The US overthrew more than just Saddam Hussein in its ill-conceived war in Iraq. It turned the entire region of the Levant on its head by creating a Shia dominated government in Baghdad. After the Iran-Iraq War, which Iran lost due to its global isolation, two balance-of-power fundamentals were firmly established. First, no power in the Middle East could overcome the geography of the Iranian mountain fortress. Second, the Iranians could not project enough power outward to defeat a minority Sunni regime which relied on the financial backing of the Gulf States. During the 1990s, this status quo held. But the Iranians were not content to remain in check.
Whether for ideological reasons or purely as a reaction to that devastating Iraqi invasion (Iran suffered a million casualties), the Iranian nuclear program took off. Nuclear capability could provide Iran a measure of insurance to counter its isolation. As the only Shia-dominated state bordering an Arab Sunni state system, Iran had no natural allies within the Middle East other than the Alawi-dominated Syrian Assad family. Although Syria was on the other side of Iraq,
it could offer little military support to an isolated Iran. With NATO member Turkey to its north, and a firm US ally
(Israel) to its south, Syria had its own problems. With the demise of the Soviet Union, Syria had lost its superpower patron. Revolutionary Iran, which had shunned the Soviet Union, realized that it too stood alone in the face of an
American-sponsored loose alliance which stretched from the Nile to the Jordan and on to the Gulf. At times the US even gave the green light to Saddam Hussein, hence the Iran-Iraq War.
But Saddam was a wild card and had his own agenda. In 1990 he suddenly invaded Kuwait, leaving the tiny nation devastated. From that moment on, the US moved into the Gulf with full force. A no-fly zone was set up over Iraq, and an onerous sanctions regime was established. Occasionally cruise missiles were launched to remind Saddam who was boss.
But the US administration under Bush 1 and James Baker were far more savvy than George Bush 2, the son. Once the first Gulf War ended, Bush 1 didn’t push US forces into Baghdad in order to topple Saddam. He understood the repercussions.
By keeping the Sunnis empowered in Iraq, the Islamic Republic of Iran would remain isolated and the balance of power would hold.
Then came 9/11. The Americans lost over three thousand citizens, and the drums of war beat louder than at any other time since Pearl Harbor in 1941. The “war on terrorism” was coined, and the world was promptly told that Saddam had in his possession weapons (perhaps nuclear) of mass destruction. Iraq was invaded for a second time. But this time Bush 2 and his trusted VP, Dick Cheney, decided that the Sunni Iraqi state under Saddam needed to be smashed. Eventually, the dictator was captured and executed. Although the mission was declared accomplished, within a few years the American occupation was under siege. By 2004-2005 the US had suffered heavy casualties from Iranian-backed Shia militias. By 2006, a full-fledged Sunni-Shia civil war raged as Iran continued to orchestrate its plans and make life for the Americans intolerable. It worked. The war in Iraq became less and less popular for the vast majority of US citizens. Then in 2008 a peace candidate was elected to the US presidency. In less than six years American resolve had weakened, and the region would soon be left to its own devices.
It was King Abdullah of Jordan who first coined the phrase “The Shia Crescent”. He was describing the disastrous consequences of US policy from the Iraq War up until the so-called Arab Spring. With little strategic thought, the Americans had lifted the Iranians from a position of weakness to one of strength. After centuries of Sunni domination of the Levant, the valley of the Tigris and Euphrates now lay at Persia’s feet. In Iranian strategic terms, this reality became the ultimate game changer. Iran needed a docile Iraq to project power outward to the Mediterranean,
toward its avowed ideological and theological enemy, Israel. For the first time in modern Middle East history, the Shia were empowered in Iran and Iraq.
The ayatollahs could not believe their good luck. Not only had they avoided an American attack (Bush 2 had named Iran the axis of evil), but the Americans had also completely withdrawn from Iraq. Even more fortuitous, Iran’s nuclear program was going full speed ahead. With Fordow firmly underground and Arak being built, a Shia Crescent
combined with at least a form of nuclear weapons capability would be (and still is) the ultimate Israeli nightmare.
Iranian regional “leadership” (Israelis and Sunnis would say domination) was never closer at hand. Tehran was riding high.
But then the push back came. The Syrian Civil War, the very tough sanctions regime, and a real threat of military action against the Iranian nuclear program all lead us directly to the regional stalemate we face today. An all-out
Sunni-Shia regional war has become a distinct possibility as the blowback from the American-led Iraq War continues to reverberate. How the Iranian nuclear file is solved will determine the future of this ultimate Middle East divide.
Make no mistake, the Iranian nuclear program and regional war go hand in hand. They cannot be separated. If stability is not restored in the Levant, if some kind of regional structure is not constructed, a much larger war will become inevitable. Sanctions relief, however negotiated, cannot come at the expense of the regional balance.
In this geopolitical dilemma, the US must show the vision that went terribly awry during the Bush administration.
President Obama should not listen to those advisors who claim that only a small deal can be achieved at this time.
A small deal will play into the hands of the Iranians. The lifting of the sanctions would work to allow Iran, Assad and Hezbollah to grow stronger. On the other hand, the Iranians are not about to surrender. The region of the Middle East needs to be frozen into a permanent balance. This balance can only be achieved through maximum compromise from all sides. The US cannot structure this balance alone. They need the cooperation and the input from the Russians and the Chinese. It is time to think outside of the conventional geopolitical box. It is time to think grand.