A Pocket Guide to Mideast Politics

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:

Saudi Arabia
Jordan
Bahrain
Egypt
Kuwait
The Emirates
Yemen (north)
Syria
Turkey

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:

Iran
Iraq
Yemen (south)

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.

28 Comments

    1. I just read the article – it is a concern. I have also read that a large number of senior Pentagon officials, particularly civilians are leaving for various reasons. In any case there is a lot of turnover there now, just like in the rest of the Administration.

      In this line of thought, both Esper and Pompeo graduated in the top ranks of the West Point Class of 1986. Pompeo at the top of the class. So they’ve known each other since the mid-80’s. Both also left active duty as mid-level officers and prior to the nasty post 9/11 wars. They served during that period when the military had a great deal of hubris. Pompeo left shortly after the Gulf War, although he did not see action in the War. Esper left in 1996 and did see action in the war, in that his unit was involved in the left-hook that crushed Hussein’s Army. But the Gulf War was actually more like a glorified training exercise with the exception of some reserve & NG units. It certainly was not the onerous post 9/11 combat. In so far, as I am concerned both are effectively non-combat veterans and certainly did not have significant command responsibility in combat. That is what seasons a senior military officer plus going to the various military schools. Accordingly, I think both are more like typical bureaucrats who learn how to survive well in a such an environment and certainly do not deserve the respect typically given to senior military commanders. They may well be typical Trump sycophants.

  1. This is really good, but I’d add the following:

    1) Al-Qaeda and ISIL are not the same thing. Yes, they’re both sunni but they arose from different regions and are hostile to each other. The Al-Qaeda component that’s been battling in Syria is the Al-Nusra front, the so-called “moderate Sunnis” that we Americans have taken to support. Let that sink in and you can get a sense for how f*cked-up our Syria policy has been. It’s even worse than you laid out. Assad is an Alawite but he’s been fairly secular (just like Saddam), as he would need to be to rule a place like Syria with significant religious factions (including Christian, Druze, etc. in addition to the blanket Sunni / Shia divides). Assad and Saddam care about their clan, but otherwise largely stayed away from sectarian conflicts. Our beef with Assad isn’t that he’s a fundamentalist, it’s that he’s allied with Russia and Iran. So when the opportunity came to destabilize him, we took it, without caring about what we’d want to replace him. The problem was that the cure was worse than the disease, in the form of ISIL. So to weaken ISIL, we supported Al-Qaeda / Al-Nusra and the Kurds.

    So where has that left us? We don’t want Assad, so we supported ISIL to weaken him. But we don’t want them either, so we supported Al-Qaeda. But we don’t want them, so we support the Kurds. But we don’t want them (we actually don’t mind the Kurds, but Turkey hates them with a passion, and we don’t want to piss of our ally who lets us use their bases for our Mid-East operations) either. So who do we want? Beats me. Which is why I’ve always advocated just leaving the place already. Ironically, when we finally gave up and let Iran and Russia do their thing in Syria, ISIL was gone in about a month, because their objective was clear: keep Assad in power. ISIL was never a big deal or as scary as people built them up to me. It was our schizophrenic (that’s probably an insult to schizophrenics) foreign policy that kept us from deciding what we wanted to do with them.

    2) Israel and Saudi Arabia are more than just allies of convenience. They really like each other, and share the same view of what the middle east should be. Most of Israel’s problems stem from Shiite Iran and their proxies like Hezbollah in Lebanon. While Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations mouth platitudes about supporting their Palestinian brothers, they don’t really care about them, and barely regard them as Arab. Give them a deal that throws the Palestinians to the wolves and they’ll readily accept it. Kleptocratic states like S.Arabia, Kuwait, Abu dhabi, etc, just want to be left alone to pillage their nations and transfer their countries’ vast oil wealth into their own coffers and family Swiss bank accounts, before it all runs out. War is bad for business. And it’s hard to relax in your palace in Riyadh if you have to keep worrying about a drone dropping a bomb on it. Israel just wants to be left alone too (although, to its credit, not for the same kleptocratic reasons). In that regard, they share the same worldview: a quiet middle east with everyone repressed by someone who can be bought off to keep their natives under control, so that they (Israel and S.Arabia) can go about their business.

    3) The real threat to Israel isn’t Hamas, it’s Hezbollah. Hamas can pester Israel with their suicide bombers but at this point, Israelis are used to that, and Hamas can’t even keep the water running in Palestine. But Hezbollah is real. They are popular in Lebanon, becoming a political force there, and they have an effective army. Their leader, Nasrallah, is smart, disciplined, and a different breed than the usual hotheaded idiots like bin Laden that tend to lead terrorist organizations (or some countries, cf the Saudi Crown Prince). They forced Reagan, the supposed nuclear cowboy, out of Lebanon by killing our Marines in Beirut, and they battled Israel to a standstill in 2006.

    4) Overall, I really like your attempt to push back against lazy American reporting about the Middle East. Whenever we don’t wish to understand another region, we throw up our hands, blame “ancient hatreds” or (sotto voce) “those uncivilized, primitive barbarians” and just say “these fights are going on for thousands of years. There’s no way we can ever understand them”. But these are not ancient hatreds. Many of these conflicts have come about because the British botched their withdrawal from the area. Just like they did in Africa and Asia. Indeed, you can trace most of today’s “ancient conflicts” to British, French, and other European colonials leaving their former colonies a mess because they never cared to even consider that those uncivilized brutes under their control might have histories, loyalties, and past national affiliations that would be important. Iraq is a great example. There was never a state known as Iraq. It was something Britain threw together, with 1/3 Kurds, 1/3 Shiites, 1/3 Sunnis, none of whom were ever in a nation together before Britain colonized them. They threw the nation together, slapped an ancient name on it to give it credence, and then left. Is it any wonder they’ve been at war ever since, and that only a strongman like Saddam, using brutal violent subjugation, was able to create some semblance of order out of it? IMHO, Joe Biden had the best plan of all for Iraq: recognize that it should never have been one nation, and split it into 3. We had a far better chance of creating 3 stable democracies by doing that, than by trying to build up the legitimacy of one democracy in a “unified” Iraq that would never be accepted by 2/3’rds of the people.

    Anyway, I’m glad you put this primer together. The Middle East isn’t hard to understand. Or at least, no harder than any other region with a long and complex history. We just don’t care to do the work to understand it before we start lobbing bombs and redrawing borders. Imagine if Asians looked at the record of warfare in Europe and just chalked it up to ancient hatreds among primitive clans and tribes that can never get along, and then proceeded to join Poland and Germany into one country, gave France administrative control of Britain (it’s just a bloody island, and they speak two dialects of the same language, right?), then carved out half of Spain to give as a homeland for Mongolians because the Moors used to live there hundreds of years ago (without, you know, telling the Spaniards who lived there about it). And when the ensuing WWIII happens, just chalk it up to white folk who are so riveted by their ancient, backward tribal affiliations, they refuse to get with modern times…

  2. The USA has been at war with the people of Iran for 70 years

    The USA overthrew the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister in the 50’s

    And then imposed a bloody dictator until 1979 when he lost power

    The USA then got one of it’s other dictators (Saddam – remember him) to attack
    Hundreds of thousands dead – more dead Iranians than were killed in any of America’s wars – except the Civil War

    Since then the USA has indulged in continual economic warfare against Iran – with occasional attacks like shooting down an airliner

    Obama stopped the war

    The Orange Cockwomble restarted it

    The Iranians have 70 years of being attacked and killed by the Americans

    The Americans have….. been insulted? ???

    1. And don’t forget the U.S. has funded and supported its own terrorist operation, known as Israel, for decades. Imagine what would have happened if Hezbollah had assassinated a American nuclear engineer in Washington with a guy on a motorcycle attaching a bomb to the side of the car that the engineer was driving in. That was one of at least 4 Iranian nuclear engineers killed by Mossad.

      I am so sick of American exceptionalism.

      BTW, this is a partial list of who the terrorist state has killed. And yes, that is the only definition that fits.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Israeli_assassinations

    2. Duncan and Dins-
      If your argument is that the USA has been very poor at advocating for its interests vis-a-vis Iran, I absolutely agree with that. Given that Iran is the only other country besides Israel with a functioning democracy, they should be our natural allies, and if we stop constantly poking at them, I think they’d be one.

      Most of the Iranian people roll their eyes at their Ayatollah and regard him as their crazy uncle that needs to be tolerated at Thanksgiving. When we leave them alone for a few years (like we did during Clinton and Obama times), they tend to elect reformist Presidents. And when we poke at them (like declaring them part of the axis of evil even though they had nothing to do with 9/11) they tend to elect hardliners.

      But with that said, I’m not sure what your point is about dead Iranians or American exceptionalism. I may sound like a red state wingnut here, but international relations are all about national interest, not morality. America has no moral obligation to better the lives of Iranians, or Israelis, or anyone else beyond our borders, unless it serves our interests. We killed plenty of Germans and Japanese in WWII too, because it was in our national interest. We also rebuilt them as pacifist states afterwards because it was in our national interest to do so. Neither act was guided by morality. Even current policies like NATO, the protection of Japan, S. Korea, Taiwan, etc which can be seen as consistent with moral values promoting peace, are undertaken for our own self interest, because we don’t want another world war, and we don’t want communist regimes to attack and bring down democratic ones.

      At any rate, I don’t disagree with you about the practical effects of what we’ve done in Iran so far. But I do disagree with what appears to be a subtext that our foreign policy should be guided by a higher sense of morality rather than the pursuit of national interest.

      1. WX…you are correct in so far as the U.S. interferes/attacks other nations for the national interest (or in the interest of American giga-corps.) And you are also correct about national interests not having any morality. That is demonstrated daily.

        But U.S. exceptionalism is ridiculous. The U.S. cannot expect to wage war on a country, like they have with so many, for the economic betterment of the nation or its companies, and not expect at least hatred, if not reciprocity.

        Cuba was attacked in the Bay of Pigs not because of the threat of a tiny country like Cuba bringing communism to the U.S. No, it was invaded because Castro nationalized all the U.S. companies that had been raping Cuba. Same concept in Iran in 1953, and that was a democracy. The phrase “communist regimes to attack and bring down democratic ones.” is not about politics. It is all about money of the very rich and powerful that they don’t want taken away.

        You note the outrage, at least among the sane, with regard to Russia rigging the vote in the election. Yet the average American citizen seems to think it is perfectly reasonable when it interferes in other countries.

        You disagree with the “subtext that our foreign policy should be guided by a higher sense of morality rather than the pursuit of national interest”. Call me an idealist, but yeah, that should be precisely what ANY nation’s foreign policy should be based on.

        From your point of view, when the Ogallala Aquifer is finally destroyed by fracking and global warming, it is perfectly reasonable for the U.S. to invade Canada for its fresh water.

  3. Some comments:
    1. For those who want to further their understanding, carefully review the linked NPR series. It is very informative. There is little that happens in the Middle East in which one of the major underlying factors is that split. On the surface the split appears to be similar to the split between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity, but it is far more serious and the sects live in much of the same territory. Historically the Shia have been oppressed by the Sunni, who largely consider the Shia to be heretics and they have been in conflict periodically for over a millennium.
    2. Also review Vali Nasr’s work, The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future. It is very informative and he knows his subject. I have read it along with much of his other work.
    3. Syria is basically a Sunni nation but the government is Alawite, which is generally considered to be Shia.
    4. The US has historically tilted towards the Sunni. That dates to FDR’s return trip from Yalta during WWII, when he met with the Saudi King in February 1945. The ostensible reason was to secure a Jewish Homeland, but the underlying factor was also to secure US access to Saudi oil.
    5. There is also the history of the US with Iran, which dates back to 1953. Then the US in conjunction with Britain, overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Iranian Prime Minister and installed the Shaw. The Iranians have long memories. This was a factor in the Iranian Revolution.
    6. Many of the borders in the Middle East date to the settlement after WWI, when Britain and France were determined to carve up the Middle East. The boundaries were set without regard to history, and the areas occupied by differing tribes and sects. For example, what is now Iraq was administered as three provinces under the Ottoman Empire. That division also drives much of the conflict throughout The Middle East.

    1. ” Many of the borders in the Middle East date to the settlement after WWI, when Britain and France were determined to carve up the Middle East. The boundaries were set without regard to history, and the areas occupied by differing tribes and sects.”

      One thing I found bitterly funny was reports of ISIS fighters denouncing Sykes-Picot, because I would bet a solid plurality of Americans (and probably a solid majority of Trump voters) have zero clue what that was, or how it still causes trouble a century later. We have kicked around some intriguing ideas for political and economic reform here, but I can’t see any of them taking hold without some serious educational reform. We badly need our voters to have a basic level of proficiency in history, civics, and science if you want a democratic system that can deal climate change, demographic changes, and economic restructuring in a peaceful manner. One of the reasons we have been stuck in the ME is a lack of informed voting choices.

      “There is also the history of the US with Iran, which dates back to 1953. Then the US in conjunction with Britain, overthrew Mohammad Mosaddegh, the Iranian Prime Minister and installed the Shaw. The Iranians have long memories.’

      While sadly the collective American attention span is about that of a caffeinated fruit fly. There’s also a selfish arrogance to add to that. We meddle in the affairs of other countries, but we express so much shock at the negative consequences that persist decades later. It’s like we can’t realize that people in other countries also feel patriotism, and we’re shocked that they don’t put American interests first. I can’t blame Iranians, or Iraqis, or Central Americans for distrusting the United States. American talks freedom and democracy a lot, but hasn’t walked that talk very well. And even as I denounce all the collective ignorance, I understand all too well why the right wing doesn’t support the education reforms I do. My public school history classes never touched on things like Sykes-Picot or the overthrow of Mohammad Mosaddegh. Or the anti-Quaker laws passed in some of the American colonies. Or the race riots in Tulsa that killed hundreds and destroyed a thriving African American community. Or how thousands of American citizens of Mexican ancestry were deported to Mexico during the great Depression. You learn those things, and others, and you realize that the shining city on the hill has some tarnished spots, and the jingoists don’t want you to see that. George Santayana nailed it.

      1. “We meddle in other countries affairs “…

        I’m hardly a student of world history, but I am old enough and observant enough to understand that America rarely gets involved in the affairs of other countries altruistically. There’s always a profit motive- power/oil/exploitation of some kind. Iow, America’s hands are not clean – they wear fancy gloves to cover their dirt.

    2. Since writing this comment, I have done a little more reading regarding Item #5, discussing the Mosaddegh affair., which both Flypusher and Mary picked up on.

      Actually the US has been heavily involved with Iran since 1942 or thereabouts and actually before. In 1941, Britain and the USSR jointly invaded Iran mainly to secure Iranian oil. Britain occupied Southern and Central Iran, while the USSR occupied Northern Iran. The USSR had previously invaded Iran in 1925, and were forced out by with the help of the UK and the West including the US. The US was also supportive of the UK in 1941. Then, Reza Pahlavi, the Shah, was deposed, because he was regarded as being sympathetic to Hitler. His son, Mohammad Reza Shah was installed. He is the one who was overthrown in the Revolution of 1979.

      Following the US entry into into WWII, the Persian Corridor as it was then known was opened up as a much safer route for Lend-Lease supplies to the USSR. As much as 1/3 of the the Lend-Lease material flowed through Iran. The US subsequently deployed 30,000 troops to the region, to provide security and to keep the aid moving. Though most were likely Transportation, Quartermaster, Engineering and other support personnel, there were undoubtedly combat forces as well.

      During the Tehran Conference, FDR obtained a pledge from Churchill and Stalin that the UK, the USSR and the US would depart Iran within 6 months following the termination of hostilities. The departure deadline was March 2, 1946. The US and the UK departed, but the USSR did not. Meanwhile, George F. Kennan, sent the Long Telegram from Moscow on Feb 22, 1946. By that time the US was increasingly suspicious of Moscow and Kennan’s proposal of containment essentially was adopted as US policy. When the USSR failed to withdraw, the US applied considerable diplomatic pressure by several means including communicating a threat of military action. The USSR then announced withdrawal on March 25 and finally left in April. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union had set up two satellite states in Northern Iran – an Azerbaijan state and a Kurdish state, Mahahbab.

      I should mention that the US and UK had obtained oil concessions from Iran, which then granted one to the USSR, just prior to its announcing withdrawal. However, Immediately following the Soviet Withdrawal it cancelled the concession and attacked the two satellite states with US and British aid. After a few months, Iran re-established control. Note, that the Shah then was Mohammad Reza Shah. The same one who was reinstalled in 1953 and was finally overthrown in 1979.

      So the US was acting in its commercial and national interests in Iran as far back as 1925 and possibly before, It was definitely acting in its commercial interests in 1946, but at least it was not attempting to directly occupy Iran, though one might say it was a satellite state. Nevertheless, if the US had not been heavily involved, very likely the USSR would have been successful in setting up two satellite states in Northern Iran and would have added significant territory to the 2nd Russian Empire, which Stalin was assembling at that time.

      Even our actions in 1953, were not so outlandish, except for the cruelty of Mohammad Reza Shah. If he would have allowed liberalisation and governed more for the people including obtaining a larger split of the oil revenue, the Iranian Revolution of 1979 might well have been avoided. He was a “bastard, but at least he was our bastard”, to use an attitude prevalent at that time and even today. Perhaps, the McCarthyism prevalent in 1953, combined with the fact that the Korean War was just wrapping up and that in the US, Eisenhower had just come into office, made the US more inclined to go along with the British in the Mosaddegh affair. Generally the CIA had a minor and supportive role; the British were largely in the lead.

      1. “ He was a “bastard, but at least he was our bastard”, to use an attitude prevalent at that time and even today.”

        I can see the argument from national security with Iran in this case, and in Nicaragua, where that quote is FDR referring to the elder Samosa, if my memory is serving me correctly. Perhaps supporting various scumbag autocrats was the least bad choice. Hard to say, as you can’t run a control, but likely it was the most expedient thing in the short term. But if you are presenting yourself as a champion of freedom and democracy, taking out those uppity and non-compliant democracies in other counties in the name of expedience is a betrayal of those values, i.e., a Devil’s bargain. The Devil gives you what you want, but payment is always a bitch. It’s the people bitching about the payment who evoke my part bitter, part exasperated, and part amused scorn. We could have played a wiser, more long term strategy in the ME, but that’s not how America rolls, especially these days. Make your choices, take your consequences.

      2. The Truman Administration was more supportive of Mosaddegh and was largely reluctant to go along with the British. Eisenhower on the other hand tilted strongly towards the British and he had Dulles order the CIA to get involved. The CIA then more or less had the lead in the actual overthrow.

        Mosaddegh had nationalized the oil industry after early negotiations failed with the British. The British reacted by shutting down the Iranian Oil Industry by forming a consortium with other global oil companies to boycott Iranian oil and pulling all its employees out. My impression is that both the Brits and the Iranians took a hard line. Despite efforts by the Truman Administration to mediate, a compromise was not reached. Truman’s Administration blamed the Brits, but in 1952 did not have much political capital. The Brits then used the anti-communism paranoia of the time to convince the incoming Eisenhower Administration to oppose Mosaddegh and tilted strongly towards the Brits. Note that at this time Churchill was again PM of Britain and he was determined to preserve the British Empire by any means.

  4. “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.”

    I think you misread Israel somewhat (I say this as a born Israeli who has lived outside of Israel for most of my life).
    Israel benefits from declining oil prices, because a general reduction in the global economic value in the region will weaken Arab governments and force them to come to terms with their own domestic failures. The only path towards sustainable peace is that oil-fueled dictatorship gives way to more reality-based economies. The massive cash spigots that fund groups like Hezbollah shut off.

    1. Also, can you cite your sources for the “including Israel” part of:
      “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.”

      As I understood it, Israel supported the uprising but did not intervene because intervening on behalf of the uprising would have exposed the rebels to claims of being Zionist puppets etc, and do more harm than good.

      1. The Israeli government was unambiguously and publicly hostile to the Arab democracy protests right from the beginning. Rather than narrow the citation to a single speech or quote, I think it’s better to use a Google search to capture the breadth of the opposition.

        https://www.google.com/search?q=netanyahu+on+the+arab+spring&oq=netanyahu+on+the+arab+spring&aqs=chrome..69i57j33.5455j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

        It’s an interesting question whether Israel benefits or suffers from high oil prices. Just as in the US or other countries, there are internal differences of opinion and conflicts over goals. However, the far-right government that has governed for more than a decade is clear about the goal to maintain the regional status quo. For that, the neighboring oil dictators need money. The Arab Spring was downstream from a major oil shock that undermined those regimes.

        The higher, longer-term interest of Israel would be a calmer, more democratic region, where their neighbors were stable prosperous democracies. Conservatives insist that what lies between here and there would be an upheaval, whose first stages would include relatively more democratic regimes that would look like Iran, and they aren’t convinced that Israel could survive that phase.

        So they have actively worked to keep their neighbors under the thumb of local mafias who they can more or less manage. High oil prices may support Hezbollah and Hamas, but Israel has learned to deal with Hezbollah and Hamas. Low oil prices mean ISIL, and a likely Shiite version of ISIL, and no one has learned to live with ISIL.

        So the stalemate continues.

      2. Worth noting that most of the stuff in that Google search you link are:
        a) multiple reported items about the same November 2011 speech
        b) lots of articles by pundits theorizing about Israel

        It’s actually pretty thin. What *sustained actions* did Israel take to prevent the Arab Spring, or to support the dictators the Arab Spring sought to supplant during the period they were being supplanted, and/or wobbly?

        I do agree with you on this point though:
        Local strongmen have spent so much effort cynically teaching their people to hate Israel (as an internal safety valve) while simultaneously clamping down on actual grassroots attacks on Israel, that in the absence of strongman control, democratic regimes in these countries may well act on the peoples’ hostility to Israel, consequences be damned.

        There’s no logical reason why the Iranian or Saudi Arabian or Iraqi or Turkish population should have any particular animosity towards Israel. They have few actual ties with Palestinians, no borders with Israel, and no territorial interactions at all.

  5. Thank you Chris for this excellent post – terrific information! I learned (and learn) a lot here.

    It’s been pretty clear for a while that the US doesn’t know what problem it’s trying to solve with all these interventions – and if anything your post makes clear that the situations in multiple countries is worse for everyone thanks to our meddling.

    I’ve been pleased to see Bernie Sanders and to a lesser extent Liz Warren be stridently opposed to war with Iran and our Middle East interventionist policies. No one else I’m aware of in the Democratic field seems to be similarly positioned. (Surprise!)

  6. I wanted to share this specifically with regard to the section entitled “Remember What People Were Saying Five Minutes Ago”

    https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/01/how-to-avoid-swallowing-war-propaganda

    I had previously mentioned the two Trump supporters I talked to on the train. They both talked up how glad they were that Trump was pulling soldiers from the Middle East and talked about, “He was the only one on the stage tryna gettus outta there!” I even considered mentioning that moment in my previous comment and deciding that it wasn’t necessary for my comment. It was just a curiosity.

    Of course now both of them are more likely than not banging the drums for going after Iran. It would be interesting to talk to them again solely to see if my presumption is correct.

    But it’s only an idle curiosity, it doesn’t really matter. The point is that “the national discourse” turns on a dime a lot, and I have found it fascinating how quickly people suddenly become experts on something the moment it trends on Twitter. Stock market just crashed? Everyone has always had a particular interest in finance. A coup in Latin America? Boy, aren’t I’m glad literally every single one of my friends are experts on the region’s history from 1492 through today, if not reaching outright amateur anthropologists with deep knowledge of the Olmec. And now everyone acts as if they’ve followed this Iranian general’s whole career since the early 90s.

    I was in high school on 9/11. I remember the anger, pain, and fear that Americans had that honestly made war feel inevitable, before even asking if it’s justified or who with. By 2003, I don’t really think the average American had their foot on the ground enough to deal with the “weapons of mass destruction” and other lies that lead to Iraq. Even though I opposed the war, I used feel I understand how people supported it.

    This situation SHOULD, on its face, be different. On January 2nd, Americans were “war weary.” But I had assumed most Americans would look at a man like Trump and pretty instantaneously say, “Ehh, I don’t think I want such a dumbass sleazebucket anywhere near elective office,” so, clearly, I don’t know shit about what goes through my fellow countrymen’s heads.

    So, another chance to just watch dumb conversations lead to worse conclusions. Hope that the war (it’s already started, and was going before the assassination) stays unofficial and drone and hacker based, but I can’t pretend to know where all this is going.

    If I am being honest, I wish I could depend on a sizable group of pissed off Zoomers to show up in November and say, “NOPE.” But literally zero American history shows any reason to hope the youngest people sizably vote.

  7. A couple historical notes should be added.

    The current Iranian government is the direct result of intervention of the U.S. and the U.K. , when they orchestrated the destruction of the DEMOCRACY (yeah, that is no typo) in Iran.

    The British gov’t was getting more in INCOME TAXES from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (British company) per barrel of oil than the Iranian nation was getting in royalties. Mohammad Mosaddegh did the only rational thing, and nationalized the oil industry.

    Naturally, that did not sit well with the capitalist bastions, and voila, we have the Shah installed, a U.S. puppet. Of course, he was another tyrant and that led to his overthrow by the current theocracy.

    And on the other note, the Israeli democracy you mention has now fallen into a model of the american tyranny. Their leader is saying that he is immune from all kinds of charges and his enemies are trying to subvert “the will of the people”. Oh, and that nation, it was built by terrorists, by ANY definition of the word terrorist. One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom fighter. Ask any “insurgent” in Afghanistan or Iraq.

  8. Thanks Chris. My knowledge of the Middle East needs lots of bolstering. A couple of recent developments:

    Iran has officially announced they will not abide by the 2015 Nuclear Treaty (with a small caveat….unless sanctions are lifted….I wonder how long that dream will last).

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/body-of-commander-slain-by-us-strike-arrives-in-iran-to-crowds-of-mourners/2020/01/05/4ca3281a-2f17-11ea-bffe-020c88b3f120_story.html?

    All of this is happening when the trump administration has fired or lost many experienced staff in diplomacy, military intelligence and strategy. Those who are replacing these career professions lack experience and knowledge of the Middle East and will never challenge the child warrior. Most of them are in “acting” positions.

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/national-security/trump-faces-iran-crisis-with-fewer-experienced-advisers-and-strained-relations-with-traditional-allies/2020/01/05/9b42a240-2f1a-11ea-9b60-817cc18cf173_story.html?

  9. “ Any conversation about the evil of the Iranians has to be placed in context against the regimes we continue to support.”

    Lots of bad actors in the region, but IMO the biggest bad is Saudi Arabia, and America’s choices in how we dealt with them are a great shame.

    So will Iraq have a Yugoslavia-style breakup?

    1. Haven’t they already? Without the US and Iran providing governing infrastructure we’d probably stop pretending an Iraqi government still exists. With a US exit, what remains of the Iraqi government will lose control of the Sunni territory in the Southwest. Kurds will probably stay on board, as they get along much better with the Iranians than with us or the Sunnis.

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