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To Oppose Iran Or To Support Iran, That Is The Question But Is It That Simple?
To Oppose Iran or To Support Iran, That is the Question
I decided to use a variation on a Shakespeare quote for my title because I found it quite appropriate for characterizing the many dilemmas that the United States faces regarding Iran and the Middle East. The most important and vital goals for the U.S. within the Middle East for the past 70 years have been to keep the oil flowing and to protect our primary ally in this region which is Israel. The primary way to achieve this was and is to promote peace within the Middle East though this has become increasingly difficult to do since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
A primary obstacle to this goal is the brewing friction between Sunni Muslim nations headed by Saudi Arabia and Shiite Muslim nations headed by Iran. Further complicating these tensions are the terrorist groups who threaten stability and even existence for all of these nations. The largest of these threatening groups are ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) and the Houthis in Yemen. These swirling and interconnecting conflicts are creating strange bedfellows in this region.
The United States is attempting to complete negotiations with Iran which will curtail their nuclear program and prevent them from developing nuclear weapons for at least the next ten years. This hoped for outcome would withdraw the perceived necessity of the Middle Eastern Sunni nations to also develop these weapons and defend themselves against Iran. This will also add to the security of Israel because all of these nations harbor some degree of hostility towards them. Of course, President Benjamin Netanyahu does not see it this way and is incredibly wary of Iranian intentions and honesty.
All of these factors have led to a remarkable dichotomy in current United States actions affecting Iran. We are attempting to complete the nuclear negotiations with them and we are also supporting their efforts to defeat ISIL in Iraq. At the same time, we are supporting Saudi Arabia and Egypt in their attempts to defeat the Iranian backed Houthis in Yemen. This includes the blockading of Iranian supply ships from reaching the Houthis in Yemen.
I will attempt to flesh out these issues within this Hub first by highlighting America's nascent opportunities to foster friendlier relations with Iran. This will be done by describing the common interests that the United States and Iran are pursuing. I will follow this by showing those areas where we are diametrically opposed.
The story of this Middle East morass will be followed by my showing of how these U.S. policies tie in with our relations with Israel and the Sunni Muslim Middle East nations. Finally I will attempt to synthesize these seemingly conflicting policies into some coherence. I will also give some of my own suggestions on how to improve and make more sense out of this Middle East quagmire.
President Barack Obama has always tried to emphasize diplomacy over military solutions in dealing with international conflicts. His State Department's steady negotiations combined with punitive economic sanctions were crippling the Iranian economy but only barely budging the Iranian negotiating stance.
Hassan Rouhani took over the Iranian Presidency on August 4, 2013 resulting in a general thawing of the icy relations between the United States and Iran. The stalled nuclear weapons negotiations began to move and real progress began to build which has brought us to the brink of a real and positive conclusion.
That is not to say that Iran has now suddenly become a totally benign nation. They continue to exert their influence throughout the Middle East most notably in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Their support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has kept him in power in the face of overwhelming domestic opposition. They also are major allies of the Shiite led Iraqi governments that have subjugated the Sunni minorities.
These two actions have almost simultaneously led to the rise of ISIL which threatens to take over these two countries and beyond. The Iranians reacting to this growing threat are leaders in supporting the Iraqi army and combatting these ISIL forces with American support. This turnaround in relationships within this region highlights the conundrum of our foreign policy in the Middle East especially with regards to Iran. The Iranian government is steadily building up its influence and quickly becoming a real threat to the Sunni nations led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Iran's goal of developing a Shiite hegemony in the Middle East is providing a real and large threat to stability in this region. It has caused the Israeli government to take a quite hawkish policy stance against Iran that is often unrealistic. The Saudis are uncharacteristically in agreement with the Israelis when it comes to the issue of Iran's nuclear and territorial ambitions. What is the United States to do in this tremendously dysfunctional and paranoid atmosphere?
Many politicians and foreign policy experts have been calling for a more coherent Middle East policy from President Obama. Unfortunately this is easier said than done during this current period. The Obama Administration seemingly has only been reacting to each new situation with no central strategy.
Their two main goals in the Middle East often are in conflict with each other and often cause these conflicting actions and alliances. The attempt to promote peace in this region among so many disparate communities is their primary strategy to promote their goals but it is a daunting one. The conflicting and changing goals of the Sunni and Shiite Muslim countries, Israel, and several other smaller religious communities greatly help to complicate any U.S. strategy or policy.
The second major goal of the Obama Administration has been to track down terrorist groups and their members wherever they are and eliminate them. This goal is diametrically opposed to the prior goal I wrote about in regards to its practices. Yemen has proven to be a breeding ground for Al-Qaeda terrorists.
The United States had enjoyed strong support within the Sunni led Yemen government. This support had been vital in our efforts to destroy Al-Qaeda terrorists with drone strikes. The Yemeni government had allowed us to have agents within their country who provided surveillance to spot targets to eliminate.
Unfortunately they have also been very repressive of the Shiites in Yemen which led to the rise of the Shiite Houthi rebels. Iran, who has been our ally against ISIL in Iraq, has been supporting the Houthis strongly and they were able to overthrow the Sunni government. The Saudis and Egyptians have reacted swiftly, with U.S, support, by militarily attacking the Houthis in an attempt to restore the prior Sunni government.
This situation is a microcosm of America's dilemma in the Middle East. Nothing is ever black and white. All actions may cause dangerous reactions with no obvious solutions. How should the United States organize their Middle East and Iranian policies to project a more coherent strategy? Is this even possible?
The answer to my questions lies in a policy that the George W. Bush administration tried to follow in Iraq after the war but only halfheartedly. They tried to create an inclusive political system that shared power between the majority Shiites and the minority Sunnis and Kurds. Unfortunately they only applied minimal pressure on the ruling Shiites and then decided to be laissez faire and allow the Iraqis to sort this out for themselves.
The Bush administration further complicated the problem by disbanding the Iraqi army in its entirety. Thousands of soldiers, most of whom were Sunnis, now had nothing to do but start trouble and attempt to square ancient grievances. The Shiite leadership, with heavy prodding from Iran, largely locked out the Sunnis and Kurds from the government which left them bitter and seeking redress. A long civil war erupted and former members of the Iraqi army now comprise a large and significant part of ISIL.
The important lesson to be learned from this is that aggressive and inclusive diplomacy among all parties is vital to making an effective government work as well as effective peace treaties. Punishment and removal of groups from the political and diplomatic processes usually leads to social unrest and often to prolonged war.
My view is that our government as well as those of the Middle East and the rest of the world must strive to find a consistent synthesis between seeking political solutions within conflicted countries while also fighting terrorism in these same areas. Iran is often seen as a country that is duplicitous and will cause trouble for others wherever it serves their interests. Why not begin to engage with Iran and see if this will give them the incentive to end these destructive behaviors and help to seek solutions.
Shiites are a definite minority compared to the Sunnis within the entire Middle East. These numbers have created a definite paranoid mindset among the ruling elite there. This defensive paranoia helps to explain this propensity for Iran to attempt to extend its influence wherever they can within the Middle East.
The United States and its allies have a historic opportunity to help persuade Iran to become more amenable to negotiations and participating in a less mischievous foreign policy with its neighbors and the rest of the world. Negotiating peacefully and equitably with Iran could draw them into a closer and less distrustful relationship with the rest of the Middle East.
There will probably have to be a negotiated peace settlement in Yemen. Engaging successfully with Iran in creating a real and lasting peace in that beleaguered country would be a promising start for a rapprochement between the Sunnis and Shiites in the Middle East. An increased level of trust and communication between the two parties is the key to lowering tensions in the region.
The United States will have a major role to play in facilitating these negotiations as well as helping to manage relations throughout the Middle East. The bottom line is that Iran often feels under siege due to their minority status in the region. A real and permanent friendly relationship between these two sides would go a long way to minimizing America's dilemma of supporting Iran and opposing them at the same time over different issues.
It is absolutely key to my hoped for scenario that the United States and Iran conclude a real and comprehensive nuclear weapons deal. If not, a nuclear weapons building race will take off among the Sunni nations primarily by way of Saudi Arabia. They have the money and leadership status to best carry this off. A successful power sharing treaty in Yemen would then be possible and hopefully both sides will faithfully strive to bring this about.
The ultimate show of unity will then turn to how the two sides precede in confronting ISIL in Iraq and Syria. Iran and the U.S. have led the support for the Iraqi army and the Kurds in fighting ISIL in Iraq. The Sunni nations have been much more subdued in their assistance probably because ISIL is a Sunni led terrorist group. They must strongly join this fight because ISIL is a threat to the entire Middle East which their perceived Levant encompasses.
My view is that it is essential that my scenario of Sunni and Shiite cooperation in the Middle East be achieved with American assistance. The threat of terrorist organizations such as ISIL and Al-Qaeda fighting against the entire Middle East and beyond is real and critical. Saudi Arabia and Iran at war with each other will only open the door for these groups to take territory and power. A nuclear weapons race would only maximize these threats. We need all of these groups to get together now and work to create peace and fight terror throughout the region. Their failure and our failure to work robustly to achieve peace in the Middle East would be very detrimental to our world and possibly fatal.