Nadim Koteich

Washington and the Middle East: Naivety or Conspiracy?

The maritime border demarcation agreement between Lebanon and Israel, which was brokered by the US and approved by Hezbollah and was followed by Nouri al-Maliki (Iran’s man in Iraq) managing to bring his prime ministerial candidate to office after having benefited from Muqtada al-Sadr’s “exit” from political life and concluded a deal with Masoud Barazani and the Sunni Arab group (-Khanjar -Halbousi), triggered an avalanche of nightmarish analyses that see these two developments as glimpses of a deal between the US and Iran that entails Iraq and Lebanon being handed over to Iran along the lines in which Afghanistan had been handed over to the Taliban.

Reflection on Iran’s behavior leads us to conclude that Tehran, in light of the growing recognition in the West that the nuclear deal is on its deathbed, is preparing for a new era of confrontation with Washington. These clashes will be fought by proxy in the Middle East (and beyond), and the aim is to dismantle the strategic architecture beneficial to Washington in the wide circle around Iran.

In Iraq, Iran appears to have regained the initiative after over two and a half years of setbacks that have undermined its influence in Iraq- beginning with the assassination of the commander of the Quds Force in the Iranian “Revolutionary Guard” Qassem Soleimani in early 2020 and culminating with the formation of an Iraqi government headed by Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, which was born out of the mass protests against Iranian influence in Iraq.

Iran worked along two lines to break down the status quo that had been emerging and rebuild the dynamics of its influence. After all its attempts at co-opting Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr failed, Iran decided to end him. It did so by having Ayatollah Kazem Al-Haeri retire from his role as a spiritual leader) and ask his followers (virtually all Sadrists follow him) to follow Ali Khamenei instead, which drove Muqtada to retire from politics after bloody and chaotic scenes in Baghdad. In parallel, the IRGC was launching ballistic missiles and sporadic raids on Kurdistan in order to break the Kurds’ resistance and the alliance between Masoud Barazani and Muqtada al-Sadr. Indeed, they went as far as placing IRGC on the Iranian border with Iraqi Kurdistan under the pretext that Erbil was supporting the Kurdish nucleus of the popular movement that has been ongoing in Iran for over a month.

The result: Iran imposed the appointment of a figure aligned with it as Iraqi prime minister, affirmed that Muqtada al-Sadr had been broken, and began the journey of restoring its hegemony over Baghdad until further notice.

In Yemen, escalation intensified as the Houthis, operating under Iranian orders, went from undermining attempts at renewing the truce to attacking the port of Al-Dabbah and Al-Nashima in Hadhramaut and Shabwa and threatening Saudi and Emirati oil facilities, suggesting that the Yemen conflict, in its regional dimensions, could be reignited. Disregarding the political agreements and reference points for a solution in Yemen, the Houthis are insisting that the legitimate government pay the salaries of all “state employees” without exception (including the civil, military, and security forces with de facto control) and that the Port of Hodeida and Sanaa Airport be allowed to operate legally.

Their obstinance reflects nothing more than Iran’s determination to maintain the gains of the Houthi coup and exacerbate the political tensions around Yemen in order to exploit them during the upcoming period of escalation. Noticeably, the Houthis’ threats coincide with equivalents issued by Iran, especially against Saudi Arabia. These threats come after Iran made ridiculous accusations that Riyadh is behind the mass protests that have broken out in response to Mahsa Amini’s murder by the so-called morality police.

In this same context of getting its affairs in order in preparation for the upcoming period of escalation, Iran brokered a reconciliation between Hamas and the Assad regime at a critical time for the future of the leadership of the Palestinian Liberation Organization and Palestinian Authority as serious talks regarding the post-Mahmoud Abbas era have begun.

It forced Hamas, or at least one of its wings, to present a humiliating and degrading scene in Damascus as a Hamas official called its stance in support of the Syrian people’s revolution a “rogue step that had not been approved by the leadership!” This would not have been possible if Iran had not mastered the art of playing on the contradictions of the Palestinian scene. It increased its support for Islamic Jihad, especially through the latest battle in Gaza, which Islamic Jihad had imposed and Hamas stayed out of. Hamas also realized, inevitably, that Iran is helping Islamic Jihad expand toward the West Bank by backing it with supplies and tools that establish a link between Islamic Jihad and armed groups of youths. The most prominent of these groups is Lion’s Den, which operates in Nablus; though the majority of its members come from families associated with Fatah, it is financially and tactically linked to Islamic Jihad.

Through this blend of ties and others, Iran is preparing to take back the reins in Palestine and restore its influence there at a time when the Iranian project has been suffering massive setbacks both at home and abroad.

In the Ukrainian war, Iran found an avenue for renewing the reputation of its project as one set against global imperialism and American insolence, getting involved in the war by supplying the Russian army with drones that have so far been used to strike civilian facilities. National Security Council Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby affirmed that “Iranian military personnel were on the ground in Crimea and assisted Russia in these operations” and that “Russian military personnel that are based in Crimea have been piloting Iranian UAVs using them to conduct strikes across Ukraine, including strikes against Kyiv.”

In addition to its benefits on morale, Iran’s support for Russia in its war on Ukraine has worried several players in the Middle East, especially Israel, which depends on agreements with Russia that requires close cooperation to launch its strikes on Iranian forces and Iranian militias in Syria.

In this context, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid recently expressed his “deep concern” regarding the military ties between Russia and Iran during a call with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, stressing that “Israel stands with the Ukrainian people.”

The capitals of the Gulf share Israel’s apprehension regarding the invigoration of ties between Iran and Russia and the new regional balances it could imply. Indeed, the military, security, and political ramifications would affect every explosive issue in the region.

More dangerous than the nightmare of a deal between the US and Iran is the fact that the US lacks a strategic vision for how to manage the conflicts raging in the region and an accurate understanding of the security balance in the Middle East- not just for the interests of the players concerned but those of the US first and foremost. Iran is preparing for a new round of clashes with Washington and to undermine its influence in the Middle East as Washington clashes with its natural allies.

In most cases, stupidity is more dangerous than conspiracy!