George H.W. Bush, our 41st president, put together a coalition to turn Saddam’s Iraq back from its invasion of Kuwait. He wanted the cover of a Muslim, Middle Eastern force joining in that invasion. He promised many of the countries involved that he would go no further than the Kuwaiti border that Saddam had crossed. In retrospect, that decision postponed the bloodbath that Iraq eventually became. But skilled as he was, President Bush couldn’t avoid the curse of unintended consequences. American use of a Saudi airfield was enough to anger bin Laden and al Qaeda. Hence the first attack on the World Trade Center took place under Clinton, between the presidencies of the two Bushes.
Bush excluded Iran from the “coalition of the willing” with which he invaded Iraq. In a book on Iranian foreign policy, subtitled Alone in the World, Thomas Juneau, Sam Razavi, and several colleagues explain that Iran lives amongst considerable dangers and hostilities. Four regional nuclear powers, India, Israel, Pakistan and Russia surround Iran. Religion, ideology, and other fears and jealousies divided Iran from its neighbors. And it has been excluded from regional security arrangements like the Gulf Cooperation Council, all of whose members are on the opposite side of the Persian Gulf. Thus, Iran has been in a precarious position which it has tried to meliorate with diplomacy, a strong military and support for the Palestinians.
In those circumstances Iran and Israel have reason to unite against the Arab states that have repeatedly gone to war against Israel and lose no love for Iran. But the wars against Iraq under the two Bush presidents had enormous impact on the Middle East. They left Iran the major local power, which spurred regional realignments. Specifically, Israel and Saudi Arabia no longer needed Iran’s support against Iraq. Instead, their fears transferred to Iran. As Trita Parsi describes in Losing an Enemy, a country’s natural enemy in balance of power politics is the biggest power in the region that could pose an existential threat. Once Iraq was disposed of, both countries wanted American support against Iran. Even though Iran had supported the Palestinians, it’s support had not been a major factor and, before the defeat of Iraq, Israel was telling the American state department to ignore the public fulminations of Ahmadinejad; despite him, Israel told the state department that Iran was fundamentally friendly! That may be a big surprise on this side of the Atlantic, but countries learn to distinguish the fundamentals from what they each have to do for diplomatic reasons.
I commented last week that Iran has been one of the most westernized countries in the Middle East. Despite the Guardian Council, public support for democratic institutions has a long history in Iran. Theirs is a mixed system, both clerical and popular. And the harsh language of some of the clerics has been a reaction to the fact that the Iranian people have been very much influenced by American culture. Despite the conflict between popular and clerical preferences, the people have no taste for another revolution. The result is that Iran has been one of the most stable countries in the Middle East.
That may not be the Middle East that the two Bushes envisioned. But Obama understood that agreements with Iran were possible in the current state of affairs. If we could cool down the fears and enmities involving Iran, Obama expected that he could turn his attention to Asia, which he viewed as the much larger problem. Unlike the small Middle Eastern countries, China is an existential threat to the U.S. on the world stage, and that’s where Obama wanted to put his, and America’s, energies.
Pity that Trump neither knew nor cared. That opportunity may be gone.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, December 4, 2018.