by Graham E. Fuller* — With the emergence of demonstrations and rioting in various Iranian cities earlier this month, Washington’s neoconservatives and interventionist/ imperial-minded “liberals” have been given a new lease on life in promoting their aspirations for “regime change” in Tehran. Indeed, of the three current potential global flashpoints—North Korea, Russian borderlands, and Iran in the Gulf—Iran arguably presents the most likely situation to actually turn into war. The other two regions, Russia and Korea, pose such potentially appalling nuclear dangers that, rhetoric aside, one would hope will seriously deter national leadership from contemplating.
War with Iran, on the other hand, presents no such nuclear threats. It is therefore perhaps the more dangerous situation since conflict with Iran is therefore quite “thinkable” and could potentially drag in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Syria, Iraq, Russia, Turkey, and of course the supreme fomenter of war with Iran, Israel.
In American eyes Iran, almost by its very existence, remains a deep geopolitical affront. It humiliated the US in holding American hostages for 444 days starting in November 1979. (Grounds for Iranian anger—the US/UK 1953 coup against Iran’s first democratically elected government that put the Shah back on the throne—is all but forgotten in the US.) Iran has consistently defied the American-constructed “international order” and continues to maintain a spirited resistance to US goals of geopolitical domination in the region. This by definition transforms Iran into a “rogue state.” And rogue states anywhere are fair game for US-directed regime change.
But the Middle East today is no longer what it was. The character and profile of international relations there have undergone considerable change, starting at least since 9/11 and even before. This new profile markedly constrains American freedom of maneuver. Key characteristics of this new profile involve the following major shifts in geopolitics:
-The gradual evolution of Turkey over the past 16 years from “a loyal ally of the US in NATO” into an outspokenly independent regional power; Turkey’s historic, cultural, political and economic interests today reach from Europe to Eurasia, Russia to Africa in which Washington now represents only one influence among many. Realists should note that when President Erdogan and his AK party eventually leave the scene, Turkish foreign policy will likely change very little, regardless of new leadership. It’s a different Turkey, a different ball game.
-The return of Russia to Middle Eastern geopolitics after twenty years of impotence following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Russia is merely reaffirming, with both skillful diplomacy and modest military input, a tradition of involvement in the Middle East that dates back centuries to the time of the Tsars. And when Putin, whom America now loves to hate, leaves the scene Russian geopolitics are unlikely to change significantly either.
-The emergence of China as a major international player is increasingly willing to exert powerful economic incentives and a new geopolitical vision for the future of Eurasian and beyond. This reality will surely grow and Washington thinking seems to respond primarily in military terms.
-An EU, or its individual states, are now discussing a more independent EU policy. This reflects decades-long discomfort with US policies in the Middle East, based on Washington’s unswerving support of Israel on virtually all issues, and a military-dominated foreign policy to the exclusion of diplomacy. The EU is now ready to part company with Washington on Iran.
Note that all four of the above elements have nothing to do with Trump’s presidency. Trump has unquestionably further exacerbated global distaste for US policies, but the roots of regional shift well predate his presidency. He has simply made it easier and more plausible for Europe to part company with innumerable US policies.
The US is therefore arguably an increasingly weaker political actor; it reigns supreme militarily, but flounders in diplomatic bankruptcy. The US is in absolute decline given its longer-term crippling domestic obsessions and crises and a foreign policy largely out of touch with world reality. But American decline must also be seen as relative to the absolute rise of other regional powers.
Add to this equation a new, invigorated and adventuristic foreign policy of Saudi Arabia under its king-to-be Muhammad bin Salman, abetted by UAE’s Crown Prince, prompting Riyadh to abandon previous characteristic caution and to intervene boldly—if failingly—in regional politics. Washington is now far less able to control or determine Saudi behavior or policies than ever.
But ideological elements also enter into this shifting scene in the Gulf.
The first such force is a kind of not very “historic” rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran for regional power and influence. Never mind that these two states have almost never in history been at war with each other. Yet today they represent the two major states on the two sides of the Gulf—although Iraq should not be dismissed as a Gulf power either. And yes, since Riyadh is trying to build up a strong geopolitical case against Iran’s presence, it trumpets the threat of sectarianism—stressing that Iran is Shiite and not Sunni. (Yet note that Iran’s image of Saudi Arabia rarely characterizes it in sectarian terms as a Sunni power as such, but primarily as representing a xenophobic, narrow and intolerant form of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism.) And then the fact that Iran is Persian in language and culture while Saudi Arabia is Arab adds to the list of alleged alienating factors.
But all this—sectarianism, language, ethnicity—is so much window-dressing. Arab states go to war with other Arab states vastly more often than Arabs ever have with Persians; Sunnis go to war with other Sunnis far more often than they do with Shi’a.
So what else is going on here?
It’s worth examining the true nature of the “Shiite threat.” To a considerable extent it is a Sunni creation. Shiite Arab populations heavily populate the Arab side of the Gulf. They are minorities in every single Gulf Arab state. Furthermore, in most states they are an oppressed minority, and above all in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Shi’a are both legally and traditionally discriminated against in countless ways, their religious culture reviled and isolated. Yes, the Saudis do fear Shiites—and partly with good reason: a deeply unhappy, embittered and angry minority within the state (as such maybe12-15% of the population) can readily be turned into active enemies of the Saudi state if Riyadh continues to mishandle the situation—and there are no signs of change in Riyadh at all. So Saudi Shi’a do represent a potential fifth column. On the other hand, If they were granted equal legal and social rights in the Kingdom, the Kingdom would have little reason to fear them or the likelihood that some of them could be recruited by Iran to act against Riyadh. But Wahhabism’s doctrinal hatred of Shiism runs so deep that one wonders if it can be overcome.
Interestingly, Iran does not pursue a “Shi’ite policy” in the region as such. Iranian religious doctrine and ideology speak in Islamic and not Shi’ite terms. It does not call itself a Shi’ite state. It has long supported Sunni Hamas in Palestine and has enjoyed good relations with the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood in the past.
There is no doubt Iran, under current conditions of isolation, often skillfully exploits Shi’ites in the region into occasional supporting roles. But Hizballah in Lebanon and the Huthis in Yemen constitute deeply-rooted legitimate political forces within their own states and did not need to be invented by Iran. Israel and the US seek to destroy Hizballah, but Hizballah has long been an integral element in Lebanese politics and governance and is seen by many Lebanese as a barrier to Israeli aggression in Lebanon. It is not going to go away.
The more the Saudi-Israeli axis whips up anti-Shi’ite sentiment in the region, the more it actually creates a sense of solidarity among Shi’a that grows in strength to the extent that it perceives itself threatened and persecuted. Shi’ite solidarity is not a given, it is the product of Sunni attack.
Perhaps more important is the revolutionary character of Iranian ideology. It has challenged the legitimacy of kingship in Islam in the past—as do many Islamists. With Iran’s partially authoritarian, partially democratic government and its quite real parliamentary and presidential elections it threatens those Arab autocrats who reject genuine parliaments or presidential elections, and who stand for kings-for-life. And Iran, like Syria, has been an unceasing advocate of Palestinian rights.
Here we come to an awkward question about our own western political values. Is Iran, by dint of its genuine parliamentary and presidential elections and partially free press, more “progressive and modern” that the Saudi or UAE or Bahraini state? If movement towards democratic institutions is the criterion the clear answer is yes, although admittedly Iran is a quite imperfect democracy: not everyone is permitted to run for office and the Supreme Leader has powerful veto powers. But elections in Iran are surrounded by sharp debate and campaigning and a press representing multiple ideological views. Iran’s elections affect state policy mightily, as the world recognizes. Iran, not as politically and socially advanced as Turkey, but on its way, operates to a great extent as a modern state. It’s transition to greater democracy down the road will be far easier and familiar than anything in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, or Bahrain (already fairly much owned and operated by Riyadh.)
So these three states plus Israel are eager to nip Iran in the bud, to bring it down, to avoid the dangerous model of transition to more open democratic rule and a genuinely vibrant public culture. These monarchs ironically are now even willing to ally with Israel if need be to protect their thrones. And they work hard to enlist Washington to crush Iran as well.
So Trump’s Washington, in which regime-change-loving neocons have powerful sway, has recently rejoiced at the demonstrations and riots within Iran. They sense blood although are almost certain to be disappointed. Iran has a tradition of public demonstrations; indeed, it is far easier to have a demonstration in Iran than in Saudi Arabia.
Iran, like Turkey, is a socially strong and grounded nation that is moving down the road of modern institutions with a modern broad-based economy and advanced culture. It is not likely on the brink of revolution. Iran, like Turkey, has a deeply rooted nationalist culture that is far less timid—under any ruler—than most Arab states. In any Iranian conventional military confrontation with the US there is no contest, but Iranians are masters of irregular and home-grown military solutions (much encouraged by decades of sanctions against them.) The massively-armed but brittle armies of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq against a weak Iran in the Iran-Iraq war found out this reality to their dismay. Washington might find itself in a difficult position if it engages in war with Iran where Tehran possesses skilled unconventional force and fierce national impulses.
We should hope that the regime in Tehran will learn from these signs of domestic discontent with domestic roots —particularly economic—and take steps to alleviate problem areas. Public pressures are supposed to work that way, even with US domestic riots and demonstrations. If Washington succeeds in provoking a war with Iran—easily concocted—the repercussions will be broad, far-reaching and long-lasting. It is a war in which the US can only win temporarily on the ground—win the war but lose the peace. Iranian skills at irregular warfare are legend, and could well draw in other states in the periphery. But if we go looking for a war we will find it.
And finally, US neocons notwithstanding, if the present Iranian regime gives way to something less religious and more nationalist, Iran’s posture towards the US and its neighbors will probably not significantly change and could be worse. It will remain an intensely prickly nationalist state with its own national interests, as it is now even under the clerics.
It is unfortunate if the US has so far resolved to throw its weight behind an autocratic king whose state religion of Wahhabism represents the most regressive, intolerant and ultimately radical branch of Islam in existence. Wahhabism is the ideological god-father of ISIS. Saudi Arabia is not a model for the ideal Middle Eastern state. We should be working towards opening doors towards inclusivism with Iran rather than slamming doors and stirring up troubled waters for some fanciful regime change sought by a few nervous and retrogressive Arab kings and hard-line Israelis.
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com