War with Iran Would Not Mean Happy Ending for Middle East

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by Shireen T. Hunter

A recent article by veteran Washington Post columnist David Ignatius urges Democratic Party politicians to adopt a harder posture on Iran. He seems to suggest that if Iran were to stop interfering in Middle East politics, all of the region’s problems would be solved. Ignatius writes that “Tehran’s behavior is a source of constant friction in the region; real stability and security won’t be possible until Iran backs off.”

Such reasoning implies that Iran is at the root of all of the region’s problems. Yet a more balanced look at the history of Middle East’s problems and conflicts shows that since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran’s activities have at most complicated some of these conflicts rather than caused them.

Indeed, the Islamic revolution itself was partly the consequence of these disputes. For example, throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, various radical Arab states—from Nasser’s Egypt to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi plus various Palestinian groups—helped Islamist and leftist opposition groups in Iran with money and training, including in the PLO camps in Jordan and Lebanon.

The Israeli-Palestinian Dispute

According to a pervasive view since the 1990s, had it not been for Iran’s nefarious activities, the Palestinians and Israelis would now be living in peace.

True, Iran has supported some Palestinian groups such as Hamas. However, Iran has never been in a position to dictate to these groups or to prevent agreements between Israel and the Palestinian groups. For example, Iran could not prevent the Oslo accords of 1993. Nor was Iran responsible for their failure. Rather, the political dynamics of Israel and the Palestinians played the more decisive role.

Today, if President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is less than a resounding success—despite the support of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE along with the acquiescence of Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco—it will be because of the intrinsic dynamics of the problem. The bottom line is that no country can either force the Palestinians into an accommodation that they view as unfair or prevent them from reaching an accommodation if the offer is fair.  In short, no country can either deliver the Palestinians or block peace between them and Israel. Therefore, even in the aftermath of a war with Iran, the Palestinian issue would remain as intractable as it is today.

Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq

Lebanon’s present-day predicament is also a direct consequence of the Palestinian problem. Lebanon plunged into a long civil war when King Hussein of Jordan, during the so-called Black September Operations of 1970, kicked the PLO out of Jordan and into Lebanon. Then came the 1982 Israeli invasion of the country. This opened the way for now revolutionary Iran to create a toehold for itself. Iranian influence, through its relationship with the Hezbollah, has made Lebanese relations with Israel more problematic. However, Hezbollah is only able to do so because of the ongoing and unresolved Palestinian problem. If a viable agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinians, Hezbollah’s ability to influence Arab politics would plummet.

No doubt, Iran’s help to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria has helped bolster it. But the real game- changer in the Syrian drama was Russia’s decision to stick by Assad. It was Russia’s entry into the conflict that raised the stakes of an extended American military intervention in Syria, not the presence of some ragtag Shia militia. Again, if the Israelis and the Western powers had offered Assad an attractive enough deal, such as the return of the Golan Heights, he would have ended his alliance of convenience with Iran. Even if Assad goes, no Syrian government with any legitimacy would forgo claims to the Golan. Thus Iran or no Iran, there would always be tension between Israel and any viable Syrian government. Only a truncated Syria could be persuaded to give up its claim to Golan.

Iran’s influence in Baghdad, which is much exaggerated, is the direct result of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. This war was also waged under the misapprehension that once Saddam Hussein was gone, a thousand democratic flowers would bloom and the winds of democratic change would also topple Iran’s Islamist regime.

Yet the war only succeeded in bringing into the open Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian divisions and unleashing intense regional competition for influence within Iraq’s new political setup. If Iran disappeared from the map of the Middle East, Iraqi Shias would not likely submit to Saudi Arabia. In fact, more than Iranian machinations, it was the behavior of Iraq’s Sunnis towards the new government in Baghdad and the Saudi, Turkish, and Qatari sabotage of Iraq’s Shia-dominated government that led the country to turn towards Iran. It would also be naïve to assume that any Iranian government would have allowed Iraq to become a source of threat. The memory of Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran and the eight-year-long war is still very much alive.

Meanwhile, war with Iran would almost certainly extend into Iraq and could result in its total dismemberment.

Yemen

Yemen’s problems, too, have deeper roots related to its own ethnic and sectarian makeup and the impact of intra-Arab politics going back to the pro-Nasser coup d’etat of 1962 and the ensuing civil war. Saudi Arabia’s predatory approach to Yemen also dates back to the 1930s as part of the House of Saud’s conquest of Arabia. The current Houthi rebellion is the continuation of an as-yet-unresolved civil war.

Iran has used the Houthi rebellion as leverage against Saudi Arabia. However, when the Saudi King asks the United States to “cut the head of this snake”—Iran—no wonder Tehran wants to create trouble for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is currently facing an utter mess not because of Iran but as a result of the behavior of its reckless crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. In a hurry to assert his position at home and in the Arab world, he embarked on a foolish adventure by launching the attack on Yemen. Moreover, the Yemen situation has become more complicated because another reckless crown prince, in the UAE, has seen the war as an opportunity to stake his claim to regional influence.

A war against Iran is more likely to complicate the situation in Yemen than to resolve it in any way satisfactory to the West and its Arab allies.

The notion that the Middle East’s problems are caused by a single country or a single personality has always been faulty. In the 1950s, it was thought that once you got rid of Mossadegh and later Gamal Abdel Nasser then everything would be fine. Then the focus shifted to Hafez al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qadhafi. Even the shah of Iran, whose ambitions were once seen in the mid-1970s as dangerous for the Middle East, did not escape unscathed from this mind set.

None of these personalities has survived, and their countries are in turmoil. So is the Middle East despite many wars and coup d’etats. Another war would only make the situation worse for all concerned. In fact, the Middle East’s problems are partially the result of these external interventions. Real peace in the Middle East will come only if the legitimate security interests of all countries and peoples are addressed. Efforts at absolute subjugation always lead to new rebellions.

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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.

SHOW 8 COMMENTS

8 Comments

  1. ‘Iran is responsible for all of the friction in the regiion’ hmm … where have we heard that before? That was the same line used to get us to take out Saddam Hussein in Iraq. All we had to do was to overthrow Saddam and everything else would fall into place.

    We are so gullible and stupid that every foreign country and govt in exile knows exactly how to play us … give us a Hitler and flatter us that we are the only ones who can stop him, anyone who objects is a Neville Chamberlain. Afterward when things blow up, well that’s because there was another Hitler interfering with our great plans. This is the root of our forever war mindset. We are unwilling to see the role we have in stirring the pot. Our vanity will not allow it. Yemen is the most tragic innocent bystander to date.

  2. Western interference in the middle east is the root cause of all evil in the region.

    The collapse of Ottoman empire had opened the field for competition between French and British empires to replace it, which had been exacerbated by the discovery of Oil, and imposition of the Jewish state to the region – all of which were the products of Western undue interference in the region that still lingering to date.

    Yet, with the rise of China, India, Japan, Russia, Brazil, along with other major global economies; selfish western interests in the middle east is doomed; the wedlock between the European powers and the U.S which had produced Israel out of their unholy alliance can no longer operate with impunity in the region, while ignoring other rising economic powers from other parts of the world whom equally see their vital interests locked in a peaceful and stable middle east.

    Unless, Western interference is significantly contained, the middle east will not see peace in the foreseeable future.

  3. CHRISTIAN J CHUBA

    Yes, I agree with you; not just vanity but other deep psychological needs.

    For example:

    The sight of Arabs in their kafiyahs seated besides Israelis with their Kippas attending a conference organized by Protestant Americans brings tears of religious ecstasy to the eyes of Americans.

    Kitsch! That is why men are being killed.

  4. The Ayatollah regime, not so much Iran, is the problem. You can’t obfuscate the situation. The secular people of Iran, are hostages to inhumane Ayatollahs. The world should help, but not make the Ayatollahs feel as if they represent Iran by negotiating with them, as it escalates.

  5. Ms Shireen for some reason you didn’t call out the main culprit in the ME! For the past 70 years the leaders like those whom you named as Nasser, Qadhafi, Asad (father) minus Saddam who was a traitor were removed or assassinated because they were resisting the created conditions in the ME by the west. Now Iran is trying to achieve those leaders aspirations by resisting and not accepting the conditions created in the ME by the west. Iran has learned a lot from the fate and misfortunes of those effective leaders in the ME. I’m so happy that Iran is keeping the level of tension high and hopefully it can raise the tension even higher yet by reclaiming Bahrain as part of its sovereignty by filing at the UN. The inept and corrupt Shah gave up Bahrain he because was checked by the Brits.

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