As Iran and the United States edge closer to war, while Europe scrambles to reduce tensions, the chorus of U.S. foreign policy and military experts and journalists criticizing the Trump administration’s tactics is also reaching a crescendo. Despite deep political divisions, on this issue there is broad agreement across the spectrum.
First, they remind the American public that the Iran war playbook is strikingly similar to the events that led us into the Iraq war. Sanctions, isolation, false claims of nuclear weaponry and fake ties to al-Qaeda were first order attempts at justifying an unjustifiable war in 2003. These allegations are now directed at Iran.
Second, the centerpiece of the anti-Iran war narrative is agreement that the Iraq war was a failure.
To recall: in 2002-03 the Iraq war was sold as a cake-walk, an easy means of toppling a violent dictatorship and replacing it with a liberal democracy, aligned with U.S. values and interests in the heart of the Middle East. It was meant to be a no-cost war, where Iraq, with its vast oil reserves, would pay the U.S. army’s costs and for the recovery of its national infrastructure.
The reality, of course, turned out differently. Thousands of U.S., British and other soldiers lost their lives or returned home, maimed, traumatized or suicidal. Meanwhile the occupation between 2003-2011 alone was executed so poorly that U.S. forces and their countless private contractors squandered some $1.06 trillion in taxpayer money but were unable to even restore basic electricity in many of Iraq’s major urban areas. Ongoing costs stemming from the Iraq and Afghan wars, including veteran services, could rise as high as $7 trillion. The U.S. treatment of prisoners and Iraqi civilians contributed to the rise of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), which continues to plague the region despite its supposed demise.
To put it mildly, the original mission was categorically unaccomplished. Naturally, this makes Americans reticent about a new war, against a country with four times the land mass and double the population of Iraq.
But there are two problems with this narrative. First, what if the Iraq war had led to a stable democratic state? Would the more than one million Iraqis killed in the process be considered as acceptable collateral damage? Would that ‘success’ have galvanized the foreign policy community to support an Iran war now? Or would there be a modicum of concern about the inherent illegality and criminality of war? In Washington lore, senior figures in the Bush-Cheney administration are remembered for claiming that “boys go to Baghdad, but real men go to Tehran.”
The Iraq war was meant to be the appetizer. If indeed it had been a ‘cakewalk,’ there is little doubt that Iran was next on the menu, with likely many cheerleaders in the U.S. media and foreign policy establishment.
Secondly and more worryingly is the undisputed notion in the U.S. that the Iraq War was a failure. The Bush administration sold it as a just war in the pursuit of freedom, liberation and justice for the Iraqi people, similar to current efforts regarding Iran. Certainly from a human standpoint and Iraq’s own perspective it was an abject failure. But viewed through the lens of regional geopolitics, the definition of failure and success change. Here’s the scenario to consider.
If Iraq had indeed been transformed into a credible liberal democratic state, with its oil revenue and human capital, the country would have become a major regional powerhouse. It is likely that such a state would have been a critical counter point to other regional states. For example, it could have pushed back and challenged the spread of Saudi Wahabbism. Even if it were strongly allied to the U.S., it would have been a watchful monitor of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and might have held it accountable on the international stage, forcing Europe and the U.S. to also implement the promise of the Oslo Accords. A democratic and dare I say secular Iraq would have also put a check on Qatar or the UAE’s military reach across the region. But Iraq as it today, a truly hobbled and broken state, not only poses no real threat, but its demise has enabled their ascent. For them, the Iraq war was successful. Saddam is gone, but nothing threatening has replaced him. America and its allies not only paid in blood and footed the bill, but they also became more reliant on Israel and the Gulf states. The formula was irresistible and it became their playbook for other countries.
In 2012, a full decade after the Iraq war, when the lessons and missteps were widely known, the Obama administration agreed to unleash the might of NATO onto Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, under the UN’s “Responsibility to Protect” mandate. But Libya in the aftermath of Gaddafi’s downfall played out even worse than Iraq. The U.S. didn’t deploy its forces and no UN Peacekeepers were sent to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of Libya’s government. Instead, the world allowed the Gulf States to pours millions of dollars and weapons into the country to fund Islamist parties and extremist militias of varying hues. Libya is a rich country. If it had emerged as a stable democracy it would have been a force of moderation against Saudi Arabia, the sheikhdoms and Israel. It could have also had immense positive influence across Africa. But the promise of democracy or even stability was thwarted. Instead, like Iraq, it is a fractured and traumatized nation.
Much the same scenario befell Syria. Despite Bashar al-Assad’s violent oppression, the masses of Syrians mobilizing and marching in the streets did not want a war. But once again the unrelenting flow of funds and weapons from Qatar, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia fueled the fragmentation of the country. Yet again the current outcome suits these powers. Neither a credible democracy has emerged that could challenge the Gulf States, nor a radical Islamic state that could terrorize the world. Instead, Assad, the known devil, remains but is hobbled. For Israel, next door, this is as good as it gets.
In the meantime—particularly since the war on Yemen began in 2015—the UAE’s de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan (MBZ), has emerged as a regional player, exercising military muscle and pursuing expansionist aims. His ally, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman (MBS), may be an international pariah after the Jamal Khashoggi assassination, but on regional matters—and especially regarding Iran—he is still a whisperer of war in the ears of the United States government. As for Israel, the story continues. A détente with the Saudis has emboldened the Netanyahu regime. Given the turmoil in the region, there are fewer eyes on Palestine, where Israel’s land grabs and attacks on people continue unabated.
With these benefits accruing at no cost to them, while their various regional foes have shrunk into insignificance, it is no surprise that these three Horsemen of the Middle East are the greatest cheerleaders of a potential U.S. war on Iran. But they understand the reticence of the U.S. in getting embroiled in a new conflict, so the trio’s playbook this time has been more sophisticated. On the geopolitical stage, they have championed the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA), which has led to the reimposition of U.S. sanctions as part of what the Trump administration calls its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia has also been on a media spending spree, footing the bill for Persian language satellite TV stations such as ManoTo and Iran International. They beam directly into Iranian living rooms, juxtaposing nostalgic stories of the Shah’s era with stories of rising poverty and popular distress today. These stories conveniently sidestep the role of U.S. sanctions in causing and deepening that distress. They are trying to rile up a base of protest domestically.
Simultaneously, with financial and political incentives they have also co-opted Iranian diaspora opposition groups ranging from the reviled Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) to the more benign but beleaguered Reza Pahlavi, son of the former Shah. Pahlavi and his supporters are the ideal window dressing. They offer a tantalizing promise of a utopian non-violent Iranian uprising that culminates in a democracy.
As appealing as this is to Iranians the world over, in reality though, as with Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Yemen, the last thing that the Saudis, Emiratis, and Israelis want is a stable, democratic and wealthy Iran that could one day have the international clout to challenge their domestic and regional abuses. Their preferred outcome therefore is the Iraq war scenario—Iran crushed economically, politically, and militarily, and fragmented socially and geographically.
For Europe such a scenario would be disastrous for many reasons. There is the threat to its oil flows and the threat of a new tsunami of refugees on its borders. Iran also cushions Europe from the flow of heroin and other drugs originating in Afghanistan. If Iran’s security fails, those drugs and related organized crime would flood European markets.
But the U.S. is far enough away to withstand any such blowback. It also has many bones to pick with Iran, the biggest dating back to the pain and humiliation of the 1979 U.S. embassy hostage crisis. So a military attack to settle scores is tempting.
To get their war, the whisperers have to convince President Trump that it would be beneficial to his 2020 reelection bid. They will have to drown out the anti-war voices, by promising regime change but making the case that a weakened and chaotic Iran is actually the desired outcome. But the U.S. should be wary of these whisperers, for while it foots the bill and the world pays for unknowable and uncontainable consequences, the three will once again reap the rewards. Success or failure, like beauty, is clearly in the eye of the beholder.
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