Trump and Iran (Persia)
One step forward and two giant steps back. President Trump has made a huge mistake in withdrawing from the multi-party nuclear agreement with Iran. His motivation apparently is to please the Israeli and Saudi governments of President Netanyahu and Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman and possibly salve his own wounded and over-sized ego. There is no Plan B.
What he should have done is bring all the parties back to the negotiating table and build on the successes of the first round and set the negotiating framework for the next round. We must encourage the Europeans to do so and keep our volatile President away from this tinderbox until his term ends, hopefully in 2020.
There is an enormous amount of bad blood between the Israelis and the Iranians and between the Saudis and the Iranians, and a series of proxy wars are already being fought among them. This is pouring high-octane gas on the existing conflagrations and lighting it with a blow torch. There is already a volatile mix of religion, oil, regional domination, nuclear reactors, nuclear bombs and big power politics at work in the region. Syria and Yemen are in flames; Iraq is only recently out of civil strife among its Sunnis, Shia’s and Kurds; Afghanistan is teetering on chaos; Lebanon could well be next. The Muslim travel plan, the overblown Trump rhetoric and tweets and the relocation of the American embassy to Jerusalem have again wrecked US credibility as an independent and honest broker in the region.
First, the background. The Iranians, initially known as the Persians, are Shia Muslim, and they are not Arabs, they are Indo-Europeans; they speak Farsi. They did not attack the World Trade Center and are neither Al Qaeda nor ISIS, who are in fact their enemies. They have a large population of 70 million, a lot of oil and a serious split between their moderates and hardliners. They have not attacked us, nor are they menacing the US. Israel is a different matter entirely.
They have been around for many millennia. Many centuries before Christ, the ancient Persians were one of the most important empires in the Middle East and fought battles with the Greeks for domination of the Eastern Mediterranean region, which the Greeks won in the 5th Century BC. Remember Darius, Xerxes and Cyrus, the Spartans and the Athenians. During this period, the Persians freed the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, and many then settled and prospered in Persia until relatively recently.
The Persians were originally Zoroastrians, a monotheistic religion with linkages to Judaism and Christianity. Alexander the Great, who was Macedonian, conquered Greece, and much of the Middle East to the very borders of India during the 4th Century BC. After Alexander, the region was then ruled by various Greeks, Romans, and then the Parthians (a part of Persian).
Persia became Muslim with the rise of Mohammed in the seventh century AD. After Mohammed’s death, his followers split between the followers of Ali, his son in law and Abu Bakr, one of his disciples. The Shia were the followers of Ali. The Sunnis were the followers of Abu Bakr. Shia Persians primarily live in Iran (Persia). Shia Arabs also live in Iraq, Lebanon and portions of Syria. There are Shia Arab minorities in Saudi Arabia and the oil rich Gulf States as well. There are Sunni majorities in Syria and Sunni minorities in Iraq and Lebanon. Much of today’s Middle Eastern conflict occurs between Sunni’s and Shia’s and between Persians and Arabs for dominance in their own countries and the region.
Mohammed was a religious and a military leader whose base was in today’s Saudi Arabia, the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. He was an Arab; he and his followers conquered much of the Middle East to the borders of India. His successors then conquered North Africa, part of Spain and part of the Balkans. During the Dark and the Middle Ages in Europe, the Arab (Umayyad and Abbasid) empires were founts of learning, culture and enlightenment. They were based in Babylon, Damascus, Cairo, and Jerusalem. There is a pan-Arab longing for the Arab Golden Ages. These Arabic empires were succeeded by the Ottoman (Turkish) Empire based in Istanbul (Constantinople and Byzantium) and the Moghul Empire based in Delhi (think the Taj Mahal). Persian Empires (like the Safavid, based in Isfahan) also flourished throughout the Middle Ages, but the Persian Empires had little or no contact with or conflict with the Europeans.
Muslim/Christian conflicts were primarily between the Arab and Ottoman Empires and various European states over control of Spain, the Balkans, occasionally Central Europe (the siege of Vienna), Sicily, and for a time Jerusalem (during the Crusades). Initially the Arab Empires were far stronger and much more highly developed, certainly until the 15th Century AD. During the 19th Century the balance of power shifted dramatically to the rapidly industrializing European nation states, who began a cebtury of global colonial expansion and armed conflict.
During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, oil and its many uses were discovered in the region. Britain and France in particular began to carve up the Middle East, particularly as the Ottoman Empire decayed and then collapsed. The Ottoman Empire was allied with Germany during the First World War, and the Allied victory gave France and England the opportunity to draw lines and divide up their spheres of influence. These arbitrary lines in turn became nation states of Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the Gulf Oil states after the Second World War. They divided the countries between the rich oil bearing nations, like Saudi Arabia, and the poor neighboring nations, like Yemen. Some Middle Eastern nations are monarchies, like Saudi Arabia; some are democratic, like Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. Others like Syria are headed by a dictator and his cohorts. Some have been secular and socialist like Iraq and Syria while others like Saudi Arabia and Iran are now theocratic. WW II had finally put a stop to German expansionism and over time it ended European colonialism as well. Colonialism’s legacies in the Middle East are sporadic warfare fueled by oil sales and western arms sales and widespread poverty among those states without oil.
So where does Israel fit in? What is the Israeli Muslim conflict? The Jewish religion is monotheistic and dates back to the Iron Age; it is derived from God’s teachings to Abraham. Judaism unlike either Christianity or Islam is a religion of a people – the Jewish people who lived in the land of Canaan and is passed down by maternal lineage. The original Jews were a Semitic tribe as were the original Christians and Moslems. Jews did not readily accept conversions and did not seek to convert others as the Christians and Moslems did.
King Solomon built the first Jewish Temple in Jerusalem about 900 BC. The Assyrians destroyed it about three hundred years later in 600 BC. Many of the early Jewish writings about the religious tenets of Judaism were developed during their Babylonian Captivity by the Assyrians. This was the area known as the Fertile Crescent, where much early agriculture and urban civilizations developed. The neighboring Persians then conquered Assyria and took over Babylon and freed the Jews. Some Jews went to live in Persia while others returned to the land of Israel.
A Second Temple was completed in Jerusalem during the reign of Persian King Cyrus about 500 BC. It was the Center of Jewish worship until the middle of the first Century AD, when after a Jewish revolt, the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and the Romans dispersed the Jewish people throughout the Roman Empire.
Christianity split off from Judaism in the 1st Century AD, about 2000 years ago and grew throughout the Middle East and Europe. It was a proselytizing religion, spreading the teachings of Jesus by persuasion and by armed force. Islam split off from Christianity about 600 years later in the 7th Century and grew rapidly in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. All three religions are based on the same Old Testament and a common revered ancestor, Abraham. All three were initially based in the Middle East, as compared to Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism, which were Eastern religions.
The Muslim Arabs built the Al Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest Moslem site, on the foundations of the Second Temple, also known as the Temple Mount, the holiest Jewish site. So this site is uniquely sacred to both Judaism and the Islamic religions. Many other sites throughout Israel and Palestine are sacred to all three religions.
The Romans persecuted the Jews and Christians for their religious beliefs before they converted from Roman pantheism to monotheistic Christianity about 300 AD under the Emperor Constantine. The persecutions of Jews and the rise of anti-Semitism dates to the European Christians during Middle Ages. Some of it was due to religious differences, as Christianity became the dominant religion of Europe and an intolerant one that insisted on its primacy and on religious conversions of the “pagans” who would otherwise go to Hell.
Some persecution of the Jews was also rooted in economic opportunism around the issues of money, loans and banking. Catholics and Moslems were not allowed to charge interest on loans. Under Jewish religious teaching, Jews could charge interest on their loans to non-Jews but not to Jews. Christian kings frequently borrowed from wealthy Jewish bankers to finance their wars and adventures, and then did not want to repay what they had borrowed. As just one of many examples, the Spanish kings borrowed huge sums from Jewish bankers to finance their explorations of the New World and their wars with other European nations. Later, the Jews (and Moslems) were driven from Spain during the Inquisition; they were tortured, killed, forced to convert or to flee. This period gave rise to the Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal who then migrated to the Middle East, Turkey, North Africa and Southern Europe.
The Ashkenazi Jews by contrast lived in Germany, France, Russia and Poland. They were decimated by the Holocaust (and by many earlier pogroms and forced exiles). Many Holocaust survivors moved to the US and Israel. The Mizrahi Jews refers to those Jewish populations who stayed and lived in the Middle East.
Israel has a population of about 8 million, including about 6 million Jews and 2 million Arabs. Its national lines were drawn after the Second World War, and the state of Israel was established in part as a refuge for Jews who had suffered enormous persecution and death during the Holocaust. About 700,000 Palestinians left the land of Israel at its founding. Israel has fought three major wars against neighboring Arab armies for its very survival as a nation and countless minor wars. Israel has highly developed (but not acknowledged) nuclear weapons and the military backing of the US.
The conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians is over both land and religion. The Palestinians want the Israelis to move out of the land of Israel, it is not clear where, or to allow all the Palestinians to return (right of return). The Israelis want peace, but they also want some Palestinian land on the West Bank for settlements; some Israelis argue this is part of the historic land of Israel (Judea and Samaria). Jerusalem is central to the religious and cultural identities of both peoples. The Israelis and Palestinians have come close to reaching a historic peace deal in the past, particularly with President Bill Clinton, Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat and Clinton, Rabin and Arafat. They are nowhere near close to a deal now. Moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem aptly symbolized the Trump Administration’s disinterest in brokering a fair deal among the parties and its tendency to further inflame, divide and separate the parties to this dispute.
The conflict between the Iranians and the Saudis is over regional dominance and religious differences. The Sunni Arabs are the dominant religion and the strongest Moslem economies in the Middle East, but Iran has the largest single population and the most battle hardened Armed Forces. The Iranian-Saudi conflicts also involve religion and religious intolerance overlaid with political oppression, which worsens both conflicts. Both Iran and Saudi Arabia are theocratic states with a prominent role for their respective Sunni and Shia religious leaders. Both have large populations of highly educated and unemployed young people and youth cultures. Both have strong cultural and religious authorities that suppress differences with the dominant cultural norms; these restrictions are particularly severe for women. Iran and the Saudis have both historically been strong regional allies of the US until the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
There is no basis for territorial conflict between the Iranians and the Israelis. Historically they had been friends and allies until after the Iranian revolution when Iran sought to take the lead among Muslim nations in anti-Israel rhetoric and confrontation from a safe distance with the state of Israel. Under the Shah of Iran, Persian Jews prospered and the relationship between Iran and Israel had been strong. Only after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 did many then leave and immigrate to the US and Israel.
The Iranian revolution is the basis for the Iranian conflict with the US as well. So what happened there and why? In the 19th and early 20th Centuries, the British negotiated a highly favorable oil agreement (Iran got 16% of net profits) with an individual general, Reza Pahlawi, who they installed as Shah of Persia. During the Second World War, the British and Russians invaded Iran, deposed the old Shah as being too pro-German, and installed a new Shah, his twenty two year old son, Mohammed Reza Pahlawi. After the War, the Iranian parliament and Prime Minister Mossadegh began to push for a 50/50 split in oil revenues (similar to the split in Saudi Arabia) or for complete nationalization of Iranian oil. Mossadegh was supported in this effort by the democratic secular nationalists, the Islamists and the Communists. The US and Britain in the early 50’s used the CIA to overthrow Prime Minister Mossadegh, and consolidate the power of Reza Pahlavi as Shah of Iran. While the coup was over oil and control of Iranian oil revenues, there was also an anti-communist element as well since Russia was next door, and the Communist (Tudeh) Party had a presence in supporting Mossadegh. For the next 25 years, the Shah was a westernizer who brought prosperity and social change to Iran; he also tortured and killed his opponents – the Islamists, the communists and the western-oriented democrats. The Islamic revolution of 1979 was initially a revolution of all three elements; however the Islamists ended up in full and complete control and their opponents fled into exile in Europe and America. So we have ended up with an Islamist theocratic anti-Western democracy in Iran, replacing a more secular pro Western monarchy.
The US had strongly supported the Shah as a bulwark against Russia; there was a strong US-Iran alliance. During the Iranian Revolution, the American embassy was sacked, and its employees were held as hostages by the student revolutionaries, until their release was negotiated by new President Ronald Reagan.
Shortly after the Iranian Revolution, Iraq under Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, and they fought to a standstill over the next eight years. The US stood on the sidelines and hoped both would lose, while much of the Arab world plus Russia and France supported Iraq. Both countries suffered huge losses – about 500,000 lives lost. The Iraqis used chemical weapons, supplied by the West, against the Iranians and the Kurdish Iraqis.
Why were they fighting? Saddam wanted some of Iran’s oil producing regions and navigational rights. Saddam was a Sunni Arab, secular, dictator of a country with a large and oppressed Shia Arab majority. Saddam, the Russians and the oil rich Arab monarchies feared that the export of the Islamic Revolution would destabilize their own countries. Russia, Iran’s next door neighbor, was then heavily engaged in suppressing Islamist revolutionaries against its takeover in neighboring Afghanistan, and had its own large Muslim populations. Russia had been a long time supporter of Saddam Hussein and the socialist Baath Party. France had been the colonial power in Iraq and also a long time supporter of the Iraqi regime.
After the stalemated end of the Iran-Iraq War, Saddam Hussein attacked and took over its small oil-rich neighbor Kuwait. While fighting the Iranians, Iraq had accumulated a $14 billion debt to Kuwait, which the Kuwaitis refused to forgive. Saddam Hussein may have believed that the Iraqis had the green light from the US. They did not, and the US under George Bush I assembled a very broad local and global coalition that ousted and routed the Iraqis. In the aftermath, the Sunni Kurds in the North and Shia Arabs in the South revolted against Saddam and were brutally suppressed by Saddam’s Armed Forces while the US and its allies stood by.
During President Reagan’s two terms, the US had developed support for the mujahedeen, an Islamic insurgency fighting against the Russians in Afghanistan and also traded arms covertly to the Iranians to use as financial aid to the Nicaraguan counter-revolutionaries. The US acted in conjunction with Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and some of the other oil rich Arab monarchies in supporting the mujahedeen. Among the mujahedeen were the individuals who would later became the leaders of Al Qaeda – Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi, and Ayman Zawahiri, an Egyptian. When the Russians were thrown out of Afghanistan, they were eventually replaced by the Taliban, a local Islamic revolutionary force. Bin Laden and Zawahiri turned against their oil rich Arab financier states, which they believed were corrupt, and impoverishing their populations and westernizing the Middle East. This led to Al Qaeda’s attacks on the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and on the World Trade Center on 9/11. Al Qaeda were Sunni Arab revolutionaries with a strong anti-Western agenda, aspiring to unite all Sunni Muslims. They hoped to recreate the Golden Age Arab empires from the 7th to the 14th Centuries.
The US responded to the 9/11 attack by ousting the Taliban and chasing, torturing, imprisoning and killing Al Qaeda’s leaders and followers around the globe – a process that continues today, 17 years later, as Al Qaeda continues to spread into unexpected places like Nigeria, Mali, Indonesia and the Philippines. The mujahedeen with strong US military support ousted the Russians and then the Taliban, but destabilized Afghanistan; its country is still divided and its future uncertain; US forces are still engaged in trying to build a strong self sufficient military and central government there.
For reasons and motives that are still unclear (but likely oil-related), the administration of George Bush II took its eyes off Al Qaeda remnants in Afghanistan and Pakistan and decided to invade Iraq even though it had nothing to do with Al Qaeda or Bin Laden or the attack on the World Trade Center. They said at the time they were searching for the development of nuclear weapons, chemical weapons and biological weapons; they searched extensively but found none. They said Saddam was financing terrorism and working in conjunction with Al Qaeda; this was simply untrue. The US invasion was opposed by most countries other than Great Britain. It destroyed the Baath government and military; it shifted power from the Sunni’s to the Shia’s and the Kurds. This helped fuel a counter insurgency, led initially by Saddam Hussein’s out of work lieutenants and by Al Zarqawi, a Jordanian, an Islamist ally of Bin Laden and Al Qaeda. Sunni’s and Shia’s began to slaughter each other; Iran stepped in and provided support for the Shia militias. The US eventually weaned the Sunni’s away from Zarqawi’s excesses and built the infrastructure for subsequent free elections. The Iraqis elected Shia politicians aligned with Iran who used their new powers to (in their views) right the balance and oppress and discriminate against the Sunni and Kurdish sectors of the country. This was particularly true under the leadership of Al Maliki.
As the forces aligned with Nouri Al Maliki engaged in systematic ethnic corruption, the Sunni Arab portions of Iraq lost confidence in the central government and then fell to ISIS, a Sunni revolutionary movement, akin to Al Qaeda in Iraq (Zarqawi’s organization). ISIS established an Arab Sunni Caliphate, echoing back to the Arab Golden Age and covering much of Syria and the Sunni regions of Iraq; they began killing all apostates, including Shia, Christians, Yazidis, Kurds and other local populations that opposed their reign of terror. The US then sent its forces back into Iraq and Syria and in concert with the Iranian militias in Iraq and the Russians, Syrians and Iranians in Syria, they have systematically destroyed ISIS, but for a few remnants along the borders.
Iraq’s elections brought to power Al Maliki and then Abadi, both Shia leaders aligned with Iran. The most recent elections have favored a return to power of Muqtada Al Sadr, a Shia clerical leader whose militias slaughtered the Sunnis. He now wants both the US and Iran out of Iraq, an alliance with the Kurds and Sunnis, and an end to the official corruption that plagued Iraq under Al Maliki and to a lesser extent Abadi.
Iranian elections during this frame have vacillated between hardliners, such as Ahmadinejad, and relative moderates such as Khatami and Rouhani. Under Rouhani, Iran wants to restore economic relations with Europe and the US. The Supreme Leaders, Khomeini and then Khatami, have been resolutely anti-Israel and anti-US. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has built alliances with Hezbollah, a Shiite militia in Lebanon, with the Iraqi Shiite militias, with the Assad regime in Syria, with the Houthis and with Hamas in Gaza. The US, Israel and Saudi Arabia all want to curtail these militias.
Nuclear arms in the Middle East. Israel has had nuclear arms for many years, which gives it a strong deterrence against its enemies; it may have up to 400 nuclear weapons, based on planes, submarines and guided missiles. They were developed surreptitiously in concert with France and opposed by the US.
Several Arab nations sought to develop their own nuclear arms as a counterweight. Libya tried, starting in 1969 and was not successful, and it finally gave up in 2003. Syria tried with North Korean assistance to develop nuclear weapons; the Israeli Air Force demolished the facility in 2007. The Israeli Air Force also bombed and destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. After Desert Storm in 1992, inspectors discovered new Iraqi efforts to build a bomb, that were then dismantled and destroyed, and Iraq was put on a strict inspection regime that uncovered no future efforts by Saddam to build a bomb. The Bush Administration claimed that Saddam was trying anew to build a bomb as its justification for the 2003 invasion. This proved false.
Iran has been engaged in developing nuclear power and surreptitiously the infrastructure for a nuclear bomb for many years, but has never built a bomb. In its 2015 agreement with the US, Europe, Russia and China Iran agreed to destroy its centrifuges, its stockpile of fissile material, and postpone any steps to develop a bomb for the next 15 years. The CIA, State Department, Defense Department and the IAEA all affirm that they have done so.
The Israelis and Saudis want the Iranians to agree in perpetuity not to develop a bomb and to drop their support for the allied militias in the region. That may be a reason to go back to the negotiating table; it is not a reason to abrogate a treaty that is working.
Prepared by: Lucien Wulsin