the region.
We survived the Cold War for one basic reason. Policies and goals on both sides were consistent and therefore readable by the other side. There were very few misunderstandings and so, we only rarely approached open conflict.
What do we do today in the Middle East when our present administration is almost never consistent in what it says or does? How is it possible for both our old allies and our adversaries to evolve consistent goals and policies when faced with a totally ambiguous and unpredictable Unites States? That may work in New York real estate, but it is terribly dangerous in the conduct of foreign affairs where actual weapons, not just money, are involved.
Why should America militarily guarantee the continuing delivery of Saudi oil when we have an abundance recently discovered at home? Do we choose between Kurd and Turk, Sunni and Shia, Israeli and Arab, Persian and Arab, moderate and fundamentalist? If we do, precisely how do we go about it? Do we get back into the business of regime change? Do we impose military rule on these ancient antagonists?
All of this is sufficiently difficult in a predictable, consistent world, but when you are operating in a region where on-the-ground realities provide built-in conflict after conflict and, most importantly, where your own government’s policies are designed to be inconsistent, there is little hope for even the most rudimentary success – the avoidance of conflict. Under the scattered policies of the Trump administration, we are simply miles over our heads in the Middle East and might be far better off not to be involved at all.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA Station Chief who served in East and West Europe and the Middle East, as Executive Assistant in the Director’s office and as the first Chief of the Agency’s Counterterrorism Staff.