Feb 7, 2024

Deal With Iran Politically and Diplomatically, Not Militarily

Photograph Source: United States Department of State – Public Domain

There is a consensus on the right and the left that the only way to deal with Iran is with military force.  The conservative Chicken Hawks in the Senate and the House of Representatives believe targeting Iran—and not merely Iranian proxies—is essential.  Senator Lindsay Graham (R/SC) wants to “hit them hard.” The conservative newsmagazine, The Economist, believes that the United States could form a political alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf States to isolate Iran.  

Authoritative pundits such as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, and David Ignatius of the Washington Post favor deterring Iran militarily as well as a “robust” military retaliation against Iran’s proxies.  Both fully support the U.S. military attacks now taking place in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.  Ignatius even credits the Biden administration’s recent sanctioning of four violent Israeli settlers on the West Bank as a “strong step” that will enhance U.S. credibility as a peace broker for a Palestinian state.  This so-called “strong step” has been ridiculed throughout the Arab world. 

The U.S. attack on Iran’s military and affiliated militias in Iraq and Syria as well as the attacks against the Houthis in Yemen raise serious questions.  We are told that U.S. forces are in Iraq and Syria to combat the forces of ISIS, which happen to be a leading enemy of Iran. Last month, the U.S. even warned Tehran about an ISIS attack in Iran that killed nearly 100 Iranians.  This fact suggests that the United States and Iran have something in common in the region, at least regarding the ISIS threat, and that they should be engaged in bilateral or back-channel discussions.  U.S. non-recognition of Iran continues to be an obstacle to talks and should be reconsidered. 

We must also reconsider our troop deployments in the Middle East that are vulnerable to attacks by Iranian-backed militia groups.  At the very least, we should remove our small force deployments from both Iraq and Syria.  The United States cannot deter attacks on these facilities, and our troops there are primarily occupied with force protection. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken was ill-advised to ignore his diplomatic hat in order to doff a military cap, promising U.S. military attacks that would be “multileveled, come in stages, and be sustained over time.”  This language should not be coming from the nation’s leading diplomat; this is Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s bailiwick.  The Department of State should be grappling with the diplomatic possibilities that exist in the region.  The first priority should be a cease fire, particularly in view of the fact that Israeli Defense Forces have killed more than 11,500 children in Gaza.  Not even the warnings from the International Court of Justice have altered the IDF’s brutal tactics.

While the United States maintains the vilification of Iran that reached new levels in the Trump administration, the Gulf states have been pursuing rapprochement with Iran that has the United States on the outside looking in.  In addition to China’s brokering of the Saudi-Iranian accord in 2023 that led to restoration of diplomatic relations, there have been a series of actions by Gulf states to improve relations with Iran.  In 2022, Abu Dhabi restored ties with Iran.   If these erstwhile adversaries of Iran can begin a dialogue, then perhaps the United States should be able to do so as well.

Continued Israeli bombardment in Gaza and U.S. attacks in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen threaten the signs of political stability that have taken place in the region over the past several years.  Beginning in 2020, which happened to be the year of the Abraham Accords between Israel and the Gulf states of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, there have been signs of greater political accord in the region.  In 2021, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain ended their economic blockade of Qatar.  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad returned to the Arab League.  Saudi Arabia and the UAE reconciled with Turkey, ending the freeze that began in 2018 when the Saudis conducted the brutal killing of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.  Despite the brutal Israeli campaign in Gaza in the wake of the horrific October 7th events, the Gulf states, somewhat surprisingly, have not weakened relations with Israel.

The Gaza War and the current U.S. military attacks, however, will create greater political instability in the region.  The United States will come under increased criticism for supplying military weaponry to Israel; providing diplomatic cover for Israel at the United Nations; and showing insufficient regard for the fate of 2.2 million Gazans.  The Arab states in the region do not favor the U.S. escalation of force in the region, and certainly do not want a wider war with Iran. 

The mainstream media seem particularly oblivious to the strategic trap that the United States has created for itself in the Middle East with its support for Israeli militarism.  Thomas Friedman of the New York Times believes the Biden administration is on the verge of proclaiming a Biden Doctrine for the region that would find a “strategic realignment” that would “coalesce around the U.S. stance on Iran, a Palestinian state, and Saudi Arabia.”  Secretary of State Blinken’s five unsuccessful trips to the Middle East suggest that there is no Biden doctrine and that Arabs aren’t even listening to the signals that we are sending.

Friedman argues that Palestinian statehood should be “consistent with Israeli security,” which would not meet the demands of the Saudis and all other Arabs.  In any event, the Israeli government is opposed to a two-state solution under any circumstances.  Friedman also believes that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar could be persuaded to leave Gaza for Qatar, just as Yasir Arafat left Lebanon in 1982 to go to Tunisia.  Very wishful thinking.

Continued Israeli and U.S. use of force will create greater instability in the entire region; contribute to the diplomatic and political influence of Russia and China; and create a wider zone of conflict and crisis.  We fail to understand that the disastrous and deceitful invasion of Iraq two decades ago by the Bush administration opened the door to Iran’s influence in Iraq and led to weaker states in the region that also invited support from Iran.  

The modest U.S. deployments in Iraq (2,500) and Syria (900) are too small to challenge or deter Iran, but large enough to serve as sitting ducks for attacks by Iranian proxies.  These deployments must be ended before more Americans are killed, which would lead to more U.S. bombardment.  The United States already has more than sufficient military power in the region at the huge U.S. bases in Bahrain and Qatar that should be able to handle any local military challenge.  The fact that the United States flew strategic bombers on a 12,000-mile round trip from bases in Texas to target Yemen, one of the world’s basket cases, seemed particularly incongruent unless we were trying to frighten Iran.

Instead of trying to build an Arab alliance against Iran, the United States should be looking for ways to engage Iran both politically and diplomatically.  The Iranian nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Action, provided a diplomatic opening  that led to conciliatory gestures on Iran’s side.  The cease fire that allowed the exchange of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners also witnessed a cease fire from Iran’s proxies in the region.  It is long past time to reduce the U.S. military presence in the region, which the Obama administration promised in 2011, and to play the diplomatic card.

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