The multipronged tensions in the Middle East have disturbing echoes of the immediate post 9/11 period. After the attacks that day in New York and Washington, the George W Bush administration moved rapidly to terminate the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and destroy the al-Qaida movement. The use of special forces and CIA personnel, heavy air bombardments, and the deployment of Northern Alliance warlords as ground troops combined to secure apparent victory within three months.
That allowed Bush, in his state-of-the-union address in January 2002, to celebrate a military achievement over terrorist foes. But to the surprise of many, especially outside the United States, the president went much further. He extended the ominously titled “war on terror” against al-Qaida and the Taliban to a wider panoply of enemies, bonded in an “axis of evil”. This was a group of states that sponsored terrorism and sought to develop weapons of mass destruction. Its key members were Iraq, Iran and North Korea, with second-division evil states being Libya, Syria and Cuba.
In June of that year, Bush’s speech at the West Point military academy made it explicit that the United States had the right to pre-empt these threats. Saddam Hussein’s power-base in Baghdad was terminated in March 2003, and – under Bush’s successor – Muammar Gaddafi’s in Libya in 2011. North Korea is now in the spotlight, and rightly causing considerable concern given Trump’s rhetoric and the near paranoia of the Pyongyang regime. Amid the recurring dramas, however, Iran tends to be neglected. This is even more ironic when its power and influence have so greatly expanded during this period, and continue to do so.
A key point to grasp is that the US-Iran relationship has been problematic for many decades. Its strains long predate 9/11 to the coup against Mohammad Mosaddegh’s elected leadership in 1953, decades of support for the subsequent Shah’s regime, and the multiple upheavals of the late 1970s which culminated in the Iranian revolution of 1979. The sudden collapse of the Shah’s order, seen by Washington as a vital and irreplaceable ally in the intense cold-war rivalry with the Soviet Union, was a heavy geopolitical blow. A seminal event in the aftermath made it even more traumatic: the detention by young revolutionaries of fifty-two American diplomats and their family members in Tehran, a hostage incident which lasted 444 days.
The US’s frustrated impotence in a key security dispute left a bitter residue, which makes the nuclear deal negotiated during Barack Obama’s second term of office all the more remarkable. That helped avert a dangerous confrontation over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Nothing is settled, however. For the moment, Trump’s Washington is focusing most security attention on North Korea. But Iran remains a potent background concern, and recent developments could well spark a sudden crisis.
A time to lead
There are both immediate and longer-term factors involved here, the latter including the legacy of the Saddam Hussein regime’s destruction in 2003. At the time, the United States leadership confidently expected that operation would eclipse Iran’s regional ambitions. After all, it reasoned, dominant US influence in Iraq, Afghanistan and all the western Gulf states, reinforced by the presence of the US navy’s fifth fleet around the Gulf and the Arabian Sea, would tightly constrain the Tehran regime.
The calculation proved as ill-founded as the others guiding the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Where Iran was concerned, the near opposite happened. Tehran’s power across the region grew. In Iraq, its political influence is considerable, and the Baghdad government relies substantially on Iran-linked Shi’a militias to maintain security. Bashar al-Assad’s presently more secure regime in Syria also depends on Iranian support, both indirectly for Hizbollah and more directly for its own military. Israel claims that Iran is now building missile-manufacturing sites in both Syria and Lebanon.
Elsewhere in the region, Voice of America reports that Hamas is once again getting aid from Israel. To the east, Iran’s influence in western and northwestern Afghanistan has been growing steadily for the best part of a decade. Yet Iran under Hassan Rouhani has pursued a cautious path in its relations with the United States, especially in terms of the nuclear deal. Mark Fitzpatrick, in a detailed analysis from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), puts it well:
“It was entirely proper for United States ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley to visit the Vienna headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on 23 August to encourage robust verification of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. IAEA officials will have told her they are not restricted from visiting whatever they need to see in Iran. Never mind that this is nothing the US did not already know from its diplomats in Vienna, who meet daily with IAEA officials. Those diplomats do not currently include an ambassador to the IAEA, and high-level meetings are useful to drive home important messages.”
Meanwhile, the proxy war in Yemen between Iran and Saudi Arabia continues to inflict terrible human costs. For their part, the Saudi princelings in Riyadh worry over the growth of the so-called “Shi’a crescent” of Iranian influence from the Mediterranean to the India Ocean via Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran. They also see Iran consolidating its multiple roles in the wars against ISIS and other extreme Sunni Islamist factions In Syria and Iraq.
The unpredictable regime in Washington adds to the peril of this deteriorating situation. Trump has long taken the view that Iran is the real problem in the Middle East, an outlook very much endorsed by Binyamin Netanyahu’s Israel. And Trump’s immediate security advisors are now retired generals who have far more experience of fighting than diplomacy.
European allies of the United States, not least Germany and the UK, could in principle play a valuable and restraining role. But in practice, German politics is dominated by the election on 24 September, while Britain is absorbed by Brexit and its foreign secretary Boris Johnson simply cannot be taken seriously.
What hope there is in avoiding a sudden crisis most likely resides in Tehran, with Hassan Rouhani’s cautious and skilled leadership. He may not be in full control of his country’s foreign policy, which still resides with clerical figures. But neither is he a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, arguably an even greater risk to the region than Donald Trump. A Rouhani-led Iran is an opportunity that wise diplomacy should not waste.