To Mike Pompeo’s and John Bolton’s great regret, the conspiracy to push the U.S. into yet another war in the Middle East—likely more catastrophic in cost and consequences than all previous ones taken together—has been averted, for now at least.
For several months until the end of May, tensions between the United Stated and Iran appeared to be careening toward armed conflict. Contrary to candidate Trump’s 2016 assurances, America seemed to be on the verge of another war of choice in the Middle East.
The current crisis started just over a year ago, when the Trump administration discarded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), an agreement to degrade Iran’s nuclear program, signed in 2015. The other signatories—China, France, Germany, Russia and Britain—all agreed that there was no cause for such move, but the Administration was relentless. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo presented twelve American demands which Iran would need to accept in order to avoid “the hardest sanctions in history” and the implied threat of war. It was a remarkable list, echoing the Austro-Hungarian ultimatum to Serbia in July 1914 which was carefully crafted to be rejected. As I pointed out in Chronicles (July 2018), Pompeo’s demands, delivered in the form of an edict, were impossible for a sovereign government to accept.
Ever harsher economic sanctions have followed, culminating in the unilateral U.S. embargo on Iran’s oil sales. By mid-May of this year the crisis reached the point where U.S. national security adviser John Bolton, speaking in Abu Dhabi, effectively declared that Iran was a legitimate target for military intervention. He blamed Iran for the attack on four oil tankers at a port in United Arab Emirates on May 13, without offering evidence for the claim. He added that the additional 1,500 US troops sent to the Middle East region will “act as a deterrent” against “Iranian threats.” Two weeks earlier the Trump administration had also sent a carrier group and bomber task force to the Persian Gulf.
By that time, however, the drama was over, even though most Americans still do not realize that the curtain on the putative Operation Iranian Freedom is down. The hero of the piece, equally unbeknown to most Americans, was Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. He met President Trump at the White House on April 9, to tell him that Egypt would quit the nascent Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), known as the Arab NATO.
The “Alliance” was a joint American-Saudi initiative to create an “Arab NATO” to counter Iran. Sine Egypt, still the true leader of the Arab world, the project was already as dead as a dodo over two months ago. Egypt has the largest army in the region and one of the best equipped military forces in the Arab world. It is assuredly the only Arab country with any hope of coping with Iran on the battlefield.
By contrast, Saudi Arabia—the Great White Hope of the Trump administration in the Middle East—has failed miserably as a would-be leader. Its war in Yemen has been a moral and humanitarian disaster, as well as a military debacle, for over four years now. The Kingdom spends some $70 billion a year on defense—ten percent of its enormous, oil-fed GDP—which makes the KSA the third-largest military spender in the world. Its armed forces are operationally useless, however. Its pilots’ ability to fly (let alone use effectively) their ultra-expensive machines is abysmal, as confirmed in Yemen.
On the political front, Saudi attempts to isolate Qatar have been an utter failure. Over the years Riyadh’s methods of persuasion have included keeping Lebanon’s prime minister as a prisoner in his hotel room, murdering Khashoggi last fall, keeping Bahrain’s Sunni-minority government in power by providing troops, and purchasing the allegiance of Egypt and Sudan—temporary as it turned out—with hard cash.
Editorial and commentaries in the Egyptian press provide a reliable insight into Sisi’s reasons for leaving MESA, as they would not have been published without government approval. The most important by far is the fact that Egypt does not see Iran as a major (let alone primary) threat to its interests. It sees Ethiopia and Sudan, which control the upper parts of the Nile, as its prime national security concerns, as both countries pursue bold projects to build large hydroelectric dams on their parts of the river. Naturally enough, in view of its dependence on the Nile’s seasonal flooding, Egypt regards anything to do with the Nile as of vital national interest:
Cairo has repeatedly made clear that any such construction done without its approval would be a casus belli. Egypt needs to ensure its army can project sufficient deterrence to prevent its having to fight a war to prevent either country from embarking on a unilateral dam construction on the Nile. Incurring major losses in an unplanned and unnecessary war with Iran does not serve this purpose.
Worse still, the final decision for war would be made in Washington—with Sisi having little or no influence on the course of events—while Egypt likely would bear the brunt of actual fighting. To a geopolitically-minded observer it is clear that t the ultimate beneficiaries would be Saudi Arabia and Israel, regardless of outcome and cost.
On the political front, official Cairo has no confidence in the reliability, or even mental stability, of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman (MbS), Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler. It is also uneasy about the possibility that in case of Trump’s defeat next year a new Democratic administration could be far less bellicose towards Iran than the current one. This would leave Egypt dangerously and unnecessarily exposed. Overall, Sisi and his advisors have concluded that risks of remaining in MESA outweigh any likely benefits.
Last and least, Egypt needs Qatar’s help to keep Gaza under control. It is ruled by Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt which has been resolutely suppressed by Sisi. Qatar has been financing Hamas for years, and its ruler, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad at-Thani, plays a key role in keeping Gaza’s radicals in check. That is the precondition for Egypt’s ability to confront, and eventually defeat, Islamist insurgents in northern Sinai. If they were to be helped by Hamas from Gaza, the task would be well-nigh impossible. As it happens, al-Thani also opposes Saudi aggressive posture toward Iran, maintains regular diplomatic and trade relations with the Islamic Republic, and may have suggested to Sisi that MESA is a bad idea.
MESA now has zero viability, unless U.S. forces get directly involved. Mercifully it is now likely they will not be sent to another senseless desert carnage. Without Egypt, the Arab world’s cultural epicenter, its most populous and militarily most powerful state, there can be no war against Iran. Not even John Bolton can convince Trump to take the plunge without reliable allies, without a clearly defined strategy which would link political goals and military means, and without a viable end-game scenario.
President Trump, to his credit, understands that the risk is not worth taking. He now wants to establish communication with Tehran, which in itself is anathema to neoconservative hawks. In a significant recent development, on June 11 Trump and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe discussed the situation in Iran “and other issues” in a 20-minute telephone talk. According to The Japan News, the two leaders are believed to have coordinated their policies toward Iran ahead of Abe’s visit to the Middle East nation which starts June 12: “Trump may have voiced his hope for Abe to mediate between Washington and Tehran to help ease their tensions, according to informed sources.”
In the U.S. media machine, “informed sources” are most often a cover for fake news, especially if it concerns Trump. This phrase has a different meaning when it appears in Japan’s largest and oldest English-language daily newspaper, however. It means that the news is true, but the government does not want to confirm it officially.
Furthermore, at a press conference last Tuesday morning, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said that during his visit Abe “will call on leaders of the regional superpower to work on easing heightened tensions in the Middle East.” This handsome compliment to Iran’s importance was carefully crafted. Ever since 1945 Tokyo has not been prone to rhetorical excess in diplomatic affairs, and Japan’s government would not have risked involvement had it suspected the U.S. of using mediation simply as a ploy en route to war.
All this is very good news. The claim that Iran’s behavior in the Middle East is uniquely malignant is preposterous now, and always has been. The United States has been the most destabilizing force in the region for decades, arguably since the CIA-arranged coup which removed Iran’s prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. It has supported some of the most ghastly Sunni terrorist groups, most notably in Syria. America’s Saudi “allies” had groomed the Islamic State from its early days, with Washington’s tacit approval.
A war with Iran would not serve any rationally defined American interest. Starting it would be strategically idiotic and evil. That on the plus side it would accelerate and perhaps mark the final twilight of the global American empire is not a comforting enough thought. The price would be too high, the long-term effects too horrid.