Walter Meed Russell, writing in The Wall Street Journal, sees the glass of America’s 20-year presence in the Middle East as half full. He believes we bolstered our interests, if not advancing democracy abroad. One of the most important accomplishments that we take for granted is that our presence has prevented any “major new international terrorist attacks” on American soil over the last two decades. In addition, he points out the unprecedented accomplishment of the Abraham Accords where today “neighboring Arab states now consider Israel an ally to be cultivated” instead of a pariah to be annihilated.
But are these gains sustainable without a continued American presence in the region? What will be the consequences without an American security blanket?
The American withdrawal from the region, promised by US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump, now has a September target date in Afghanistan. In Iraq and Syria, the US presence is also on life support. The long-anticipated departure from the Middle East will end a fragile status quo for all the players in the region.
The Sunni states, which have counted on the US as a final level of defense, are in uncharted territory. America is not only leaving the region but as a parting gift is returning to the Iran nuclear agreement, which will provide Iran with tens of billions of dollars in sanctions relief. The Sunni states know this will encourage Iran to test the waters of how far it can push its influence before it suffers any repercussions. Consequently, all of the region’s nation-states are recalibrating their strategies and contemplating new alliances for their survival, even with their current enemy Iran.
So when Saudi Intelligence Chief Khalid al-Humaidan secretly met with Saeed Iravani, Iran’s deputy secretary of its Supreme National Security Council, it represented a possible tipping point between the Islamic world’s bitterest of rivals as a direct result of America’s retreat from the region. Kirsten Fontenrose of the Atlantic Council offered a positive spin, advancing the possibility of an Ishmael Track (Sunni-Shi’ite) between the bitter rivals to pursue détente. Pushing America’s longtime Saudi ally into the arms of the region’s most dangerous actor only serves Russian, Chinese and Iranian interests.
The most dangerous consequence of the American turn from the region will be the nuclear arms race left in its wake. The Sunni world will play catch-up, knowing they or anyone else cannot count on UN nuclear inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency who are not permitted to visit clandestine Iranian nuclear sites, the very places weaponization is likely to occur. If Iran continues to enrich uranium, develops more precise ballistic and cruise missiles and achieves the compartmentalization of a nuclear warhead, a nuclear Middle East is inevitable. The Saudis, Egyptians and the Emiratis will join the race for their own nuclear bomb as a counterweight to Iran’s adventurism and intimidation. The Saudis have already contracted with Pakistan for nuclear technology and possibly a completed weapon.
So what happens when the US leaves the Middle East? Here are 10 possible outcomes that American politicians, the military and intelligence services will have to grapple with in the coming years.
1. Islamist terrorism will find both new and old havens from which to plot mayhem against the US and Israel. 2. Iran will increase its military activity at the region’s two strategic choke-hold points at the Straits of Hormuz and Bab el Mandeb, threatening international shipping lanes. 3. With America’s retreat, allies worldwide will know that American security commitments can be expected to have expiration dates. 4. Iran, Russia and China will be the new superpowers of the Middle East. 5. Israel will be more isolated if Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states move toward Iran out of desperation. Still, Israel hopes they decide to continue normalization (Abraham Accords), seeing them as the better choice of ally. 6. Iran will feel less inhibited in risk-taking, knowing the US will not want to challenge the Islamic regime, lest it withdraw from the nuclear agreement. 7. Iran will set its sights on Jordan, the next domino to fall, after Iraq and Lebanon, under Iranian influence. 8. The Taliban will retake Afghanistan, making all the gains achieved for women and minorities disappear instantly. 9. The chance for regional conflicts will grow. 10. Nuclear proliferation will arrive sooner or later in the Sunni world, to nobody’s benefit.
Are any of these outcomes in America’s national security interest? Will America be forced to return to the region as it did after Obama’s hasty retreat from Iraq in 2011, but under less favorable conditions? As former Israeli ambassador Michael Oren told Yaroslav Trofimov of the Journal in October 2019, “If you think the United States as a global power can pull out of the Middle East and not endanger itself, you are deluding yourselves.”
Previously published in the Jerusalem Report. Written with Sarit Zehavi.
Does the US fully understand Iran’s grand designs for the Middle East?
The Iranian regime presents its long-term strategic plan to export the Islamic revolution as a religious duty. Establishing civilian communities and loyal fighters in surrounding lands to further its sphere of influence and exert control is an integral part of their plan.
The goal is to make these tribal communities financially dependent on the Islamic Republic while proselytizing Shi’ism and increasing the respect for their brand of Shi’ism in these vulnerable populations. Israel watched this strategy play out in Lebanon and is now seeing it implemented in Syria and Iraq.
In 2018, after Syria’s President Bashir Assad regained control of southern Syria with Iran and Russia’s help, Iran began cultivating and investing in the local Syrian population. It used a strategy that helped civic organizations along with economic investment. Iran planned to turn southern Syria into a dependent front line against Israel, mimicking the infrastructure and populace under Hezbollah’s control in Lebanon.
The research and educational think tank Alma (co-writer Sarit Zehavi is the founder and CEO) has uncovered civic foundations under Iranian control in Syria, receiving direct funding from Hezbollah and Iran. At the same time, their combatants are embedded within the civilian Sunni population.
According to Alma’s research, after the reconquest of southern Syria, there was a concerted effort to take over mosques and establish Hussainiyas (Shi’ite religious gathering sites). The goal was to ingratiate themselves with the population who would become dependent on Iran for all aspects of their economies, education, and religion.
The Iranian-controlled axis from Tehran to Beirut includes Shi’ite brethren, and co-opted Sunnis, Druze, and Alawites. Iran’s imperialistic ambition is always on the lookout for opportunities to embed itself within local populations to exert new influence. Whether it was the instability of the Arab Winter in 2011 or the chaos that followed in the Syrian civil war, Iran has a single-minded focus on perpetuating its revolutionary plans and dominating the Middle East and beyond.
To understand what is happening in Syria, you need to understand Lebanon. Since Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government with cabinet ministries, it allows them to transfer monies to themselves. The estimated amount of financial support Hezbollah sent to the Lebanese provinces of Tyre, Bint Jbeil, and Marjayoun in 2020 was twenty-two billion, one hundred thirty million Lebanese pounds for health, education, and social services. Unfortunately, there is little counterweight from the Lebanese government to oppose Iranian influence as it provides few public services to its people, especially in Hezbollah-dominated regions.
Iranian-controlled Hezbollah fills the void, providing the daily necessities, a terrorist organization masquerading as a social movement to create dependency and willing soldiers. Hezbollah is also the dominant political organization that effectively controls an impotent Lebanese government. Shockingly, there are still European nations that treat Hezbollah as a legitimate political entity, making a disingenuous moral distinction between Hezbollah’s political and military wings.
The Achilles heel of American foreign policy is that it changes every four years with a presidential election. The US is profoundly disadvantaged in creating long-term planning to oppose Iranian influence. In contrast, authoritarian regimes like Iran, Turkey, and Russia can remain in place for decades, knowing they can strategize for the long term.
Today, Israel’s north is in the hands of the Iranians. Israel knows it, but the US doesn’t fully appreciate it, minimizing the Supreme Leader’s and his Revolutionary Guards’ apocalyptical words as hyperbole and rhetoric. The US incorrectly believes that sending one hundred forty million dollars a year to the Lebanese Armed Forces provides an effective counterweight to Hezbollah. When Iranian and Hezbollah leaders deliberately lie (taddiyah), it is part of a grand strategy to defeat the greater and lesser Satans – the US and Israel. What all American administrations since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 have in common is a difficult time fully comprehending the Iranian Twelver Shi’ite mindset that prioritizes Islamist imperial desires over its people’s well-being.
US Democratic Party administrations’ single-minded focus on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (Iran nuclear deal) in dealing with Iran serves them poorly in understanding Iran’s goals. In particular, it distracts from what is likely to be the arena for the next major Middle East War on Israel’s northern border, with Iran calling the shots.
For decades, US Congress members have visited Kofi (café) Annan, a coffee shop at an old Israeli fortification on Mount Bental that looks into Syria’s Golan. In plain sight is the abandoned old city of Quneitra that seems just a stone’s throw away. They were told that this was Israel’s quietest border, at least until the start of the Syrian civil war. Today Iran has created and controls civilian life in the Quneitra, Daraa, and Suwayda districts of southern Syria, in plain sight of Cafe Annan. The civilian establishment solidifies the long-sought-after Shi’ite Crescent across the Middle East, an Islamist conduit for the transfer of precision-guided weapons systems and military personal, as part of an extended-range plan to destroy Israel.
In March 2021, Hezbollah chief Nasrallah looked directly into the camera and told the world that if we had “accurate (precision-guided) missile factories, we would tell everyone with “pride.” But “we don’t have anything of the kind.” On the contrary, Alma has overwhelming documentation of weapons depots, launching pads, and missile factories throughout Lebanon and Syria.
It should make everyone pause because they are embedded in civilian neighborhoods. Especially in Beirut, Hezbollah hides missile launching sites and rockets within heavily populated civilian areas. Using Wikimapia, an open-content collaborative mapping project site on the internet, Alma exposed rocket launching sites next to Al Rassoul Al Azam Hospital. Another production site for Iranian Fatah-110 missiles is located in the Ghobeiry neighborhood, near the Lebanese Ministry of Labor, another civilian facility. Prime Minister Netanyahu also exposed missile factories in the Alelichi neighborhood under four seven-story residential buildings’ housing foundations, next to a medical center and church. In the Shuifat area, a missile factory is hidden under civilian housing and is next to a mosque.
Can you imagine the international uproar if Israel, in retaliation for a Hezbollah attack against Israeli civilians, struck a mosque or apartment house from where the missiles were fired?
In January, Alma Research and Education Center published a connection between two military facilities and a Lebanese charity. The Islamic Shi’ite Waqf Committee in Burj al Barajneh is complicit in hiding Hezbollah’s Fatah 110 missile launch sites within Beirut. The Hussein Maktabi High School and the Burj al Barjneh-America Football Stadium are situated next to missile sites. Launchers and missiles were found not only next to the hospital but next to the Al Aytam petroleum facility, many restaurants, and the Ansar football (soccer) field.
The local Lebanese council members demanded the Lebanon Armed Forces investigate the use of a hospital by Hezbollah, but the LAF claimed there was nothing there. They are simply intimidated by Hezbollah. The local council members resigned in protest, not wanting to be blamed if another massive Beirut port explosion occurred under their watch.
Iran and Hezbollah have taken notice of Alma’s embarrassing exposés. The research center in Galilee is now in the Islamist’s crosshairs, literally. Hezbollah made public the exact coordinates of Alma’s research and educational facility in Galilee, where Congress members often visit. Alma has been cyber-at-tacked multiple times by Iran and its proxies.
This is what Hezbollah posted on its page: “Who is Alma? The Zionist Alma Center is an educational and research center dedicated to fabricating security lies on the northern borders of occupied Palestine and educating Zionist opinion-makers, research centers, academia, and others on how to make innocent civilians a military target in war.”
Nasrallah said, “Hezbollah points the finger of blame and repeated claims, that Alma is nothing more than a branch of the Israeli government.” In reality, Alma is independent and receives no funding from the IDF. Scapegoating to deflect your deficiencies is a tried and true formula of Islamist regimes. Facts are inconvenient problems when you have brainwashed those who have trusted you to protect them, and you not only fail to deliver but put them in harm’s way by using your people as human shields.
Why is Hezbollah taking this so seriously? In part, the information Alma exposes is damaging, as it justifies Israel’s repeated attacks to thwart the Iranian missile threat. But even more critical is that Hezbollah’s strength is that it receives the support of the Shiite population. If it loses the people’s help, its legitimacy could crumble. Exposing missiles and launchers next to schools, hospitals, residential neighborhoods, and sports facilities have struck a nerve with Hezbollah. They know that this is a line in the sand that the local population may not stand for as it purposely endangers their families and neighborhoods.
IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi has made clear that Hezbollah’s human shield strategy doesn’t grant Iran’s Hezbollah proxy immunity against future attacks. Israel will attack legitimate military targets as long as the military advantage outweighs the civilian loss. And yes, this is according to international law. In response, Nasrallah has said there is no difference between Israeli civilians and soldiers, an old story first told by the Palestinians to justify terrorist attacks on Israeli innocents.
Hezbollah and Iran are banking on winning a propaganda war against Israel. The global community would judge Israel harshly if more Lebanese are killed than Israeli civilians, a cynical battle of moral equivalence.
In a future Israeli northern war, Iranian-controlled militias that have partially withdrawn from Syria could quickly return to Israel’s Golan border in great numbers if the border gets hot. Missiles could fly this time from not only Lebanon but Syria, Iraq, and even Yemen.
Israel knows it will have to strike fast before the diplomatic fallout constrains its efforts, as the Israeli people who will suffer terribly will demand an overwhelming response, knowing the Lebanese and Syrian human shields will be paying the price.
Israel is worried that if the US rejoins the JCPOA, sanctions relief will directly flow to Iran’s proxies. That will increase the chance for war. The Biden administration should hold fast to sanctions no matter how immovable the Iranians are on the JCPOA, especially if they want to minimize the chances for a northern Israeli war with Iran and its proxies. At the very least, the sanctions against Iran for missiles and terror will be maintained.
If I were them—and with Iran in mind—I would conclude that all the misbehavior that the Biden administration wants to punish me for would evaporate if I only had a nuclear-weapons program that I could use as leverage to extract whatever concessions I wish.
While the Biden administration offers sanctions relief to Tehran in exchange for temporarily limiting uranium enrichment to less than 20 percent, it is fulfilling another promise, to “recalibrate”—i.e., punish—longtime American ally Saudi Arabia. As the Saudis sustain Iranian-directed missile and drone attacks from Yemen and Iraq, the Biden administration chose to remove Patriot missile batteries from Saudi Arabia, as well as redeploy an aircraft carrier and surveillance systems away from the region. The clear message to Iran is: We will abandon our ally Saudi Arabia, your arch-enemy, if you will only rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal.
If I were the Saudis, I would conclude that all the misbehavior that the Biden administration wants to punish me for would evaporate if I only had a nuclear-weapons program that I could use as leverage to extract whatever concessions I wish from the Americans. I could do like the Iranians—threaten, intimidate and take over neighboring states—and be absolved if I would just slow down my nuclear-development program.
The Saudis might open their Rolodex and call Pakistan. According to the BBC, in 2013, “a senior NATO decision-maker … had seen intelligence reporting that nuclear weapons made in Pakistan on behalf of Saudi Arabia are now sitting ready for delivery.” This is the logical conclusion. The way we are headed, the Biden administration is about to start a nuclear arms race in the region with Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, among others learning the lessons of the Iranian nuclear agreement. The formula is to develop a secret nuclear program, lie about it, engage in disruptive behavior and then trade some of that for a nuclear deal in your favor or foreign aid.
Saudi Arabia is no angel. The stain of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the country’s exporting radical Sunni Islamist ideology in the late 20th century has ramifications that we live with to this day. ISIS was the worst permutation yet of radical Sunni ideology. But after 9/11, the Saudis turned a page and began to align more closely with American interests. In the 21st century, they have been a moderating and stabilizing force in Sunni Islam.
Their support of the Abraham Accords, which allowed the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco to recognize Israel with diplomatic relations, is groundbreaking. Previous administrations did not even contemplate its possibility. If nurtured for regional stability, it is a path to suppress the Saudi need for a nuclear-weapons program. It also ended the fiction that the Israeli-Arab conflict needs to wait until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ends. That is excellent news for those who believe Palestinian intransigence has been the roadblock to peace.
Instead of building on the game-changing Abraham Accords and pulling Saudi Arabia to the finish line by recognizing Israel, the Biden administration has chosen to make the Saudis a pariah, while begging the Iranian revolutionary regime to return to a deal that was created in their favor. As a reminder, it was created to give Iran international legitimacy for an industrial-size nuclear program within the decade. Stipulated within the nuclear agreement is Iran’s ability to buy an unlimited number of conventional weapons right now. No wonder that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei allowed his minions to sign it.
Like the Obama team, the Biden administration still believes that you can appease Iran by acquiescing in their nuclear blackmail. Obama’s policy was to distance the United States from its Gulf state allies and Israel while ingratiating his administration with the Iranians, who have never ceased undermining U.S. security interests worldwide. The only good to come out of this mistaken policy is the increased willingness of the Saudis and others in the region to be friendlier to Israel as the only nation willing to take on the Iranians. This has been especially evident as Israel continues to impede Iran’s progress towards a nuclear weapon, most recently with its alleged attack this week on the Natanz enrichment facility.
Kowtowing to a third-rate military that supports terror sends a poor message to American allies around the world. The administration seems intent on settling for merely slowing down Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons while ignoring and, in effect, funding with sanctions relief the Islamic Republic’s decades-long worldwide campaign of terrorism. The false hope offered to the American people that the administration will be able to negotiate a new agreement dealing with Tehran’s malign activities after the resumption of a deal would be laughable if it were not so dangerous.
Hopefully, the administration will reflect on the potential consequences of its actions and change course to avoid turning the Middle East into a nuclear Wild West. The Saudis and the rest of the Sunni Muslim world are watching.
In 2017, Congress passed the bipartisan Taylor Force Act (TFA) to put an end to the Palestinian Authority (PA) practice of using US taxpayers’ dollars to finance “Pay for Slay,” a policy rewarding terrorists and family members of imprisoned and deceased terrorists. The legislation’s clearly expressed goal is to deny the PA funding until it stops their program of incentivizing and paying for the murder of civilians.
The bill was named after an American Army veteran who had served in Iraq and Afghanistan and was killed by a Palestinian terrorist while visiting Israel. The PA media called his killer a “martyr,” and he was venerated throughout the Palestinian territories.
The Taylor Force Act requires the Biden State Department to issue a report to Congress for Acts of Terrorism. Despite the report’s conclusion that the PA “has not terminated payments for acts of terrorism to any individual (and) has also not taken proactive steps to counter incitement to violence against Israel,” the administration’s report states that the “Biden-Harris Administration has made clear its intent to restart assistance to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.”
Which is to say, they intend to ignore the continued support of terrorism and resume supplying the money.
The Biden administration claims it can restore funding to the PA without violating the TFA. It claims its goal is to provide humanitarian assistance, rebuild trust with the Palestinians that was undermined by the Trump administration, economically stabilize the government while advancing the moribund peace process with Israel.
The Trump administration cut off funding to the PA and UNWRA, the UN agency that financially supports descendants of Palestinian refugees. The Biden administration is also planning as a goodwill gesture to reverse Trump’s decision to close the PLO / PA office in Washington, which was done to give more consequence to their continuing to incite and pay for terrorism.
The State Department report is clear enough; it says the “PA expressed its intention to expend approximately $151.6 million in payments to convicted prisoners, administrative detainees, and former prisoners (and) expressed its intention to expend approximately $191 million in support of families of deceased Palestinians referred to as ‘martyrs’ by the PA.” In November 2020, PA President Mahmoud Abbas said they would “remain loyal to the souls of martyrs, the blood of injured, and the sufferings of prisoners… we will not abandon them.”
The perverse incentive used by the PA is that the more gruesome and worse the attack, the more money the imprisoned “martyr” and his family receive through the PA’s Martyr’s Fund. The PA spends nearly $350 million per year on Pay for Slay, but just $220 million for its other welfare programs for the rest of its citizens.
In Washington today, everything is seen through a political lens. In 2017, Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer said, “Abbas has to stop making payments to terrorists and their families, and all elected officials should call them out.” Will Schumer, now majority leader, challenge the president of his party to keep the pressure on the Abbas and enforce the law? Or will he go along with spinning some words to fashion a legal loophole to allow money to flow to the PA? The PA would like to create a legal fiction by distributing the money through the PLO, Abbas being both the president of the PA and head of the PLO.
For the first time in 16 years, the Palestinian people will be voting for a new president and parliament. The list of potential candidates is not promising if you are looking for moderation. The leading candidates try to outdo one another with their non-conciliatory rhetoric and incitement of violence.
The Biden administration should learn from prior administrations’ failures. America giving the PA carrots without reciprocal concessions has never been fruitful. As surely as the sun rises in the east, giving up leverage for nothing gets you nowhere with the PA/PLO.
The administration needs to uphold the Taylor Force Act.
A controversy that occurred during a recent question-and-answer session for reporters by Pentagon press secretary John Kirby may have revealed a troubling insight into the Biden administration’s approach in rebranding Iran’s problematic image. He claimed that Shia militias that are causing so much trouble in the Middle East are not Iranian-controlled. After criticism made its way into the public arena, Kirby partially walked back his statement in a subsequent press conference, agreeing that some Shia militias are Iranian-backed. Was this a Freudian slip, a trial balloon or a real insight into administration thinking?
There is a well-documented history of the Obama-Biden administration misleading the public about the 2015 Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Therefore, it is prudent to ask if Kirby’s first answer to a softball question that should not have flustered an experienced spokesperson was an accurate representation of the administration’s thinking. It’s all part of a strategy to create the illusion that the Islamic Republic is not responsible for supporting the majority of Shia militias throughout the Middle East in the hopes that in preparing the ground to rejoin JCPOA, Iran will be more palatable to the U.S. public.
So a primer on Iranian-controlled Shi’ite militias and what the administration is doing is in order.
What Kirby may have been attempting to do is frame the situation as an internal ethnic conflict between Shi’ite groups who are independent of Iranian influence. However, the overwhelming evidence is that Iran’s strategy is to create Iranian-controlled militias in the region’s crumbling nations to exert control and undermine U.S. interests while threatening American allies.
Statements like Kirby’s intensify Israel’s well-founded fears that America wants to pretend it doesn’t see Iran’s malign activity. Instead, the administration chooses to put all of its eggs in the JCPOA basket, focusing on the nuclear issue while ignoring Islamic imperialism. Almost no serious military or intelligence analyst believes the Islamic Republic of Iran does not control Shia militias, such as the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq or Syria (local militias). Iran’s hegemonic ambitions carried out through its proxy network are a threat to be taken seriously.
A not-so-subtle warning for Israel not to attack Iran was posted by the White House in its Interim National Security Guidelines. The administration stated, “We do not believe that military force is the answer. … We will not give our partners in the Middle East a blank check to pursue policies at odds with American interests.” Is that a warning not to attack Iran in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon?
As in Lebanon, Iran is slowly swallowing Syria and Iraq. Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah is the dominant military force while effectively controlling its parliament. Iranian symbols appear everywhere, as though you were walking in Tehran. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) martyr Gen. Qassem Soleimani was commemorated this year throughout the country with a massive statue placed in the center of the Lebanese capital Beirut. At rallies, Lebanese citizens under Hezbollah’s thumb wave the Iranian flag, not the Lebanese one.
What is groundbreaking in Syria is that Iran not only sent its IRGC troops with its Hezbollah proxy but has now recruited former Syrian rebels of local Sunni militias to create a permanent Iranian presence. The blueprint is the Hezbollah model in Lebanon. Iran’s goal is to surround Israel with its militias, proxies and allies, including Sunnis who are easily bought for money, bread or ammunition. Just think of the Sunni Arab Hamas terrorist organization in the Gaza Strip working with Persian Shi’ite Iran.
Alma, Israel’s best source for independent research on its northern border, has documented Iran’s support and control of Hezbollah, Shia militias, and now Iranian-controlled former rebel Sunni militias. This is groundbreaking information. The militias receive orders and salaries from Iran in conjunction with a well-thought-out civilian investment to support a long-term Iranian military entrenchment. In this way, Iran effectively takes control of weak nation-states like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, and Lebanon. For example, Iran is heavily involved in Syria’s post-war reconstruction, buying agricultural land, establishing community and educational centers to promote the Islamic Revolution’s values among the local Sunni population.
One should bear in mind that the IRGC’s Quds force’s raison d’être since the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s is to spread the Iranian revolution throughout the Middle East while backing almost every terrorist Shia militia to further its goal. Thousands of IRCG soldiers and commanders operate beyond Iran’s borders, leading and strategizing on how to get the United States out of the Middle East and put Israel out of existence.
This is based on the concept of velayat-e faqih, or “guardianship of the jurist,” which gives absolute religious authority to the Iranian Supreme Leader, who is in charge of the world’s Shi’ites. Shias are thereby obligated to support the Islamic revolution everywhere in the world. The Biden administration should be cautious replacing radical Sunnis like ISIS and Al-Qaeda with extremist Iranian Shi’ism.
More than half of the pieces are in place to surround Israel. Next on the target list is the West Bank and Jordan to surround Israel with the threat of missiles and militias under Iranian control. All in preparation for a day when Islamist Iran unleashes its proxies to devastate Israeli civilians and destroy Israel’s infrastructure, with the hope that Israelis will abandon the Zionist experiment.
Going forward, U.S President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin should make clear the obvious. Iran is responsible for Shia militias’ creation and actions that threaten Middle East stability and American soldiers’ lives, and that rejoining the JCPOA should not obscure that fact.
Dr. Eric R. Mandel is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network. He regularly briefs members of the U.S. Senate, House and their foreign-policy advisers. He is a columnist for “The Jerusalem Post” and a contributor to i24TV, “The Hill,” JTA and “The Forward.”
You can replace Afghanistan with
Iraq, Kurdistan or Syria in the title and ask: Can they survive America’s exit,
and does it serve America’s interests to hand them over to enemies of the West?
Americans are in no mood for new entanglements in the Middle
East. The politically expedient choice for the US Congress and the president is
to follow the nation’s mood – by not only avoiding any new potential areas of
conflict arising with the aggressions of Iran and its proxies, but maybe by
also abandoning allies who have worked side-by-side with American soldiers in
Iraq and Syria against ISIS, leaving Afghanistan to the mercy of the Taliban,
and forgetting their savage misogyny and its place as a safe haven where al
Qaeda brewed its attacks on 9/11.
The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday Essay by Yaroslav Trofimov was titled, “Can
the New Afghanistan Survive America’s Exit? An exhausted America, no longer
determined to bring democracy to the Muslim world, just wants to leave.”
You can replace Afghanistan with Iraq, Kurdistan or Syria in
the title and ask: Can they survive America’s exit, and does it serve America’s
interests to hand them over to enemies of the West?
American foreign policy operates under a hundred-year-old construct based on
the misguided belief that we must keep artificially constructed Middle East
nation-states like Syria and Iraq whole, even when it flies in the face of
reality – or of what is best for American interests or the people who live
Sixteen years ago, I recommended that Iraq be turned into three states, Sunni,
Kurdish and the largest, Shi’ite. I was not alone. This was based on the
obvious religious animosity, ethnic divisions and tribal nature of the country
that had no historical antecedent, whose people value clan, tribe and religion
rather than allegiance to the state itself.
The core American belief that dividing up Iraq or Syria is a bad idea because
it will lead to failed states ignores the more plausible concept that, if put
back together, it will not only be less sustainable as a whole state but, more
consequentially, it may be more dangerous whole than divided – especially if
the US abandons the region.
Today, the failed Iraqi state has been taken over by Iran, America’s most
dangerous Middle East adversary, which not only has political parties allied
with it in the Iraqi government but, more consequentially, controls the
nation’s most powerful force: the Shi’ite militia al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, which has
ethnically cleansed Sunni areas for an Iranian land corridor to the
Mediterranean and answers only to the supreme leader and his Islamic
Revolutionary Guards Corps. How does this serve American interests?
In 2006, Joe Biden, then the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – and Leslie Gelb, the former president of the Council on Foreign Relations – penned an op-ed in The New York Times recommending Iraq be divided into three autonomous regions, “giving each ethno-religious group… room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests.”
In 2015, president Barack Obama’s defense secretary Ash Carter, speaking before Congress, said that Iraq is so broken that maybe it shouldn’t be put back together: “The question [is] what if a multi-sectarian Iraq turns out not to be possible?”
In 2016, CIA director John Brennan said: “I don’t know whether or not Syria and Iraq can be put back together again. There’s been so much bloodletting, so much destruction.”
MOST AMERICANS have no knowledge that most of the nations of the Middle East are artificially constructed entities based on the interests of the French and British after the First World War, when they divided the region not according to its natural tribal divisions, but according to their own economic interests, forcing antagonistic groups to live together in authoritarian regimes.
It didn’t work, and we have rarely stopped to ask why we want to keep putting these broken nation-states back together. How does this serve American interests?
Iraq was a dysfunctional nation long before it collapsed after the 2003 US invasion. Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party repressed and terrorized the Sunni majority and the Kurdish North. After US president George H.W. Bush allowed Saddam to remain in power after America’s Gulf War in 1991, he took his vengeance out against the Shi’ites of the South and the Kurds of the North, who deserve as much as anyone to have their own independent state. He may not have had nuclear weapons in 2003, but he did use chemical weapons against his adversaries and still remained in power.
America, with good intentions, thought that all of the world’s people wanted Western style democracy, but soon learned that in the Middle East, other than Israel and the Kurds of northern Iraq, autocracy and Islam rule the day.
We live in a world where politicians are afraid to speak honestly to the American people for fear that they will lose their popularity and their ability to remain in office, especially those who seek our highest office.
Maybe it’s time for our political leaders to explain the world to our nation in something more than sound-bites and tweets that pollsters tell them will raise their numbers.
US President Donald Trump seems to believe that we should return to an isolationist strategy. That, despite his bellicose talk, is not very much different from Obama’s actions not to confront aggression even when justified. Obama’s great foreign policy fault was that he didn’t realize you couldn’t change the spots of the Iranian tiger; abandoning allies to realign with Iran; undermining American foreign policy by making America look unreliable to the world; and let everyone, friend and foe, come to see us as a paper tiger.
WHICH BRINGS US to America’s Kurdish allies in Syria and Iraq. These two Kurdish peoples share the same ethnicity but are very different. What they do share in common is that they were at the front lines of defeating Islamic State, helping the US achieve its primary strategy in the Middle East under both Obama and Trump. They also both live in states that are artificially constructed and, if put back together, will sow the seeds for more sectarian violence, pulling the US back to region it so wants to leave.
Now there is a call to withdraw American forces from both northern Syria and northern Iraq, abandoning important allies and forcing them, for their own survival, to make deals and to ally with America’s enemies. The Kurds of Iraq may have to cut a deal with Iran and the Iranian-controlled Iraqi government in Baghdad to survive, while the Syrian Kurds may have to work with their adversaries – the Syrian regime, Iran and Russia – in order not to be ethnically cleansed by Turkey. Millions of new Sunni refugees may flow from Syria to Turkey into Europe and onto our shores. How is this in America’s interest?
I recently interviewed American soldiers working with the Kurdistan military force, the Peshmerga, who are still fighting ISIS. Their unreserved clarity of purpose and their importance as American allies was striking – something Congress, the State Department and the president need to hear.
America’s chances for a new war in the Middle East are greatly increased by withdrawing from the Middle East; becoming isolationist as we did after the First World War, since we were totally unprepared when we were dragged into the Second World War.
A modest American presence remaining in Afghanistan, Syria, Kurdistan and Iraq creates leverage for American interests far beyond the small number of troops remaining in harm’s way.
We certainly cannot cure the ills of the Middle East, but our goal should be to strengthen our allies and lower the flames that would certainly erupt with an American withdrawal. America’s primary goal is not only to prevent the resurgence of ISIS, but – more importantly – to create a long-term strategy to stop Iranian expansionism that endangers not only our allies, but also the world at large. Sorry, Mr. Obama, the Iranian Islamist regime is a leopard that will not change its spots – no matter how many pallets of cash we give them.
The writer is the director of MEPIN, the Middle East Political Information Network, and regularly briefs members of the Senate, House and their foreign policy advisers. He is a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, and a contributor to i24TV, The Hill, JTA, JNS and The Forward.