Is America on the wrong side in the Middle East?
In a recent speech, President Trump suggested that the United States and Iran “should work together” on “shared priorities.” As the president noted, ISIS is a “natural enemy” of Iran. Indeed, U.S. warplanes effectively provided air cover for Iranian-backed militias battling the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Since assuming office, Trump has accentuated America’s century-long alliance with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s arch-enemy. The Saudi government, however, funds and arms radical jihadist groups throughout the Middle East. In much the same vein, vast sums of money flowed from Saudi Arabia to al Qaeda and ISIS in the form of private donations.
In light of American energy independence, Saudi linkages to international terrorism, alignment of U.S. and Iranian counterterrorism objectives and a pro-American population in Iran, a fundamental re-evaluation of American equities and alliances in the Middle East is long overdue.
Allying with Saudi Arabia has not helped America stop or avoid terrorism. Saudi fingerprints are on a staggering number of terrorist attacks the world over. Chief among them: The fateful events of September 11, 2001.
Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals. Two hailed from the United Arab Emirates, a close Saudi ally. A Saudi – Osama bin Laden – inspired the plot.
To this day, mid-level Saudi officials’ extensive assistance to the 9/11 hijackers has not been thoroughly investigated. This suggests a stunning plausibility: Saudi complicity in the deadliest terrorist attacks on U.S. soil.
Perhaps most consequentially, Saudi religious authorities have invested staggering sums – to the tune of $100 billion – exporting a conservative, ultra-literalist form of Islam around the globe. The intolerance and hate propagated in Saudi-built religious schools and mosques have inspired countless terrorist attacks the world over.
In sharp contrast to Saudi stonewalling and propagandizing, diplomats from Iran worked side-by-side with their American counterparts to topple the Taliban in post-9/11 Afghanistan. Moreover, Shiite-majority Iran has not killed a single American on U.S. soil. This stands in stark contrast to a staggeringly long list of deadly attacks by Sunni jihadists.
Against these realities, U.S. counterterrorism goals undoubtedly align more closely with those of Iran.
Like ISIS, al Qaeda and Iran are ideological enemies. A U.S. government-sponsored assessment determined that Iran’s relationship with al Qaeda “is not one of alliance, but of indirect and unpleasant negotiations over the release of detained jihadists.” Indeed, Osama bin Laden ordered the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat to coerce Iran into releasing al Qaeda operatives held by the Islamic Republic.
In Syria, Iran went to enormous lengths to prop up a repressive regime, one of Tehran’s few state allies. Yet the collapse of the Syrian government – a Saudi objective – would have catalyzed a surge of jihadist fighters to the region, overshadowing the rise of ISIS and resulting in staggering refugee flows.
Despite the clear alignment of U.S. and Iranian counterterrorism objectives, four decades of hostility and distrust cloud relations between the two nations.
This deep animosity is rooted in the Iranian revolution. While many Americans are familiar with the Iran hostage crisis, most are unaware that the U.S. government planted the seeds of the revolution and the subsequent crisis.
Years before the fateful events of 1979, the CIA rallied Iran’s long-repressed religious conservatives, providing them with funding and ideological encouragement to overthrow a democratically-elected Iranian government.
Several years later, when a broad cross-section of Iranian citizens rose up against a repressive U.S-installed monarch, religious hardliners – closely linked to those previously mobilized by the CIA – hijacked the uprising and seized control of Iran. “Death to America” chants began in Tehran shortly thereafter.
Historical nuances aside, Iran’s “malign influence” in the Middle East is a product of its circumstances. Iranian decisionmaking is guided by a litany of harsh strategic realities, including: A weak conventional military; a dearth of state allies; decades of foreign interference; and vivid memories of a devastating invasion, which saw the United States backing Saddam Hussein while he gassed Iranian villages. As a bonus, Iran is surrounded by extremely well-armed, fiercely hostile powers.
Indeed, ever-wary of history and surrounded by hundreds of thousands of foreign troops in the wake of President Bush’s disastrous occupation of Iraq, Tehran facilitated deadly attacks against U.S. forces to forestall what it saw as a plausible American invasion.
Importantly, Iran-directed attacks against U.S. interests in the Middle East ended immediately after U.S. troops departed Iraq. They only restarted seven years later, when the Trump administration imposed crippling economic sanctions on Iran; highlighting both the success of the Obama administration’s approach to Iran as well as the Islamic Republic’s (generally) calculated use of armed proxy groups.
Beyond strategic considerations, Iran’s human rights record is abysmal. But it is no worse than Saudi Arabia’s, especially in Yemen, where a Saudi-led offensive has resulted in the worst humanitarian crisis in generations.
And unlike Saudi subjects, Iranians enjoy a semblance of democracy. Recent elections have seen the rise of a genuinely moderate government that has openly supported Iran’s demonstrators. Moreover, the current Iranian government enacted economic and social reforms that sapped the most corrupt, anti-American hardliners of power and influence.
As Ronald Reagan learned, diplomatic engagement with an “evil empire’s” moderate elements undermines conservative hardliners and fosters liberalizing reforms. With the most anti-American voices in Iran significantly weakened in the wake of a tragic accident, a Reaganesque embrace of Iran’s moderates can catalyze profoundly transformational changes in the Islamic Republic.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.