By Shireen T. Hunter, Lobe Log: A recent article by veteran Washington Post columnist David Ignatius urges Democratic Party politicians to adopt a harder posture on Iran. He seems to suggest that if Iran were to stop interfering in Middle East politics, all of the region’s problems would be solved. Ignatius quotes Karim Sajadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace: “Tehran’s behavior is a constant source of friction in the region; real stability and security won’t be possible until Iran backs off.”
Such reasoning implies that Iran is at the root of all of the region’s problems. Yet a more balanced look at the history of Middle East’s problems and conflicts shows that since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Iran’s activities have at most complicated some of these conflicts rather than caused them.
Indeed, the Islamic revolution itself was partly the consequence of these disputes. For example, throughout the 1960s and the 1970s, various radical Arab states—from Nasser’s Egypt to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Qadhafi plus various Palestinian groups—helped Islamist and leftist opposition groups in Iran with money and training, including in the PLO camps in Jordan and Lebanon.
*The Israeli-Palestinian Dispute*
According to a pervasive view since the 1990s, had it not been for Iran’s nefarious activities, the Palestinians and Israelis would now be living in peace.
True, Iran has supported some Palestinian groups such as Hamas. However, Iran has never been in a position to dictate to these groups or to prevent agreements between Israel and the Palestinian groups. For example, Iran could not prevent the Oslo accords of 1993. Nor was Iran responsible for their failure. Rather, the political dynamics of Israel and the Palestinians played the more decisive role.
Today, if President Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century” is less than a resounding success—despite the support of Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE along with the acquiescence of Jordan, Egypt, and Morocco—it will be because of the intrinsic dynamics of the problem. The bottom line is that no country can either force the Palestinians into an accommodation that they view as unfair or prevent them from reaching an accommodation if the offer is fair. In short, no country can either deliver the Palestinians or block peace between them and Israel. Therefore, even in the aftermath of a war with Iran, the Palestinian issue would remain as intractable as it is today.
*Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq*
Lebanon’s present-day predicament is also a direct consequence of the Palestinian problem. Lebanon plunged into a long civil war when King Hussein of Jordan, during the so-called Black September Operations of 1970, kicked the PLO out of Jordan and into Lebanon. Then came the 1982 Israeli invasion of the country. This opened the way for now revolutionary Iran to create a toehold for itself. Iranian influence, through its relationship with the Hezbollah, has made Lebanese relations with Israel more problematic. However, Hezbollah is only able to do so because of the ongoing and unresolved Palestinian problem. If a viable agreement is reached between Israel and the Palestinians, Hezbollah’s ability to influence Arab politics would plummet.
No doubt, Iran’s help to Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria has helped bolster it. But the real game- changer in the Syrian drama was Russia’s decision to stick by Assad. It was Russia’s entry into the conflict that raised the stakes of an extended American military intervention in Syria, not the presence of some ragtag Shia militia. Again, if the Israelis and the Western powers had offered Assad an attractive enough deal, such as the return of the Golan Heights, he would have ended his alliance of convenience with Iran. Even if Assad goes, no Syrian government with any legitimacy would forgo claims to the Golan. Thus Iran or no Iran, there would always be tension between Israel and any viable Syrian government. Only a truncated Syria could be persuaded to give up its claim to Golan.
Iran’s influence in Baghdad, which is much exaggerated, is the direct result of the 2003 American invasion of Iraq. This war was also waged under the misapprehension that once Saddam Hussein was gone, a thousand democratic flowers would bloom and the winds of democratic change would also topple Iran’s Islamist regime.
Yet the war only succeeded in bringing into the open Iraq’s ethnic and sectarian divisions and unleashing intense regional competition for influence within Iraq’s new political setup. If Iran disappeared from the map of the Middle East, Iraqi Shias would not likely submit to Saudi Arabia. In fact, more than Iranian machinations, it was the behavior of Iraq’s Sunnis towards the new government in Baghdad and the Saudi, Turkish, and Qatari sabotage of Iraq’s Shia-dominated government that led the country to turn towards Iran. It would also be naïve to assume that any Iranian government would have allowed Iraq to become a source of threat. The memory of Saddam Hussein’s 1980 invasion of Iran and the eight-year-long war is still very much alive.
Meanwhile, war with Iran would almost certainly extend into Iraq and could result in its total dismemberment.
Yemen’s problems, too, have deeper roots related to its own ethnic and sectarian makeup and the impact of intra-Arab politics going back to the pro-Nasser coup d’état of 1962 and the ensuing civil war. Saudi Arabia’s predatory approach to Yemen also dates back to the 1930s as part of the House of Saud’s conquest of Arabia. The current Houthi rebellion is the continuation of an as-yet-unresolved civil war.
Iran has used the Houthi rebellion as leverage against Saudi Arabia. However, when the Saudi King asks the United States to “cut the head of this snake”—Iran—no wonder Tehran wants to create trouble for Riyadh. Saudi Arabia is currently facing an utter mess not because of Iran but as a result of the behavior of its reckless crown prince Mohammad bin Salman. In a hurry to assert his position at home and in the Arab world, he embarked on a foolish adventure by launching the attack on Yemen. Moreover, the Yemen situation has become more complicated because another reckless crown prince, in the UAE, has seen the war as an opportunity to stake his claim to regional influence.
A war against Iran is more likely to complicate the situation in Yemen than to resolve it in any way satisfactory to the West and its Arab allies.
The notion that the Middle East’s problems are caused by a single country or a single personality has always been faulty. In the 1950s, it was thought that once you got rid of Mossadegh and later Gamal Abdel Nasser then everything would be fine. Then the focus shifted to Hafez al-Assad, Saddam Hussein, and Muammar Qadhafi. Even the shah of Iran, whose ambitions were once seen in the mid-1970s as dangerous for the Middle East, did not escape unscathed from this mind set.
None of these personalities has survived, and their countries are in turmoil. So is the Middle East despite many wars and coups d’état. Another war would only make the situation worse for all concerned. In fact, the Middle East’s problems are partially the result of these external interventions. Real peace in the Middle East will come only if the legitimate security interests of all countries and peoples are addressed. Efforts at absolute subjugation always lead to new rebellions.
First published in Lobe Log: Cartoon by Petar Pismestrovic.
Shireen T. Hunter is a Research Professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Her latest book is Iran's Relations with Arab States: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation (Rowman & Littlefield, forthcoming May 2019).