Washington Gets It Wrong in Middle East…Again

UNRWA Commissioner-General Pierre Krähenbühl with members of the US-supported school parliament at the UNRWA Girls’ School in Jalazone refugee camp, West Bank, December 13, 2015. (Department of State).

by Robert E. Hunter

By announcing this past week that it is cutting off all U.S. support for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA), the Trump administration knocked the props from under this 70-year-old international program to help support five million Palestinian refugees from various Arab-Israeli conflicts who are located across the region.

The response has been swift. The European Union, speaking for its 28 members, called the US decision “regrettable.” Germany, which for obvious reasons is Israel’s strongest supporter in Europe, pledged to “substantially increase its funding to UNRWA.” At home, Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) tweeted that “Further impoverishing Palestinians only empowers extremists, undermines the P.A. [Palestinian Authority] and harms Israel’s security. Completely cutting off funding to UNRWA is inhumane and undermines our own interests in the region.”

With this action, the Trump administration killed what little hope still existed for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict and ended any role as an “honest broker,” although it pretends otherwise.

The U.S. announcement was not that surprising, given the administration’s unalloyed support for Israel regarding the Palestinians. For his part, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been a long-standing opponent of an independent Palestinian state, although for foreign audiences he sometimes says the opposite.

In addition to moving the US embassy to Jerusalem, Washington has backed efforts by the Israeli government, supported by Egypt, to strangle the economy of the Gaza enclave—which ironically strengthens Hamas politically. The Israeli Knesset has also decided to formalize second-class status for Arabs in Israel proper.

With the informal alliance between Israel and key Persian Gulf Arab states to counter Iran, Gulf state interest in the Palestinians has evaporated. It was always mostly a way of countering Israel and assuring Arab peoples of fealty to recovering “Arab lands” rather than concern for any Palestinian suffering. Thus no one will pay a political or security price for intensified Palestinian isolation. A moral price is another matter.

The U.S. rationale for its actions in the Middle East is easy to fathom on domestic political grounds but next to impossible in terms of U.S. interests. For years, there have been only two significant threats from the region that could impinge on the United States.

The first, the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), has been only tangentially a threat to the United States as opposed to partners and allies in the Middle East and in Europe. The IS threat was itself in major part a reaction to America’s biggest-ever Middle East blunder, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which intensified struggles both within the Sunni world and between it and the Shias. Although the Islamic State is not yet on its last legs, US-led military operations have reduced it to a small fraction of territory it once controlled. But terrorist threats from Wahhabi Islam still continue across the Middle East, Southwest and Southeast Asia, and parts of Africa, supported by the Saudi religious establishment. The United States has long turned a blind eye to these threats, because of deference to Riyadh but in direct opposition to U.S. and others’ interests.

The other threat, more strategic and with potential consequences far beyond the region, has been from Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons. The 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) dealt with that threat, effectively trammeling for many years any nuclear weapons aspirations that the Islamic Republic might have harbored. Quixotically, by walking away from the JCPOA last May, President Donald Trump has undercut this major U.S. strategic achievement, which was rivaled only by the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty for its value in stabilizing the region.

U.S. hostility toward Iran, to the point of potentially damaging America’s own strategic interests perhaps even leading to war, stems from the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the hostage crisis, and the Teheran regime’s efforts to proselytize across the region and even into Central Asia. But that threat has long since dissipated, as the Islamic regime found virtually no takers for its ideology.

Two significant challenges are left. First, there is Iran’s military engagement in Syria. Often seen as an effort by Teheran to dominate the region through a so-called Shia Belt, this is geopolitical and ideological fantasy in a Muslim world overwhelmingly dominated by Sunnis. But given Iran’s military support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Israel in particular has major concerns. (Whether Iran’s support for Hezbollah would be reduced or even disappear if U.S.-led confrontation with Iran ended is unknowable.)

The other Iranian threat is its continued opposition to Israel. No Israeli can take this lightly. But it has instrumental value as a political tool to help the Iranian religious establishment retain its hold on power by making impossible any reconciliation with the United States. No major change in Iranian-U.S. relations will be possible unless and until the ayatollahs and some other Iranians stop fulminating about Israel, even though it is mostly talk. The road between Teheran and Washington ineluctably runs through Jerusalem.

President Barack Obama defied strong domestic opposition to negotiate the JCPOA. But the domestic counterattack, even within his own administration, was instantaneous. The subsequent U.S. failure to implement all the promised sanctions relief, plus imposition of other hurdles for Iran to meet, robbed the agreement of any positive political impetus in support of President Hassan Rouhani. Maybe that could not have been possible. Maybe Iran would have continued behavior the United States finds unacceptable, including its ballistic missile development and involvement in Syria. But under Obama, the United States didn’t even try.

Despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s conclusion as recently as last week that Iran is complying with the JCPOA, Donald Trump has redoubled America’s fealty to the strategic and political interests of the Sunni Arabs and Israel by increasing sanctions on Iran. The administration believes that it is now “a question of will they survive”—that is, will he succeed in crushing Iran. The administration has also provided open-ended support for long-standing Saudi strategic ambitions in Yemen, under the pretext that the war there is all about Iran. Now U.S. forces have been complicit in major civilian casualties in a Pentagon-run operation unmediated by any analysis of basic U.S. interests.

Even if the U.S. assault on Iran succeeds in toppling the regime, without a war that will impose steep costs on everyone, the record of positive outcomes to US-engineered “regime change” is dismal. One contender for power, with major U.S. support, is the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), a cult with a record of killing Americans that is despised by virtually all Iranians because of its backing of Saddam Hussein in the eight-year Iraq-Iran war. It is no longer on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations only because of intense lobbying, including by leading U.S. military and civilian figures who were paid for speaking on the MEK’s behalf.

The United States does have interests in the Middle East. Washington should provide for Israel’s security, counter terrorism, and prevent any threat to the flow of oil (none now exists). It should try to tamp down, rather than exacerbate, as at present, political and ideological strife between Sunnis and Shias. It should limit rather than expand opportunities for Russia. And it should foster political and security structures that can include all the states of the region. In addition to its security and political commitment to Israel, notably its right to live at peace within secure and recognized borders, the United States also has long acknowledged a political and moral obligation to the Palestinians and an independent state, as stated by almost all U.S. presidents for 40 years.

But none of these objectives can be achieved through current U.S. policies, beginning with the failure to do the basic strategic analysis of what truly matters to the United States. Instead, Washington continues to take its cues from regional partners whose interests cannot be identical with those of the United States and in some cases are directly at variance. Step One has to be for the United States to regain control over its Middle East policies, instead of being too often subservient to the desires of others.


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.


One Comment

  1. I agree that Iran’s threats to Israel is empty words/rhetoric and is more a compensatory gesture for its impotence versus Israel (bombed in Syria, its nuclear documents stolen in daylight, stuxnet virus disabling its centrifuges, her nuclear scientists killed – all by Israel), how does one square that with Israel bombing wherever it wants and who ever it wants anytime it wants with impunity and without any international protest – perhaps even with a nod of approval? First, it was Gaza, now Syria, soon Iraq and very soon after Iran itself are targets. Ambassador Hunter, more is at stake than it seems. A rogue nation has wrecked the consensus about not attacking a sovereign nation until there is imminent and demonstrable danger. In this endeavor it has been abetted and supported by the AIPAC occupied Washington.
    Besides, wishing that Israel disappear does not mean that jews be thrown out of their homes, unless you accept the Israel equivalence with all the jews. This is the basic zionist tenet, disputed by many jews and fair minded people all over who also believe in a democratic, nonsectarian state in place of the current supremacist state that occupies Palestine and brutally subjugates its Arab population.

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