AS history would have it, but for the cultivated friendship with the Shah of Iran, the United States of America (USA) might have only been a cop in the neighbourhood protecting Israel in the larger Shia-Sunni slash Persian-Arab conflict of the Middle East. The Iranian revolution survived the Shah long enough to deliver a permanent enemy for USA in the region.
This is not just how I see it. Last 24-hrs have shown that perhaps the most important reason why Donald Trump pulled back from the brink was that almost all his friends in the region saw it as America’s war. Not theirs to get into. Effectively, the American President had no one speaking the same language as him. Circa 2001, one televised address by George W Bush with the message “either you are with us or against us” was enough to rally the world behind the United States of America (USA). Not anymore.
Politico, a Washington based digital publication, quoted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling his aides that “this (killing of General Soleimani) was an American event. Not an Israeli event,” even as he publicly congratulated Trump. I am yet to see any follow up statement from Israel showing intent to back the support militarily. Unless of course Israel gets directly hit. In which case it might actually be World War-III. But that’s for later.
Even more surprising, given the equations, was the way the Arab friends of America responded. Saudi Arabia underscored the importance of self-restraint and called for the world community to take necessary measures to maintain stability and calm. Reading belligerence in the statement would be like searching for grass in the desert sands of Arabia. I was in the studio when the sound bite of a UAE minister broke. “We are closely following the developments in the region and would want the current tensions to deescalate. We would also stress the importance of dialogue and political solutions in the current situation.” Are you kidding me? UAE did not even name Iran after 22 missiles targeted American interests in Iraq!
As if this was not bad enough, the French took almost 24-hrs to come out with a first response, again asking for restraint from both sides. While condemning the missile strikes, Germans were candid enough to ask both sides to move on. China even asked them to start a dialogue. The elephant in the room during all this was the man with the permanent swag – the Russian President. Vladimir Putin flew down to Damascus just a day after American action, choosing to be seen publicly with the Syrian regime amid the tension. And as if this was not enough, he followed it up by asking for restraint on the grounds that the region was a possible nuclear flashpoint. Really? If Iranians are yet far from a credible nuke, who would start it? Conventional superiority of America and its allies in the region is enough to make sure they don’t need to be the first to press the button. Clearly, Putin was poking a finger in the eye.
However, what might have come as an eye-opener to Trump was the resolution passed by the Iraqi parliament asking for the American forces to leave. If implemented, it could seriously jeopardise long term American interests in the region, beginning with immediate consequences for America’s capacity to restrain the Syrian regime. Add to it the domestic front with Speaker Nancy Pelosi threatening a ‘War Powers Resolution’ that would have greatly compromised his capacity to mobilize a big war effort, Trump clearly stood isolated. In his address to the nation Thursday, he alluded to the Obama deal as the reason why Iran could muster such missile capability as to hit American targets, bragged that he did not need the oil as America was already world’s biggest producer, and chastised Iraqi clients for being ungrateful after all the billions of dollars spent on the facilities to protect them from Iran. Howsoever grudgingly, he had no option but to pull back.
To be fair to the Americans, there were enough provocations in last six months from the Iranians from the downing of their drone, to hitting Aramco facility in Saudi Arabia, to the killing of the contractor on December 27, and the last trigger - the storming of the Embassy in Baghdad, with a throwback to the scary memories of 1979. Whether the American response in the killing of Soleimani was proportionate would be the stuff of global diplomacy over the next few months. What is important is that a welcome de-escalation has happened, and world leaders need to build on it.