The point of burning alive Jordanian pilot First Lt. Muath al-Kasasbeh was to outrage onlookers, including his family—but especially the members of his large tribe, the Bararsheh, in southern Jordan. The Jordanian tribes form the core of support for the Hashemite kingdom against the Palestinian West Bankers, who may constitute the country’s majority. The East Bankers are also the bulwarks of Jordan’s internal and external security, with both the armed forces and security services made up almost exclusively of tribal members.
To be sure, Kasasbeh’s clansmen are going to be very angry with the Islamic State for killing him in such a gruesome manner. What IS seems to betting on is that Kasasbeh’s death was so gruesome, and so evocative of the hellfire that awaits false believers, that the dead pilot’s tribe, a pillar of the Hashemite monarchy, is likely going to be shocked into wondering whether King Abdullah has pulled them into the wrong war, on behalf of a frivolous and potentially treacherous ally—the United States.
Right now, the Obama Administration sees the Islamic State as a major threat to U.S. national security—and to the political fortunes of President Barack Obama and the rest of the Democratic Party. An episode like the Charlie Hebdo/Hyper Cacher attack played out on the streets of Chicago, say, or New York, would be a catastrophe for the administration, which is why it has enlisted allies like Jordan in its campaign against the deranged jihadists of the fertile crescent.
However, it’s worth understanding how the Hashemites and their loyal tribal subjects understand the new threat. From their perspective, the Islamic State is only one part of a larger regional movement, a Sunni rebellion trying to beat back the Iranian security apparatus that now represses them mercilessly throughout the Levant while controlling four historic Arab capitals—Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana’a. The wider Sunni rebellion against Persian domination comprises not only lunatic foreign fighters (Chechens, Saudis, Swedes, etc.) but also former elements of Saddam Hussein’s regime as well as—and this is the central fact of the Sunni rebellion—Sunni Arab tribes. In other words, Jordan’s Arab tribes have been enlisted to fight Arab tribes who are fighting against Iran and its allies—who are coordinating their anti-Sunni campaign with the United States.
Jordan’s tribes are hardly alone at this moment in their torment and confusion. The United States has alienated its former Sunni tribal allies in Anbar province and throughout Iraq by conducting air strikes on behalf of sectarian Shiite militias loyal to Iran, which murder Sunni tribesmen with seeming impunity whether they are associated with IS or not. Saudi Arabia is aghast at U.S. support for Iran’s role in Yemen, where the Shia Houtha tribesmen backed by Iran now control the country. Israel nearly got into a shooting war last week because of Hezbollah’s ongoing attempt to implant itself on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, where the Iranian-backed sectarian Lebanese Shia militia operates under cover of U.S. airstrikes and implicit political backing that support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, an Iranian client. While Egypt fights a war against IS and al-Qaida-backed tribes in Sinai, the White House shuns the country’s leader Gen. al-Sisi in favor of meeting in Washington with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood, who have sworn to overthrow his regime.
That’s a lot of turmoil for America to be stirring up for its erstwhile allies, at a moment where our larger national goal is supposedly a clean exit from the region. So, why is the White House turning the Middle East upside down? Obama is willing to throw away a U.S. framework built by American statesmen, soldiers, businessmen, and educators over the last century because he sees a really big prize out there for the taking—an agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program that will be the linchpin of a new Middle Eastern order, in which Iran will play a major stabilizing role.
The Dream: An agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program will be the linchpin of a new Middle Eastern order, in which Iran will play a major stabilizing role.
The Iran deal that Obama has in mind is going to be so awesomely epic and world-changing that it will easily be worth all the chaos the region is now undergoing—from broken alliances and promises, to the high and rising death toll, massive population transfers, the destruction of ancient cities, and the trauma of an entire generation for whom beheadings and human barbeques have become a normal part of life. The United States is on its way out of the Middle East, which is why we need a reliable regional partner like Iran, with the muscle to make its dictates stick. Yes, the dominant partner in that arrangement will obviously be Iran—especially once the Iranians are free of the sanctions that have crippled their oil industry, and can control the oil resources of their client state in Iraq, as well as provide security in the once-and-future Persian Gulf. But Obama would always have the photographs of his triumphant visit to Tehran to remember his role in crafting a new world order from the tribal mayhem of a region in which Americans once fought and died.
But, wait a minute. It seems like it was just yesterday that the government of the United States, its armed forces and clandestine service, had an entirely different set of goals in mind—namely, defending American troops and our allies in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf, and Israel from the Islamic Republic of Iran. Indeed, of late the American intelligence community has been reminding us of our recent past through leaks to the Washington Post and Newsweek saying that not all that long ago, in 2008, the agency teamed with the Mossad to kill Hezbollah’s head of operations, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus. The point seems to be that, if the U.S. intelligence community now shares intelligence with Hezbollah and leaks the details of Israeli strikes on Hezbollah convoys, we were once proud to collaborate with our Israeli allies to kill Hezbollah terrorists.
Why does the U.S. intelligence community care about this ancient history? Mughniyeh didn’t just plot the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, among other spectacular terrorist attacks targeting Americans, he also directed the campaign against U.S.-led coalition troops in Iraq waged by Iranian-backed Shiite militias.
Today, however, Shiite militias like Asaib Ahl al-Haq, Kataib Hezbollah, and Badr Corps get indirect air support from U.S. warplanes. Before the White House launched its campaign against ISIS in Syria, it told Iran it wasn’t going to attack its ally Bashar al-Assad there—even though Obama called for the Syrian dictator to step down in August 2011. By going after ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra, and other Syrian rebel units, the White House freed up Assad to use his forces elsewhere.
As former George W. Bush White House aide Michael Doran meticulously lays out in his recently published tour-de-force “Obama’s Secret Iran Strategy,” the U.S.-Iran partnership that is reshaping the Middle East has been in the making since Obama first came to office. The most salient point then about the current P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran isn’t the nuclear issue, but the fact that they create a channel to allow both sides to keep talking—which means that all sorts of subjects are going to come up, from Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon to Yemen and maybe even other thorny issues, like Argentina and the Nisman investigation into Iran’s alleged role in the bombing of the Israeli embassy in 1992 and Jewish Community Center in 1994. U.S. response to everything in the region is now tied to the fate of the Iranian nuclear program, which in turn is simply the linchpin of Obama’s larger vision of a partnership between Washington and Tehran.
Obama may dream of a U.S.-Iran partnership and going skiing in the mountains above Tehran. But what does Obama’s grand vision look like these days from the Iranian side? From Iran’s perspective, then, it controls not only four Arab capitals, but it also holds Washington captive. If Obama pushes back, the Iranians walk away from the table, confounding the U.S. president’s dreams of achieving a historic reconciliation—and maybe worse, leaving him vulnerable to Republican majorities in the House and Senate ready to pounce on an epochal diplomatic failure.
But why does Obama’s vision have to fail? First of all, it’s not clear how Iran can accept any permanent agreement with the White House about the nuclear program, or anything else, for that matter. From Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps’ perspective, a deal might empower President Hassan Rouhani at their expense. From Rouhani’s perspective, a deal might make him, a so-called moderate, superfluous as someone who’s already played his role. Most important, there is the point of view of Khamenei, which partakes of the historic rationale of the Islamic Republic. Its founder Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini promised one thing—not to raise the standard of living or educate women, nor even to hasten the return of the Mahdi, but rather that the life of a genuine Muslim rested on the pillar of resistance against the godless, the arrogant West, especially America. Signing an accord with the Great Satan would undermine the fundamental legitimacy of the regime.
Obama wants a deal with Iran so much in large part because he doesn’t think the United States should be the world’s policeman—and he’s right. Our oil and natural gas industry won’t make us energy independent but it makes us less dependent and we simply don’t need that high a profile in a part of the world that has seldom returned our love. So, why keep shedding blood and spending money—as well as domestic political capital—in the Middle East?
The answer is not that we need to look out for the world’s interests, but that we need to continue protecting our own. A nuclear weapon in the hands of an expansionist regime doesn’t get the United States out of the Middle East. It puts Iran on our doorstep, by turning the clerical regime into an aggressive global nuclear-armed power. There can’t be much question by now about what Iran has in mind for the Middle East, or for other countries that it enlists in its schemes, like Argentina. What Iran wants makes the world a more dangerous place for Americans. The question is not whether there’s a deal to be had with Iran, but if it’s too late to crash the comprehensive agreement the White House has already struck with our new regional partner—whose sickening consequences are plain to see.
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Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).