A well-orchestrated alliance emerged against Iran during last week’s Munich Security Conference. The stage was set by Mike Pence after he called Tehran “the leading state sponsor terrorism,” and accused the Islamic Republic of continuing to “destabilize the Middle East.” Further, to reiterate Trump administration’s dissatisfaction with Obama’s policy toward Iran, he speculated that with “the end of nuclear-related sanctions, Iran now has additional resources to devote to these efforts.”
One after another, representatives of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and, surprisingly, Turkey added their warnings about the rise of the Iranian menace and called for a united front to combat Iranian regional and global ambitions. The Saudi Foreign Minister, Adel al-Jubeir told delegates at the conference “Iran remains the single main sponsor of terrorism in the world.” Iran is, he said, “determined to upend the order in the Middle East.” In an act more reminiscent of a scene from a theater of the absurd, the Israeli Defense Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, declared “Iran had an ultimate objective of undermining Saudi Arabia in the Middle East.” He called for a multilateral dialogue with Sunni Arab states to defeat Iran and its “radical” elements in the region. This was not the first time that the Saudi and Israeli positions on the Middle East security coincided, but the similarities in the way Lieberman and al-Jubeir articulated their grievances against Iran, using the exact same language in listing Iranian transgressions was unprecedented.
Rather bewildering was the Turkish foreign minister, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, who added his voice of discontent with Iran and joined in the same vein to call for a concerted international effort against what he termed “an Iranian sectarian policy to undermine Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.” He told a friendly audience in Munich that Turkey will not tolerate divisive religious or sectarian policies and, he continued, “we are now normalizing our relations with Israel.” Çavuşoğlu’s address was particularly baffling since it came following a complex series of negotiations and agreement that was reached earlier this month between Russia, Turkey and Iran for a cooperation to end Syrian bloody civil war.
Trump administration and a significant number of lawmakers, Republican and Democrats, will almost certainly use the display of unity among regional powers against the Islamic Republic to justify new sanctions on Iran. But why, despite the clear evidence to the contrary, are the U.S. and its allies in the region hold Iran solely responsible for destabilizing the Middle East? There are two, one geo-political and the other pure economic, reasons for such a flagrant distortion of realities on the ground.
From the early days of the Iranian revolution in 1979, the main strategic interest of the U.S. and its corrupt Arab allies have been to fend off the Iranian ambition of exporting its revolution. At the time, it was the stated purpose of the Islamic Republic to spread the message of what they believed to be the Islam of the downtrodden abroad. Almost four decades later, surviving an eight-year war with Saddam Hussein, which he fought on behalf of the concerned Arab nations (with the exception of Syria) and their Western supporters, consolidating power by eliminating most opposition forces inside the country, and managing a beleaguered economy plagued with ongoing regimes of sanctions, the Islamic Republic has been transformed. At the end of the war with Iraq, it became evident that the mantra that the regime in Tehran now followed, as Henry Precht, the former head of the State Department’s Iran desk, once said, was not dominion abroad, but economic and political independence at home. Rather than an irrational ideological fervor, the Islamic Republic’s policies are primarily motivated by domestic stability, security, and economic growth. Iran has always been more sympathetic to the Christian Armenia than to Muslim Azerbaijan in their border disputes, more interested in closer ties with India than Pakistan, and in order to protect their trade relations with China, remained silent when the Chinese violently suppressed the grievances of their Muslims.
Domestically, Iran has also changed significantly since the brutal years of the 1980s reign of terror. There exists a vibrant and growing civil society, more than fifteen independent newspapers are published in Tehran, meaningful presidential and parliamentary elections with real participation and rivalries happen, unlike the a commonplace perception, women participate in social life despite patriarchal laws and cultures, more than 60% of university students are women. I do not intend to draws a rosy picture of Iran, the Islamic Republic is not a democratic regime, but in all cases it is certainly more democratic than all our allies in the region.
Oil is not the only rationale that defines our economic interest in the Middle East. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. arms sales in the Middle East has been rising exponentially. As a recent report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute shows, more than half of the total American arms export goes to the Middle East. During the last four years the sales of arms to the Middle East has doubled. Saudi Arabia’s arms import has increased 212 percent from 2012 to 2016. During the same period Qatar’s import of weapons surged 245 percent. Saudi Arabia spends 25 percent of its budget, $85 billion a year, more than that of Russia, on defense. Last year the Obama administration approved a $38 billion military aid package to Israel for the next ten years. One-third of the world’s arms deals happen in the Middle East. All this happens when Iran uses only 2.5 percent of its national budget on defense and relies mostly on domestic production of weapons rather than on a shopping spree in the global arms market.
A military industrial complex has taken American foreign policy hostage. It has colonized American foreign policy through a marketing strategy that perpetuates hostilities and generates animosity between different nations. It has promoted an arms race, particularly in the Middle East, that is draining the resources of nations around the world and is weighing heavily on the shoulders of American taxpayers. Military aid to our allies in the region is nothing but a transfer of wealth from ordinary Americans to defense contractors. None of these sales and aid packages would be justifiable if it were not for the existence of an enemy such as the Islamic Republic of Iran reproduced in Pence’s caricature, an irrational, ideological nemesis that does not respond to conventional deterrence and needs to be forced into submission to our demands.
Washington needs to transcend its old-age reliance on allies in the Middle East whose interests are increasingly becoming detrimental to peace and stability in the region. The problem in the Middle East is not about Sunni and Shi’ite rivalry, it is not even about Israeli and Palestinian existential animosity. What plagues the Middle East is the narrow-mindedness of its ruling elites, both elected and self-appointed, who have failed to represent and safeguard the interests of their own people. Since the end of WWII, Washington’s policy has been exclusively based on securing economic and geo-political interests of American energy and military industrial corporations. Time has come for the U.S. to rethink its alignment with old patriarchal powers and to look beyond its narrow economic interests in the rising arms race in the Middle East. Extending and expanding sanctions against Iran would be an irreversible step toward opening a new war front, one with broader and more catastrophic consequences around the world.
Check out Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi’s new books, Remembering Akbar and Foucault in Iran.