JOHN TULLOH. The vanishing international interest in the Mideast

Apr 15, 2019

How curious that the US fought on the same side as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards last year to defeat ISIS in Syria and then, once the job was done, denounced them as a terrorist organisation and applied sanctions. How curious that the US had been considering all this ‘for months’, but only decided to go ahead on the eve of the Israel general election when Benjamin Netanyahu, whose nemesis is Iran, was fighting for his political life. How curious the US is willing to hold discreet talks with the Taliban, the perpetrator of endless terrorist atrocities, but would recoil at the very idea of such a discussion with Iran. And how curious that Saudi Arabia, the banker of many an atrocity against the West, in Yemen and Shia targets, gets away with what it has, never mind last year’s extra-judicial killing in Istanbul. 

Unfortunately, it is not as curious as it should be. The UN is now impotent, its main role helping those displaced by upheavals, such as in Syria and now Yemen. Not long ago, European and other leaders would be visiting Mideast capitals to try to resolve the headline problems. The best they can do now is to utter well-meaning criticism and then rush on to satisfy social media or tear their hair out over Brexit. As far as the White House is concerned, American interests are now very narrow with no concern for the wider picture.

It is clear Washington prefers the money trail and Trump’s reelection ambition. As previously observed in Pearls and Irritations, Saudi Arabia is where the money is in Midas-like proportions and where the business is, especially arms sales. Aramco, the Saudi oil conglomerate, last year made a profit of a mind-boggling US$111 billion profit or the equivalent of the combined defence budgets of the 28 EU members. Little wonder that President Trump wants to keep the Saudis onside. He conveniently forgot his hollow threat last year to punish anyone implicated in the gruesome murder of Jamal Kashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The CIA unhelpfully for him concluded that it was Saudi Arabia’s effective ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who ordered the assassination. He is still there while a few useful suspects have been put on trial.

Instead the State Department switched its focus to its favourite whipping boy, which is Iran. Conveniently, it is also Saudi Arabia’s as well as Israel’s. Yet at the same time one of the the architects behind the latest Washington policy said it was time for Iran to reach out to end the 40 years of mutual hostility between the two countries going back to when Islamic revolutionaries took over the US embassy in Tehran.

Writing in the New York Times, the US Special Representative for Iran, Brian H.Hook, enthused: ‘The peoples of the United States and Iran should have diplomatic ties. We can foresee a new American Embassy in Tehran issuing visas to tourists, business travellers, and teachers. There should also be direct flights from Tehran to New York or Los Angeles. Before the revolution, America was Iran’s second-largest trading partner. It should be again. Before the revolution, 50,000 Iranian students were studying in American universities. Renewed relations would open the door to tremendous opportunities’.

You might ask ‘Then what are you waiting for’?

However, nowhere did he say that in order to achieve this rosy vision the US also might consider reaching out even if it meant offending Saudi Arabia. After all, the Trump administration’s goal is to make America great again. Rapprochement between the two countries would be just as much a fillip to Trump and US prestige as mending relations with North Korea. What’s more, the Revolutionary Guards are a business enterprise in themselves. They control billions of dollars worth of opportunities. Trump, no stranger to murky business dealings of his own, would be the first to understand there is a dollar or two to be made.

The eager Brian Hook, while condemning Iran’s foreign interference and military adventures and the harsh rule of the ayatollahs, notes that ‘a peaceful Iran would augur well for a more peaceful Middle East’. Perhaps he should point this out to Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, whose task is to achieve a more peaceful Mideast. Hook, however, reiterates it is up to Iran to mend its ways first. So much for the art of diplomacy and awareness that were once part of State Department lore.

Little wonder that, according to news reports, the latest policy was anything but unanimous in Washington where hardline views won the day. It is another wretched case of the US poking a myopic stick at the political hornet’s nest which is the Middle East to see what happens. Predictably, Tehran retaliated, declaring the US Central Command which oversees American military operations in the Mideast to be a terrorist organisation. The Shiite-led government in Iraq also took exception as it might hinder cooperation with Iran.

Now that another notch has been added to the conundrum of the Mideast, the stability which Hook seeks is further away than ever. It is even more so when you wonder who is making these key decisions. Consider the tweet Netanyahu wrote on hearing of the terrorist/sanctions news: ‘Thank you for accepting another important request of mine’ (italics mine). How curious indeed. As he is now the winner of the Israeli election, it will be business as usual in the Mideast to the detriment of bringing in Iran from the cold and achieving that elusive stability.

FOOTNOTE. Iran and Saudi Arabia have some things in common. They share the Gulf except on one side it is the Arabian Gulf the Persian Gulf on the other. They are fighting over who controls Yemen. They are the headquarters of the two major branches of Islam. They are in the top four of countries when it comes to executions. Respect for Islamic traditions is enforced by religious police in both countries. This includes a dress code for women. It is much stricter for Saudi women. Iran has regular national elections open to both men and women. Saudi Arabia, being a kingdom, has only occasional municipal elections. Saudi women were not allowed to vote until 2015. Iranian women can drive. Theoretically, so can Saudi women as of last year, but the authorities are making it difficult for them. Numerous human rights violations have been reported in both countries. Saudi Arabia has been accused of war crimes in Yemen. Most of all, though, Saudi Arabia has far more oil than Iran which is why it will always be US’s preferred partner in the Mideast outside Israel.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news.



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