by Robert E. Hunter
Shakespeare said that “old men forget.” And so, it seems, do societies. Fifteen years ago, a US administration, from the president through his top aides, lied the nation into invading Iraq, and the region and the world still suffer the consequences. Thousands of Americans died along with hundreds of thousands of local peoples in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere as a direct consequence. The financial cost to the United States has been measured in the trillions.
Now another president is lying the United States into a new Middle East imbroglio. The full consequences of President Donald Trump’s action in abandoning US adherence to the landmark Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran will take some time to become fully clears. Already, there has been extensive commentary, including excellent analyses in this forum by Paul Pillar, Mitchell Plitnick, and Eli Clifton.
In terms of short-term consequences, leaders of America’s three closest allies in Europe, Britain, France, and Germany have jointly urged “the US to ensure that the structures of the JCPOA can remain intact, and to avoid taking action which obstructs its full implementation by all other parties to the deal.” The EU’s High Representative Federica Mogherini added, “As long as Iran continues to implement its nuclear related commitments, as it is doing so far, the European Union will remain committed to the continued full and effective implementation of the nuclear deal.” And the usually circumspect BBC listed three reasons for Trump’s actions: destroying Obama’s legacy, pivoting toward Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and listening to new advisors. In the last category, the most notable addition has been the new National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was one of the architects of the Iraq disaster in 2003 and has a reputation for understanding neither the Middle East nor US national interests.
New Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is loyally supporting the president, even though that means repeating the gross exaggeration he made in Israel recently about Iran’s “terrorist activities worldwide.” Pompeo has also been given the task of explaining to leaders of North Korea this week why they should trust the United States to keep any deal that might be struck when Kim Jong Un meets President Trump on June 12, when the latter has just shown that during his watch US commitments have no value. Ironically, in his White House statement on Iran, Trump said that “America will not be held hostage to nuclear blackmail.” Yet that is precisely what is involved in his maneuvering to try forestalling the greatest nuclear threat to the United States: the DPRK’s ability, either now or very soon, to attack the United States with a ballistic missile-borne nuclear weapon.
In sum, only four classes of leaders and others support Trump’s JCPOA decision:
- His immediate entourage. However even Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, last month publicly defended the deal.
- Benjamin Netanyahu, who recently set out a case about Iran’s current activities that was soon shown to be crude propaganda. However, the Israeli prime minister cannot count on the full support of a large fraction of Israel’s most senior security officials, and many of his fervent US supporters have also expressed reservations about abrogation.
- Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, which welcome President Trump’s continued deference to their interests and ambitions in the Persian Gulf.
- Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which looks to Trump’s rhetoric and actions as useful in their quest to retain power. The basic US strategy fostered by Bolton and his ilk, to force regime change in Teheran, didn’t work so well in Iraq, and there is no reason to believe it will work well in Teheran, either. Rather than regime change, US actions are much more likely to produce regime reinforcement. Like Americans, Iranians are a proud people; when foreigners attack, their first reaction is to band together.
This peculiar axis of common interest is mutually reinforcing and collectively risks calamity in the Middle East.
…And the Captains and the Kings Depart
As should be true when something happens that can have a radical and negative impact on US national interests (even when the prime mover is a US president), only so much postmortem is useful. What is needed is answers to the old question, “What is to be done?” The simple answer is “lots of things,” beginning with a short list of do’s and don’ts for the US government.
First, Washington needs to begin looking at the Middle East and environs in terms of US interests, not those of any other nation. The United States has not followed this rule in the region for decades. A subset is to restore the old rule of thumb, though often more honored in the breach, that politics should stop at the waters edge. Interest groups are important in American political life, but the limit must be when their influence and ideas get in the way of US national interests, properly understood. That doesn’t mean ignoring the legitimate security needs of a country like Israel and America’s special ties to it, but rather to inject some perspective and priorities into the relationship. In this sense, Trump’s slogan is right: “America first.”
The same applies to other countries in the Middle East. Over several administrations, the US government has bought into Saudi Arabia’s view of the Persian Gulf and has backed it in geopolitical and other competitions (notably Sunni versus Shia) in the region. Thus the Trump administration is providing extensive military support to the current phase of Saudi Arabia’s decades’ old ambitions in Yemen, making the United States complicit in what UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has called “the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.” The United States, from government to media to think tanks, repeats the refrain that “Iran is the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” whereas that title by far belongs to Saudi Arabia and its radical fundamentalist Wahhabi beliefs. If the United States is serious about wanting to combat Islamist terrorism, this is where it must start, or the task will be impossible.
Further, the US has clear interests in protecting the flow of oil from the Middle East, although any country that can produce oil will export it. Yes, the US should take out an insurance policy in case Iran, for instance, were so self-destructive as to block access to Persian Gulf oil through the Strait of Hormuz. But it shouldn’t overinsure to the point of diverting attention from more serious security challenges elsewhere, wasting resources, and becoming entangled in the local ambitions of individual oil-producing countries.
The US also has an abiding interest, shared widely across the body politic, in an independent, secure, and defensible Israel, a democratic and mostly Western country. But the US must make its own judgments about the threats that Israel genuinely faces. Israeli governments have for decades asked the United States to go further so that it can gain psychological assurance that Israel’s enemies are also America’s. Sometimes that is true, sometimes it is not. The United States has to have its own views and not just accept, unexamined, Israel’s definition. The same with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and others. That would include Iran, should it one day contribute to Persian Gulf security, as it did to a significant extent before the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The United States does not have an interest in backing any one country in the Middle East against others except where that meets U.S. needs. Flowing from that is a requirement to reduce conflict and increase regional security, but without Washington’s becoming permanently parti pris with any one side or faction. There is no US interest in being the handmaiden of one or more country against others or of one confessional group of Islam against others (notably Sunni versus Shia.)
The United States also must abandon the fiction that it can transform regional societies and understand that any valid transformation, including in directions favored in the West, must come largely from within. Further, uniquely among the world’s regions where issues of poverty, unemployment, and other challenges to economic development are present, the availability of resources is not the issue: it is rather their distribution and use. Nurturing security partners in the region has led the Untied States over many decades to turn a blind eye to domestic excesses, notably in Saudi Arabia, but the price to be paid is a continual rise in much of the Middle East of explosive discontent. The United States made this mistake in Iraq and continues to make it in Afghanistan, where there’s no compelling strategic reason for staying militarily engaged, other than not to be seen as losing a war.
Related to this point, regime change in Iran, the fantasy of too many Americans like John Bolton, would not happen peacefully but would look more like what happened after the United States ripped Iraq apart. Too many otherwise serious American leaders have also been seduced by the Iranian exile group, the Mujahedin e Khalq (MEK), a cult that in the past killed Americans and is loathed by Iranians of all stripes because it supported Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 war.
Once the United States avoids these pitfalls, it must begin to set out a different vision for the region, centered around some form of regional security organization. This organization should when feasible include every country willing to take part and provide incentives for cooperation rather than continued conflict, on the principle that half a loaf is better than what virtually all the regional countries currently have. At this point, such a regional organization is a pipe dream. But that does not invalidate the worth of the goal. Even Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, has regularly proposed “a security arrangement in the Persian Gulf, founded on dialogue, common principles and confidence building measures.” This may be totally insincere, but it has never been responded to: a chance lost at least to talk about possibilities.
There are already some fledgling institutions, such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (to which Iran belongs), the Gulf Cooperation Council, NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, and NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue. Each has problems, none includes all states that must be involved, and some are moribund. But people have been thinking for years about some forms of working together. Opportunities are often missed, however. For instance, the United States refused even to respond to an Iranian overture in 2003 to negotiate on its nuclear program, thus wasting nearly a decade before the JCPOA was concluded.
With at least a notional sense of a vision for the region, there can be limited, initial steps. The following are notable.
Communications between the United States and Iran. These would need to begin in secret (as was done with the negotiations that preceded the JCPOA) and would not be easy to arrange, given today’s state of play. But covert communications are common in the Middle East. Israel, for example, talks with most if not all its enemies. Former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzak Rabin once said: “You negotiate with your enemies, not with your friends.” The United States is one of the few countries that generally operates on the basis that it must like another country’s government to talk with it.
An Incidents at Sea agreement for the Persian Gulf. This would be modeled on the May 1972 agreement of the same name between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia), which is still in operation. This would need to include all littoral states, and the common interest is clear.
Confidence-Building Measures (CBMs). These can begin simply with talks among parties to a conflict (in this case, embracing the Persian Gulf countries, or just Iran and Saudi Arabia) about security concerns and then the means of reducing fears of accidental conflict. Given the high-performance weaponry in the region (especially on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf) and the short distances involved, this discussion is needed. In time, it could even evolve into the creation of one or more hot lines. Other practical arrangements can be worked out by the individual parties. Notable is the requirement that CBM talks need to focus on confidence-building rather than on scoring points, at least after the first throat-clearing sessions of mutual recriminations, as is common even when adversaries want to achieve some mutual benefit.
Arms Control Arrangements. These are much more difficult to arrange and would need to follow on from the CBMs.
Discussion/Negotiation of Regional Crises. Of course, all the regional parties (plus outliers like Turkey and Egypt) are seeking national advantage, especially in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Although such discussions are currently premature, and they could not be truly effective unless all states (including Israel) are engaged, there is interest in such a process on the part of the United States and other Western states. Russia might also have an interest in taking part, now that it has established its strategic beachhead in the region and provided that it were treated as an equal.
There are no doubt many other steps that could usefully be taken. One requirement is that the United States, as the most powerful actor, would need to be deeply engaged, at least for many years. One implication of President Trump’s abrogation of US participation in the JCPOA is that any US reduction of military involvement in the region has been rendered impossible at least for the foreseeable future. It would be far better for the United States to increase its diplomatic and other non-military engagements in an effort to reduce its military engagements. It is not now being done, but it is at least worth a try.