Expediency makes for strange, even bizarre, bedfellows. After spending decades supporting its Arab autocratic clients to prevent genuine democracy and freedom, dissent and opposition, and crush political Islamists including deny them the fruits of electoral victories, Washington, since the “Arab Spring,” has decided that, after all, not only can it work with Islamists but even sustain the status quo through other means. Israel and all it wants—the sustenance of US Middle East policy—followed by oil and the “war on terror,” remain, so far, remarkably intact (though clearly unsustainable). The previously demonized Muslim Brotherhood conducts normal relations and cooperation with Washington, its electoral victories in several Arab states, and most likely in Syria, not so much a disruption or challenge to American imperial dominion after all.
This was expected: scholars of the region strenuously argued forever that nothing tames like democratic governing, as Islamists too have to deliver on the pressing basic, developmental and social justice needs of their peoples or else be electorally thrown out. They, too, support neo-liberal economic policies, will require military and economic aid, enter into national security arrangements, and adhere to peace treaties with Israel.
The amazing story is not here, for political Islamists are as politically pragmatic and self-serving as any other leaders and politicians anywhere. It is instead, found among the many Arab academics and journalists, in the Middle East and the West, through al-Jazeera and other organs, talking and writing the narrative and language of Western governments, especially on Syria. I can understand the enthusiasm, generated by the Arab uprisings, of sweeping away all that is rotten and corrupt in Arab states, but the sudden advocacy of Washington’s policies and criticism and attacks on Russia and China regarding Syria is astounding. Especially galling is these Arabs talking up democracy in Syria and elsewhere while autocratic oil states are fomenting Islamic fundamentalist revolt in the Middle East and beyond under the pretext of supporting “Arab spring” goals of freedom and dignity. It’s as if Arab thinkers, including those who might be dubbed liberals, progressives, and nationalists, suddenly developed collective amnesia. Even American progressives are confused.
It’s not uncommon, in fact today quite common, among such Arab intelligentsia to find arguments that accept the premise of Washington’s selfless, benign pursuit of democracy, freedom, and peace in Syria. They inveigh against Russia and China for vetoing UNSC resolutions; angrily call for the West to arm the (approved) rebels to the teeth; and attack Iran’s supposed aggressive regional ambitions and nuclear threat to the “international community.” They can’t understand why the US is working with Islamists to the detriment of Arab secular society. They’re impatient with Washington’s and its NATO allies’ “lack of resolve” to “contain” the Syrian regime and its regional (Iran, Hizballah) and “international supporters,” and argue in favor of a more active US role, not necessarily direct military intervention, but close enough, including no-fly zones, “safe” areas, advanced weaponry, robust economic sanctions and so forth. These, they say, will end the military stalemate, prevent the spread of extremists, and bring the opposition to deserved power.
Really? The US a champion of authentic independence and democracy? US invasion and large-scale destruction and killing in the past decade alone, merely accidental, benign efforts to deliver democracy? Russia and China, their roles reversed with that of the US, culprits supporting authoritarian regimes and acting against the people’s interests? Qatar and Saudi Arabia, central players in Syria’s sectarianism and Islamist radicalization, advocates of freedom and progress? Iran devoid of legitimate interests and an aggressive hegemon in pursuit of nuclear weapons and no less than a threat to the region and the world? Forget for a moment the fact that Saudi Arabia and Gulf statelets are monarchic police states. Forget Washington’s imperial wars and unconditional support for Israeli occupation, colonization, and systematic dispossession of the Palestinians. Let’s just consider Washington’s policies towards Russia and Iran to clear our heads and shock ourselves back into reality—certainly into a more balanced, realistic perspective.
Rather than enthusiastically, self-interestedly grasping the opportunity to partner with Russia, a militarily, culturally, and economically great power with a superpower’s nuclear arsenal, to solve pressing global issues and threats, the US did everything to alienate it. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the US, with NATO as its out of area tool for expanding American military power, has done its damndest to turn Russia into, at best, a junior partner and client. In recent years, as the US became enamored with regime change under the pretext of supporting democracy movements (“democracy promotion”) via foreign funded, CIA supported NGOs, Russia, not just weakling states, became a target. Regime change is US strategy in Russia. The US-led West politically and militarily encircled Russia, aggressively intruded on its security zone, worked to destabilize it, made alliances with countries at its doorstep, and positioned missiles at its borders. They interfered in the “revolutions” in Georgia and the Ukraine and coups in Central Asian republics.
The way Washington tells it, and the army of experts narrates it, Russian policy to protect its national interests—including normal relations with Iran and preventing Islamic extremism at its own South Caucasus doorstep—are simply wrong, aggressive, and provocative. Russian concern with Syria’s collapse and the regional repercussions that may follow are dubbed opportunistic; its opposition to economic sanctions, threat of military intervention, and regime change, no less than immoral. Never mind international law and the principles of sovereignty and non-intervention in the internal affairs of other states. These are old fashioned; and besides, Russia’s insistence on these principles emanates from its fear of being at the receiving end of such intervention. For we all know it’s a quasi-democracy given to human rights abuses and ruled by a Soviet era figure, a former KGB officer and director of the post-Soviet Federal Security Services no less, the demonized Vladimir Putin. No, after the disgraceful Boris Yeltsin era and continuing weakening of Russia, Putin had no right to restore Russian political stability and economic progress.
The Russia scholar Stephen F. Cohen characterizes American behavior since 1989 as “aggressive triumphalism,” engaging in a “winner take all diplomacy” in which Russia must make all concessions and that presumes Russian sovereignty is less important than American sovereignty. Imagine any state dare challenge the principle of sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of the USA.
That the Russian stand on international relations generally and on Syria particularly is in fact consistent with international law, concerned with Syria’s collapse and the sectarian and ethnic violence that may spread through the region, is not convincing to its Western detractors. These policies are not credible, for Russia’s “real” goal is a foothold in the Middle East (warm water port), trade, arms sales. Such motives, normal actually, don’t apply to America, a state selflessly wishing to bestow freedom and progress on the world. Never mind that Washington engages in constant wars, subversions, and destabilizations, especially in the Middle East, is the region’s and world’s number one arms merchant, and pursues globally hegemonic policies of controlling Middle Eastern and Central Asian oil lanes, subordinating Russia, and “containing” China and keeping it in its place by “projecting” American military power in China’s backyard. On Syria, Washington is undermining UN efforts to achieve a political settlement—its position evasive, lukewarm, ambiguous—cooperating with oil autocrats to destabilize Syria, mightily contributing to Islamist radicalization, and so on, all rationalized away or denied by American intelligentsia one way or another. How can one expect the Russians to understand and react to such craziness, hypocrisy, and naked opportunism?
Call it what you wish: American imperialism, dominion, globalism, hegemony—the point is, the Washington establishment is in a constant search for enemies to sustain its ideological rationale under the all-encompassing term “national security.” No question, Islamism replaced Communism of old as the enemy, the great global threat. In addition to “radical Islam” and its concomitant “global war on terror,” why not add to the list of global “challenges” and “threats” to national security—like China and Russia. Washington, despite the calamitous effect its global pretensions are having on American economic collapse, democracy, and civil rights, is on autopilot. As Andrew Bacevich puts it, Washington, in becoming Israel, is in single-minded “pursuit of global military dominance, a proclivity for preemption, a growing taste for assassination—all justified as essential to self-defense. That pretty much describes our present-day MO.”
Pax Americana apparently has the right to take aggressive and hostile actions against other states on their own borders but they have no right to protest or defend themselves, engage and benefit from the world as befits their interests, and pursue independent economic and foreign policies. This essential unilateralism proceeds apace under President Obama.
With this context or paradigm in mind, it’s no wonder that Iran is also at the receiving end of US hostility and regime change. As with Russia and China, the US surrounds Iran with military bases and threatens it under the pretext of nuclear acquisition, repeatedly invoking “Iranian aggression” and “Iranian threat” as if they were real and imminent. Most of the American intelligentsia assumes that, unlike the old Soviet leaders or China’s Mao Zedong, Iran is irrational, that its leaders are prepared to endure a suicidal, millenarian sacrifice and hence are somehow unconcerned with self-preservation. This type of utter nonsense and dangerous lack of understanding pass for rational judgment towards Muslim states and societies. In reality, the Iranians are consistently diplomatically nuanced and subtle, politically intelligent, patient people, whose Islamist leaders are looking for Iran’s self-interest, including energy diversification and security, and surely not religious fanatics eager for annihilation.
Iran’s leaders behave pragmatically rather than ideologically, and it clearly wants dialogue and normal relations with the US. As Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett write, Tehran’s imperative is “building strategic relationships with ‘great powers’ outside the Middle East—countries that could support Tehran’s efforts at postwar reconstruction, long-term economic development and modernisation, and realising Iran’s enormous potential as an exporter of oil and natural gas.”
Iran’s impetus or incentive for acquiring nuclear weapons capability, not necessarily its actualization, is to deter US or Western aggression. This has been especially the case since 2003 when the US invaded Iraq. Iran’s membership in the NPT requires legal obligations and transparency not to use its enriched uranium for weapons capability, and its actions and intentions have given rise to suspicion and disquiet. On the other hand, its conventional capabilities, including its missile program, are its sovereign right, though one would not think so judging by the opprobrium and misinformation to which it is subject in the US, including the urgent ticking clock scenario once applied to Iraq.
There is no evidence that Iran is diverting declared nuclear material for military use but Iran needs to prove that what is not there is not there. The 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate said: “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” The revised 2011 report, declassified but unreleased, does not contradict the 2007 conclusion but, as might be expected, claims that while it is unknown whether Iran made the strategic choice to build a nuclear weapon, “it is working on the components of such a device,” in other words, there is still no evidence. Mohammed ElBaradei during his tenure as director general of the IAEA consistently reached the no-evidence conclusion.
The truth is that, albeit Iran’s goals regarding its nascent nuclear program are unclear—that is, the program may or may not have a military dimension—even as it reaffirms its commitment to the NPT and its intent to use nuclear power for peaceful needs, the Iran threat is an ideologically motivated fabrication. That it is or can be a “threat to world peace” is ridiculous, certainly not keeping the Russians or Chinese up, not the Turks, Pakistanis, or Indians, and supported by the Middle East’s people, though not by most of its US-dependent Arab regimes.
Arab states, themselves, cannot be all that afraid of an Iranian nuke, as they have not developed their own in response to Israel’s 200-400 bombs. Instead, their great fear, led by a Saudi Arabia determined to maintain the Sunni Muslim autocratic status quo, is the spread of nationalism and populism and pressure towards real democratization. Iranian civil society and democracy are far more vital than in most Arab states and will most probably push the regime towards genuine democracy.
Iran is a problem because it will not succumb to control, to US divide and rule tactics, and assertive of its sovereignty and independence, again unlike Arab states. After all, mutual hostility started in 1979, at the time of the Iranian revolution. A nuclear weapon, or, perhaps more accurately reflecting Iranian intentions at present, the capability to produce one, greatly enhances Iran’s deterrence, defense, and autonomy, its immunity from interference and threats, precisely what the US and Israel wish to preempt.
Measure this against Arab regimes of the Peninsula and Gulf, relentlessly spreading fundamentalism, exacerbating the regional Sunni-Shi’a divide, destroying Syria, and otherwise acting as nothing less than the enemy of liberal democracy, freedom, civil society, and a citizenship-based state. If Iran is assisting its allies in Syria, it is doing so because of its own military encirclement and endless threats of destruction by Washington and its reckless Israeli ally, whose lobby, just as it did in Iraq, unremittingly pushes the US towards war. If it’s seeking allies in the Middle East, including helping Syria thwart Israeli war and occupation in Lebanon, it is to protect itself against US “containment.” States will do that. Neither Iran’s nor Syria’s strategic interests will change after the ayatollahs or Assad are gone. These are constants.
There is no selflessness or innocence lost within and between states, whether the US, Russia, China, or Iran, but one can safely say that Russia’s policy towards Syria and the Middle East is, unlike Washington’s, eminently sensible, principled, and far less harmful. No less than a paradigm shift, a collective self-awareness, is required in American politics and society for this great nation to arrest its self-inflicted harm and decline.
Would it not be a better world if: The US partnered with Russia to bring about a political settlement in Syria and manage world peace? Advocated a just settlement in Palestine-Israel? Reintegrated Iran in a regional security arrangement including the Gulf and normalized relations with it in exchange for halting nuclear militarization? Consistently promoted human rights, civil society and democratic processes? Ceased its policy of regime change regarding states big and small and cooperated with the UN? Promoted regional trade, development, and economic cooperation? Pursued arms control and pushed for the abolishing of nuclear weapons in the region and the world? Invited, before leaving, Asian regional powers to participate in brokering and resolving Afghanistan’s problems? Ceased its senseless escalation of drone wars and militarization of complex local ethnic, tribal, and sectarian divisions in Asia, Africa and the Middle East? Encouraged cooperation—especially between Turkey, Iran, Egypt, Syria, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—to work out region-wide political, social, economic, and environmental problems and differences?
In an Orwellian Washington, that’s what the US does.
Issa Khalaf (D. Phil. in Politics and Middle East Studies, Oxford University)