Every now and then something lodges in your memory and seems to haunt you forever. In my case, it was a comment Newsweek attributed to an unnamed senior British official "close to the Bush team" before the invasion of Iraq in 2003. "Everyone wants to go to Baghdad," he said. "Real men want to go to Tehran." At the time, it seemed to distill a mood of geopolitical elation sweeping Washington and its crew of neocons. They had, of course, been beating the drums for war with Iraq, but also dreaming of a Middle Eastern and then a global Pax Americana that would last generations. Less pithy versions of such sentiments were the coin of the realm of that moment. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for instance, reported in March of that year that, "in February 2003, according to Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, Under Secretary of State John Bolton told Israeli officials that after defeating Iraq the United States would 'deal with' Iran, Syria, and North Korea."
Fourteen years later, the U.S. has yet to make its way out of its multiple Iraqi wars, is embroiled in a Syrian conflict, and as for North Korea, well, I could tweet you a thing or two about how Washington has "dealt" with that still-nuclearizing land. And yet, it seems that, on one issue at least, those old neocon dreams may finally be coming to fruition. We may at last have a "real man" in the White House, someone truly readying himself to "go to Tehran." At least the pressures from his political backers, his Iranophobic generals, and his CIA director are on the rise, and President Trump recently aligned himself very publicly with the Saudi royals in their anti-Iranian campaign, which seems about to kick into high gear.
If we had time machines and someone could head back to March 2003 to tell those neocons and the top officials of George W. Bush's administration who that future "real man" might turn out to be, they would, of course, have laughed such a messenger out of the room in disbelief. And yet here we are in comb-over heaven, in a land whose foreign policy is increasingly done by tweet, in a country whose leaders evidently can't imagine a place in the Greater Middle East that the U.S. military shouldn't be sent into (but never out of). Meanwhile, the pressure, as TomDispatch regular Dilip Hiro, author most recently of The Age of Aspiration: Power, Wealth, and Conflict in Globalizing India, suggests in vivid detail, is only growing for a full-scale campaign for regime change in Iran, not to speak of a possible proxy war against that country in Syria. And honestly, tell me -- to steal a line from another TomDispatch author -- what could possibly go wrong? Tom
The Enemy of My Enemy Is My...?
The Saudi-American-Iranian-Russian-Qatari-Syrian Conundrum
By Dilip Hiro
The Middle East. Could there be a more perilous place on Earth, including North Korea? Not likely. The planet's two leading nuclear armed powers backing battling proxies amply supplied with conventional weapons; terror groups splitting and spreading; religious-sectarian wars threatening amid a plethora of ongoing armed hostilities stretching from Syria to Iraq to Yemen. And that was before Donald Trump and his team arrived on this chaotic scene. If there is one region where a single spark might start the fire that could engulf the globe, then welcome to the Middle East.
As for sparks, they are now in ample supply. At this moment, President Trump's foreign policy agenda is a package of contradictions threatening to reach a boiling point in the region. He has allied himself firmly with Saudi Arabia even when his secretaries of state and defense seem equivocal on the subject. In the process, he's come to view a region he clearly knows little about through the Saudi royal family's paranoid eyes, believing staunchly that Shia Iran is hell-bent on controlling an Islamic world that is 85% Sunni.
Trump has never exactly been an admirer of Iran. His growing hostility toward Tehran (and that of the Iranophobic generals he's appointed to key posts) has already led the U.S. military to shoot down two Iranian-made armed drones as well as a Syrian jet in 12 days. This led Moscow to switch off the hotline between its operational center at the Khmeimim Air Base in Syria and al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, the major American military facility in the region. According to the Russian Defense Ministry, at the time the Syrian warplane was hit by the U.S. fighter, Russia's Aerospace Forces were carrying out missions in Syria's airspace. "However," it added, "the coalition command did not use the existing communication line... to prevent incidents in Syria's airspace."
At the same time, the incorrigibly contradictory Trump has not abandoned his wish to cultivate friendly relations with Russia whose close economic and military ties with Iran date back to 1992. The danger inherent in the rich crop of contradictions in this muddle, and Trump's fervent backing of the Saudis in their recent threats against neighboring Qatar, should be obvious to all except the narcissistic American president.
No one should be surprised by any of this once Trump inserted himself, tweets first, in the violent and crisis-ridden Middle East. After all, he possesses an extraordinary capacity to create his own reality. He seems to instinctively block out his failures, and rushes headlong to embrace anything that puts him in a positive light. Always a winner, never a loser. Such an approach seems to come easily to him, since he's a man of tactics with a notoriously short attention span, which means he's incapable of conceiving of an overarching strategy of a sort that would require concentration and the ability to hold diverse factors in mind simultaneously.
Given this, he has no problem contradicting himself or undermining aides working to find a more rational basis for his ever changing stances and desires on matters of import. These problems are compounded by his inability to connect the dots in the very complex, volatile Middle East where wars are raging in Syria, Yemen, and Iraq, or to assess how a move on one diplomatic or military front will impact a host of inter-connected issues.
The Iran Factor
Let's examine how complicated and potentially treacherous all of this is. In the early days of the Trump administration, an outline of its Middle Eastern strategy might have appeared something like this: the White House will pressure the Sunni Arab states to commit their cash and troops in a coordinated way to fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) under the leadership of the Pentagon. Along with this, the State Department and the Pentagon would explore ways to break Moscow's military and diplomatic alliance with Tehran in a bid to end the Syrian conflict and bolster the fight against ISIS.
This reflected a lamentable ignorance of the growing strength of the ties between Russia and Iran, which share borders on the Caspian Sea. This relationship dates back to August 1992 when Russian President Boris Yeltsin's government signed a contract to construct and operate two nuclear reactors near the Iranian city of Bushehr. The two countries then inked an agreement to build two new reactors at the Bushehr site, with an option for constructing six more at other locations later. These were part of a partnership agreement signed in November 2014 and overseen by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Military cooperation between the Kremlin and Tehran can be traced back to 2007 when Iran inked a $900 million contract for five Russian S-300 long-range missile batteries. Because of United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program in 2010, those missile deliveries were suspended. However, three months before Tehran signed its landmark nuclear deal with six world powers, including Russia and the U.S., in July 2015, Moscow started shipping an upgraded version of the S-300 missiles to Iran.
In September 2015, the Kremlin intervened militarily in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Assad. By then, Iran had long been aiding the Syrian government with weapons and armed volunteers in its five-year-old civil war. This led Moscow and Tehran to begin sharing military planning over Syria.