War in the Middle East—Again?

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by Robert E. Hunter

About this time 15 years ago, the United States was gearing up for a war against Iraq. Saddam Hussein was purported to have weapons of mass destruction. There was no doubt about his aggressive intentions toward his neighbors, as he had showed both in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and his seizure of Kuwait (1990). His human rights record was abysmal.

Most of Washington fully supported what proved to be erroneous and even mendacious assessments put forward by the George W. Bush administration about Iraqi WMDs and the need to eliminate them. Any differences were mostly about the “how” and “when” rather than the “why.” The mainstream media, including some of the nation’s leading daily papers, bought into the case for war, along with a large fraction of the think-tank community. And war came, producing one of the worst calamities in US foreign policy in modern times, costing many lives and well over a trillion dollars. The results continue to plague the United States, Iraq, and other countries.

Fast forward to 2017. The enemy is not Iraq but Iran. A similar public case is being built about Tehran’s aggressive intentions, its threats to its neighbors, and its poor human-rights record. Although Iran has been effectively disarmed in terms of a possible nuclear-weapons program, the Trump administration has castigated its other behavior from one end of the Middle East to the other.

Will there be war? Let’s hope not, but the chances of conflict are growing with each passing day.

The “Threat” of Iran

Iran does provide grist to this mill. It is continuing its development of ballistic missiles (though, absent nuclear warheads, these will not pose much of a threat to anyone). It does support Hezbollah, which the US lists as a terrorist group largely because of its challenge/threat to Israel. Iranian leaders continue their hostile rhetoric toward Israel, senseless and counterproductive though it may be, but not backed up by direct action. Iran is supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It is involved in Yemen, as part of the war between the Houthis and Saudi-backed forces. And even though it has a highly educated, Westernizing population, with elections that are among the freest in the Middle East, its human rights practices fall far short of acceptable.

Most of the Sunni Arab governments in the region are in conflict with Iran, though there are exceptions. Kuwait and Qatar have tolerable relations with Tehran, and Oman has long served as a go-between. For Saudi Arabia, however, Iran is anathema and has been for many years. Egypt is in competition with Iran, as is Turkey.

Led by its ambitious young leader, the recently anointed crown prince Mohammed bin Salman (son of the current king), Saudi Arabia has put pressure on Iran and any countries that seek less-than-hostile relations with it—notably Qatar, which shares with Iran the world’s largest natural gas field.

The United States has fully bought into the Saudi narrative. This is reflected in the policy of the Trump administration (like that of the Obama administration before it) to back Saudi military activities in Yemen. Washington (as well as London) has provided highly sophisticated weapons for use in a conflict that has produced large numbers of civilian casualties. The United States has also accused Iran of being the leading sponsor of terrorism while turning a blind eye to the role of Saudi Wahhabis. Saudi-inspired terrorism is truly international, stretching into southeast Asia and deep into Africa, and includes indirect responsibility for the recent killing of four US service personnel in Niger.

Meanwhile, President Donald Trump has, since last year’s presidential campaign, railed against the 2015 multinational Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that totally foreclosed any Iranian nuclear weapons for at least a decade. He has now thus “decertified” Iranian compliance with the JCPOA, even though all the other signatories and the independent International Atomic Energy Agency categorically disagree. The administration has done everything it can to keep in place sanctions against Iran, in some cases in direct violation of the JCPOA, and in general to put added pressure on the Iranian regime and forestall its readmission into the international community. Among other things, this practice is unintelligent, since it plays into the hands of Iranian hardliners who assert that the US is not to be trusted. It says the same to North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, as he assesses whether any deal could be cut with the United States that would be honored by Washington. And while most US companies are required to sit on the sidelines, European, Chinese, and other countries gain all the advantages of economic engagement with Iran.

The anti-Iranian policies of the Trump administration have also emboldened Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MbS) to impose a blockade on Qatar, which it accuses of being too close to Iran (among other things). This surprising step came after a visit by President Trump to Riyadh, at which time he gave a free pass to MbS. (The resulting Saudi-led blockade of Qatar horrified the Pentagon, given that it is home to the largest US military base in the region, which mounts US air operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and against the Islamic State). MbS also conducted what amounted to the kidnapping of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri for allegedly getting too close to Hezbollah, until international pressure led to his release.

MbS also detained a passel of rich Saudis on the pretext of fighting corruption but in reality to consolidate his grip on power. That is really none of the outside world’s business, except for MbS’s other activities, which are pressing hard on what few pillars of stability in the region still exist. The lure for the Trump administration: MBS’s apparent willingness to broker a deal with Israel, which would have been unthinkable only a short time ago. The idea is that the two countries will work together against common enemies, including Iran and Shiite Hezbollah, and in the process crush any faint hopes the Palestinians still have of a possible two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Perhaps that will work in the short term. But the chances that that will end the Palestine issue, which stands high in popular opinion in the Arab world but not among governments, are zero.

This smacks of a Rubik’s Cube of ambitions, activities, and arrangements. It can’t possibly work without major, negative consequences, including the risk of yet another major Middle East conflict in which the United States would inevitably be embroiled.

U.S. Interests

It’s hard to understand what the United States gets out of all this. The US has some fundamental interests. It is committed to Israel’s security and preserving the flow of oil (which is not threatened by Iran, which is as dependent as any other regional country on the export of oil). It has pledged to continue the fight against the Islamic State and countering terrorism worldwide (where Saudi Arabia is the chief enabler). It is trying to end the Syrian Civil War. And it is also trying to limit Russian influence in the region, which was made possible by US miscues in Syria, and though Washington has needed Russian assistance against the Islamic State.

Aligning U.S. policy more closely with MbS’s ambitions is not only messy, it can be a recipe for another major conflict in the region and a further assault on US interests. What happened exactly 15 years ago seems to be happening again. Some of the same people in Washington—government, media, think tanks—who led the charge against Saddam’s Iraq in 2002-3 are again involved this time, only the target is different. And the so-called adult leadership in the Trump administration, replacing those who drove the nation into war in Iraq, appears to be mesmerized by the bogeyman of Iran far beyond any inherent threat it poses to its neighborhood and certainly to the United States.

There is still time to avert another calamity. But there is no indication that the Trump administration or the many enablers on Capitol Hill and outside the government are inclined to break the psychological cycle and devise approaches that genuinely put America First, as President Trump often says.

Those who could not or would not think in terms of US interests regarding Saddam Hussein’s Iraq got their war. Those who are doing the same about Iran and Saudi Arabia may now get their war, as well.

Photo: Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, Saudi King Salman, and Donald Trump

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Robert E. Hunter

Robert E. Hunter served as US ambassador to NATO (1993-98) and on the National Security Council staff throughout the Carter administration, first as Director of West European Affairs and then as Director of Middle East Affairs. In the last-named role, he was the White House representative at the Autonomy Talks for the West Bank and Gaza and developer of the Carter Doctrine for the Persian Gulf. He was Senior Advisor to the RAND Corporation from 1998 to 2011, and Director of the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies at the National Defense University, 2011-2012. He served on the Pentagon’s Defense Policy Board and is a member of the American Academy of Diplomacy.

7 Comments

  1. To Cyrus and another reader who commented on this as well; Robert Hunter’s writeup here is starting to read just like his spouse’s Shireen. He may not realize that filling up the core of a writeup on how Iran will be the next Iraq with the rhetoric that comes straight out of the US state department is just as bad as what he is being critical of when he points out to the role of the media and the leading daily papers in drumming up a war beat.
    Maybe Shireen is his new editor ?!

  2. “its human rights practices fall far short of acceptable”

    Well, far worse seems acceptable when it comes to the Arab states, (and the Saudis are also “involved in Yemen”)

    I wonder why we feel this need to first engage in some sort of (one-sided) ritual condemnation of Iran in order to bolster bone fides before talking sense?

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