By M.D.

Iran’s coup de grace

October 8, 2019 - 12:44

In a Washington round table in May 2012 I was asked what I thought about Iran’s role in our region. I said, when the U.S. and Iran reach a coexistence arrangement, we will all sleep peacefully. 

Although an indigenous exclusive regional security arrangement must be our aim, the reality is that these arrangements can only be accomplished between nations that have ownership of their sovereign decisions. Unfortunately, on the Arab side, we have mortgaged our sovereign decisions to the U.S. for protection that is increasingly proving elusive and for expensive defensive weapons that have failed the test. Which brings us to the question, when Saudis offer to negotiate a political solution with Iran, what can they bring to the table that would entice Iran? Iran wants all sanctions lifted, return to the JCPOA as is and ultimately departure of foreign forces from the oil rich Persian Gulf. Can the Saudi or any Arab regime offer any of these and make it stick? 

Despite an 8 year destructive war, 4 decades of embargo and political, media and cyberwarfare launched against it, Iran has emerged as the regional superpower whose adversaries have been forced to reckon with.  In that same period, and despite our wealth, vast real estate rich in resources, a population of more than 400 million and hundreds of billions spent on U.S., British and French weapons, we on the Arab side have failed to come anywhere close to Iran’s military superiority or free our sovereign decisions from U.S. hegemony.
While Iran has managed to create alliances within Arabia that go beyond sectarian and ethnic divides, Saudi Arabia, instead of matching Iran, has created sectarian animosity within the Sunni house it claims to lead while continuing to brutally discriminate against its own Shia minority. Except for its oil wealth, Saudi Arabia, in every other endeavor, has failed to set itself as a world player deserving attention. 

There is a reason that efforts to resolve the current crisis in our region are centered on bringing only the Iranian and U.S. presidents together without any mention of Saudis just across the waters. 

Saudi Arabia is not able to fight Iran nor does it have the required sovereign independent decision that enables it to negotiate with Iran and deliver.  Yemen is a case in hand where the coalition it summoned under its leadership has not only failed to achieve any of its stated goals but, despite its vast military resources, is now on the verge of one of the most humiliating defeats in the hands of a comparatively poorly armed military and economically impoverished nation.  

When Saudi Arabia threatened retaliation to what it claims to be Iranian attacks on Aramco, it depended on America to strike Iran. America, under Trump, will not fight Iran. Trump might strike a defenseless country like Syria which cannot strike America back. But not Iran which has demonstrated the ability to deliver regionally devastating retaliatory strikes if attacked. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif warned that Iran’s retaliation will be “all-out war”. This warning is taken seriously by America and its regional allies.  The advice given to Trump by his military commanders following the downing of America’s most expensive and sophisticated spy drone acknowledges this reality. The fact that Iran downed the drone is proof that Iran has the means and the resolve.  

For Trump, the Saudis have outlived their usefulness. The reality is that the U.S., as the party that walked out of the JCPOA, has all the keys needed to diffuse the crisis its action provoked. The direction this crises will take, war or negotiations, will be determined by America and Iran, not Saudi Arabia. 

Therefore, to resolve these crises we need to look to solutions that address the fears of both, the U.S. president and Iranians. For the Iranians, to imagine they can hold out until either Trump is removed by impeachment or election will be as folly as Trump thinking he can sanction Iran to its knees. Iran has survived wars and sanctions for forty years and emerged powerful. Iran is the best evidence of the poison that doesn’t kill you but makes you stronger.

For Iran, Trump will probably prove to be a better deal for them than previous administrations. What Iran needs to bear in mind is that American foreign policy has a shelf life of 4 to 8 years, although the damage can be longer, as in the case of Bush’s Iraq war.

Beyond the 8 years it is the legacy American presidents want to leave behind that determines America’s policies. Therefore, it is what the American president needs and not what America needs that will determine America’s relations with Iran. More so, considering that the U.S. Congress has abdicated oversight of foreign policy to whoever is in the White House, creating serious questions about America’s long-term credibility. Within this timeframe, mindset and credibility issues lie both: the opportunity and the danger through which Iran must navigate. Trump is coming up for re-election. This is a president who campaigned on a “no more stupid war” platform, even claiming he opposed the war in Iraq.

He promised to bring home American troops. He is also obsessed with undoing or outdoing Obama.  His biggest campaign promise is taking back from foreigners, including even America’s allies, what they “shortchanged” America and to keep foreigners out. He needs a success story against foreigners, a “very bad” foreigner at that. He has so far failed to get from North Korea anything beyond a photo op and a few remains of America’s war dead. Moreover, Deal of the Century conference in Bahrain turned out to be a very bad circus forcing his son in law to go into hiding. These two and re-writing the JCPOA were the three foreign policy triumphs he hoped to take to the voters in 2020. Two have failed, so far.

The JCPOA is his only remaining hope. Hence his desperation to meet the Iranian president, even for a photo op.  Iran, portrayed as another “bad guy”, can give Trump the real success he desperately craves. What Iran can take in return, apart from the immediate need to lift sanctions, is the beginning of a friendship that could ultimately lead to that grand prize, helping Trump get re-elected and starting with him a process that will disengage America from the region and keep his “no-war” promise, while taking his troops home.  For Trump, the Saudis have outlived their usefulness. Their economy is in tatters. The Yemen debacle, though coming to an end, will still prove difficult if not impossible to recover from. Whether the Saudi regime will survive the destructive policies of Salman’s reign and the internecine wars it unleashed within the ruling family, is anybody’s guess. What is certain, these policies have given Iran opportunities only close allies or foolish adversaries, can give. For all the wars launched against Iran in the past forty years, Iran’s patience and this crisis might prove to be the coup de grace against Iran’s adversaries. 

The writer is a Yemeni political activist, former President of TAWQ, a non-partisan democratic movement that includes members of various Yemeni political groups and was also a businessman. He is now retired and lives in exile. The opinions in this article are his own and do not reflect the opinions of any organisation that the writer has been or is currently affiliated with.