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Shia Iran

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The Middle East: Not Enough Wars Yet

“When all the Arabs and the Israelis agree on one thing, people should pay attention. We should stop this Iranian takeover,” said Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu last month. So we’re paying attention now, and we even know where the next war will start: Lebanon.

That seems unfair, as Lebanon’s last civil war lasted fifteen years, killed around 200,000 people (out of a population of only 4 million), and only ended in 1990. Couldn’t they hold this one somewhere else? Unfortunately, no. All the other venues are taken.

Iraq is still fully booked. The fight against ISIS is almost over, but the struggle between the Arabs and the Kurds has only just got started again. It never really stops for long.

Bashar al-Assad’s forces, the Russians, and Shia volunteers from Iran and Lebanon are winning the war in Syria, but it will be at least another year before they suppress all rebel resistance.

Yemen’s airspace is too congested, with Saudi, Emirati, Kuwaiti, Jordanian and Egyptian planes bombing the living daylights out of the Houthi rebels who hold most of the country (and anybody else who happens to be nearby). No real room for another war there.

Both Saudi Arabia and Israel want to take Iran down a peg or two, and their efforts to get the United States to do it for them have not yet succeeded. Trump is not opposed in principle, but his current obsession is North Korea’s Kim Jong-un.

So the war will have to be in Lebanon, at least at the start. The big Shia militia that controls southern Lebanon, Hezbollah, is closely allied to Shia Iran, and it’s a permanent nuisance along Israel’s northern border, so it’s a suitable place to start rolling back Iran’s influence in the region.

Lebanon is a particularly good choice from Saudi Arabia’s point of view because it’s the Israelis who would have to do the actual fighting there. (Saudi Arabia does not share a border with Lebanon.) But if Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman is really serious about curbing Iran’s power, his own troops are eventually going to have to take on the job of cleansing Syria of Iranian influence.

You only have to say that sentence aloud to realise that this project is going to end in tears for the Saudis, the Israelis and (if they get sucked into it) the Americans. There is no way that the inexperienced Saudi army is going to drive battle-hardened Hezbollah and Iranian militia troops out of Syria.

Actually, there is no way that the Israeli army is going to drive Hezbollah out of southern Lebanon either. In Israel’s last war with the organisation in 2006, Hezbollah’s troops fought the Israeli army to a standstill in southern Lebanon. The Israeli air force smashed up Lebanon’s infrastructure, but Israel ended up accepting a ceasefire with Hezbollah and withdrawing its troops in a hurry.

Sunni Arab leaders and Israel’s prime minister have talked themselves into the paranoid delusion that Iran has a grand plan to establish its domination over the whole region and must be stopped by force of arms.

First Iran established close links with the Shia political parties and militias that now dominate Iraq. Then it crossed Iraqi territory to save the Shia ruler of Syria from a revolt by the Sunni majority in that country. Next was distant Yemen, where the Shia tribes of the north, the Houthi, overran most of the country with Iranian help. And now the Shia militia Hezbollah has gained a powerful position in the government of Lebanon.

If the Sunnis don’t stop the Iranians now, they’ll all be enslaved. Or something of that sort.

Nonsense. It was George W. Bush who overthrew the centuries-long rule of the Sunni minority in Iraq on the lying pretext that Saddam Hussein was developing ‘weapons of mass destruction’. The Shias took power in Iraq in a free election, and as the only Shia-majority country in the Arab world they naturally sought a close relationship with Shia Iran.

This made it easy for Iranian volunteers and weapons to move across Iraq and help Bashar al-Assad resist an assault on his rule by Sunni extremists. The Hezbollah militia, which represents the large Shia minority in Lebanon, also went to Assad’s help, but you can hardly portray this as Shia expansionism.

There is absolutely no evidence that the Houthis in Yemen are getting any material assistance from Iran. They are not even Iranian “proxies” in any meaningful sense of the word. They are Yemeni tribes who happen to be Shia, engaged in a typical Yemeni tribal power struggle.

A great many people will die for nothing if the full-scale Sunni-Shia war that Saudi Arabia (and Netanyahu) currently envisage actually gets going. But Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri’s resignation a week ago, in which he denounced Hezbollah’s presence in the government – delivered not at home but in Saudi Arabia – may have been the starting gun for the war.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 16. (“Both…Jong-un”; and “There is…struggle”)

Principled Realism

The media mostly missed it (or chose to ignore it as a piece of meaningless rhetoric), but Donald Trump proclaimed a new doctrine in his speech to the assembled leaders of the Muslim world in Saudi Arabia on Sunday. It goes by the name of Principled Realism, although it didn’t offer much by way of either principles or realism. In practice, it mostly boiled down to a declaration of (proxy) war against Iran.

After rambling on for twenty minutes about the wonders of Islam and the evils of “extremism” and “terrorism”, Trump finally got to the point: “No discussion of stamping out this (terrorist) threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists…safe harbour, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment….I am speaking, of course, of Iran.”

No mention of the fact that every single terrorist attack in the West from 9/11 down to the bomb in Manchester Arena on Monday night was carried out by Sunni fanatics, most of them of Arab origin, whereas Iran’s population is overwhelmingly Shia and not Arab at all.

No mention either of the fact that it was Sunni-majority allies of the United States, notably Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, that enabled the two most powerful Sunni extremist groups, Islamic State and al-Qaeda, to seize large amounts of territory in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia and Qatar gave the extremists direct and indirect financial aid, and Turkey kept its border open so that weapons, money and recruits could reach them in Syria.

And no mention of the fact that the only approved form of Sunni Islam in Saudi Arabia, the fundamentalist Wahhabi doctrine, is almost identical to the version of Islam espoused by the terrorists. Bringing up such awkward subjects would have upset his audience, and the last thing Trump wants to do is hurt people’s feelings.

Iran, to hear Trump tell it, is the source of all the region’s problems. “From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran funds, arms and trains terrorists, militias and other extremist groups that spread destruction and chaos across the region….It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin for many nations and leaders in this room….”

“Until the Iranian regime is willing to be a parter for peace, all nations of conscience must work together to isolate Iran, deny it funding for terrorism, and pray for the day when the Iranian people have the just and righteous government they deserve.”

Trump delivered this remarkable farrago of lies and half-truths two days after Iran, the only Middle Eastern state apart from Israel and Turkey to hold relatively free elections, re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, who has worked hard to reduce the influence of his hard-line opponents. He also signed the deal freezing Iranian work on nuclear weapons for ten years, and he clearly has popular support for his policies.

The “militias” Iran trains and supports include those in Iraq that are fighting to free the city of Mosul from the clutches of Islamic State (they also have tacit American support), and the Hezbollah movement in southern Lebanon, which has been part of the Lebanese government since 2005. There is no evidence that Iran has supplied weapons to the Houthi rebels in Yemen, despite frequent allegations to that effect by Arab and American sources.

The Iranian goverment does not “speak openly about mass murder”, and the one Iranian leader who spoke about the eventual destruction of Israel (although he did not promise to do it personally) was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He was defeated by Rouhani in the 2013 election, and was banned from running again in the one just past. “Death to America!” was a nationalist slogan popular in the 1980s.

Iran, like most large countries, has many conflicting political trends, and with careful selection and enough ill-will you can find enough extreme and ignorant comments to demonise the country. (You could certainly do it with Trump’s America.) But the Islamic Republic of Iran has never invaded anybody, and it certainly does not support terrorist attacks against either the West or the Arab world.

Trump has drunk the Kool-Aid. He has bought into a partisan Arab narrative whose theme is an inevitable (and ultimately military) conflict between Iran and the Arab world, and has all but promised that the United States would fight on the Arab side in that putative war.

This is probably the stupidest foreign policy commitment any American administration has made since the decision 60 years ago to take France’s place in fighting the “Communist menace” in Vietnam. Iran has almost as many people as Vietnam, it’s five times as big, and it’s mostly mountains and deserts – plus some very big cities.

Maybe it is inevitable that Sunni Arab leaders will see Shia Iran through the lens of their own fears and stereotypes, and start making self-fulfilling prophecies of apocalyptic conflict. Trump has no such excuse – and ‘Principled Realism’ really is the wrong slogan. How about ‘Reckless Complicity’?
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“No mention either …feelings”)