War with Iran and the Demise of America’s Arrogant Foreign Policy — Part 1: The Setting
While America has portrayed itself as the champion of freedom and democracy around the globe, it has acted as a hidden colonial power throughout much of its history (see Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire) and today it is doing so more openly and with much hubris. America is using a double barrel shotgun of economic and military threats to coerce Iran and to trample Palestinian rights as it supports the worst of the worst in the Middle East. There is still time for Trump’s dynamic bomb-throwing duo — Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton (who as an aside has taken money from a terrorist organization, the MEK, to speak at their annual meeting in Paris and to endorse their overthrow of the Tehran regime) — to pause, read Edel and Brand’s The Lessons of Tragedy, study some history and spend time with their assumed adversaries to better understand their thinking and the theater of their operation before advising their all-knowing master Donald Trump.
Let me first set the stage in the region before focusing on the Trumpian confrontation with Iran, the likelihood of armed conflict and a possible way out. Trump has enthusiastically slapped Palestinian faces, poked a finger in Arab eyes and confronted any Muslim who has an ounce of compassion for his or her fellow human beings. He has moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, in recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a city annexed by Israel that could eventually have become in part the capital of a Palestinian state. Trump has said little while Israel quietly annexed more Palestinian land for its settlements. He has enthusiastically endorsed the annexation of the Golan Heights, captured by force by Israel. All of this on top of past injustices heaped on Palestinians — Israel not allowing the return of Palestinians to their homes, the annexation of property without fair compensation and the treatment of Arab Israelis as second class citizens. America stands alone in the entire world in support of Israel’s illegal actions. Its blind support is over the top and will have much blowback for Israel. All the while Arab dictators, who without American support would likely fall from power, have shamefully kept deathly quiet.
Arabs and Muslims surely recall the well-known Prophetic saying that on the Day of Reckoning the oppressor, the oppressed, and the person(s) who stood by and observed the oppression will be called upon to answer: the oppressor for oppression, the oppressed for not resisting the oppression, and the bystander for not assisting the oppressed. How long will Muslims simply stand by?
Alongside its support of Israel, Washington also backs the brutal Sisi in Egypt, where he engages in the suppression of Egyptians in his quest to rule until 2030. The United States supports military outlaws attempting to take over the legally and internationally recognized government of Libya. America supports the murderer and torturer known the world over, Mohammad bin Salman, in the suppression of Saudis and horrific adventures in Yemen and in other parts of the Middle East. All the while, the U.S. has untold number of bases in the Middle East and conducts covert operations (some of which could be classified as acts of terror) in support of its client dictators and short-term economic interests.
Yet the U.S., with a straight face and forgetting the atrocities of its allies in the Middle East, looks at the world and classifies the Muslim Brotherhood (an organization that has disavowed violence and acted so for a number of years), Hezbollah (a legitimate party in Lebanon that carries out charitable work and admittedly acts in support of Iran in Lebanon, Syria and elsewhere) and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC, a formal part of the Iranian military forces) as terrorist organizations.
While Washington backs aggressors and dictators, Trump utters little or no criticism of the government of Saudi Arabia that tortures its citizens, murders a journalist and finances terrorists and mosques that preach hatred around the world. Yet he calls Iran a state sponsor of terror despite the fact that Iran has not been involved in a single act of terror in the U.S. since the Iranian Revolution and fewer than a handful of verified such acts internationally, while nearly all the terrorists that carried the 9/11 atrocities were Saudi citizens as was the mastermind, Osama bin Laden. All this in the Trumpian belief that if a lie is repeated enough times, the general public begins to believe it as fact.
A person may ask “how can the United States back aggressors and target a foreign power in a world that boasts order and organizations such as the United Nations?” The answer is, because it uses its economic power, covert operations and military threats to get its way. If this is not bullying and arrogance, then what is? While Washington can buy the obedience of strongman dictators, it has no idea how to make friends of the strongman’s people. Where is America popular in the Middle East and North Africa? Nowhere, with the exception of Israel. The available information in a Pew Research Poll in 2018 showed unfavorable ratings in all four countries with available rating — Jordan (82%), Turkey (72%), Lebanon (64%), Tunisia (56%).
A few words on recent American-Iranian relations since 1979, the year of the Iranian Revolution, to put the ongoing confrontation in perspective. After the Revolution, the Shah needed medical attention and the U.S. felt obliged to admit him to the United States. This led to students taking over the U.S. Embassy and American hostages. While this was a heinous act, which must be condemned, the students have said that it was in the expectation of a U.S. coup as had happened in 1953. Ayatollah Khomeini’s after-the-fact endorsement of the hostage taking made matters much worse. This was Khomeini’s biggest mistake. He had the opportunity to develop Iran and be an inspiration to the Middle East and more generally to all Muslims. But he wanted revenge against everything that the Shah had done. The U.S. responded by freezing Iranian assets and waging a campaign of expanding primary and later secondary sanctions that have been in force until now. Later, in 1980, Saddam Hussein, with the tacit backing of the U.S., invaded Iran. Iran was ill-prepared and totally isolated with only Syrian support. The United Nations did nothing. And when Iran pushed the Iraqis out and threatened Basra, the U.S. and its European allies, including the Arabs of the Persian Gulf who had financed Saddam Hussein, offered Iran a financially generous peace. Khomeini again wanted revenge and made his second biggest mistake, this time against Saddam for having expelled him out of Iraq at the request of the Shah. So the brutal war continued for another five long years. But the U.S. and its allies could not stomach an Iranian conquest of Iraq, so they facilitated the transfer of internationally outlawed chemical weapons to Iraq. As a result, thousands of Iranians were killed by Western supplied chemical weapons (and their bodies were laid down in the marshes for Iraq tanks to drive over) and even more Iranians were relegated to oxygen tanks. Iranian leaders realized that international law and its norms were for the powerful. Iran needed allies and better defensive capabilities. Their fear was further heightened by U.S. bases all around in support of hostile Arab countries with numerous covert operations all in the convenient name of the war on terror. Iran felt threatened as never before. The lessons Iran learned in its war with Iraq are blazed into the Iranian psyche. There is no international rule of law, and the world’s powers pay mere lip service to the rule of law. So Iran nurtured Hezbollah and strengthened its alliance with Syria (in part explaining its support for Syria’s brutal and distasteful regime).
Later, in or around 1993, Iran decided that the best defense against foreign aggression was nuclear capabilities. It began covert nuclear enrichment, something that if disclosed would have probably led to massive bombing of its facilities and infrastructure. While Iran had the right to enrichment and assistance for peaceful development of nuclear power as a signatory to the NPT (Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons), it did its work in secret. When this came to light, sanctions on Iran were tightened and threats from the U.S. and Israel followed. Of course Iran could have and can still pull out of the NPT, but if it did it would rapidly face external aggression by the “rule-abiding” and sanctimonious Western powers led by the United States. As an aside, this is the reason North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons and capability. It does not take a genius to make this connection and recognize this fact.
While Iran has been treated in this manner, some other facts about the NPT should be noted. Under the NPT, the major powers were required to reduce their nuclear arsenal over time, something they have not done and in fact they have developed a wider range of nuclear weapons. They were required to assist signatories to the NPT in peaceful nuclear research and its application (power), which was denied to Iran after the Iranian Revolution. And they agreed not to assist non-signatories, which the U.S. did in the case of India. Moreover, Israel is reputed to have over 200 nuclear warheads, with the original batch of enriched uranium hijacked from the United States. And importantly, Iran offered, with the endorsement of Arab countries, to make the entire region a nuclear-free zone. But because Israel disagreed the U.S. did not support this most sensible of solutions.
We may dislike the Iranian regime, but that does not give us the right to treat Iran and most importantly its people in this cavalier fashion. What are the likely consequences?
In the post that follows, we address the current standoff with Iran — why now, the likelihood of armed conflict and a peaceful way forward.