During a visit to Saudi Arabia this past Sunday, in which he underscored the need for unity in the Gulf region, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo issued a call for new sanctions against Iran. The visit, which was part of Mr. Pompeo’s tour of several countries in the Middle East, including Israel and Jordan and was meant to muster support among US allies in the region for said sanctions.
The visit was seen as well as part of the wider effort to contain Iran’s growing assertiveness in light of its military gains in recent years. To that end, Pompeo stressed that achieving unity among Gulf nations is “necessary” and highlighted how the recent blockade of Qatar by its fellow Gulf neighbors (led by Saudi Arabia) could be exploited by Iran. The blockading group that includes the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, cut off travel and trade ties with Qatar last June, accusing it of supporting terrorism and arch-rival Iran—something Doha has denied. For its part, Iran denies supporting terrorism. But there is no doubt—in light of Mr. Pompeo’s words and the events that have characterized the region over the past few years—that these issues combined make for a toxic mix in a deeply divided region.
Worse yet, the push to counter Iran’s military and political ambitions only heightens the level of tension between the Islamic Republic and its arch-rivals. What that means for the much-maligned nuclear deal is unclear—both Saudi Arabia and Israel are fiercely opposed to it and want a new deal to replace it. But, judging by the statements from the Trump administration, it is fair to say that deal is looking seriously under threat. At the same time, however, the incessant vilification of the current regime in Iran could also spell trouble in the wider context of the Middle East (both short and long-term) since we have already witnessed small-scale military confrontations between Israel and Iran in Syria, back in February. Thus, a large-scale confrontation cannot be ruled out.
The rhetoric being used at present further contributes to the toxicity in the region. This point is best exemplified by the tendency to solely focus on Iran’s role as “an arms dealer to the Houthi rebels in Yemen” and how it is destabilizing “the entire region”—as suggested by Saud Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in his joint press conference with Mr. Pompeo. In doing so, we as an audience are choosing to ignore the role that both Saudi Arabia and the US have played in creating chaos in several of the region’s hotspots. In the case of the US, its actions over the course of the past year demonstrate the high-risk nature of its own foreign policy objectives and actions. Specifically speaking, that set of actions has included (but is not limited to): its unwavering support for a Saudi kingdom whose involvement in the Yemeni conflict has contributed significantly to the humanitarian crisis that engulfed what is considered to be the poorest country in the Middle East, the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and the stated desire to pull troops out of the 8-year-old Syrian war without a viable alternative in place to make up of US military presence in that country.
In my humble opinion, these actions contradict the statements repeatedly used to justify the demonization of Iran. Moreover, they lead one to question the sincerity behind the US’ repeated calls for “unity” and peace in the Middle East, especially when those calls are followed up with policies that are divisive and ultimately, catastrophic.
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