In his State of the Union address, Bush singled out Iran as a hostile troublemaker in Iraq and promised to attack its “networks,” which U.S. officials have claimed are supplying advanced weaponry to Shia militias who kill American soldiers. He then threatened to “kill or capture” any Iranian intelligence agents found in Iraq. American aircraft carriers have moved menacingly into the Gulf. U.S. troops seized six Iranian officials in northern Iraq, accusing them of spying. U.S. officials darkly conjectured that Iran was responsible for the abduction and killing of five U.S. soldiers in Karbala. At the same time, the Bush administration is twisting the arms of its “moderate” Sunni allies to take a hard line against Iran.
Some see this gambit as representing a welcome return to coldblooded, “Great Game” realism after the wishful thinking that led to the Iraq debacle. But this is a superficial misreading. Bush’s Iran ploy reeks of desperation and shortsightedness; it is no more “realistic” than his Iraq strategy. It may briefly postpone the day of reckoning by diverting Americans’ attention and providing a temporary bad guy, one Bush is sure to blame when his Iraq venture completely falls apart. But it flies in the face of a historical shift, the rise of Shia and Iranian power, that Bush himself rashly set in motion, and cannot now be undone. It could lead to a shooting war, which would be utterly disastrous for U.S. interests and would set back the cause of reform in Iran by years. And by further exacerbating sectarian and ethnic tensions in the Middle East while denying, in time-honored neocon fashion, that there are actual causes for what Bush simplistically labels “extremism,” it is likely to further destabilize an already-chaotic region — and empower al-Qaida, which thrives on hatred and chaos.
In effect, the Bush administration is trying to put out the flames of sectarian and ethnic hatred in Iraq, while pouring gasoline on them everywhere else. Somehow, despite the charred horror of Iraq, it does not seem to have realized that once the wildfire of sectarian hatred spreads, it is very hard to extinguish it.
For Bush neocons, whose mantra is “Anyone can go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran,” Iran has always been the perfect boogeyman. It is run by an intolerant fundamentalist Islamist regime. Its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is an ignorant and bigoted blowhard who questions the Holocaust. Along with the much smaller and weaker Syria, it is the only remaining state that carries the banner of Arab/Muslim nationalism and refuses to kowtow to America. It takes a hard line against Israel and supports Hezbollah and Hamas. Best of all, from the rolling-out-a-product point of view always so vital to the Bush administration, Iran is still widely hated by Americans because of memories of Ayatollah Khomeini and the 1979 hostage crisis.
Bush has been rattling his saber against Iran ever since his infamous “Axis of Evil” speech after 9/11. But now he has taken things to a whole new level.
Bush’s charges against Iran are painfully reminiscent of his fearmongering about Iraq. Let’s leave aside the laughably obvious fact, which Juan Cole and many other analysts have pointed out, that Iran is closely tied to America’s Shiite allies in Iraq, and has nothing to do with the Sunni insurgents who are responsible for almost all the killings of American troops. Let’s simply look at the claim that Iran is providing advanced weaponry to rogue Shiite militias who attack Americans. The actual evidence for these supposed misdeeds has yet to be produced, and U.S. officials keep postponing their presentation of it. So far, the charges consist almost entirely of vague speculation. The most egregious piece ran in the New York Times, under the headline “Iran May Have Trained Attackers That Killed 5 American Soldiers, U.S. and Iraqis Say.” After noting that “Officials cautioned that no firm conclusions had been drawn and did not reveal any direct evidence of a connection,” the Times story contained this curious sentence: “Tying Iran to the deadly attack could be helpful to the Bush administration, which has been engaged in an escalating war of words with Iran.” This is apparently the newspaper of record’s post-Judy Miller way of saying, “This may all be bullshit, and we’re probably carrying the administration’s water by running it, but at least we warned you in a weird, Rosetta Stone-like way.” Considering the Times’ prewar record of itself being “helpful” to the Bush administration by repeating its propaganda about WMD, many readers may wonder whether the paper should continue to run stories containing unsourced allegations that just happen to support Bush administration spin.
As it has launched its media campaign and ratcheted up confrontation with Iran in Iraq, the Bush administration has simultaneously launched a regional diplomatic offensive to isolate Iran. Playing off the long-standing fears of our major allies, and popular anger inflamed by the Shia attacks on Sunni Iraqis (which, of course, America is responsible for), the U.S. has sought to sign up Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf Emirates to form a Sunni Arab opposition to Shia Iran. Interviewing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about this strategic “realignment,” the Washington Post’s David Ignatius wrote, “Rice said the new approach reflects growing Arab concern about Iran’s attempt to project power through its proxies: ‘After the war in Lebanon, the Middle East really did begin to clarify into an extremist element allied with Iran, including Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. On the other side were the targets of this extremism — the Lebanese, the Iraqis, the Palestinians — and those who want to resist, such as the Saudis, Egypt and Jordan.’”
The “moderate” Sunni states, angered by the killing of their co-religionists in Iraq’s civil war and by the crudely vengeful execution of Saddam, suspicious of the non-Arab Iranians and fearing the erosion of their own power, have begun moving against Tehran. Jordan’s King Abdullah warned in 2004 of a “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran to Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, which has been battling Iran for Islamic religious supremacy ever since Khomeini toppled the shah, has provided financial backing for Lebanon’s embattled Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against the Iran-backed opposition and may be planning to keep oil prices low to hurt Iran’s economy. In an ominous development, it went so far as to accuse Hezbollah of seeking to convert Sunnis to Shia. According to Mideast expert Marc Lynch, a political science professor at Williams College who closely follows the Arab media and Arab public opinion on his valuable site Abu Aardvark, this “Shia conversion meme” is now widespread throughout the Middle East. Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah took it seriously enough to devote a large portion of a recent speech to denying it. And Egypt’s semi-official newspaper Al-Ahram suddenly accused Iran, citing “diplomatic sources,” of being responsible for the 2005 murder of the Egyptian ambassador in Baghdad — only to have the Egyptian Foreign Ministry say the story was “invalid.” (Shades of “could be helpful”?)
The rising tensions between the Sunni states and Iran have led some analysts to declare that the Bush administration has succeeded, even if only by accident, in pulling off the oldest imperial trick in the book: divide and rule. In the Wall Street Journal, Edward Luttwak wrote, “Just as the Sunni threat to majority rule in Iraq is forcing [the Shiite party] SCIRI to cooperate with the U.S., the prospect of a Shiite-dominated Iraq is forcing Sunni Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and Jordan, to seek American help against the rising power of the Shiites.”
In the happy world imagined by Rice and Luttwak, the Sunni states’ fear of Iran would outweigh their dislike of the U.S. and their solidarity with Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran would be contained. Syria would be forced to abandon its designs on Lebanon and its support for the Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups. Deprived of their backers, the militants would exit the scene: Hezbollah would be disarmed and Hamas would be replaced by a defanged Fatah, which would be forced to make peace on Israeli terms. Iraq — well, there are some happy endings that even dreams can’t make happen.
Sound familiar? It’s basically the same scenario the Bush administration promised us would happen after it invaded Iraq. It didn’t happen then, it’s not going to happen now, and it should be amply clear that the longer we base our strategy on this belief, the more damage we will do to our strategic position, the more the Middle East will degenerate and the stronger al-Qaida will become. The reason the neocons continue to cling to this fantasy is that they really believe that the Middle East is divided between “extremists allied with Iran,” the “targets of that extremism” and “those who want to resist.” Forget history, invasions, occupations, injustice, disenfranchisement — no, it’s all about “extremists” (formerly “terrorists” or “evildoers”) battling “moderates.”
This delusion would be laughable if it didn’t have such grave consequences. The fact is, of course, that by “moderate” and “extremist,” the Bush administration really means “those who do what the U.S. and Israel want” and “those who don’t do what the U.S. and Israel want.” The idea that Saudi Arabia, land of Wahhabism, public beheadings and 15 of 19 9/11 attackers, is “moderate” is ridiculous. Egypt? Back when Bush was still talking about democracy and pressuring President Mubarak to reform his corrupt and autocratic government, it would have taken a face of brass to call it “moderate.” But now that we realize that democracy means the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, democracy isn’t such a big deal, and U.S.-friendly autocrats are suddenly “moderate.”
It’s true that the “moderate” states don’t disturb the status quo. But it takes a lot of chutzpah for the Bush administration to suddenly begin singing the lofty moral praises of the status quo, just a few years after it bloodily launched a gratuitous war of choice against a major Arab nation so as to upend that status quo.
The “moderate” vs. “extremist” line is the last, rhetorically downsized gasp of the same discredited, moralistic worldview that the neocons used to justify the Iraq war. And it suffers from the same obvious contradictions, bias and historical blindness. Take what Rice called “the targets of this extremism.” Are the Lebanese “targets” of Iran and Hezbollah? Maybe, but they don’t see themselves that way. In a poll, 64 percent of Lebanese blamed Israel or the United States for the war, while only 18 percent blamed Hezbollah. Does that make the U.S. and Israel the “extremists”? Apparently not. As for the Palestinians, they elected Hamas, so it’s a little hard to figure out how they are its “targets.”
My point is not to argue whether Rice is right or wrong about who is responsible for the Lebanese war, or the crisis in Gaza. Nor is it to defend the dreadful regime in Iran, which most Iranians would be overjoyed to see end tomorrow. It is simply to point out that the Bush administration’s simplistic vision of the Middle East is not shared by the vast majority of the people who actually live there. And pious but false beliefs, as the last five years should have taught us, are not a good basis for foreign policy.
What’s really going on here, of course, is the Bush administration’s attempt to use sectarian hatred and fear of Iran (the two are inseparable) to make the Arab world do what we want. The deepest desire of the neoconservatives who, incredibly, still drive Bush’s Mideast policy is to kill off Arab nationalism, which they see as a threat because of its enmity toward Israel and resistance to American domination. To do this, they’re taking the sectarian-war lemons they made in Iraq and trying to make lemonade. This is a very dangerous game. In fact, it is more than dangerous — it is guaranteed to fail because even victory will amount to failure.
The only way to make the plan work is by whipping up sectarian hatred in Sunni countries. But that is a tiger we don’t want to ride. Two words: al-Qaida. By fomenting Sunni sectarian extremism against Shiite Iran, we are rolling out the red carpet for more Osama bin Ladens. As Vali Nasr, author of the excellent book “The Shia Revival,” and a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., argued in testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, “In the Arab world and Pakistan, violent anti-Shiism is the domain of radical pro-al-Qaeda clerics, websites and armed groups. Sectarianism — especially among Sunnis — is a driver for radical jihadi ideology.”
Nasr argues that Bush is trying to resurrect the old policy of “containment” — and that it simply won’t work anymore. “This policy is reminiscent of the containment strategy of the 1980s and early 1990s when the United States rallied Iran’s neighbors to contain the spread of the Iranian revolution. However, at that time, Iran was weaker, and containment of Iran was anchored in Iraq’s military capability, and Taliban and radical Sunni ideology’s ability to counter Shia Iran’s influence. But today the Iraqi military bulwark is no longer there. The task of militarily confronting and containing Iran will fall on U.S. shoulders. Moreover, in 2001 it became evident that the cost of Sunni containment of Shia Iran was the rise of radical Sunni jihadi ideology, al-Qaeda and 9/11.”
In other words, in a futile attempt to check Iran’s regional ambitions, Bush is reprising the tactics that brought us 9/11. History repeats itself, with Iran now playing the role of the evil Soviet empire, and the “moderate” Sunnis playing the mujahedin.
Bush’s plan is dangerous in another way: It will destabilize the very “moderate” states whose arms he is twisting. It is certain to raise internal tensions within those states — tensions that could boil over, even threatening the regimes themselves, if, say, another war with Israel breaks out. This is because the official position of the paid-off governments is radically different from that of their people. During last summer’s Lebanon war, Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s leaders, fearful of rising Shiite/Iranian power and no doubt under heavy pressure from the U.S., broke with decades of received Arab political behavior and denounced Hezbollah’s cross-border raid as an irresponsible provocation. Neocons and right-wingers in the U.S. went wild with joy, seeing in this development — to use Rice’s now-infamous phrase — “the birth pangs of a new Middle East.” Alas, the baby only lived about a week before enormous public outrage forced the “moderate” states to reverse course, denounce Israel and celebrate Hezbollah. Hezbollah head Nasrallah became the most admired man in the Middle East, the new Nasser. And Iran was admired by many Arabs for its uncompromising stance. (Despite his gross incompetence, Iran President Ahmadinejad probably has held onto power as long as he has largely because he has cunningly played to the Arab/Muslim street by denouncing Israel and Bush.)
Today, the Sunni authorities are whipping up primeval fears to try to change all this. As the veteran Mideast analyst Helena Cobban notes in her must-read blog Just World News, things are changing in the region so fast it is impossible to say just how developments will play out. But one thing can be said: It will be virtually impossible for the U.S. to hold the “moderate” states in line unless there is real progress on the region’s most crucial front: the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
There is a reason why the Iraq Study Group insisted that the U.S. must urgently broker a peace deal in the Holy Land. The leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia can get away with snubbing Iran and Syria so long as there is real progress on the Palestinian front. If there is none, however, and Iran, Hezbollah and the Palestinians continue to represent the only resistance to Israel in Arab eyes, then those leaders who oppose them, no matter how much they play the sectarian card, will be regarded as traitors who have sold out the Arab/Muslim world’s most sacred cause to curry favor with the increasingly despised Americans. Exactly this sin has caused Arab leaders to be assassinated — and inspired fanatical jihadis. It is not in anyone’s interests, not even ultimately the Israelis’, to place either Arab governments or the Arab street in this untenable position. Yet because the Bush administration will do nothing to broker a real Arab-Israeli peace — it is content to watch the Palestinians devour themselves in Gaza, in a kind of smaller version of divide and rule — we are headed toward this combustible position. The Sunni states know this and will insist on a quid pro quo. Writing in Haaretz, the well-informed Israeli commentator Zvi Bar’el reported that as the price for their anti-Iranian position, the Saudis will insist that the U.S. and the rest of the “Quartet” recognize Hamas as a legitimate Palestinian negotiating party. (In a typical example of the grotesque disparity between what can be said in the mainstream Israeli press and what can be said in its American counterpart, Bar’el called this a “smart and sober step.”)
Finally, there is Iran itself. The United States has real differences with Iran on many issues, including its nuclear ambitions, its support for Hezbollah and Hamas and its alliance with Syria. And it is in our interest, as well as the Iranian people’s, to encourage regime change in Tehran. But Bush’s pigheaded strategy actually works against our own interests in every one of these cases. It rallies the Iranian people against America, strengthens the nation’s hard-liners and turns the people of the Middle East toward Iran — and against us.
By now, nothing that the Bush administration does in the Middle East should come as a surprise. But its Iran gambit is so delusional that it raises the question of whether Bush is in fact playing an inept game of power politics, as I have suggested, or whether he is half-hoping to provoke open conflict with Iran. In a last desperate bid to save his disastrous presidency, does he actually want to provoke a war with a country three times larger than Iraq? It’s hard to believe, but then his whole reign is becoming increasingly phantasmagorical. Unfortunately, this is one nightmare we’re not going to wake up from for two more years — and maybe a lot longer.