At first, the Americans couldn’t believe it. The Israelis were pressuring the Clinton administration to see Iran as the greatest global threat. Only a short time earlier, Israel was cooperating with Iran militarily and selling them weapons. The Israelis were Iran’s best lobbyists in Washington, pushing the Reagan administration to talk to Iran, to sell arms to Iran and even to ignore Iran’s tough talk on Israel. Now they were asking the States to find Iran lurking behind every terrorist attack, every conflict and every threat. They were asking the U.S. to see Iran as the greatest threat in the world.
Israel had sided with Iran over Iraq. Its relationship with Iran – contrary to accepted history – did not end with the 1979 Islamic revolution. The relationship continued in secret for many years. And now, finally, the Americans were coming around. The U.S. was easing over from Iraq to Iran. The 1991 "National Security Strategy of the United States" said that the U.S. was now open to "an improved relationship with Iran," a country the 1991 National Intelligence Estimate now said was "turning away from revolutionary excesses . . . toward more conventional behaviour." But just when the States was buying the Israeli argument and warming to Iran, the Israelis switched sides and began applying as much pressure as they could to make the States see Iran as the biggest threat, not only in the region, but in the world.
Not much time had passed between Israel lobbying for Iran in Washington and Israel lobbying against Iran in Washington. Not much time had passed, but much had changed.
The 1992 elections brought Rabin, Peres and the Labour party to power. From their perspective, two seismic events had altered the geopolitical landscape. The cold war was over, and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was destroyed. Both events were seen by the Israelis as positive, but each had an unintended consequence. The end of the cold war meant the exit of the Soviet Union from the Middle East: that left Israel’s traditional Arab enemies enfeebled. The defeat of Iraq was the defeat of Iran’s greatest enemy: that left Iran stronger. That led to a swing in the Periphery Doctrine pendulum. Israel went from fearing its neighbours and allying with countries – like Iran – who were on the periphery to fearing Iran on the periphery and potentially allying with its neighbours, like Saudi Arabia. At the same time, Rabin would look to the Palestinians for peace along with its Arab neighbours and turn Israel’s sights, once again, on Iran.
The end of the cold war created a crisis for Israel. It devalued Israel’s role to the United States. The cold war logic was that Israel was an indispensable western ally because Israel was the primary bulwark against Soviet penetration into the Middle East. But there was no more Soviet Union. "There was a feeling in Israel that because of the end of the Cold War, relations with the U.S. were cooling and we needed some new glue for the alliance," Trita Parsi quotes Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center as saying. "And the new glue was radical Islam."
But, it as a very specific kind of radical Islam: not the kind Saudi Arabia was financing and exporting – because Saudi Arabia had been neutered – but Iran’s radical Shiite Islam. Selling Iran as the number one global threat gave birth to a new Middle East enemy that replaced the Soviet Union and reinflated Israel’s value to the U.S. in the region. "Iran," Inbar went on to explain, "was radical Islam."
Now, for the first time, the unthinkable was thinkable: an alliance between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States that focussed its sights on Iran.” Netanyahu has recently referred to this Israeli-Saudi alliance when he said that Iran was driving Israel into cooperative arrangements with what he called "the modern Sunni states." He referred to "a new alliance between Israel and Islamic states." "The good news is that the other guys are getting together with Israel as never before. It is something that I would have never expected in my lifetime," Netanyahu added. Though he says he never would have expected it, it is the same message he delivered nine months ago when he said “. . . for the first time in my lifetime, and for the first time in the life of my country, Arab countries in the region do not see Israel as an enemy, but, increasingly, as an ally." Though the Israeli-Saudi relationship is usually not spoken of out loud, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz admitted recently that Israel "has ties that are . . . partly covert with many Muslim and Arab countries": Saudi Arabia was the only one he specifically named. According to Reuters, he said that those ties are fueled by "common concerns over Iran."
Though Washington couldn’t believe it at first, the States slowly came around. And, increasingly, large pieces of American (and Israeli) foreign policy can be best understood by looking at it through gun sights that are targeted on Iran. Many of the most important events of the past several years are best explained as attempts to weaken Iran by weakening its proxies or allies or as setting up situations that appear to implicate Iran – but don’t – to justify hostility, or future hostility, toward Iran.
The Islamic State
America’s response to the emergence of the Islamic State can best be characterized as bizarre. Though they would often claim that they were taken by surprise, they weren’t. They saw the coming of the Islamic State from the very beginning. A WikiLeaks cable dated as early as December 13, 2006 written by the charge d’affaires of the US embassy in Damascus to the Secretary of State recommends that the U.S. "coordinate more closely with" Egypt and Saudi Arabia "to play on fears of Iranian influence." This is the top U.S. diplomat in Syria counselling the exacerbation of sectarianism as a means of undermining the Assad government. The same cable confesses to seeing "the potential threat to the regime from the increasing presence of transiting Islamist extremists" as a "vulnerability" for which "there may be actions" the US government can take to "improve the likelihood of such opportunities arising."
By August 12, 2012, the US government knew that the engine in the Syrian insurgency was the extremists. A classified Defense Intelligence Agency Information Intelligence Report seen by the CIA, FBI, State Department, CENTCOM and others clearly states that the government knew that the Syrian insurgency it was supporting was driven by jihadists. Point B of the section of the report called "The General Situation" unambiguously declares that "The salafist [sic], the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS and the Islamic State] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria." Section 8.C. of the report astonishingly predicts that "If the situation unravels there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria. . . ." Section 8.D.1. Of the report goes on specifically to say that "ISI could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria". So, the US knew that the Islamic State drove the insurgency that it supported, and it had a surprisingly good idea what the possible outcome of that support was.
The bizarre response to the Islamic State – supporting the very terrorists the war on terror was meant to eradicate – can only be understood when seen through the gun barrel that was targeted on Iran.
The Islamic State advanced through Syria and Iraq and knocked on the door of Lebanon. Iraq, Syria and Lebanon have in common that they are Iran’s three great allies in the region. The pattern is not a coincidence. ISIS’s interests coincide perfectly with America’s interest: isolating and weakening Iran. America has long been bent on removing Assad from Syria in order to isolate Iran. The coincidence of Islamic State and American interests in this regard is revealed in section 8.C of the DIA report: . . . there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared salafist principality in eastern Syria (Hasaka and Der Zor), and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran)." The advance of the Islamic State in the region is consistent with American interests in the region because it amputates Iranian reach in the region. The Islamic State’s advance advances America’s desire to cut off what Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett have called Iran’s soft, or proxy, power in the region.
At the beginning of the Islamic State’s push through the Levant, Syria was not even Iran’s greatest ally in the region any more: then leader Nouri al-Maliki’s Iraq was. And U.S. foreign policy was to seek change in that regime as well. Lebanon is home of Hezbollah, another Iranian ally and political force America would not miss in the region.
The pattern suggests that America’s bizarre initial acquiescence to the Islamic State doing its work was because the Islamic State and al-Nusra were simultaneously doing America’s work: regime change and weakening of Iran’s allies.
And Iran suspected the U.S of doing just that. According to Iran expert Trita Parsi, the Iranians suspected that the relaxed approach to the Islamic State was because the Islamic State opposed Iraq, Syria and Lebanon: countries that were Iran’s allies and America and Israel’s enemies.
Saudi Arabia and Israel shared the same goal. So, the Saudi government provided the "clandestine financial and logistic support to Isis and other radical groups in the region,” according to a leaked Hillary Clinton email penned on September 17, 2014. Less than a month later, on October 2, 2014, Vice President Biden said "[O]ur allies in the region poured hundreds of millions of dollars and tens, thousands of tons of weapons into anyone who would fight against Assad except that the people who were being supplied were Al Nusra and al-Qaeda and the extremist elements of jihadis. . . ." The DIA report introduced earlier also named the Gulf States as among the "supporting powers" of the Syrian opposition. And at a May 2015 meeting between President Obama and the Princes of the Gulf Cooperation Council, according to David Ignatius of the Washington Post, "Obama and other US officials urged Gulf leaders who are funding the opposition to keep control of their clients, so that a post-Assad regime isn’t controlled by extremists from the Islamic State or al-Qaeda.” Again, Obama knew that the Gulf leaders were funding the Islamic State and al-Qaeda.
How early did America know the Saudis were bank rolling the Islamic extremists? 2009. In December of that year, Hillary Clinton sent a State Department cable that clearly stated that “Saudi Arabia remains a critical financial support base for al-Qaeda, the Taliban . . . and other terrorist groups.”
Rounding out the America-Saudi Arabia-Israel alliance, Israel also was, ironically, in the Islamic State and al-Nusra’s corner. Sima Shine, who is in charge of Iran in Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, says that when weighing whether or not to remove Assad from power, one should weigh in the impact his removal would have on Iran. “The ‘devil we know’ is worse than the devil we don’t,” she said, adding that the Israeli security community believes that keeping Assad in power is worse than removing him. Shine said that, since Israel’s main enemy is Iran, Israel should examine events in Syria from the perspective of how they affect Iran: “If Bashar remains in power, that would be a huge achievement for Iran.”
In September 2013, Michael Oren, the Israeli Ambassador to the US said, “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran.” Oren told the Jerusalem Post that “This was the case . . . even if the other ‘bad guys’ were affiliated with al-Qaeda.” Nearly a year later, in June 2014, Oren would repeat Israel’s position of preferring the Islamic State and al-Nusra over Assad: “From Israel’s perspective, if there’s got to be an evil that’s got to prevail, let the Sunni evil prevail.” A year and a half later, Defense Minister Moshe Yalon would essentially reiterate this firm Israeli preference as would Israeli intelligence Chief, Major General Herzi Halevy still half a year later when he explicitly said that Israel does not want to see the war in Syria end with the defeat of ISIS.
And Israel didn’t just hope for an Islamic State victory, it contributed to the hoped for victory. UN observers in the Golan Heights have reported witnessing cooperation between Israel and Syrian rebels, and Israel has frequently bombed Syrian targets (and here and here). Netanyahu has also revealed that Israel has hit Hezbollah forces fighting against the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria dozens of times. Recently, it has been revealed that Israel also provided funding, food and fuel to Syrian rebels fighting Assad.
So, the first test of the power of viewing recent events through the view of the gun sight trained on Iran passes. American and Israeli support for the Islamic State only makes sense as a strategy for targeting Iran.
But the strategy didn’t work. Assad has thus far survived the attempt at regime change, and Iran has, far from losing an ally in the region, emerged with a stronger alliance and greater influence in the region. But Assad wasn’t the end: he was just the means. The end stayed the same, and the gun sight pivoted to Lebanon. The recent confusing events in Lebanon, like the earlier ones in Syria, are best made sense of by looking through the gun barrel that is targeted on Iran.
On November 4, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri unexpectedly and mysteriously resigned. Speaking from Saudi Arabia, Hariri claimed his resignation was catalyzed by fear of an Iranian-Hezbollah assassination. But there was no plot to assassinate Hariri. The Lebanese army said "it had not uncovered any plans for assassinations in Lebanon." Neither had the army. So, why resign?
The clue may be provided by Saudi State Minister for Gulf Affairs, Thamer al-Sabhan who expressed Saudi Arabia’s desire for "toppling Hizbullah." He promised that "The coming developments will definitely be astonishing". He said that the desire was not just his own, and that people "will see what will happen in the coming days."
The astonishing thing that happened is the resignation of Hariri in the midst of a Saudi royal purge of princes and powerful people. The resignation came just one day after a meeting in Beirut with Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior foreign policy advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Kahmenei that was reportedly very positive. Velayati praised Hariri and reaffirmed Iran’s support for his coalition government. The Saudis say Hariri resigned because Hezbollah had "hijacked" his coalition government. Al-Sabhan called Hezbollah "the Party of Satan" and complained that it is represented in Hariri’s coalition government.
Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, says that the resignation was "imposed on Prime Minister Hariri" by the Saudis. Nasrallah says that Hezbollah did not want Hariri to resign. Hezbollah has been a part of Hariri’s coalition government for almost a year. Lebanese President, Michel Aoun, seemed to share Nasrallah’s suspicion, insisting that he would not accept Hariri’s resignation until Hariri returns to Lebanon from Saudi Arabia because his "resignation must be voluntary". There is in Lebanon the suspicion that Hariri was held under house arrest. Top Lebanese officials have declared that this is the belief of Lebanon. A senior politician who is apparently close to Hariri says that the Saudis ordered him to resign and placed him under house arrest. Another person familiar with the situation also said that Saudi Arabia was limiting and controlling his movement. On November 10, President Aoun told a meeting of foreign ambassadors that Hariri had been "kidnapped."
Having finally returned to Lebanon, Hariri met with President Aoun who asked him "to temporarily suspend submitting [his resignation] and to put it on hold ahead of further consultations on the reasons for it." Hariri agreed.
Israel seems to have applauded Saudi Arabia’s Lebanese intervention and reaffirmed the Iranian motivation. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that "The resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri and his statements are a wake-up call for the international community to act against Iranian aggression." Netanyahu referred to the Israeli-Saudi alliance when he said that Iran was driving Israel into cooperative arrangements with what he called "the modern Sunni states." He referred to "a new alliance between Israel and Islamic states." According to reporting by Israel’s Channel 10, a leaked classified cable from the Israeli foreign ministry to Israeli ambassadors reveals that Israel ordered them to support Saudi Arabia’s efforts and to rally support for Hariri’s resignation.
Iran has also suggested that Donald Trump and the United States approves of, and was even involved in, the Lebanese intervention. The royal purge and the resignation of the Lebanese Prime Minister came days after Jared Kushner visited Saudi Arabia on a trip that was not made known publicly.
So, as in Syria, the confusing events in Lebanon come into focus when seen through the gun sights aimed at Iran.
While the new alliance took aim at Iran by targeting Hezbollah in Lebanon, it was simultaneously targeting Iran and Hezbollah in Yemen.
On November 5, Saudi Arabia intercepted a ballistic missile fired by Houthi forces in Yemen. The missile was intercepted by Saudi Arabia’s American manufactured Patriot missile defense system. The Saudis accused Iran of providing the missile and ordering the attack. They then accused Hezbollah of assembling and firing the missile. Saudi Arabia has called the actions of Iran and Hezbollah an "act of war."
Accusing Iran and Hezbollah of an act of war casts Iran in the role of aggressor: a move that could then be used to justify future hostility or even aggression targeted at Iran.
The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, called the charge against Iran "baseless," as did Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Gholamali Khoshroo. Even Saudi officials were calling the missile a Yemeni Burqan 2H missile when it was intercepted. The Houthis say that it was they who fired the missile. They say it was a response to a previous Saudi attack that killed 26 people.
Nonetheless, based solely on information provided by Saudi Arabia, U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley called on the U.N. to hold Iran accountable for violating U.N. Security Council resolutions by supplying the missile. She called on the U.N. to take "necessary action" against Iran. The Saudi ambassador informed the U.N. that Saudi Arabia was "taking appropriate measures to respond to these terrorist acts."
The US has consistently tried to use the Saudi war in Yemen as a way to target Iran by insisting that Iran supplies the Houthis with weapons. The U.S. claim hangs precariously on an “assessment” that Iran has used fishing boats to smuggle weapons into Yemen. However, according to Gareth Porter, the US was never able to produce any evidence for the link between Iran and the Houthis because the boats were stateless, and their destination was Somalia, not Yemen. An earlier ship was, indeed, Iranian but was not really carrying any weapons.
Because the Houthis allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and because Saleh and his son, the former commander of the Republican Guard, maintained control over the army through their allies in the upper ranks, the Houthis could get all the weapons they wanted from local arms markets and from corrupt Yemeni military commanders. The Houthi-Saleh-army alliance also strengthened the Houthis, making it possible for them to advance and take over military facilities from which they acquired American supplied weapons.
And just as Iran does not substantially arm the Houthis, so it does not control them. In fact, they have proven unable to control them. In 2014, the Iranians specifically discouraged the Houthis from capturing the Yemeni capital, Sanaa. Despite Iran’s discouragement, the Houthis captured the city, demonstrating Iran’s lack of control. A US intelligence official told The Huffington Post that "It is wrong to think of the Houthis as a proxy force for Iran." Yemen specialist Gabriele vom Bruck has called Iran’s influence over the Houthis "trivial." She says that the Houthis want to be independent, not controlled by Iran: "I don’t think the Iranians have influence in their decision-making." To the extent that Iran is involved in Yemen at all, that involvement was an invitation from the already started Saudi war and not a cause of it.
But the U.S. has not just provided logical cover for the Saudis. They have actively allied with Saudi Arabia. The Saudis could not carry on the assault on Yemen without direct American support. The U.S. refuels the Saudi bombers in flight, provides the bombs they are dropping and provides targeting intelligence on where to drop them.
A statement delivered by The White House as recently as November 24, 2017 – despite the humanitarian catastrophe that is devastating the people of Yemen – reiterated that "We remain committed to supporting Saudi Arabia and all our Gulf partners against the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ aggression and blatant violations of international law. Backed by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Houthi rebels have used destabilizing missile systems to target Saudi Arabia. . . ." The statement again reveals, not only the alliance with Saudi Arabia, but the use of the situation to turn the gun sights on Iran. The Iranian foreign ministry says that the White House statement "clearly and without question proves America’s participation and responsibility in the atrocities committed by Saudi Arabia in Yemen”.
Bahrain & Qatar
In 2011, protestors in Bahrain demanded a true constitutional monarchy, the resignation of the Prime Minister, greater civil liberties and a real elected parliament. Though Bahrain has a parliament, it is actually governed by the repressive, US backed dictator, King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa, whose family has ruled Bahrain for over two hundred years. The prime minister, the king’s uncle, is the longest reigning prime minister in the world, in power now for nearly forty years. The government is repressive, including torture. The upper house of the parliament is appointed by the king and must approve all legislation of the impotent lower house. The king has veto power, can make laws and amend the constitution. The royal family holds twenty of the twenty-five seats in cabinet.
What was America’s response to the uprising? Days after mass arrests and beatings, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, went through with his planned visit to Bahrain where he reaffirmed the US’s strong commitment to its military relationship with Bahrain – the same military that had just turned on its people with tanks and planes that were made in the US–and called Bahrain’s response to the protests "very measured." Mullen stressed their "partnership" and "friendship". On the same day, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates also gave full support to the Khalifa dictatorship. The US continued to support the regime and to call for "stability" and "reform": two words that are barely even code anymore for standing by the dictatorship.
Bahrain’s population is about 70% Shiite, though the ruling family, the government, the army and the police are all Sunni. The Shia have long been victims of discrimination. Bahrain is located between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran and is seen by the US as a crucially located check on Iranian influence and power. Bahrain is physically linked to Saudi Arabia by a causeway. So, when 1,000 Saudi troops invaded Bahrain to crush the demonstrations, the U.S. at best remained silent and at worst gave them the green light.
Qatar has also suffered the wrath of the new alliance. The siege of Qatar can be at least partially understood through the sights trained on Iran. Qatar has pursued a more independent foreign policy than pleases Saudi Arabia. It’s more independent than pleases the White House too: Trump labeled Qatar "a major sponsor" of terrorism. Alastair Crooke explains that one of Qatar’s sins is seeking peaceful coexistence with Iran. When Washington asked Saudi Arabia to make reasonable proposals for the termination of the siege, Saudi Arabia included the demand that Qatar break all ties with Iran. Trump famously tried to take credit for the siege and left it to the parties involved to work it out: essentially greenlighting another Saudi move aimed at Iran.
For the last quarter century, in the Middle East, whatever the foreign policy question is, the answer is Iran. Many of the most crucial events in the world, from Syria and the Islamic State to Lebanon and Yemen have the mist of mystery dissipate when seen through the clear gun sight that is targeted on Iran.