Historical and Strategic Considerations for Trump and His Iran Policy Before America Becomes Embroiled in Another Middle Eastern Disaster

In the 21st Century, presenting the ongoing rivalry or conflict as one between Sunnis and Shiites is to grossly oversimplify what is a more nuanced and complicated phenomenon. Clearly, To discuss what appears to manifest Itself - now a mixture of hatred and resentment' between the two rival 'schools' of Islam purely in religious terms, clouds interpretations. Just as with the centuries of interaction between the Catholics and Protestants of Post- Reformation Europe, there are many complex factors to consider.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are now clearly flat-out competing for the domination of their shared region. And the contrast has never been so close, in a complex and changing system of alliances.

In 2018, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are making political alliances and intervene militarily in support of their allies. Never before has the opposition been so close, leading to a direct involvement including also other global powers: from the United States, historical allies of Riyadh, to Russia, that gladly supports Tehran. And Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to fill the void created by the grave decision of President Donald Trump to unconditionally support Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile, Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has only ’increased the distances’ and favored the consolidation of the new alliances between Russia, Iran and Turkey.

But, this is hardly new. The United States is perpetuating and encouraging a game that has long roots and that can’t be resolved simply through military might. President Trump appears to be showing off American power without any logic, exploiting the image of Iran – and to a lesser extent the Shiites – as his favoured candidate as an enemy, to justify his threats. It cannot be ignored that the US’s greatest strength between nations is it’s incredible military power with armed forces many times more powerful than any likely combination of other nations. That is always in danger of being graphically demonstrated, to make the point; and with such an apparently unsubtle president, Iran ‘by elimination’ must appear big enough (and ugly enough in US perceptions) to find itself the victim of hyped up threats.

The recent Iranian protests could not have arrived at a more propitious moment. The West promptly interpreted the protests of the ‘Arab Awakening (or Arab Spring, if you prefer), that shocked much of the Arab world in 2011 as a cry for democracy and freedom. In the United States, the narrative served the convenient purpose of a ‘casus interfatio’ if not a full on ‘casus belli’; it found 'a noble cause' to get back to, in the Middle East. (Libya and Syria are two of the fine results of that!) But, Iran is the ultimate prize.

Syria was always just the opening act. Before embarking on such a complicated war, reasonable leaders evaluate such basic aspects as ‘can a war against Iran be won?’. While, there are good reasons to suggest that Donald Trump may be less than reasonable, he’s not that much different than any of his US predecessors; especially, when it comes to confronting any subject that concerns Israel.

President John F. Kennedy may have been the last one to challenge Israeli ambitions, vehemently opposing the Jewish State’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. (He didn’t live long enough to alter what would become standard practice for any U.S. government or president, Democrat or Republican). Trump delayed his decision to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. It was a campaign promise, which surely earned him the support, financial or political, of billionaire Sheldon Adelson and the so-called Christian Zionists like Vice-President Pence. If the Israelis and their many supporters in the U.S. Congress are concerned about Israeli security, the Christian Zionists are trying to accelerate´ the second coming of the Messiah to save the world’. Trump is a more practical man than that. He does what he must to achieve specific and tangible targets.

Again, he’s different than George W. Bush, who was more susceptible to ideological considerations such as spreading democracy. Trump should see no benefit in invading or targeting Iran. Indeed, based on his American First ‘philosophy’, he should have embraced the countless business opportunities for American companies that Iran represents from Boeing to ExxonMobil. Still, something happened, shortly after Trump sat in the Oval Office. Not so subtly, U.S. policy in the Middle East shifted from ‘America First’ to what critics pointed out was a ‘Saudi First’ stance. The Saudis had better intelligence. (They know full well, it’s always ‘Israel First’ when it comes to America’s strategy in their region). The new man in charge, more Prince Mohammad bin Salman now than King Salman, seems practical as well. He appears to have aligned the future of Saudi security to that of Israel, cleverly ensuring unchallenged total American support. In 2018, the clearest aspect of the Middle East confrontation is that the Israelis and the Saudis have the same enemy: Iran.

Trump is happy to comply because the American industrial-military complex secures hundreds of billions in sales from this situation. It matters not, whether the sales are U.S. taxpayer or Saudi oil funded. The earnings are posted by the likes of Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, which help push the Dow Jones index to new records, attracting more investment in the United States, perpetuating the strength of the financial market dominated economy. Trump’s ambitious corporate tax cuts should also be viewed in this optic.

Indeed, Trump’s Middle Eastern strategy isn’t all that different from Obama's. The policy is the same. For all the rhetoric, the U.S. is in no hurry to eliminate ISIS. The Islamic State might be reduced to rubble, but ISIS is dispersing and will remain an ideological threat in the region. Simply, ISIS serves U.S. and Israeli interests because it remains a major burden for Iran and its alleged hegemonic Shiite ambitions. Trump is merely echoing Obama, when he insists that American troops will remain in Syria because of Iran, knowing full well that it is crucial to Iranian interests. Trump's attempt, after only 12 days in office, to suspend or alter the nuclear treaty with the Islamic Republic was his now constant chess move, to keep Tehran ‘on edge’. Trump has renewed the deal in January, thus it’s unlikely that he expects to launch a direct attack against Iran any time soon,. But, that doesn’t mean that he won’t provoke Tehran into a trap to justify America’s continued occupation of territories in the Middle East – in accordance with ‘the Project for ‘a New American Century’s ‘A Clean Break’ white paper, signed by Benjamin Netanyahu among other neo-conservatives - with the backing of most Americans and certainly a vast and bipartisan majority in the U.S. Congress.

Certainly, Trump has not broken tradition with every single president since 1979, in upholding and adding sanctions to put pressure on Iran. In response, Iranian leaders have remained defiant, enduring the pressure to succumb to American pressure and efforts to alter their country's regional policies. The aim is always that of weakening the Iranian economy. In early 2018, it seems the Americans saw some fruits of this. People in various cities – but crucially not so much in Tehran – protested the government over a recent economic reform. But, no matter, the Western media anyway presented it as a direct challenge to the core of the Islamic Republic and its wasteful spending on foreign adventures like Syria or Hezbollah.

Iran understandably remains defiant. It has resisted the Americans’ first proxy effort to destroy the ayatollahs through Saddam Hussein’s 8 years Iraq- Iran war. More recently, Iran has benefited the most from American (and Israel, in view of its de-facto defeat in the short 2006 war against Hezbollah) Middle Eastern blunders, from the Iraq invasion to Syria and Yemen. Rather than losing, Iran has strengthened alliances – including to Russia and now perhaps Turkey, not diminishing any of its power to oppose American influence in the Middle East.

Fierce Independence and the Mustaz’afeen
The goal of the Iranian Revolution was to support the oppressed Mustaz'afeen against the oppressors. The more Washington and its allies try to impose their will in the Middle East, the stronger the Ayatollahs become. The Islamic Republic believes that the US wants to humiliate and dominate the population of the country, take the resources and change the government by replacing it with an American puppet. After all, that’s what happened before! Tehran understandably thinks that the goal of every American leadership is to dominate the Middle East, to take possession of its wealth, to support sectarian wars, to sell arms and keep the Arab and regional states in a condition of subdued weakness, just the opposite of uniting and forming a true powerful western Asia/Arabia sitting on huge energy resources.

Ayatollah Khamenei might thank Trump for his threats to Iran. It gives him an incentive to make the ‘Islamic’ component of ‘Islamic Republic’ stronger. The conservatives benefit at the expense of the President Rouhani or Rafsanjani / ‘Green Movement’ moderates – better described as pragmatists. Rouhani's pragmatic government continues to remain open to the West and the nuclear treaty with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany. Rouhani has the power to improve the Iranian economy and to improve the democratic institutions, which, unlike in the U.S- allied Saudi Arabia, actually exist and work in Iran. But, Trump’s actions favor Khamenei and the ideologues, not Rouhani. It’s a huge contradiction in what Trump, the American political establishment and media say; and what it’s actually pursuing. Will it succeed?

Not likely, the Iranian Revolution may have had unified along it’s Shiite content, but it also had a nationalist character, determined to reject foreign influence. The ayatollahs used Shiite symbolism to rouse the masses. But, secular intellectuals such as Ali Shariati and Jalal al-e Ahmad also advocate cultural, economic and political independence. They too influenced the Revolution. Thus, no matter how long Trump chooses to dangle the nuclear deal treaty carrot, he won’t succeed in curbing Iranian influence (and its allies) in the Middle East.

No matter which government succeeds the Ayatollahs – eventually this will happen, as few young men are choosing to become mullahs these days in Qom – with well over 2000 years of national history, why should it be otherwise - there’s no doubt it will remain proudly independent.

Meanwhile, Tehran can and does find support in the European Union.
Europe needs Iran because it acts as an insurance policy against ISIS or Wahhabi inspired extremism. Europe appreciates Iran’s effort against ISIS, even it delivers platitudes about Syria and democracy, in public. The EU and Rouhani like each other and if need be, in certain circumstances on this issue, Brussels is not going to support Trump in his selection of Iran to be, if necessary, ‘exhibit one’ in undergoing US military pressure in defying his seemingly bullying ways. Indeed, if necessary, the EU may be ready to politically shift away from uncritical support of the United States and in extremis, move toward China via Iran and Russia, perhaps, if Trump is so crass as to provoke that.

Trump and Iran: Does He Benefit from War or From Not Getting Involved?
The big question now is whether Trump will intervene against Iran, stoking the apparent Shiite-Sunni rivalry, which has superseded even the once central Middle Eastern question, of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump is gradually changing stance on Syria and Russia. If at first, he was happy to let Vladimir Putin handle it, he’s now taking a more direct stance. Trump, through his secretary of State, Rex Tillerson has been sending not so veiled warnings to the Russians and Syrians that the U.S. wants and intends to stake out an influence in Syria. The starting point was always going to come from Washington’s ‘alliance’ of convenience with the Kurds. Turkey’s Muslim- nationalist-Ottomanist President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has acted swiftly to thwart such plans with his own.  But, his operation ‘Olive Branch’ may simply represent a ‘bloody nose’, warning Syria’s YPG, allies of the dreaded Turkish- based PKK, to contain their ambitions within Syria’s borders and vice-versa. Erdogan, well may also be trying to seize the opportunity to carve a Turkish buffer zone in what was always a disputed region near Idlib/Alexandretta. 

So long as the Americans avoid backing any nationalist ambitions for the YPG, the Turks would not object to an American presence in Syria. Erdogan’s hostile words toward Asad make that clear. Should Trump force his hand, he will find as Bush and others did before him that American imperialist pursuits in the Middle East are destined to fail.

More significantly, Trump seems entirely uninterested in history; thus, he’s prone to make even more serious miscalculations than his predecessors. Tehran has secured a secure link between itself Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. American troops, if ‘allowed’ to stay would guard an area north of that line. No doubt such forces would be invited (under Israeli or Saudi pressure) to interfere against the Syrian forces and government. But, then staying in Syria has no better chance of success than it does in Iraq or Afghanistan. Trump, should he wish re-election in 2020, would have to answer questions about what the Americans possibly hope to obtain from their occupation of another Middle Eastern country? It’s a gamble. Staying in Syria would only erode America’s prestige as a superpower, making it look more vulnerable to the Chinese, who could use the ‘Jerusalem recognition mess’ and Trump’s threats to stop aid to the Palestinians, to pick up the Middle Eastern peace process game.

The key lesson for Trump comes from understanding in today’s terms, the roots of the so-called Shiite-Sunni conflict. It’s more about independence from foreign influence than religion!
Before Great Britain and France partitioned the Middle East after World War I through Sykes-Picot agreements and Balfour declarations, the region was mainly controlled by two principal powers: The Ottoman Empire and Persia, then ruled by the Qajar dynasty. Of course, since the 19th century, European powers tried and did make inroads to gain influence in both. The British had to contend with the Russians for influence in Persia. Oil had started to become a strategic resource by the early 1900’s and Iran, which had it in abundance and close to the surface, appealed to many western powers. The Ottomans were most concerned, fighting the Russians and entered WWI against the Triple Entente (France, Russia, Britain) in 1914.

Iran tried to stay neutral. The ‘Great War’ histories typically focuses on the trench warfare, the sea battles, U-boats and dog fights in Europe. It had a significant Middle Eastern component as well, which is rarely discussed other than in specialized contexts. A raw analysis shows that the Middle East was every bit a proxy battlefield a century ago as it is today. However, the region’s borders – other than Persia and the Ottoman Empire were not defined. The British and French promised the Arabs a State of their own, to satisfy the emergent Arab nationalism. But, the promise served as leverage to get the Arabs to help clear the Arab lands from the Turks and then to break them up in manageable territories. Thus, after Versailles, the world welcomed Syria, Iraq, Transjordan and – a decade later – the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Moreover, with the defeat of Germany and Russia’s focus on its Revolution, the British were able to secure control over Persian affairs, installing a ‘friendly’ monarch, Reza Shah Pahlavi. Unfortunately, the partitions and drawing of borders paid little attention to resource distribution (at that time, Saudi oil had not yet been discovered), tribal allegiances and religious divisions. Shiites were mixed up with Christians, Sunnis and Jews for centuries, disrupting the centuries old Ottoman ‘millets’.

What were millets?
They were important legal and administrative orders, which ensured that the various confessional communities would run themselves, in matters of personal Law throughout the Ottoman Empire. Under the millets, therefore, Christians would follow canon Law, the Jews could follow the Halakha. Of course, the Muslims abided by the Shari’a. In the Ottoman Empire, citizens did not define themselves according to language or ethnicity. One was a Muslim from Istanbul, a Jew from Damascus or a Christian from Aleppo. But, there was an additional dimension of course: the many sects within Islam. The Safavids (largely Turkish speaking Azeris) in the 16th century, forced the mostly Sunni Persians to convert. They ruled infusing traditional Persian and Zoroastrian traditions into what would become Shiite Islam.

As for the Ottomans, they encouraged many of the nomadic tribes to settle in the areas near Karbala and Najaf, where they met Shiites and gradually converted. Being Shiite would also become a way for the people of the areas now belonging to Iraq, to express opposition and challenge their Ottoman and Sunni overlords. This tradition has continued to the present. The Shiites were the Iraqis, who led opposition to British rule shortly after the founding of the ‘State of Iraq’ in 1920. It was also the Shiites, who would eventually transform their faith into a social and political movement to challenge the Sunni dominated authority in the Baathist period, which ended with the hanging of Saddam Hussein in 2006. In Ottoman Syria, the Shiites faced more persecution along with other related sects such as the Alevis. Either they fled to the mountains, as the Alawites, or they went to what is southern Lebanon today.

The opposition to the Ottomans for centuries would translate into opposition for Sunnis and foreign occupiers later. Just as their counterparts in Iraq, Lebanese Shiites were those who clashed the most against the French occupiers after 1920. The Alawites, a Shiite sect that has become more entrenched within the Shiite spectrum in recent years because of geopolitical pressure, were also the ones to lead the fight against French occupation of Syria, at the start of the Mandate in 1920. Yet, the Syrian Alawites were able to secure significant territorial and religious independence under French rule. Nevertheless, Syrian Sunnis welcomed the idea of Arab nationalism, which eventually culminated in the formation of the Baathist Party in 1946. The French saw it as a threat to their rule. Thus, they cultivated minorities and sectarianism as a tool to thwart Arab nationalism’s popularity. The French practiced divide and rule strategies, allowing one group or another to control different institutions. The Alawites dominated in the Armed Forces, but the Sunnis dominated in politics. The French tried to encourage more the rise of a Syrian nationalism rather than the Arab one. But the excessive divisions they had nurtured, prevented it. Those lucky to be in the armed forces – especially those units requiring significant technical skills like the air force- had the best chances of overcoming the tremendous socio-economic hardships that characterized Syria during the Mandate and in the decades after. They became a natural elite, even amongst other generals. Thus Syrian Air Force General, al Assad was able to achieve power in Syria for what was to become his dynasty.

Alessandro Bruno