Our assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad has interrupted years of declining US engagement in the region. We’re going to be hearing a lot more about Iran and terrorism over the next few years, but we won’t be hearing much context. Few Americans can find any of these places on a map. Fewer still understand any of the political drivers behind the next stage of this war. Much of the blame lies with a 24-hour news media driven by soundbites and pyrotechnics.
Why, for example, are American politicians constantly screaming about Iran while they protect the brutal Islamist regime that funded the 9/11 terrorists and the Iraqi insurgency? Why do the Saudis hate the Iranians and why did Israel oppose the Arab Spring? Why did the Russians back Syria’s dictator against that country’s pro-democracy forces, and why is Israel siding with Saudi Arabia and the American alt-right?
There’s a lot of context to these events that can’t fit in a blog post, but we can at least fill in a few gaps. Mideast politics seems chaotic and hopelessly violent to American audiences because we receive almost no information about events in the region and have no comprehension of the interests behind those events. It’s a large, complex place, but it’s not so complex that we can’t understand a few key details. Those details help explain our own strange and seemingly inconsistent alliances in the region.
Where Is It?
The Mideast stretches roughly from the Hindu Kush Mountains in western Afghanistan to Istanbul in the north and the Sahara in the south. We imagine the place as a desert, but that’s a generalization. There is desert. There is also excellent snow skiing. There are beautiful lakes and rivers and rich farmland.
Many, but not all Mideast countries have major oil deposits. The largest and most powerful countries are Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Water is more important to the region than oil, and climate change is threatening to render much of it uninhabitable in our lifetimes.
Who Lives in the Middle East?
Identities in the Mideast break mostly along religious and ethnic lines. At a more local level, beyond the major cities, allegiances tend to be based on family ties, clans and tribes. Outside Turkey, Iran and Israel, national identities are largely meaningless and generally ignored.
Dominant religions are Shia Islam, Sunni Islam, Christianity and Judaism, but beneath those headings lie a mosaic of smaller religious groups and sub-groups, too many to address here. Shia Muslims tend to gravitate toward Iran and Sunni’s toward Saudi Arabia, but these should be thought of like magnetism, with varying strength based on the power of other influences. For more on the difference between Shia and Sunni Islam, here’s a helpful briefing from NPR.
Major ethnic groups are Arabs, Persians (Iran), Turks, Kurds and Jews. There is limited alignment between ethnic identity and religious identity. However, politics and ethnic cleansing have been moving ethnic and religious identities more into alignment in recent decades.
For example, until the Second Gulf War, Iraq was home to large numbers of Iraqi Arab Shiites, Sunnis and Christians. And until Saddam’s reign Iraq was still home to a shrinking, but significant Jewish community. There were large Jewish communities across the region, from Iran to Egypt until the formation of the Jewish state, after which regional conflicts inspired genocide and exodus. It is important to note that the supposedly “ancient” conflict between Jews and Arabs in the region dates precisely to the period of European occupation after WW1. Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities lived together in relative quiet for centuries between the Crusades and the 20th century colonization.
Religious Alignments by Nation
Sunni Muslim Governments:
Iraq used to be on the list of Sunni governments. Until the US invasion it was governed by an oppressive Sunni and Christian minority. Today, to the extent it can said to be governed at all, its rulers are Shiite Muslims aligned with Iran. Yemen is a special case. It was governed by a Sunni majority based in the north (the country used to be officially split), but that government could never exercise authority reliably in the Shia south. Conflict erupted into a major civil war in 2015, which has devolved into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Shia Muslim Governments:
There are notable Shia minorities in the north of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Syria and Lebanon. Israel is the only Jewish state. There are no Christian states, though Christian autocrats wielded power until recently in Lebanon and Iraq. Lebanon makes neither list because its ethnic and religious divisions are too deep to fall into a single category. Since the Civil War in 1975, it has struggled to function as a state at all, with power officially divided among Christians, Shiites, Palestinian Sunnis and numerous smaller ethnic groups.
Types of Government
There are only three formal democracies in the region, Israel, Turkey and Iran. Saudi Arabia and Jordan maintain monarchies. The Gulf Emirates could be thought of as monarchies, though the realities are more complicated. Iraq has elections, but like Syria and Lebanon it is best thought of as a failed state, with a government that has little influence beyond its capital. Like Syria and Lebanon, Iraq is now a client state of Iran. Egypt is a very simple Kleptocracy, with power and almost all capital shared between a few ruling families and the military.
Turkey and Iran are distinct in that their relatively more democratic foundations change the way they exercise power. Until recently, Turkey was a militantly secular country aiming to take its place in Europe. After the Second Gulf War, religious parties gained enough power, both at the ballot box and inside the military, to overturn the country’s enforced secularism. For more than a decade the country has been ruled by an increasingly authoritarian theocratic President.
In Iran, a ruling oligarchy, split between religious authorities and the military, blunts popular will by redirecting energy toward a vilified external enemy, Israel. For the Turks, that evil external enemy is the country’s Kurdish minority, though in recent years “the West” has been added.
The relatively democratic nature of power in Turkey and Iran is very important to understanding alignments in the region. Elections in Iran may be carefully manipulated by clerics, but they can still lose. In recent years the ruling oligarchs have been forced to deal with elected governments they did not choose. By contrast, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia don’t need an external enemy to keep their people in line. They accomplish that goal with simple terror. They can form alliances with the Americans and Israel because popular opinion inside their borders is mostly irrelevant. This is the most important detail to understanding Mideast politics. Countries most hostile to US and Israeli interests are the ones with the greatest sensitivity to popular will.
Israel operates the region’s freest parliamentary democracy, inside the constraints of the region’s most heavily militarized state. From its unapologetically socialist roots in the Sabra era, the country has devolved in recent decades under the leadership of a Kleptocratic, arguably Fascist coalition until it looks ominously similar to its neighbors.
How Are These Countries Aligned Today?
In broad strokes, the Sunni dictatorships and Israel have formed an unsteady, awkward alliance against Iran and its allies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Among the Sunni countries, Turkey is the most unreliable partner, with interests least aligned with the others, and in flux under changing democratic pressures. The Turks have the best regional relationship with Israel, and long historical suspicion of the Saudis, Russians and the Persians. Further complicating the picture is Turkey’s internal politics, where the new Islamist autocracy remains fragile, vulnerable to democratic activism and to lingering hostility inside the military. Turkey is a wildcard.
With significant help from Israel, Saudi Arabia encouraged the US invasion of Iraq in order to remove the threat of Saddam Hussein. Then the Saudis organized and funded the Sunni insurgency in Iraq, while the Israelis built up the Kurdish resistance, both hoping to thwart the development of a stable democratic government there, limit US influence, and counter growing Iranian power. That insurgency fueled the rise of Al Qaida in Iraq, which then morphed into the more lethal, more barbaric, and unmanageable ISIL. Saudi Arabia wanted ISIL to succeed in destabilizing Iraq’s new Iranian-backed Shia government, but not to be so successful as to threaten Saudi Arabia itself.
Nobody in the region likes ISIL, but none of the Sunni countries wanted them destroyed. ISIL is an unstable element in this balance of interests, an element that always seems present in one form or another in Mideast calculations. ISIL terrorism in the West was valuable to the Sunni powers as a way to keep the US engaged in the region, containing Iranian influence. However, if ISIL had succeeded in Syria and Iraq, the Saudis would have been terrified, as their monarchs would be their next target. The ideal arrangement would have been to have American troops occupying Syria in a perpetual stalemate, guaranteed by low-level ISIL insurgency locally and sporadic ISIL terrorism in the west, thereby outsourcing the job of protecting Saudi Arabia and Israel to the US military while simultaneously containing Iran’s expansion.
This is the ‘snake-eating-its-tail’ circle of disaster that plays out endlessly in the region, as ruling autocrats seek to maintain their fragile hold over their populations while manipulating the US. The central interest of the Sunni dictators is maintaining a perpetual balance of terror in the region and abroad. Their policy toward the US is to convince American voters that the only force standing between them and terrorist mayhem is the repressive power of ruling elites. This has been a profitable scam for generations.
With ISIL more or less dismantled, the democratic insurgency in Syria destroyed, and Russian and Iranian troops largely controlling Syria, the Saudis and Israelis now face the threat of Iranian power extending in an unbroken arc all the way to the Mediterranean. Until recently, a forever war in Syria seemed like the best opportunity for the Sunni autocrats to limit the growth of Iranian power in the region. But with the rise of a US Administration that can be bought and sold like a back-alley crack whore, the all-time greatest foreign policy dream of Saudi Arabia and Israel is within reach – a US war with Iran.
Why Are US Interests Aligned with Israel in the Region?
In short, US interests are not aligned with Israel. From the beginning, Israel has been in a very difficult position, from which it had to leverage every potential element of power just to survive. This made them tough, innovative and resilient, but it also made them volatile and dangerous to work with. Israel pursues its own pragmatic interests to the end, because they have precious little room for sentimentality or error.
We have no formal alliance with Israel. Neither country has any commitments to come to each other’s aid. Our interests have been consistently at odds with Israel, a fact that was baked into US foreign policy until the Second Bush Administration. For a lot of good reasons, Americans generally like Israel and sympathize with the country’s goals, but until Bush II our government kept Israel at a careful distance.
Until recently, our main interest in the Mideast was maintaining a reliable supply of oil. Since the region produces nothing else of any value to anyone, oil was pretty much our only interest there. Our smarter, long-term interest would have been the development of stable representative governments in the region. However, no such regime could emerge without creating at least temporary instability, and instability threatened the flow of oil. So we stuck with the dictators.
At the level of marketing and rhetoric, Israel and the US share an interest in fighting terrorism. However, on the ground, terrorism is a tool like any other. The spread of Islamist terrorism in Europe and the US has been a vital hedge for Israel and the Sunni dictatorships, a lifeline that shores up US financial and military support. The occasional terrorist incident is necessary to remind Americans that they need the Saudis, and that Israel is their buddy.
Have you noticed that terrorist attacks on western civilians beyond the region are always instigated by Sunnis, not by Shias? Of course you haven’t. Iran has carried out attacks against US and European targets in places like Lebanon, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, where those attacks were part of its wider cold war with the Saudis. Iran has had no interest in killing civilians outside this war zone (though they have been brutal at times with Israeli civilians abroad). That may change with the recent assassination, but it probably won’t. Creating terror among western civilians has never been in Iran’s interests, and still isn’t.
So how did Israel come to exercise so much influence over the US in the region? They’ve invested decades cultivating ties to America’s far right religious racists, an effort that at many stages seemed foolish if not self-destructive. Israel has forged ties to wacko American TV preachers like John Hagee, supported far right parties in Europe, and honored Steve Bannon at a special dinner. Thanks to a long campaign, alt right figures in the US see Israelis as “white people” battling savage brown “Islamists.”
How can Israelis support racist parties in the West? Israel and western anti-Semites share a common interest in detaching Jews from their ties to their countries and communities. At the crudest level of pragmatic self-interest, Israel suffers if Jews in America feel safe there. Israeli survival depends on Jews around the world seeing Israel as their homeland of last resort. A background level of anti-Semitic violence is crucial to their plans. Israel needs people like Donald Trump and Steve Bannon.
This has moved Israel into partisan politics in the US for the first time, and in a very dangerous way. Israel is now aligned with a declining Republican Party, in open hostility to Democrats. For the moment, this devil’s bargain has given the Israelis more influence in the US than they have ever enjoyed, but the long-term cost of this alliance with broadly anti-Semitic western racists could prove disastrous.
Meanwhile, the US no longer needs Persian Gulf oil. As a consequence, the country’s only material interest in the region is melting away. The world is awash in oil with demand waning and the US has become the world’s largest oil producer. Oil demand in the west is now very flexible, as a price shock would drive up domestic production while accelerating adoption of renewable energy. This is a terrifying threat for Saudi Arabia, as the Kingdom has nothing to offer the world but sand, oil and terror. Declining oil demand is also a sideways threat to Israel, as its position as a friendly force in a sensitive region would be compromised by declining regional interest.
Why Have We Been Killing People in Syria?
As part of the Arab Spring in 2011, Syrians rose up in opposition to the brutal dictatorship of the Assad family. That uprising was opposed by basically every country in the region, including Israel. Nothing is as scary to the existing regimes as a new democracy.
When the government began slaughtering peaceful demonstrators, those protestors stopped being peaceful and a civil war began. The Obama Administration tried to end this war in 2013, and we could have, with very little effort or risk. Republicans rose up and halted their efforts and a brief Syrian uprising turned into a mechanical slaughter that has claimed half a million lives so far.
After the Obama Administration’s hands were tied, the old Al Qaida cell in Iraq moved into the chaos in Syria and morphed into a monster. We were left with little choice but to engage them, with help from local Kurdish fighters. After ISIL was largely defeated, the Trump Administration pulled our troops back to allow the Turks and Russians to expand their foothold in Syria. But we still have troops on the ground for reasons that are unclear at present.
I Thought Israel and the Saudis Hated Each Other?
There are no friendships across Mideast borders, but Israel and Saudi Arabia share a hostility toward Iran and a dependence on US presence in the region. So, they work together very discreetly.
This was not always the case. Israel’s first great enemies were the Ba’athist dictatorships in the Sunni countries on its borders. But Saudi Arabia was always threatened by the Ba’athists and never fully warmed to the anti-Israel fervor. Israel defeated those regimes so soundly, leaving them with a festering Palestinian refugee/militant threat, that by the late 70’s they had begun looking for an exit strategy. Today, the repressive regimes on Israel’s border are a hedge against popular hostility in those countries, and against the still-hot anti-Semitism of the Shias.
Who Won the Iraq War?
Iran emerged from our invasion of Iraq as the winner, to the great disappointment and surprise of the Saudis who expected to walk in and take over.
Why Don’t We Just Leave?
There is nothing left for the US to accomplish in Iraq. Our engagement there, driven by bigotry, ignorance, and manipulation by our nominal allies has been a catastrophe. We lost everything we thought we might achieve there, on every level, along with thousands of lives and trillions of wasted dollars. We remain there for no better reason than we have no idea what else to do.
We could have helped to end the war in Syria. That country today might have looked like Libya or Lebanon, which would be a marked improvement for Syrians and the world, likely the placing the country on a long trajectory toward more representative government. We failed and it’s over. For a time we had a role fostering the emergence of a stable, somewhat prosperous, and safe area for the Kurds, but Trump destroyed that effort to satisfy the people who pay him. There’s nothing left for our military to accomplish in Syria.
Isn’t Iran a Threat to the US?
Iran is as much a threat to the US as Saudi Arabia or Turkey. Any of these countries would need to push back against US power if they gained enough influence of their own. Their citizens hate us about equally, which is however not as much as we generally imagine.
Unlike the Sunni terrorists the Saudis have spread around the world, the Shias have little interest beyond the region, at least at this point. In theory, if Iran under its present theocratic leadership came to dominate the Mideast, they might bump up against our interests. But as long they kept selling oil, it’s hard to imagine what they might do there that would be worse what we tolerate from the Saudis.
As for Iran’s theocratic government, they have far more respect for human rights, women’s rights, democracy and some nominal form of rule of law than the Saudis. Any conversation about the evil of the Iranians has to be placed in context against the regimes we continue to support.
Shouldn’t We Stop Fighting Wars Abroad?
We could certainly benefit from a great deal more humility, caution and restraint. We were gifted by inheritance with the world’s most powerful and influential diplomatic infrastructure. We were also gifted by inheritance with the world’s only global military capacity. We’ve chosen to decimate that diplomatic power. Instead we unleashed our military indiscriminately, placing it at the service of opportunists and outright lunatics.
Our foreign interventions have been driven by the ignorance and paranoia of white voters rather than by any practical global interests. Faced with a simple choice between continued knee-jerk interventions organized to rile up voters or no intervention at all, restraint is probably better. However, one of the most persistent falsehoods of our politics is the bizarre notion that there is a “here” and an “over there.” No such thing exists in our world.
What happens in Riyadh or Bangkok will affect families in suburban Dallas regardless whether they develop any knowledge or interest in foreign affairs. There simply is no “there.” We have organized ourselves into nation-states, but we live on a single, increasingly tiny planet. Realities will intrude on our imaginary borders whether we acknowledge them or not.
If we fail to develop smarter ways to protect peace and security on our planet, we will pay for that failure right where we live. We are paying now for those failures, and we will continue to pay if we decide to simply shrink into an imagined domestic turtleshell.
Our approach to global affairs has been poisoned by the ignorance and racism that drives everything else in our politics, to disastrous effect. Withdrawal within our borders is as false a solution as perpetual war. One way or another, to protect ourselves and the survival of representative democracy, we must learn to engage the world with intelligence and measure.