Scapegoating Iran Will Not Resolve Middle East Challenge

by Shireen T. Hunter

During his Middle East trip, President Donald Trump is reportedly planning to pursue an ambitious list of objectives. Paramount among these is to strengthen regional cooperation in defeating the Islamic State (ISIS or IS) and Islamist terrorism in general. He will also try jump-starting the effort to build peace between Israel and the Palestinians that, if successful, could eliminate a major source of tensions in the region. He wants to convince those Arab states that so far have not established political and trade relations with Israel to do so, to reassure the Persian Gulf Arab states of America’s continued support, and to forge tighter regional military ties that some observers see as a sort of Middle East version of NATO.

Most if not all of these are worthy goals, consonant with US interests. Defeating Islamist terrorism is a common objective. It is also past time that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were resolved and that all Arab states acknowledged the reality of Israel by establishing diplomatic and trade relations with the Jewish state. There is value in reassuring the Gulf Arab states of continued US commitment to their security—provided that this does not include accepting wholesale their narratives about regional politics or helping them to achieve their own narrow interests where incompatible with US requirements. And the idea of greater Middle East defense cooperation, under the right circumstances, can help to promote regional security and stability.

A key difficulty, however, is that President Trump and leaders of his administration clearly seek to achieve these ambitious goals by (mis)representing Iran as the world’s leading exporter of terrorism and a threat to Israel and Arab states, especially those in the Persian Gulf. Indeed, Washington’s focus on Iran has become a fixation, far beyond anything that evidence of Iran’s actual behavior can support. Furthermore, a major element of this effort is to try building on the current “alliance” between Israel and some of the Sunni Arab states. This effort focuses not only on Iran but on achieving an outcome in the Syrian civil war that marginalizes Iran and, for the Arabs, creates Sunni primacy there over the ruling Alawite minority.

For several reasons, however, making opposition to Iran a mainspring of American efforts in the Middle East, in effect scapegoating it, will not help the US to achieve its regional goals.

Viewing Iran Clearly

The terrorism that deeply concerns the United States and other Western states is Sunni-based, emanating from Arab states, not Iran. Thus, efforts to contain Iran might help meet the political objectives of some regional states, but it will do nothing to defeat IS or al-Qaeda. Likewise, even if Iran were marginalized in Syria and President Bashar al-Assad were deposed, the resulting Sunni primacy over the Alawites would not bring that conflict closer to resolution or offer any promise for broader stability, either in Syria or in the region more broadly.

Moreover, Iran’s impact on the Arab-Israeli conflict is minimal. Stymying its resolution for so many years have been the conflicting aspirations of Israel and the Palestinians. The latter want an independent, even if truncated, state with its capital in East Jerusalem. They want an end to Israel’s settlement-building in the West Bank and permission for the return of at least a symbolic number of Palestinians (or their immediate descendants) who were expelled in the course of Arab-Israeli wars.

But these objectives are precisely what Israel or at least its more hardline politicians do not accept, and that would still be true even if Gaza, dominated by Hamas, were left out of the equation. For example, these hardline Israelis argue that the issue of Jerusalem, as Israel’s undivided capital, is non-negotiable, which also means that there can be no option for two capitals in the one city. Further, Israel’s continued building of settlements in the West Bank makes establishment of an independent Palestinian state politically impossible, since dismantling even some of them would be extremely costly to any Israeli government.

In reality, the best the Palestinians can hope for is some form of autonomous entity, even if it were called a state. It would have a flag and a president, but its disconnected territory would be dotted with Jewish settlements.

Thus, a US-effort to dangle enhanced US commitment to the regional objectives of Saudi Arabia and like-minded Sunni Arab states as an incentive to get them to pressure the Palestinians to abandon their core ambitions has no chance of success. Even if the Palestinians were put under intense Arab pressure, Israel, at least under its current leadership, is unprepared to accede even to minimal Palestinian requirements.

Finally, concerning security in the Persian Gulf, not all Arab states share Saudi Arabia’s paranoid view of Iran, which is shaped by its own outsized ambitions in the region and doesn’t jibe with any real threat that Iran poses. Some of the Gulf states, notably Oman but also to some degree Kuwait, deeply resent Saudi Arabia’s arrogance and its use of the Gulf Cooperation Council as an instrument of Riyadh’s parochial interests. Others, like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are competitive with Saudi Arabia. For instance, in Egypt, Qatar supported the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi, while the Saudis stood with Hosni Mubarak until the bitter end. It is thus unlikely that these states would be willing, even under US pressure, to join the Saudis in an ambitious and highly structured defense alliance beyond today’s limited cooperation, and certainly not something patterned on NATO. They also do not want to risk war with Iran, which would cause them much damage, just to please the Saudis.

Unlike the Soviet Union, whose power and ambitions underpinned the creation of NATO, Iran simply lacks the military power, both now and in the future, to justify a serious Persian Gulf military alliance in response. Further, vastly increased arms purchases by the Gulf Arab states, which the US is now promoting, would be no substitute for these countries spending the money instead on improving economic conditions for their citizens and on promoting economic development in the Arab World in general as a better shield against the terrorism and extremism that threaten their security and stability more than any challenge that Iran could pose.

A Better Course

The notion of creating an Arab-Israeli alliance by positing an Iranian threat as the motive force has been around since the late 1980s. For a variety of reasons, it has failed every time it has been tried. This latest effort will also fail to achieve its objectives, either in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, defeating IS, resolving the Syrian conflict, or forging stronger military and political ties among Gulf states.

A wiser course would be for the United States to promote conflict resolution and mediation of regional and other tensions. This would require recognizing the legitimate concerns of all the regional states, while resisting excessive ambitions. Instead of trying to create some form of Persian Gulf NATO, directed against Iran, the United States should encourage Arab-Iranian reconciliation—which was presidential candidate Donald Trump’s original instinct. The administration should also explore the possibilities of reducing US-Iranian tensions, which, depending on the outcome of the Iranian presidential election, might become more possible on Teheran’s part. This wiser course would also require the United States finally to require of Saudi Arabia that it prevent further export of Wahhabi-inspired terrorism to the Middle East and elsewhere, as an indispensable part of achieving Trump’s primary goal of defeating IS and other Islamist terrorism.

The current US policy of exaggerating Iran’s threat, which is underpinning President Trump’s visit to the region, promises, at best, to result in the sale of a hundred billion dollars or so of weaponry to Gulf states. But such economic gains for America would pale compared to the costs it and others would incur should US policies lead to a war with Iran or further conflict elsewhere in the region.

Photo of Donald Trump by Master Sgt. Phil Speck (courtesy U.S. Air National Guard)

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. I think it doesn’t matter if war against the Iranians is stupid. When Bush attacked the Iraqis, a lot of people didn’t think he would do it because it would be stupid, but he still did. Our leaders don’t want to put up the effort to try to stay in power anymore, and starting a big enough war to a president like Trump, is a way to keep his cool job without having to be good at it.

  2. Pitching Israel as a bait with Iran …..the armament industry will revive . The new Arab force set up by KSA is to protect the armament industry profiteering. The new Leadership in Iran will be for a peace mongering whilst the Israel factoring will be able to make it a bit of a mutual friend.

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