The mainstream ruling class explanation is summed up by the title of an article by Edward Luce in the Financial Times newspaper—“Donald Trump is playing with matches in the Middle East.” In other words, Trump is motivated by little more than vanity and stupidity.
I’m sure there is some truth to this, but it doesn’t get to the heart of the problem. The best place to start is by asking who won the Iraq war. We know who lost—the US and Britain. But who won? Certainly not the Iraqi people, whose misery has continued more or less unbroken.
The answer is Iran. The US-British invasion of Iraq removed the Islamic Republic’s most dangerous opponent, Saddam Hussein, who had waged a bloody eight-year war against it in the 1980s.
Moreover, Hussein’s regime represented the domination of a Sunni Muslim minority over the Shiite majority in Iraq. His fall allowed this oppressed majority to assert itself politically. The Iranian regime, which bases itself on Shia Islam, has exercised a major influence over successive Iraqi governments for more than a decade.
It was also able to exploit the partial disintegration of the two main states of the Arab East—Iraq and Syria.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and its close ally, the Lebanese Shiite movement Hizbollah, have played a crucial role in propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Iranian-backed Shiite militias were heavily involved in the defeat of Isis in Iraq.
The wars in Syria and Iraq have thus left the Iranian regime sitting pretty. Moreover, Hizbollah came top in the recent Lebanese elections. These developments are anathema to two other Middle Eastern regimes—Israel, which fears a strong and hostile Iran, and Saudi Arabia, whose ruling dynasty draws its legitimacy from a purist version of Sunni Islam.
The US response to these developments was, from the latter days of George W Bush’s second administration, to conciliate Iran. The nuclear deal that Barack Obama—supported by five other “world powers”—struck in 2015 was a continuation of this policy. But the Saudis and Israelis opposed the deal. Their most powerful argument is not that Iran has violated the agreement—there is no evidence that it has – but that it is growing stronger.
In Trump they have found a US president who is willing to listen to them. But what is their alternative? War? The Pentagon blocked the Bush administration’s plans to attack Iran in the mid-2000s and there’s not the slightest evidence that Trump would stomach another Middle East war. He might back an Israeli-Saudi alliance against Iran—a bizarre coalition of the Zionist state and the antisemitic Salafis in Riyadh.
But Iran isn’t an easy nut to crack. It took US naval and air power to tip the balance in Saddam Hussain’s favour in 1987-8. And Tehran’s regional alliances mean that it really could bring “fire and fury” to the Middle East. So Trump is concentrating on economic sanctions—and in particular using the threat of losing access to the US market and financial system to discipline Europe and Japan.
But the Middle East remains an unpredictable place. An alliance led by Moqtada al-Sadr has just come top in the Iraqi elections. Sadr was one of the most prominent opponents of the occupation of Iraq. He led a movement of the Shia poor centred on Sadr City (named after his family) in Baghdad that at its height in 2004 threatened to become part of a general national rising against the US and Britain,
Tragically the occupiers and the predecessors of Isis between them split the resistance along sectarian lines.
The Sadrist armed wing, the Mehdi army, were involved in death squads killing Sunnis, though it was never clear whether Sadr sanctioned this. In any case, now he’s back, leading a coalition that involves secularists and leftists and opposing Iraq’s subordination to either the US or Iran.
This underlines that the Arab world isn’t just the plaything of its corrupt rulers and outside powers.