Middle East Nightmare, Made in Washington

Yves here. This post discusses a key issue: how the US is taking advantage of the young Saudi leader, Mohamed bin Salman. And if anything, the article understates the damage Iran could do after a first strike. Many experts think a prime target would be Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure. Imagine what happens if that goes up in flames.

By Khaled Hroub, professor of middle eastern studies at Northwestern University in Qatar. He is also a senior research fellow at the Centre of Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, where he directed the Cambridge Arab Media Project (CAMP). He is the author of Hamas: Political Thought and Practice (Institute for Palestine Studies, 2000), and Hamas: a Beginner’s Guide (Pluto Press, 2006), and editor of Political Islam: Context versus Ideology(Saqi Books, 2010) and Religious Broadcasting in the Middle East (2012). His publications in Arabic include Fragility of Ideologyand Might of Politics (2010); In Praise of Revolution (2012); the literary collection Tattoo of Cities (2008); and the poetry collection Enchantress of Poetry (2008). Originally published at openDemocracy

Even under one of the most rhetorically aggressive leaderships that it has ever had, the United States maintains a rational approach in dealing with nuclear North Korea. Its plans for a meeting between the two heads of state, reflected in the visit of CIA director mIke Pompeo to Pyongyang, attests to Washington’s intent to scale back confrontation.

Yet at the same time President Trump’s administration displays a worrying recklessness in stoking a potential confrontation with Iran, playing against and manipulating Saudi fears.

North Korea’s “rocket man”, as Trump dubbed Kim Jong-un in his speech at the United Nations in September 2017, is by most measures more dangerous than the Iranian leadership. Without downplaying the perils of Iran’s ideological drive and expansive regional foreign policy, Tehran’s politics are guided by national interest and rational calculations that are not exclusively led by ideology. Why then does the US avoid investing effort and diplomacy to save the already devastated Middle East from yet another threatening war, this time between Saudi Arabia and Israel on the one side and Iran on the other? Instead, Trump is actually paving the way for such a confrontation with his plans to revoke the nuclear agreement that his predecessor Barack Obama managed to conclude with the Iranians.

Why should this be? The reasons include the US’s interest in maintaining lucrative arms deals with the Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia, and many US leaders’ support for bombing Iran (as demanded by the right-wing Israeli leadership). With regards to the first, Trump has never hidden his intentions to milk the Saudis to the max. In his televised meeting with the Saudi crown prince Mohamed bin Salman (MBS), Trump voiced the hope that in 2018-19 alone the value of arms deals with the Saudis will exceed $700 billion. Continuing to inflame Saudi fears towards Iran is the best guarantee of those current and future deals. Any diplomatic track that might offset such fears would be far less profitable.

With regards to the second reason, Saudi Arabia is already implicated in a futile war in Yemen that after more than two years seems far from being resolved. Ironically, that war was named by the Saudis “the battle of decisiveness” and was planned to last only the few weeks it would take to finish off the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels. Instead, the Saudis are bleeding financially and politically, and facing mounting international criticism as a result of the war’s effects: enormous Yemeni casualties, the hunger of millions of civilians, and the spread of disease.

If this would-be “short campaign” has proved beyond Saudi capabilities, why might they consider that a fully-fledged regional war against Iran could ever be winnable? Such a war, even with the help of Israel, would lead to more protracted, costly and bloody confrontations for all involved. The Americans, recognising Saudi military inadequacy even with all the imported weapons, are well aware of this. Yet in their own interest they refrain from frankness with their wealthy ally. Honest advice to the Saudis would be to seek a “grand political deal” with Iran.

This American dishonesty exploits the political impulsiveness of the young and inexperienced Saudi crown prince. MBS’s public-relations advisors, themselves mostly Americans, seem to have given him some “Politics 101” that look trivial when examined. One of the crown prince’s fondly repeated lessons is the parallel between the western appeasement of Hitler on the eve of the second world war and the west’s non-confrontational approach towards Iran that culminated in the Obama-era nuclear deal. One of the crown prince’s fondly repeated lessons is the parallel between the western appeasement of Hitler on the eve of the second world war and the west’s non-confrontational approach towards Iran that culminated in the Obama-era nuclear deal.

This analogy is desperate to make the point that unless an actual confrontational line is adopted against Iran, the region will witness Iranian invasion and expansion into the Middle East. The reference is to the notorious Munich agreement in September 1938, when British and French leaders in effect gave Hitler the right to continue invading Germany’s neighbours.

Historians differ on the question whether Nazi ambitions could have been stopped without that pact, and thus the course of events leading to war in 1939 halted. In any case, the comparison with today’s Iran is naïve on many levels. The German grievances that lingered from the Versailles treaty in 1919 that fostered the rise of Hitler are absent with regard to Iran. The aggressive Nazi war strategy was led and popularised by its intent to restore the German lands that, after the empire’s fall, had been seized and given to neighbouring countries.

By contrast, current Iranian aggressive regional policies are driven by nervousness and the regime’s lack of solid internal political support. In addition, the genocidal plans that Hitler had in mind and then implemented against the Jews have no equivalent against any other group whatsoever in the mindset of the Iranian leadership. Those who planted this analogy in MBS’s mind knew that such a portrayal appeases Israel and cements a shared war discourse between the Saudis and their unlikely Jewish ally.

What would a war between a Saudi-Israeli alliance against Iran, backed by the US, look like? It would, in short, mean Armageddon to the entire region.

Iran’s military and supporting groups in surrounding countries would be able to inflict great damage against adversary countries. Iranian missile capabilities would not be entirely destroyed in any massive first strike. Surviving missiles would reach, in addition to Israeli cities, major Gulf cities implicated in such a war, such as Riyadh, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Manama and even the American military base in Qatar. The vulnerable Gulf cities that have flourished on commerce and extravagant attractions would be soft targets. If part of Saddam Hussein’s badly weakened capabilities in 1991 remained operational and managed to hit Israeli and Saudi cities, Iranian steadfastness and capability to retaliate are likely to be even more robust.

Moreover, the unleashing of Shi’amilitias across the region would make ISIS violence look minimal. Hizbollah in Lebanon would most likely engage directly in war against Israel, this time endangering the very existence of Lebanon as a country. Hamas in Gaza could equally be prompted to open another front, endangering the already devastated Gaza strip. Syria and even Iraq would inevitably become embroiled battlefields, causing further calamities. The economies of the Gulf countries would be extremely damaged, the oil supplies drastically hit, and oil prices sent rocketing. How Turkey would behave in northern Syria amid such chaos, and what form of engagement it would pursue, is an open question. If such a war went on for a longer time, which is not unlikely, it is hard either to imagine or project the magnitude and directions of massive waves of refugees and displaced people.

A Failure of Diplomacy

Another scary dimension to such a war is the position of Russia. Judging by the worsening relations between the west and Russia, it is not far-fetched to predict Russian support of the Iranians, driven by Kremlin hostility to western policies and by the desire to maintain a strong Russian influence in the region.

In terms of Israel’s position and perceptions, Israeli propaganda against Iran portrays Tehran’s mullahs as a bunch of fanatics that pose an existential threat to the Jewish state. This is simply hollow and baseless. Rhetoric aside, Iran’s official declared line towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to accept what the Palestinians would ultimately accept. A just conclusion of the Palestinian cause would neutralise Iran’s purported threat. Ignoring Palestine and blindly supporting Israel, as the current American administration does, feeds into Iran’s belligerent attitudes, as well as radicalises a public environment receptive to what Iran stands for.

The Yemeni war should have given the Saudis the harshest of lessons, one repeatedly taught by history: you can decide when to start a war but you can’t control when to end it. A war against Iran is a lose-lose deal with unimaginable consequences. If a fraction of the effort and resources that would be consumed in such a war had been invested in diplomacy, a peaceful grand deal with Iran that spread across the region could have been achieved. If the US can talk to North Korea and try to save that region from the dangers and devastation of nuclear war, why shouldn’t it do the same in the Middle East?

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  1. Anti-Schmoo

    If the US can talk to North Korea and try to save that region from the dangers and devastation of nuclear war, why shouldn’t it do the same in the Middle East?

    Simply because North Korea has nukes and Iran does not.
    And, that’s where the oil is…

      1. Darius

        Given the power of America’s neocons and America’s resultant unreliability as a diplomatic partner, I’m leaning toward thinking Iran would have been better off just building a bomb. Countries without the bomb get attacked by the US.

        1. RMO

          I have come to think that Iran’s leaders really do not want nuclear weapons and the assertion by the Iranian theocrats that nuclear weapons are morally unacceptable must actually be sincere. By any cynical, pragmatic, realpolitik calculations building them has no downside for the country given that the U.S. seems hellbent on sanctioning Iran and demonizing them as if they did have a nuclear weapons program anyways. I also think that the DC braintrust must be living in the place that the people from cloudcuckooland go to get away from it all.

    1. Disturbed Voter

      Correct, but that is because … allies. Germany and Britain will fight Russia to the last American too. There is no reason to believe, that nations won’t fight for the last oil/gas well. The US was prepared to destroy the Earth during the Cold War, at least to avoid the more negative scenarios. This hasn’t changed. And there is no reason to believe, historically, that any realistic situation we find ourselves in, won’t end badly. As First Strike advocates pessimistically believed, we may only be putting off the inevitable extinction event. Though that is still worth doing, in my estimation.

      1. divadab

        “The US was prepared to destroy the Earth during the Cold War, at least to avoid the more negative scenarios”

        Eh? What could be a more negative scenario than destroying the earth?

        And I seriously doubt “Germany….will fight Russia to the last American” – the Germans are horrified by the US sabre-rattling against Russia, their main energy and increasingly, food, supplier.

        The Empire is in the hands of people whose idea of a Saturday afternoon spectator sport is to watch people getting their heads chopped off. Where there is one religion and if you leave it, you get your head chopped off. And whose main aim appears to be eliminating all remaining Christian communities, the oldest Christian communities in the world, throughout the middle east. Why oh why are we in league with the anti-Christ?

        1. jsn

          It seems to me it’s more like the US is willing to see it’s European “protectorates” vaporized rather than let them keep trading with those evil Ruskies.

          NATO countries in Europe will be the first Russian targets because they house all the US’ most immediately threatening equipment.

          The psychopaths who run US foreign policy believe the marketing BS they use to sell our weapons abroad and even if they understand the real threat of actual use, because they’re psychopaths they don’t respond to that information in a way that sane people do. It’s just one of life’s risks to them.

        2. Plenue

          Look, on the plus side all the irradiated corpses wouldn’t have been Communist. That’s the most important thing.

    2. third time lucky

      Canada isn’t that big.

      Maybe Trump’s wall in Mexico was meant to stop deserters fleeing?

  2. Carolinian

    Don’t forget Trump and Nikki were also threatening to bomb NK to smithereens not that long ago. Doubtless the Pentagon is perfectly well aware of the facts in the above article and aren’t about to start a war with 70 million Iranians. Even George W. Bush wasn’t willing to be one of the “real men” who go to Tehran.

    Of course Cheney was, and his creature Bolton now has Trump’s ear. But here’s betting the military keeps the crazy in its box re war with Iran.

    1. pdehaan

      I believe Iraq was intended as a prelude to Iran. If that had gone as expected (be over in a couple of months), rather than a dragged out war, the planners would have been quite capable/mad enough to believe they could take on Iran and ‘solve’ the middle eastern problem for good.

      I also believe the US can about manage / convince the domestic population of another huge war about once every decade. Each and every time the disaster is so big that propaganda loses its effectiveness and people just get fed up. It takes a few cycles of mea-culpas and ‘we were wrong’ admissions of leading intellectuals and journalists (e.g. ‘we should have looked at the evidence of WMD’s a bit better’), and it takes time to cautiously get bold again and start a new propaganda ‘pro-intervention’ campaign. People have short enough memories to do that once every decade, or thereabouts.

      1. Andrew Dodds

        Iran would be a totally different kettle of fish to Iraq.. and Iraq was a mess.

        Much bigger country, much bigger population. And while the US could certainly defeat Iran in conventional military terms, invasion and occupation would need so many boots on the ground that conscription would be required. Good look with that..

        1. pdehaan

          Oh, I agree with you. But the group of neoconservatives at the time, from Perle to Bolton and a host of others, were quite willing to go gung-ho and engineer a disaster. They weren’t exactly what we can describe as ‘rational’, were they? They had grander end goals.

          They were quite explicit about the fact that Iran was their ultimate goal. They were far too ‘optimistic’ about what could be achieved militarily in Iraq, without sufficient boots on the ground and without a real post-war strategy. And they didn’t foresee the guerrilha warfare (they somehow thought that Iraq’s would feel thankful for ridding them of Saddam Hussain). I really think that if Iraq had gone as planned, with a quick military victory, they would have been mad enough to go for the next phase in their plan, and deal with Iran/Syria next.

  3. Eustache De Saint Pierre

    In the event of a war & my assumption that due to the usual method of bomb the hell out of the place, there would be a refugee crisis which could effect around 80 million people. Looking at the geography, they do not have direct access to the Med & a large movement of a Shiite population would probably lead to an extreme case of chaos, affecting many countries who for the most part being largely Sunni & already under strain, might not be too welcoming. The Stan’s which form the underbelly of Russia to the North & Georgia could be affected pretty badly, which might please some & it appears that Iran to the North has a ring of high mountain ranges that would be hellish to cross, especially in Winter – nightmare scenario is unfortunately spot on..

  4. Enrique

    I cannot imagine any circumstances under which Russia would allow a regime-changed US puppet to be installed in Iran. Full stop. So a war against Iran is by definition utterly devoid of upside.

  5. The Rev Kev

    I think that the Russians have been reading their Clausewitz. When you look at the Syrian expedition, you see principles in use like “make the best use of the few means at our disposal”. OK, they went in with just enough force to level the playing field for the Syrian Army and its allies who then proceeded to do a demolition job on various brands of jihadists like ISIS, Al Nusrah, etc.
    If they were prepared to do that for Syria, just what exactly do you think that they would do for Iran in case of a Saudi, US, Israel attack? Just as a start, they would set up S-500 batteries – the same sort that protect Moscow – as well as a network of Pantsirs. Nothing would fly these without their say-so. Maybe a coupla Kalibar missiles to make sure that no ships get too close.
    The place would be a missile fortress with Saudi Arabia’s oil fields just across the gulf. The Russians could let the Iranians slap a Iranian flag on a coupla Kalibar missiles and then take out most of Saudi oil production. You think that Patriot missiles would be really able to defend them? The thought of that would freak the Saudis out. The Israelis would be panicking as I believe that the S-500s would also cover the entirety of their country. So no. Such an attack on Iran is not gunna happen.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      My first thought was that it wouldn’t necessarily be in the Iranians interest to target Saudi oil facilities because of the potential for their own facilities to be targeted (especially the Gulf gas fields), but on consideration, it would be a very desirable outcome for the Russians in particular – surging oil prices and a renewed European/Chinese dependence on Russian oil and gas. And the Iranians may feel they can survive without their oil/gas longer than the Saudi’s can, their economy is vastly more resilient.

      I’ve no doubt that the Saudis were sold their expensive air defence on the basis that it would protect them from this, but the Patriots failures (including, hilariously, one caught on youtube doubling back and nearly hitting the launch site) will make them think twice. The Qataris have maybe been wise to invest in their own S-400 defence.

      1. The Rev Kev

        Gee, I guess that this means that the Saudis will not be able to send in their military to bring them in line like they did in Bahrain back in 2011. The mind boggles at the thought of a Saudi invasion. The S-400s keeping the skies clear of Saudi air power while the Qatar military takes on the Saudi military with that Turkish base lending support.
        Would they try to do a blockade of Qatar like they do with Yemen? That gulf region has the potential to be a shooting gallery and the Saudi Navy has already lost a few ships to the Yemen military alone. You wonder what that big American base would do in Qatar. As far as I am concerned though, the Saudis and Qataris are just as bad as each other.
        Good point about the oil prices working to the Russians advantage in case of trouble.

  6. EoinW

    The Middle East has two problems: the Israelis and the Saudis. There will never be peace in the region until these two are persuaded to live in peace with their neighbours. After a century of supporting Wahabi terrorism, the Saudis will never change their way. The medieval monarchy has to go. Meanwhile Israel has had over 40 years to make peace with the Palestinians but have chosen to continue stealing land over peace.

    The big problem with Putin’s idea of bringing peace to the Middle East is that it does not take into account the fact the Saudis and Israelis do not want peace. The Syrian War should be winding down. Instead we barely dodged WW3 and there looks like no hope of the war ending because of Israel and Israeli control of Washington.

    I’m afraid it is inevitable that Israel will trigger a wider war eventually as they know they can count on the US to come to their rescue. Yet forget about this talk of a war destroying Lebanon. This war will be the end of Israel and the Saudi monarchy. I’d go one step further to suggest a third failed state will be the USA(due to the economic blowback). But for world peace we really do need these three to be the next failed states. The only question is: will there be any people left in the Middle east to enjoy such a peace?

  7. steven

    As usual Chomsky has the definitive take on this in his 2007 Hegemony or Survival. The Middle East and the entire globe are suffering from a putrescent US foreign policy ‘grand strategy’. GW Bush and his neoconservatives didn’t originate the concept of ‘full spectrum dominance’ (FSD) but they gave it the stench it has acquired in the 21st century. View the 2003 invasion of Iraq as the first demonstration project for the new strategy of FSD with Libya and Syria as follow-on episodes.

    “A peaceful grand deal” is indeed needed – but between the US, Russia and China. The US needs to seriously consider becoming a “partner” in collective security arrangements rather than the instigator of global conflicts to keep its arms makers happy and profitable. The US and the world has much better uses for its resources than turning them over to chicken-hawks to play Great Games with the lives of billions of people.

    1. Summer

      “A peaceful grand deal” is indeed needed – but between the US, Russia and China.”

      You mean they’re going to have to “share”?

      (laughter ensues in the EU)

  8. steven

    A further thought… IIRC in Daniel Yergin’s The Prize he wrote the old oil majors had red-lined Iran (because of its foolish notions about using its natural resources for the benefit of its own people) rather than British & US investors. The bottom line here is that Iran may well have more oil under the ground than Saudi Arabia. See Twilight in the Desert: The Coming Saudi Oil Shock and the World Economy

    P.S. If someone could teach Trump (and his national security advisors?) how to read, he or she might qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize.

    1. Summer

      As more Arctic trade routes open up, that could be a strength for Russia.
      That’s why we’re seeing the urgency by some in the establishment to do regime change or war with Russia.

      The US wants to control all of that too…

      1. steven

        war with Russia?

        If the establishment in the US and the EU is really that stupid, our species and the earth is in a great deal of trouble! I personally think what we have here is a clutch of cowards willing to gamble the future of the planet to impress their masters in the Western financial and military industrial complexes.

        1. Summer

          The entire economy and culture is geared toward war and the US is always at war, however they brand it for consumption.
          The war will get bigger because it’s mainly bigger targets.

          People are clutching their pearls ovee 100 years too late.

  9. Punxsutawney

    I am surprised that China is not mentioned. While I don’t doubt that they would be happy to stand aside and let us destroy ourselves, I not so sure they will be the least bit happy about oil supplies being disrupted from Iran. Or destruction of their investments there.

    At which point they get involved. Probably not direct military action, but perhaps via military equipment and advisers. Are Silkworms as deadly to ships as they used to be?

  10. ChrisPacific

    One of the crown prince’s fondly repeated lessons is the parallel between the western appeasement of Hitler on the eve of the second world war and the west’s non-confrontational approach towards Iran that culminated in the Obama-era nuclear deal.

    Bad (or poorly applied) analogies can be very damaging. George W. Bush was very fond of quoting post-WWII Japan as his model for how the US relationship with Iraq was going to work after the (at the time presumed easy and quick) war to remove Saddam Hussein. At the time I remember thinking that “we dropped a nuke on them and now we’re the best of friends” was perhaps not a model that would generalize well to future scenarios.

  11. Procopius

    … the Iranian-supported Houthi rebels.

    I cringe every time I see this. The sect of Shi’a the Houthis follow is different from that mostly followed in Iran, but they are close enough that the MBS decided he could use the excuse to justify his war. In fact, there is no land route by which Iran can “support” the Houthi. The American navy plus Saudi warships maintain a tight blockade of the sea route, preventing delivery of food and medicine. It’s true the Houthi have managed to get their hands on a couple of missiles, probably Chinese, or maybe from either Oman or Saudi Arabia itself (corrupt arms dealers thrive in the region). I suppose the mullahs would like to support the Houthi, but basically they are restricted to sending thoughts and prayers.

    1. Plenue

      There seems to be some sort of subconscious disbelief that the Houthis (and some significant portion of the Yemeni military; this fact usually goes unmentioned) could actually accomplish what they have all on their own. Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world, and also quite poor by global standards. Yet the country is filled with guns and motivated fighters to use them. The Yemeni military also has a large stockpile of ballistic missiles and some quite clever engineers who keep modifying them to be able to hit Riyadh and other distant targets.

      I guess ‘experts’ and ‘analysts’ just can’t accept that ‘backwards’ people are doing this with North Korean copies of outdated Soviet tech. Iran simply ‘must’ be shipping them gear, though not one person can offer a plausible explanation (or usually any explanation at all) for how they would get the gear through the blockade.

  12. drumlin woodchuckles

    Colonel Lang and guest posters and commenters have written a lot over time about the KSA-US relationship, among other Middle Eastern subjects.

    Their understanding is that it is the KSA government which manipulates and exploits the US government and it is the KSA government which is seeking to get the US and Israel to go to war with Iran for KSA benefit.
    Meanwhile, Israel seeks to have US go to war with Iran for Israeli benefit. Or, one might say, for Likud-oriented Greater Israel benefit.

    If Colonel Lang and the others over at Sic Semper Tyrannis are correct, then the author of this article has it backwards over who seeks to manipulate whom into a war on Iran.

    1. JTFaraday

      I don’t think one can assume that the actors that seek to influence US Fedgov from within are aligned one to one with the nation, whereby one can say “The US wants X.” Factions working within the US may well want the US to go to war, and most certainly want to continue regional conflagrations.

  13. JTFaraday

    Foreign private interests already plan to take over Saudi Aramco. What better way than by turning SA into Venezuela via forcing it to fund an unwinnable war that has the side effect of furthering USAIsreal’s unofficial official policy of accidental genocide in the mideast?

  14. arihalli

    I am confused to the objectives of the USA. I just don’t see the goal as ‘oil’ anymore. Hegemony appears to be the theory of last resort.

    Our nation is literally bankrupting itself to ‘appear’ in control. But, even the Mafia, knows when to end a feud before they destroy themselves. Color me confused.

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