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Trump's anti-Iran stance could create a fresh crisis in the Middle East

Ravi Joshi | Updated on: 25 May 2017, 20:12 IST

The Presidential election in Iran on 19 May, which gave a huge mandate to incumbent President Hassan Rouhani, has come as a big relief to majority of Iranians and to several leaders in the world.

There were fears that a relatively unknown hardliner may have dangerously precipitated an already volatile situation in the region.

But there still remains another variant that could upend the situation seriously: US President Donald Trump.

Trump's statement in Saudi

It was a strange coincidence that on the very day Iran was celebrating the triumph of popular vote by re-electing a moderate President, Trump was in Riyadh bowing and curtseying to the Saudi King Salman to receive a gold medallion, the highest civilian honour from the Kingdom, an act for which he had labelled his predecessor Barack Obama as 'slavish'.

On 21 May, Trump, at the US-Arab-Islam summit in Riyadh, addressed a gathering of over 50 kings, Emirs, Presidents and Prime Ministers, mostly unelected rulers of the Arab and Islamic World. He focussed on countering terrorism, and directed his attention to Shia Iran, Sunni Saudi Arabia's main regional rival.

Starving terrorists of their territory, their funding, and the false allure of their craven ideology, will be the basis for defeating them,” he said. “But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three — safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment. It is a regime that is responsible for so much instability in the region. I am speaking, of course, of Iran,” said President Trump. But he could have named Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, or Turkey, for that matter, and been equally correct.


Let us do a fact-check on Trump's statement. It is true that Iran supports the Hezbollah in Lebanon, but how many US nationals have been killed by them? There are 289 American nationals' deaths directly or indirectly blamed on the Hezbollah, according to one unverified blog of an Israeli supporter.

How many American civilians and military personnel have been killed by the Al-Qaeda, Taliban and other terror groups supported by the Sunni Arab world and Pakistan? The US lost 4,486 soldiers in Iraq, while 2,345 US soldiers died in Afghanistan. One million soldiers were wounded in both the battle theatres, at a potential cost of $6 trillion to the US economy. This is in addition to the 2,996 unarmed civilians killed, 6,000 injured, at a cost of $10 billion, and the property and infrastructure damage of $3 trillion in the attacks on US soil by the Al Qaeda on 9/11.

Nobody grudges the US its right to choose its friends and enemies, but at least the choice should be made in line with its own security interests. How can the US repeatedly choose the very countries as allies whose support has allowed its civilians, military personnel and the core national symbols of power – from its embassies in Kenya, Tanzania, to the World Trade Centre in New York to the Pentagon in Washington – to be attacked?

Has President Trump forgotten that out of 19 Al Qaeda terrorists who attacked the US on its soil on 9/11, 15 came from Saudi Arabia? Is he not aware that almost all the attacks on US personnel in Afghanistan came from either Pak-sponsored or Pak-based terrorists?

Neither the Saudi Kingdom nor Pakistan have taken any steps to stop its nationals considering America as the greatest enemy of Islam. The Wahhabi preachers never stop inciting hatred against the US and the United Kingdom. And so do the Army generals and Mullahs in Pakistan, who shaped the narrative that Osama bin Laden was a hero who needed to be protected from the American army, and the Taliban who kill Americans are the 'good Taliban'.

Why is Iran 'the enemy'?

Why do US Presidents, particularly of the Republican variety, repeatedly choose the Sunni Arab world as the country's favourite allies, and Shia Iran as its main enemy?

The history of the hostility goes back to those years in the early 1950s when both the UK and the US tried to grab the oil wealth of Iran. It was in August 1953 that the treachery started when the first democratically elected government of a nationalist Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh was ousted by the machinations of MI6 and the CIA. His fault was that he had dared to nationalise the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company owned by the British government.

And then on to more recent times, the revolutionary government of Ayotallah Khomeni, soon after coming to power in late 1979, aided and abetted the seizure of the US embassy in Tehran, and held 52 US nationals, including diplomats and staff, hostage for 444 days from November 1979 to January 1981.

The immediate provocation for the hostage crisis was that the then-US President Jimmy Carter granted sanctuary to the deposed Iranian despot, the Shah of Iran.

The real reason had deeper roots. It was the unstinted support extended to the regime of the Shah of Iran from 1941 to 1979. The Shah had ordered the killing of thousands of young Iranians for being religious preachers or communists, while handing over the precious national resource – Iranian oil – to the British and American companies.

The dreaded secret service of the Shah, the SAVAK, founded with the help of CIA and of Mossad, had inflicted abominable torture and had killed thousands of innocent Iranians.

Silver lining

It is nobody's argument that Iran is now a perfect democracy. But among all the Islamic countries in the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf to the Suez Canal and beyond, right up to Morocco on the Atlantic Coast, it is probably the one country that gives the right to its people to choose its President, however imperfect the selection of the candidates might be.

Speaking of imperfect democracies, one can equally question as to how a person getting three million popular votes less than his opponent could be declared the winner in the US.

Iran has an elected Parliament that's truly critical of the President and his government, another feature noticeably absent in all the Gulf Kingdoms and in Jordan, Egypt, and now Turkey too. The unelected rulers have no hesitation in claiming that Islam and democracy do not go together, or that their subjects are not yet ready for democracy.

It's one thing that these anachronistic Kingdoms and dictatorships still survive in the 21st century, wherein new forms of social media have revolutionised the frontiers of human knowledge and awareness, but it is totally another thing that the US and most of the Western democracies championing human rights still indulge these kings and dictators, and are continuing to arm them to commit more and more brutal violations of human rights on their own citizens or in their neighbouring countries.

On the other hand, Iran which has been waging a war against ISIS, the declared enemy of President Trump, is dubbed a 'terrorist' country. President Rouhani and the Iranian para-military force, the Al Quds, have been fighting the ISIS since well before President Trump came to power. And now the re-election of Rouhani will ensure that there is stability in Iran, and continuity of its leading personnel and policies.

Will Trump create another crisis?

Trump, however, is extremely capable of drastically changing all that by imposing more sanctions on Iran, not because it violates the nuclear agreement with the P5+1, but because Saudi Arabia and Israel consider the agreement itself foul.

The Middle East is drifting towards another crisis, with Trump arming the Saudis with a $110 billion arms deal. The Saudis are presently waging a vicious war of aggression for over two years on the hapless people of Yemen without paying heed to warnings from the United Nations. Saudi Arabia blames the war on the Iranian-supported Houthis, but the unforeseen consequence, though not entirely unintended, has been the revival and empowerment of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb.

The one notable consequence of US intervention in the region from Afghanistan to Iraq, Libya to Syria, has been that, despite the investment of thousands of billion dollars and the loss of over 6,800 American soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, America has neither won any of the wars nor has terrorism been decisively defeated in the region. Thanks mainly to its allies and partners in the region.

First published: 25 May 2017, 20:12 IST
Ravi Joshi

Retired diplomat, presently a Visiting Fellow, Observer Research Foundation.