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The Iran Mess

By Stephen W. Buck

Here we go again! Seventeen years ago, in an article for the class website, I wrote that our invading Iraq would be an unmitigated disaster, since Iraq, where I served as Deputy Chief of Mission and Acting Ambassador was the most nationalistic of the 8 Arab countries I served in. Iraqis would welcome the overthrow of Saddam, but not our occupation. Saddam was odious, but also adhered to a secular Iraqi nationalism and was a fierce foe of Islamic fundamentalism. Iraq would go from being a bulwark against Iran to a client state of Iran because the majority of the Iraqi population was Shi’a, the religion of Iran.

After the invasion, I was asked by the U.S. Institute of Peace to interview key officials of the U.S. occupation. I asked the U.S. official who was essentially the de facto “Iraqi” defense minister whether the U.S. had a “Plan B” should the Iraqis not welcome our occupation, as the Bush administration expected. Without any further explanation he answered “no.”

Fast forward to today. Two weeks ago, before our assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guard General Soleimani, Iranians were holding massive demonstrations against the Iranian Regime, and Iraqis were doing the same against their Shi’a/Iran dominated regime. It was a perfect time for the U.S. to do nothing and let the people speak – something in our interest. Instead, by assassinating Soleimani, we turned this completely around, unifying Iranians and Iraqis against us.

“Intelligence” – Trump said that we had to act on “intelligence” about an imminent Iranian attack against U.S. targets – this from a man who for months has railed about the unreliability of U.S. intelligence! And on top of this he threatens, indeed revels, in the thought of destroying centuries-old cultural sites such as the spectacular mosques in Isfahan and Shiraz, which I have visited. In a world of very accurate drones, how would we feel if the Iranians took out the Statue of Liberty?

Alas, the same people who got us into Iraq are pushing for us to go down a path that could easily lead to war, since Trump has threatened massive retaliation if even one American is killed.

Reality – Trump and his neoconservative acolytes believe that “maximum pressure” is the answer. What they forget is that Iran has over 80 million people, far more than the native population of the Arabian Peninsula. Iran has a history going back 5,000 years. It is not going away. Equally important, Iranians have not forgotten that it was the U.S. (and U.K) who overthrew the democratically elected Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh and installed the hated Shah. It was also the U.S. who sided with Iraq by providing critical intelligence and low-priced food to Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. That said, many Iranians looked to the U.S.  Threatening to destroy irreplaceable cultural sites has not helped us, to put it mildly.

I belong to an email list of scholars, reporters and government officials who follow developments in the Persian/Arab Gulf (we just use “Gulf”). In the past weeks, none of them has been able to find a Trump strategy on Iran – is it to overthrow the regime, get out of the area? What is it? Trump’s actions are transactional, not strategic and alas can change from day to day if not hour to hour, depending on the tweet. In his confusing January 8th press appearance, Trump talked about having a new, better agreement with Iran. He seems to think that maximum pressure will bring Iran to the table. The nuclear deal with Iran (initials JCPOA) halted Iranian nuclear development through 2030, backed up by an incredibly intrusive inspection regime. Iran honored the agreement. To think that, after all the sanctions, Iran will come to the table is fantasy. It presupposes that Iran will cave. In fact, the reverse will happen. Given their history, foreign intervention is a huge issue for Iranians. Maximum pressure will only lead to maximum resistance.

The Trump administration has trumpeted Soleimani’s assassination as a major blow to Iran. While the Western press has made a huge to-do about Soleimani’s importance, the press in the Middle East has been more nuanced, with the Iranians saying his work will go on. The deputy who replaced him focused on Afghanistan and points east of Tehran. Unlike Soleimani, he does not speak Arabic, which will make him less effective. That said, Iran has many options and deep connections in the region.

The assassination of Soleimani would, in U.S. terms, be comparable to killing the Secretary of Defense and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In his January 8th press conference Trump repeated long-ago debunked claims that the Obama administration supplied Iran with $150 billion dollars. For the world, and particularly the officials of countries that used to be our allies or had looked to the U.S. , Trump’s constantly changing positions, sometimes in the same day, is deeply troubling. This is particularly the case for the supposed coalition of states such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Unlike the U.S., they are next door to Iran.

“Soleimani’s Ultimate Revenge” – In an excellent article in the January 6th Atlantic, William Burns, President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former Deputy Secretary of State and a colleague from State’s Near East Bureau, argues that “Unlike the Trump Administration, which cannot reconcile its desire to get tough on Iran with its desire to leave the region, the Iranian regime has a strategy… that connects its means to its desired ends: keeping the clerics in power, keeping its imperial project, and keeping sworn enemies, including America, off balance and out of its neighborhood.”

Soleimani’s death is going to make it much easier for Ayatollah Khamenei to consolidate power and produce a win for hard-liners in the upcoming Parliamentary election a month from now. It will also make it easier to mobilize sentiment in Iraq to expel the American presence. A month ago, Iraqis were demonstrating against the Iranian presence and control in Iraq, burning down the Iranian consulate in Najaf. They will now be going after the U.S. presence. Also reducing or eliminating the U.S. presence in Iraq will undermine the campaign against ISIS. Most dangerous of all, the treacherous genie of Iran’s nuclear program is out of the bottle, with no inspections. This could lead to a regional arms race or a pre-emptive strike by Israel, drawing the U.S. into the conflict.

All this reminds me again of the point I made before we invaded Iraq. U.S. disasters are caused by political leaders who impose their views of reality when they are in direct contradiction of reality, ignoring local history, culture and politics. We did it in Vietnam with the domino theory, seeing a communist menace, when Ho Chi Minh, who lived in the U.S., turned to the communists when we would not support him. It continued with our invasion of Iraq, which completely ignored Iraqi history and the likely consequences of our invasion. Now the Trump administration is doing it again.

As the Vietnam War-era song Where Have All the Flowers Gone asks, “When will they learn?”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the U.S. has led the world not because of its military power but because of its values which people around the world looked up to and the coalitions the U.S. created and led after World War 2. The JCPOA had the unanimous support of the UN Security Council as well as our NATO Allies and the European Union, a very rare accomplishment. By essentially saying “might makes right,” and “Go it alone,” in abrogating the agreement Trump has alienated our most valued allies. Going it alone is not a winning strategy, Iran being a sad and terrifying example. “America First” has become America alone, distrusted and ineffective.

By assassinating Soleimani, Trump created the crisis. At the last minute he ended it, followed by a grand celebration of ending the crisis he created! For now both sides have stepped back from the brink. With one misstep we could be back there, with no winning strategy, no thought-out end game and no exit ramp. Alas, the worst may be yet to come.

36 comments to The Iran Mess

  • Chip Neville

    PS; That’s chip neville

  • Chip Nevilld

    Great post Steve. I agree 100%.

  • Charles Gardner Mills

    See my article on this subject at http://fgfbooks.com/Mills-Charles/2011/Mills111229.html

    Charles Mills

  • George Snider

    The law of unintended (or, at least, unexpected) consequences occasionally works in our favor. The Iranian shootdown of the Ukrainian jet, with many Iranians and Canadians onboard, has led to massive protests in Tehran and other cities across Iran. The photo of a crowd deliberately avoiding stepping on the American flag would seem to illustrate the Iranian public’s increasing anger toward the mullahs and politicians who (with Trump’s help) have brought their economy to a virtual standstill. Steve, while I agree with the thrust of your article, would you make any changes post-shootdown?

    • Steve Buck

      Iranians have been demonstrating against the regime for months. Anger over the shooting down of the plane may increase the demonstrations, and I fear, brutal repression. I don’t think this will lead to the overthrow of the regime.

  • Talk about unintended consequences! We kill the bad Iranian, they shoot down an airplane, then they admit doing it, and now the Iranian public is all pissed off at their leaders! And our President tells the Iranian public to “keep the faith”. Is there some light at the end of the tunnel in this part of the never ending Gulf scenario?

    • Steve Buck

      I fear not so long as we have a President who governs by tweet rather than coming up with a consistent strategy. I’ve read a couple of dozen articles by experts on the Gulf and U.S. policy in the Middle East and none could find a coherent strategy.

  • I’ll start by saying I don’t know diddly-squat about the Gulf and the subtleties there. [I just started teaching my course this term at UCSan Diego and learned that 1/3 of my new students, all grad students, don’t know what “diddly-squat” means.] I have hypothesized a litmus test for those, like Steve, who have nothing good to say about Trump et al. I dislike him, too, and could write at length about the errors he makes in areas where I am expert. But not all he says is wrong. Not all he does is bad. On balance, I’d be happier without him.

    Litmus test: are we better off without Soleimani? I think yes. Steve doesn’t address that question. Is he so anti-Trump that he doesn’t want to concede a millimeter? Steve and others can say the the costs of getting rid of Soleimani so outweigh the benefits that on balance, it’s a no-brainer–that the act was harebrained. OK, but are the benefits zero? I’d find Steve’s piece more balanced if he’d addressed that question. As it is, I find it an unbalanced rant because it doesn’t tell me the benefits. Better to address them and then say they are so minor relative to the costs that on balance it was foolish to the max.

    But I’m an economist and I think cost/benefit all the time. To me, analysis of costs without mentioning benefits disqualifies the analysis as being worthy of consideration.

    Roman.Weil@gmail.com

    • I failed my own litmus test in that I didn’t mention that I learned from Steve’s piece. I still know diddly-squat about the Gulf, but I know more than before I read Steve. It’s educational, even if it doesn’t mention benefits. Or, lack thereof. Roman

    • Steve Buck

      Thank you Roman. If we are talking about costs and benefits, a Nobel prize winning economist has estimated that the war in Iraq has cost us upwards of 6 Trillion dollars. I can see little if any economic benefits, especially after the killing of Soleimani uniting many Iraqis against the U.S. and making it unlikely that the U.S. will benefit from any investments in a country that ranks third in oil reserves, which may break understated. When I was serving in Baghdad Iraq’s Oil Minister told the Ambassador and me that they had done almost no investigation into oil reserves in the western part of Iraq, even though they are immense. So Costs of the Iraq invasion and occupation, $6 Trillion, benefits near zero.

  • Willis (Bill) Boyer

    Well, Steve, here we go again with Arabic Kumbayah. I love these experts that cast their predictions as facts. There is way too much of that on loud-mouth TV. Of course, Steve, you have a track record against the Bush-neocon war. Classmate Neal Freeman had quite a story about the crazy neocons and how they buffaloed Colin Powell. But your Trump hatred overwhelms your arguments and, of course, your objectivity. We all love to hate how Trump behaves, but you, as a student of history ought to be able to rise above it..
    It’s too soon to predict what may happen in the mid-east, where tribes have been battling for 5000 years, as Professor Kazemzadeh was wont to say. My son’s (Sunni) Iraqi father-in-law, now living in the Emirates, tells me the Arabic states are genuinely frightened of Iran’s intentions across the gulf, and quite enthusiastic about their alliance with Israel, despite the obvious. Asserting that killing Suliemani will just strengthen the Mullahs may be a safe bet – or not.
    Steve, you disregard the past forty years of open hostility, nay warfare, by Iran in the region. This hopey-changey notion that the USA leads the world mainly by its moral authority and not military might and money, is, well, rubbish. Yes, we like to talk about “human rights” and “democracy” and “anti-corruption.” Hoooo Haaah! Nobody buys that crap. Long before Trump hit the scene, the world observed us in Latin America (Pinochet), in Iran (Kim Roosevelt) and was laughing up their sleeve at Jimmy Carter. Anyway, what’s this about Trump’s “neocon acolytes?” The folks I know who advise on foreign matters, especially Middle East, are not only NOT neocons, but they rather despise whet the neocons have done – back to the Cheney era. Do you have someone in particular to name?
    Steve, old man, take a deep breath and exhale slowly. This too shall pass. Trump, as much as we don’t like him, has confronted China, and has thrown the gauntlet at Iran’s feet. They must stop screwing up their neighborhood. He is a confronter and he despises our establishment deep state. And, like it or not, he strives to be UNPREDICTABLE. That is simply his style. So, predicting events around Trump is pretty much a fool’s errand. And predicting them in the middle east, even with your experience and erudition, is political malpractice.
    – – Jus’ sayin’

  • Steve:

    Bravo! You said all the right things about our big mistakes in Iraq/Iran.

    ALEX

  • Steve and I have corresponded over this issue from the beginning where I initially thought taken out Saddam Hussain was a good idea. Subsequent events have convinced me I was wrong because of many of the points Steve raises. I am no Trump fan, but we must recognize that prior administrations have not approached the main issue in a manner that will ever lead to peace in the Gulf, and between the Congress and public there is a bit of the John Wayne approach Frank Safertal mentions. Given the current state of affairs and complicated issues amongst the USA and the rest of the world, I wonder how many of of Yales of 1962 will be alive when the Gulf situation becomes peaceful or less chaotic?

    • Steve Buck

      Thanks Bill – I think the broader question should be how can we ensure that the Middle East is less chaotic. Creating the crisis ourself and then pronouncing our triumph in walking back from the brink is not a way to promote stability. I would argue that one of the main reasons the Middle East is chaotic is because of our misguided invasion of Iraq, leading to the rise of ISIS and Iran’s influence in Iraq.

  • Roy Hammer

    Excellent history lesson and analysis. Will we in US learn that our president is a danger both to our democracy and to the safety pf our country. The current mess ought to lead to his immediate dismissal from government. Unfortunately the evangelical Pence and Sec. Pompeo would still be there. This could be worse than the Iraq war.

  • Jonathan Ater

    Steve,

    Thanks to you for these comments and also for gret work on the class website.

    I wonder if as Americans we delude ourselves about having esteemed values. Much as we profess our virtues, we have a goodly share of corruption, violence, and racism in our history and yet today. There is a hubris about this which has the same roots as the hubris which causes us to meddle in foreign societies.

    JAA

  • Ken Luke

    Steve, the assassination of a high level Iranian general when we are not formally at war leaves a bad taste in my mouth. However, I think that your statement that “the U. S. has led the world not because of its military power but because of its values” is simply silly. There are many countries that share our values. We lead because we can enforce these values when necessary. Without our military power, would our values have led the world in defeating the Axis in World War 2, or overthrowing the Soviet Union in the Cold War?

    • Steve Buck

      Thank Ken. Of course in cases such as world war 2 we had to use military force. The problem is there are many times such as Vietnam and. Iraq, when the use of military force on the basis of cooked up justification leads to disaster. Teddy Roosevelt said “walk softly and carry a big stick. The possibility of a big stick is important – and one needs to be very careful about using it. Since World War 2 and the Korean War, the big stick has not done so well.

    • Ken Merkey

      Did you have the same bad taste in your mouth when Obama took out Osama bin Laden?

      • Ken Luke

        No. Osama bin Laden made a direct attack on the United States homeland. I classify him as a terrorist, and one who had no qualms about inflicting maximum damage on American civilians (as well as collateral damage to non-Americans). Soleimani also caused the deaths of Americans, but – at least to my understanding – it was part of military (including guerrilla) action against military targets in an overseas military theater. That is a significant difference.

        • Ken Merkey

          So if I understand your logic, there are bad terrorists and some not-so-bad terrorists. Some deserve to be killed, the others we should tolerate.

  • Frank Safertal

    Steve,
    I am surprised that you see it this way. This is all about religious wars – I am from Central Europe and we had them for years…like 40 years war started at in hometown.
    Both Sadam Hussein (in Iraq) and Mossadegh (in Iran) were social democrats who were trying to ween their countries away from dogmatic Islam – and of course, US saw them as communists and killed them both – big mistake….socialism hates religion and it would have solved their religious schism.
    Being “fine in diplomacy” is not one of our skills – we like John Wayne approach..this is why US will never solve Middle East dilemma, I think. I am surprised that Israelis still rely so much on US for their livelihood – US may not be here for ever – who said that “noting lasts forever”:.. I wish we had Metternich and Castlereagh in the Middle East…

    • Steve Buck

      Thanks Frank. I agree with you on the John Wayne approach. Thinking that people who have been injured by colonialism and thoughtless invasions will roll over in the face of economic warfare ignores that it will only stiffen resistance.

  • J Pearce Hurley MD

    Another Thanks, Steve. In this yet again such distressing time it is reassuring and a relief to have your knowledgeable assessment and analysis, confirming and sustaining the relatively informed thinking of the many of us who nonetheless do not have your expertise and experience.

    • Steve Buck

      Thank you Pearce. Would that those making decisions would factor in the regional and historical context and how it shapes actions and reactions.

      Best,

      Steve

  • Steve Buck

    Thanks for the feedback. I hope those cooler heads will continue to prevail!

  • Steve Buck

    Thanks James – Let’s hope the cooler heads continue to prevail!

  • Fred Ilfeld

    Steve, thank you for a clear unvarnished assessment of our Iranian “front” from someone with knowledge of the people, their culture, and history. I wish savvy folks like you could speak the sociological and historical truths to our policy makers.

  • Norm Jackson

    Thanks, Steve, great article! Having lived in Iran for a couple of years, I completely agree.

  • James Pearson

    I heard that after Iran’s “save face” attacks on Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, Cadet Bone Spurs actually contemplated responding in kind, when any sane person would have immediately realized the stupidity of such a course of action. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed.

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