Donald Trump has seized on the terror attack in New York this past week to advance a political agenda that directly threatens the Iranian-American community.
Immediately following the attack in Manhattan on Tuesday, the President took to Twitter – not to offer leadership or any pragmatic policies to address such acts – but to exploit the event for political gain. He attacked his political opponents and doubled-down on his calls to close off the United States to the outside world.
Iranian Americans have witnessed firsthand how this administration has utilized supposed national security policies to marginalize immigrant communities – starting with the Muslim ban and attempts to circumvent courts to ban grandmothers. Now, President Trump is exploiting New York’s tragedy to call for an increase in his “extreme vetting” policy and a shutdown of our nation’s diversity visa program.
Sadly, even as the courts have suspended President Trump’s attempts at a Muslim ban, he has managed to at least partially enact a de facto ban via this “extreme vetting” policy. As a result, we have seen a dramatic decrease in visas issued to individuals from Muslim-majority countries, particularly countries on Trump’s initial Muslim ban list.
Meanwhile, Trump’s allies in Congress have seized on the attacks to call for the dismantling of the diversity visa program – and even signaling out the large number of Iranian beneficiaries of the program as a reason for termination. Senator David Perdue (R-GA) tweeted:
Did you know IRAN – the world's largest state sponsor of terrorism – was the 3rd highest recipient of Diversity Lottery visas in 2016?
— David Perdue (@sendavidperdue) November 2, 2017
Many Iranian Americans would not be here were it not for the programs that Trump is working to shut down. If Trump’s policies had been in place over the past four decades, there would be no Iranian-American community.
Instead of serving Americans, the President and his allies’ agenda has fostered insecurity in the lives of millions across the country – offering the promise of trading our liberties for security, and placing the brunt of those sacrifices on immigrant communities. Supposed security policies like the Muslim Ban and “extreme vetting” are not rooted in any serious thinking about national security but instead based on bigotry and campaign rally rhetoric. Bans do not work. None of the attacks in the United States – from September 11th to what just happened in New York – would have been prevented by President Trump’s Muslim Ban.
In fact, the President has actually exacerbated the threat of terrorism for this country. No matter how “extreme” Trump’s vetting policy becomes, a significant body of scholarship suggests that radicalization often occurs within the country where the attack takes place. And President Trump’s own targeting and vilification of Muslims has only contributed to radicalization efforts by terrorist groups.
Meanwhile, whether it be from his reluctance to take a firm stand against the White supremacist violence in Charlottesville, a refusal to even debate the causes of the horrific massacre in Las Vegas, or his reaction to the ISIS-inspired attack in New York City, the President has failed to address terrorism in any serious manner when it actually happens.
Our leaders should indeed be resolute in defending our country. That means not just protecting territory but also protecting the fundamental rights and values that make America great. These two goals are not mutually exclusive. The courts have done their due diligence in assessing whether President Trump’s various actions are constitutional, but it is not their responsibility to determine what most benefits the country. This latter question must be answered by our elected representatives.
Unfortunately, the refusal by many in Congress to allow a vote to rescind the deeply flawed Muslim Ban or even question how “extreme vetting” is really being implemented lends these policies the aura of a Congressional imprimatur and detracts from real solutions to threats. This inaction by Congress permits President Trump to continue to politicize tragedy and exposes our nation to greater risks than any terrorist can inflict. Congress must no longer serve as enablers for this behavior. It is time for lawmakers to rescind the Muslim ban and investigate Trump’s “extreme vetting” efforts that have already done so much damage to our country – and for their voters to hold them accountable if they refuse.
Congress now bears the responsibility for the future of the Iran deal and it will largely be reviewing it through the dishonest framing President Trump set during his decertification speech last week. Last week it was also announced that robust sanctions will be levied against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and they are now labeled a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) group. The combination of these policies places the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in great jeopardy, alienates the Iranian population from the U.S., and risks driving the U.S. towards international isolation at best, and potentially a costly conflict with Iran. Below you will find the three most troubling falsehoods that President Trump asserted during his speech.
1. “The Iranian regime has also intimidated international inspectors into not using the full inspection authorities that the agreement calls for.”
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the body tasked with inspections, has not made a single complaint about Iran’s cooperation with inspections. In fact, the IAEA has consistently confirmed in its reports that based on its own independent evidence Iran is complying with the terms of the agreement. However, this did not stop Ambassador Nikki Haley from visiting the IAEA headquarters in August and demanding to know why the IAEA had not sought inspection of Iran’s military sites.
“We’re not going to visit a military site like Parchin just to send a political signal,” said an IAEA official in reaction to Haley’s call for inspections. Meanwhile, on the same day last week that President Trump accused Iran of intimidating international inspectors, Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said that Iran is subjected to the “most robust nuclear verification regime” adding that “the nuclear-related commitments undertaken by Iran under the JCPOA are being implemented.”
It is also important to note that President Trump’s decertification announcement flies in the face not only of our allies and the IAEA, but of his own generals. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Dunford, and Secretary of Defense, General Mattis, have publicly stated that they agree with the IAEA that Iran is abiding by the terms of the agreement and it is in the national security interest of the U.S. to remain in the deal.
2. “In this effort, we stand in total solidarity with the Iranian regime’s longest-suffering victims: its own people.”
Any policy that leads to the disintegration of the JCPOA cannot stand in solidarity with the people of Iran who at the height of sanctions could not even obtain adequate cancer treatment. Sanctions have given hardliners in Iran a near monopoly on the economy while at the same time everyday Iranians suffer. In addition to undermining the JCPOA, President Trump has issued three separate travel bans that prevent Iranians from visiting their family in the U.S. With each successive iteration of the ban the impact on Iranians with zero connection to the regime has become increasingly disproportionate. President Trump’s assertion that he stands with the Iranian people only highlights his willful ignorance of the situation everyday Iranians find themselves in. Polling conducted inside Iran also suggests that approval for the U.S. has sharply decreased since implementation day while support for Germany, Russia, and China (countries that invest in Iran) has increased. The Trump administration is managing to alienate one of the most pro-West populations in the Middle East.
3. “The execution of our strategy begins with the long-overdue step of imposing tough sanctions on Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”
President Trump’s announcement of sanctions on the IRGC and an SDGT designation places U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in grave danger. Secretary Tillerson acknowledged this in a closed-door press conference on October 12th when he said “we have considered that there are particular risks and complexities to designating an entire army, so to speak, of a country where that then puts in place certain requirements where we run into one another in the battlefield that then triggers certain actions…” The IRGC’s Major General Ali Jafari has warned that if the IRGC is sanctioned or labeled a terrorist organization then it will reciprocate by treating U.S. troops in the region as if they are ISIS. President Trump has taken the U.S. down a path that undermines the fight against ISIS without any tangible security benefit. He has also placed troops in the Middle East at risk of becoming victims of escalating rhetoric between the U.S. and Iran.
Perhaps most ironically, Trump’s rhetoric and actions have elevated the status of the IRGC within Iran and forced moderates to publicly appear in support of the IRGC. During President Rouhani’s election campaign he criticized the role that the IRGC plays within Iran in an unprecedented speech. But since President Trump’s rhetoric and designation the IRGC and the Rouhani administration have formed a united front—at least in public— against what they perceive as American threats. This will prove an impediment to the Rouhani administration achieving its human rights and anti-corruption goals, as well as warmer relations with the West.
Trump has undermined the JCPOA, punished the Iranian people, and empowered the IRGC
Through decertification of Iran’s compliance with the JCPOA, a designation of the IRGC, and an equally harmful deployment of incendiary rhetoric, President Trump has accomplished three things. First, he has placed U.S. security at risk and turned forward deployed U.S. soldiers into potential pawns in a conflicted between the U.S. and IRGC. Second, he has discredited reformists and centrists inside Iran who took a political gamble on supporting the JCPOA with the U.S. Lastly, he has given the IRGC and hardliners in Iran the greatest public relations win they could have hoped for.
The unfolding Qatar crisis is a microcosm of Riyadh’s vision for the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is exploiting a largely engineered threat from Iran to rally Sunni Arab states into what has been labeled an “Arab NATO” and bully those that resist. Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are joining the coalition at the behest of Riyadh’s monarchs. Although perfidiously promoted as a task force against extremism, its primary objective is to isolate Iran and elevate Saudi Arabia’s position in the region. However, its success is doubtful, as the Saudi-led coalition is already splintering, and history reveals that attempts to contain Tehran will achieve just the opposite.
Three historical developments demonstrate why any effort to isolate Iran will fail: the durability of the Iran-Syria alliance, the strategic rather than ideological basis of Iran’s alliances and the experience of the Iran-Iraq War.
The Iran-Syria alliance has endured the test of war and time. In the early 1980s, Iraq and Iran were engrossed in a brutal conflict that Baghdad portrayed as a war against Iranian expansionism. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq and the United States formed a coalition to isolate Tehran from the Hafez al-Assad regime and invite a swift victory for Baghdad. The Syria-Iran alliance never broke, even as Syria became entrenched in its own conflict in Lebanon. In his book chronicling the alliance, Jubin Goodarzi even asserted that Hafez al-Assad turned down $2 billion offered to him by the Saudis if he reopened the trans-Syrian pipeline to Iraq. Despite intense economic and military pressure, this strategy only solidified the nascent alliance between Tehran and Damascus. This alliance has remained durable and transcended significant strategic disagreements between the two countries over the last three decades.
Iran chooses its alliances and conflicts pragmatically, rather than ideologically. For example, the Islamic Republic historically ignored the plights of Shia minorities in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan in favor of maintaining semi-cordial relations with Riyadh and Islamabad. Western analysts often portray Iran’s most important alliance with Syria as that of a client and patron state. In reality, it is much closer to a genuine partnership rooted in common strategic goals, despite widely diverging ideologies. Both countries see themselves as unique partners in the “resistance” against Israel. Both also portray themselves as tolerant of religious minorities and sects in a region enveloped by Salafi extremism. Most importantly, Damascus and Tehran have always viewed a strong Arab bloc and Arab detente with Israel as an existential threat. This was true when Egypt and Syria cut diplomatic relations after the Camp David Accord, and when Arab states formed an alliance against the new Islamic Republic in Iran. Thus Tehran and Damascus see themselves as partners in a fight against an Arab bloc that is increasingly dictated by a U.S.-Saudi alliance. No amount of pressure on Iran will make the cost of Tehran’s intervention in Syria too high to bear.
Iran’s experience of relative isolation during the war imposed on it by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq inspired a frenzied race to develop domestic defensive and ballistic-missile capabilities. In a 2016 interview, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif asked, “What do you expect, Iran to lie dead? You’ve covered the Iran–Iraq war, you remember missiles pouring on Iranian cities with chemical weapons. You remember that we didn’t have any to defend ourselves.” The harsh realities of the Iran-Iraq War quelled revolutionary Iran’s ambitions to export its revolution and ideology. Ever since the end of the war, Tehran has instead placed an emphasis on developing strategic alliances outside of the Middle East and developing a domestic military-industrial complex. President Trump’s calls to isolate Iran during his recent speech in Riyadh will only provoke a surge in Iranian military development.
Three contemporary developments also demonstrate why an “Arab NATO” will fail at its mission: Arab Shia communities view Saudi and Wahhabi hegemony as an existential threat, the Saudi-coalition is already fractured, and China and Russia have every reason to tilt towards Tehran.
The main threat that the Saudi-led coalition seeks to combat is the rise of Arab Shia movements and militias that it believes are loyal to Iran, especially in Iraq and Syria. As I have written before, Shia movements are not nearly as loyal to Iranian interests as often believed, but the existence of an “Arab NATO” will likely result in driving vulnerable Shia communities closer to Tehran. Powerful cleric and warlord Muqtada al-Sadr has called on Assad to resign as president, and expelled fighters found to have fought in Syria in direct opposition to Iranian policy. Several high-ranking Shia clerics in Iraq have issued fatwas forbidding their followers to participate in Syrian operations. The most senior of these clerics, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who himself is of Iranian extraction, has long been the darling of Western analysts due to his rejection of theocracy. In 2005, Thomas Friedman called for Sistani to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his quietist inclinations and role in legitimizing the new Iraqi government in the eyes of Shia. However, the rise of U.S.-backed Sunni coalitions will likely push Iraqi Shia toward institutionalized militancy if they feel their communities are under attack by Saudi-funded Sunni extremists.
Even if an “Arab NATO” could achieve its task of isolating Iran, the political will of coalition members to seriously challenge Iran remains dubious at best. Officially, the Saudi-led coalition presents a unified front against supposed Iranian aggression, but underneath the surface, there is little consensus on how to approach Iran. Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently claimed that Saudi Arabia is a “primary target for the Iranian regime.” Saudi-run news agencies frequently publish claims of alleged Iranian plots to invade and conquer Saudi Arabia, often by citing the statements of obscure and uninfluential hard-liners. But this tactic appears to be causing more divisions than unity.
Qatari emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani allegedly stated that “there is no wisdom in harboring hostility toward Iran,” but Qatar quickly claimed unconvincingly that the story was fabricated. This led Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Yemen’s Western-backed government and Libya to cut off relations with Qatar and put in place an aggressive blockade on its population. Doha’s open support for the Muslim Brotherhood and Riyadh’s allegation that Qatar provides support for ISIS—and, more importantly, Shia protesters in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province—were used as the official excuse for severing ties. But this is clearly intended by Saudi Arabia to escalate tensions with Iran and send the message that lukewarm partners in the proxy war will not be accepted.
Still, it appears unlikely that Oman’s Sultan Qaboos will follow the Saudis and depart from his traditional role as Iran-GCC-U.S. mediator, a position that significantly elevates Oman’s importance. Even the forty-one-state Saudi-based Islamic Military Alliance (IMA) prefers diplomacy, as Pakistan recently made headlines when it announced that it would not officially join the IMA until certain red lines are established—namely, no confrontation with Iran. Pakistani army chief Gen. Qamar Bajwa is rumored to be planning a trip to reassure Tehran that it doesn’t pose a threat.
Tehran will capitalize on the disunity of the Saudi-led coalition while increasing its military coordination with world powers beyond the scope of Syria. A Saudi-led and U.S.-sponsored coalition runs contrary to Russian and Chinese interests in the region, as well as Iran’s. Russia has already invested significantly into a naval base in Tartus, Syria, and will continue to support Iran and the Assad regime against any outside interference. China will continue to increase its ties with Iran, especially as it develops its “One Belt, One Road” project across Central Asia, in which Iran is a crucial partner. In return, Beijing will continue to prove an invaluable partner for Iran’s domestic military-industrial capabilities and production. An Iran-China-Russia alliance will serve as a formidable antidote to the ambitions of a U.S.-sponsored Saudi-led coalition.
An “Arab NATO” will provide little deterrence, and instead result in an arms race and a deepening of sectarian conflict in the region. It also risks dragging U.S. forces into a sectarian conflict. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates pointed out, the Saudis always want to “fight the Iranians to the last American.” If the Trump administration really wants to demonstrate its leadership and power in the Middle East, then it must rise above taking sides and turning itself into a proxy of one side against the other. Instead, Washington must facility diplomatic engagement between regional powers and demand that its allies and its foes genuinely participate.
The IRGC is key to the ‘US-led’ coalition fighting to oust ISIS from Mosul.
U.S. troops and air assets, the Iraqi Army, Shiite militias, and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have coalesced into an unlikely coalition against ISIS in Mosul that is anything but “U.S.-led.” Seven months into the battle, the majority of the city has been freed from ISIS control despite the difficulties of urban warfare, a large civilian population, suicide bombers, and an operation that extended through winter. The success of this offensive is in large part due to the ability of the Iraqi army to act as an intermediary between Iran-backed militias and U.S. troops. However, a Senate bill, the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017, will likely lead the Trump administration to label the IRGC as a terrorist group. Combined with the administration’s increased alignment with Saudi Arabia against Iran, this step threatens to fracture this de facto coalition in Mosul, detract from the fight against ISIS, and recklessly endanger the lives of U.S. forces.
According to the Defense Intelligence Agency’s May 23 Worldwide Threat Assessment, “in 2016, Iraq’s various security forces made significant progress in reclaiming much of Iraq’s territory from ISIS control. Baghdad realized these gains, in no small measure, due to substantial external support—most notably U.S.-led coalition airpower and support from Iran.” It is nothing short of extraordinary that American Joint Terminal Attack Controllers, or JTACs, are calling in close air support for the same Shiite militias that mortared U.S. positions a decade earlier. But times have changed in Iraq and the greater enemy of ISIS has temporarily unified old foes. Officially, the U.S. military denies any coordination with Iran-backed Shiite militias in Iraq. However, the relative absence of fratricide amid a robust air campaign with various ground elements is a testament to the Iraqi military’s utility as an intermediary for deconfliction of the battlespace.
In other words: the reason U.S. operators are not accidentally calling in airstrikes on Iran-backed Shiite militias is because the Iraqi army is able to communicate with both.
The professionalism extends both ways. U.S. troops have been fortunate to be able to concentrate on fighting ISIS without worrying about being attacked by IRGC-backed Shiite militias, as they were during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Indeed, one of the greatest challenges of that war was the myriad of Sunni and Shiite militias that U.S. troops faced in combat.
Some in the Senate appear intent on reinserting this confusion into the battlefield, by labeling the IRGC a Specially Designated Global Terrorist group. It is possible that this label will not alter how the IRGC behaves in Mosul, but it is equally likely that it will be viewed as a green light to harass U.S. forces. This is especially true in light of the U.S. bombing of a convoy of the Iran-backed militia Kataib Imam Ali in al-Tanf Syria on May 18, followed by another attack on pro-Assad forces on June 7. Just two years ago, U.S. air strikes were supporting that militia in Baiji, Iraq. If Iran begins to believe that the U.S. is starting to care less about the fight against ISIS and more about challenging Tehran’s presence in Iraq and Syria, it too will alter its objectives, especially in Mosul. This will place the lives of U.S. soldiers in grave danger.
Even if the Senate’s terror-group designation, or the Trump administration’s contributions to growing tensions in the Gulf, do not immediately fuel a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran in Mosul, it will still place the Iraqi military in a particularly intractable position. Iraqi commanders would be forced to simultaneously coordinate with the U.S. military and a U.S.-designated terrorist organization. Their ability to deconflict ground maneuvers and air strikes would be greatly diminished. If tensions escalate, it may prove impossible for the Iraqi army to share militia positions with American JTACs, aircraft, and forward observers — risking not only the unintentional deaths of Shiite militia members and their IRGC advisors, but also Iraqi soldiers working with them. The unintended collateral damage might even be severe enough to spark a return to OIF-era fighting between U.S. troops and Iran-backed militias. Additionally, it is doubtful that U.S. commanders would be able to prevent Iraqi officers from leaking U.S.-provided intelligence to Shiite militias.
It is not difficult to imagine how quickly the Mosul offensive could spiral out of control. And it is ISIS that would most benefit from a battlespace shaped by a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran.
Some have inveighed against tolerating Iran-backed Shiite militias in the ISIS fight, warning that such groups may evolve into a “mini-IRGC” or a Hezbollah-like organization in Iraq. But opening the door to U.S. conflict with these militias will only increase their prestige, recruitment prospects, and funding. It is reckless for lawmakers to bet that the IRGC, if designated as a terrorist organization, would respond in a non-confrontational way. Any move that might detract from the fight against ISIS directly undermines U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and jeopardizes the safety of American troops.
Washington has doubled down on fighting the Islamic State (ISIS) offshoot in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province. Experts have warned that the Islamic State threat remains secondary to a Taliban resurgence. Washington is repeating the mistake of obsessively routing al-Qaeda while ignoring the overall conditions that allowed al-Qaeda to thrive, this time with ISIS.
The Trump administration apparently intends to simultaneously fight the Taliban by increasing the number of US troops in Afghanistan. However, even as another horrific bombing killed scores in the Afghan capital, the US refuses to acknowledge that the war in Afghanistan is not confined within the country’s borders and contains a second front in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders both Afghanistan and Iran. Until a proxy war between India and Pakistan in Balochistan is resolved, Afghanistan will serve as a de facto garrison for warring factions there. The only way to achieve peace inside Afghanistan is to foster regional peace through diplomacy that is inclusive of all relevant actors, but the Trump administration is doing just the opposite.
On April 26, 2017, eleven Iranian border guards were shot dead from Pakistani soil by Baloch militants using long-range rifles, prompting Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to fly to Islamabad to again demand that Pakistan control its border. Iran threatened to take matters into its own hands if Islamabad did not comply.
The lawlessness that is a product of the ongoing conflict in Balochistan not only emboldens Baloch separatists but creates a safe haven for the Taliban’s leaders and facilitates the drug trade on which their existence relies. During my 2012 deployment to Afghanistan as a Marine, I served in support of the Australian-led Special Operations Task Group that included detachments of Drug Enforcement Agency Foreign-Deployed Advisory and Support Teams. With few alternatives, Afghan farmers continue to grow poppy and the Taliban oversee its distribution. Baloch rebels traffic the narcotics into Iran. One fellow Marine involved in helicopter-assisted interdiction missions in Helmand province near the Pakistan border even expressed frustration to me that none of his translators could speak Balochi. It was also common for Taliban infiltrators into the Afghan National Army to escape to safe houses in Balochistan after conducting green-on-blue or insider attacks.
The war in Afghanistan (and northern Pakistan) has two interconnected fronts. As of 2017, at least 2,183 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan, primarily in the provinces along the Durand Line that serves as the border with Pakistan. Places like Peshawar, Waziristan and the Swat Valley, all inside Pakistan, have become common names when discussing war in Afghanistan. However, despite the best efforts of writers like Ahmed Rashid, who first put Balochistan on the geopolitical map for Western readers and strategists, it has been largely ignored. During that same period since the US entered Afghanistan, over 3,000 Iranian soldiers and border guards have also been killed in shoot-outs with drug runners and terrorist cells along the porous line-in-the-sand border that separates Iran from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Meanwhile in Pakistani Balochistan, there have been at least 3,580 recorded civilian deaths between 2004 and 2016.
Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province, simultaneously serves as the home base of the Taliban’s senior leadership and the Baloch separatist movement. For Pakistan the value of Balochistan is that it contains the strategic Gwadar port as well as natural resources. For Iran, however, Sistan and Baluchistan province primarily exists as an inconvenient bastion of Sunni Islam and unrest in its southeast corner. Secession movements and terrorism have long plagued both countries, but particularly Pakistan, which perceives India to be the true puppet master behind Baloch separatists.
India’s premier intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), allegedly provides material support and training to Pakistani Baloch separatists in Afghanistan as a response to Pakistan’s power to do the same for Kashmiri separatists. While Islamabad often magnifies India’s role in the Baloch insurgency, the circumstantial evidence certainly points to some involvement. In March 2016, Indian naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav was arrested by Pakistani authorities in Balochistan and accused of organizing Baloch terrorist cells. On April 10, 2017, in an unusually escalatory move, a special military tribunal sentenced Jadhav to death by hanging.
Meanwhile, prominent Baloch rebels have sought asylum in India, includingBrahamdagh Khan Bugti, the grandson of Nawab Akbar Bugti, who was killed in 2006 while leading an insurgency against Pakistan. In his 2016 Indian Independence Day speech, Indian Prime Minister Nahendra Modi boasted that the “people of Balochistan, Gilgit, Pakistan Occupied Kashmir have thanked me, have expressed gratitude, and expressed good wishes for me.” India’s role in destabilizing Afghanistan and the region is often overlooked because unlike Pakistan, its policies have not directly led to Western civilian casualties.
Iran has learned to avoid unilateral opposition to the Taliban when other regional actors falter. As Ahmed Rashid noted in his book Taliban, “Iran and the CARs [Central Asian Republics] shared a deep suspicion of Afghan-Pashtun fundamentalism and the support it received from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.” Iran remains susceptible to the free-flow of fighters directly from Afghanistan and into Pakistani Balochistan. This exposes Iran’s border to a three-pronged attack by drug traffickers, Sunni extremists, and Baloch separatists, with some crossover between these last two groups. Tehran holds Pakistan responsiblefor taking a hands-off approach to Baloch separatists that target Iran while simultaneously conducting a campaign of extrajudicial killings against Baloch activists that threaten Islamabad. At the same time, Pakistan’s General Raheel Sharif also claimed that RAW uses Iran to launch operations against Pakistan in Balochistan and India uses Afghanistan as a base to train Baloch separatists.
For Pakistan’s military establishment, the best antidote to the Baloch insurgency remains a strong Taliban presence in southwest Afghanistan and Pakistan. According to Afghan officials in Helmand province, Pakistan and Iran are competing to maintain communications with the Taliban. Meanwhile Russia and Iran have been accused of increased support for the Taliban in an effort to undermine the US mission and the growing ISIS threat. At the same time, calls to engage with the Taliban came from Washington in 2008 and 2013 and remain a possibility, all the while the popularity inside Pakistan continues to grow for Imran Khan, ex-cricketer turned Pakistani politician and Governor of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, partly due to his pledge to exit America’s “War on Terror” altogether.
To achieve lasting peace in Afghanistan a settlement that is inclusive of the Taliban will likely have to be forged. As Barnett Rubin recently pointed out, a mere surge in troops will not achieve stability in Afghanistan and will not signal a US commitment to rebuilding the country. Regional dialogue must include India, Pakistan, Iran, the Afghan government and the Taliban. It may be untenable to openly host all relevant actors at the same table but backdoor channels can supplement where open talks fall short. If this is not achieved, Afghanistan will continue to barely function as a failed state in which the Taliban enjoy more authority than Kabul and the military defeat of groups such as ISIS will be short-lived until the next terrorist organization seizes on the opportunity that Afghanistan presents.
During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s missiles and bombs lit up the skies over Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and various frontier towns. It was a blitzkrieg of a campaign, initiated by Baghdad with the intent of inflicting mass civilian casualties.
Since that war, the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought to avoid a similar conflict while building up its ballistic missile program to deter persistent threats of Western-imposed regime change, proliferation of US bases in the Persian Gulf states and billions of dollars in US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Iranian rivals.
While the US has responded by imposing more sanctions on Iran tied to the missile program, a better way to rein in that program may be to alleviate Iran’s sense of vulnerability.
There is a popular belief in the West that Iran’s leadership does not adhere to realpolitik. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept of the “guardianship of the jurist” and Iran’s constitution are based on the notion that until the return of Shi’a Islam’s twelfth Imam, Iran should be led by a qualified cleric. For this reason, some analysts believe that the system of government in Iran is apocalyptic in nature.
Additionally, the West often perceives Iranian culture to be driven by a suicidal zealotry even though most Iranians are religious moderates or inclined towards secularism. This false narrative is partly rooted in a misunderstanding of Shi’ism. Martyrdom does play a significant role in Shi’a theology. Grief over the murder of Hussein at Karbala is perhaps the most notable feature of Shi’a worship. But these events should be primarily interpreted as commemorative of the struggle against injustice rather than a call to violence. Furthermore, in Iran, a moderating syncretism exists between Shi’ism and Persian culture. For example, the decadent verses of the humanist Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s Rubai’yyat, beloved in Iran, are contrasted but not overshadowed by the somberness of Shi’ism. Most Iranians do not dream of martyrdom or want war with their neighbors but only desire the means for self-defense.
Indeed, the Islamic Republic has generally chosen pragmatism over ideology in its 38-year history. Examples include accepting a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war that left Saddam in power, rolling back support for anti-government Shi’a movements in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in exchange for improved diplomatic relations, cooperation with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the 2000s, and of course the nuclear agreement of 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Given its decision to disavow nuclear weapons, Iran insists on its right to conventional military arms. It also notes that the JCPOA does not forbid missile development (although a UN Security Council resolution “calls on” Iran not to test missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons).
“Our people do not forget the fact that when they were being bombarded, everybody was providing assistance to the aggressor and no one, absolutely no one, gave us even the rudimentary means of defense,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during a recent BBC interview.
The S-300 missile defense system was one of Iran’s first post-JCPOA purchases. Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles, including a launch that took place right after Donald Trump’s inauguration and that triggered new sanctions.
Unlike many other government initiatives, the missile program enjoys wide support across the Iranian political and socioeconomic spectrum. Many Iranians see a strong missile capability as the only thing preventing a repeat of the Iran-Iraq war. Therefore, sanctioning Iran’s missile program is unlikely to produce desired results. The primary goal of such sanctions is to create an opportunity cost for Tehran that outweighs the perceived benefit of the missile program. But if the program’s perceived benefit is the continued existence of the Islamic Republic, even the most robust sanctions will prove impotent.
The secondary goal of sanctions is to hurt civilian enterprises such as banks and universities in order to foment unrest. But even the staunchest critics of Tehran inside Iran will likely view these sanctions as an unfair affront to Iran’s right of self-defense.
Of course, if Iran wants the ability to develop its conventional military without facing new sanctions, there are certain steps it could take, such as working to resolve its rift with Saudi Arabia and eschewing threats against the existence of Israel. Iran could also adopt a consistent message regarding its military intentions. Zarif’s assurances that Iran only seeks defensive capabilities are undermined by Iran’s military involvement in myriad Arab civil wars.
Army parades, Basij military drills on a paper mache Jerusalem outside Qom, and the production of movies that depict a war with the US Navy are eagerly consumed by Western media and often mentioned during Congressional hearings. Most damaging is the slogan of “Death to America,” which has had a profoundly negative impact on Iran’s image in America and is consistently used by Iran’s adversaries as a justification for containment of Iran or even a US military attack. Senior figures in Tehran have routinely insisted that the slogan is figurative and refers only to what is seen as a negative US foreign policy. If this is true, then the slogan should be replaced with substantive criticism.
On the other hand, if the US is truly interested in limiting Iran’s ballistic missile program, it must treat Iran as a rational actor and mitigate the threats that the program was designed to counter. First and foremost, the Trump administration should unequivocally state its intention to uphold the nuclear agreement as written. The administration should also work to reopen a new channel of diplomatic communication with Iran’s foreign ministry and look for opportunities to cooperate in the fight against ISIS. A navalhotline could also be established in the Straits of Hormuz to avoid incidents at sea.
Most importantly, the US should encourage détente between Iran and the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In that light, it is encouraging that the GCC appears to be contemplating a new security dialogue with Iran.
These measures will not end Iran’s ballistic missile program but over time such reassurances might persuade Tehran to spend more revenues elsewhere. If the US treads the old road of tough talk, sanctions, and threats, Tehran will likely respond with more missile tests and place the program in the fast lane.
A surreptitious yet candid bigotry unfamiliar to many major city dwellers has made its way into the American spotlight with the election of President Trump.
The administration’s normalization of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic rhetoric during its first three months has forced religious and ethnic minorities in the U.S. to reflect on our own identity. This is especially true for Jewish Americans and Middle Eastern Americans who may have felt integrated into greater American society and are sometimes referred to as “model minorities.” However, with this bigotry comes an opportunity for long divided communities to find common ground and stand-up to hate.
Throughout the last century new waves of immigrants have arrived in the U.S., faced fierce discrimination, and then over time began to self-identify with an anglicized and hyphenated version of their identity. In other words, they became “white.” This phenomenon occurred for Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Jewish Americans, and some Middle Eastern Americans. However, these last two groups never achieved an unimpeachable “whiteness” likely for a combination of reasons including appearance and religious differences from mainstream white culture.
For example, the trajectories of Eastern European Jews and Iranians after immigration into the U.S. are strikingly similar. Both have fared well economically and generally live in large metropolitan centers. Both have retained their culture but increasingly see themselves as White Americans. And, both were relatively shielded from open discrimination over the last two decades when compared to other minorities. This was especially true for Jews in big cities.
Not anymore. In the first three months of the Trump administration, Iranian Americans have seen their family members barred from the country, Muslims are increasingly targeted at airports and even in the street, and Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated. Swastikas have appeared in big cities and in Kansas two Indian men were attacked based on the false assumption they were Iranian.
Whether the Trump administration is the cause or effect of these developments is irrelevant. The administration is directly involved in discriminatory policies such as the “Muslim Ban” executive orders. It has also failed to take an affirmative stand against hate such as when President Trump told a Jewish reporter to “sit down” and berated him after he asked about rising anti-Semitism. The latest scandal involving national security advisor Sebastian Gorka’s alleged membership in the Nazi-affiliated Vitézi Rend is the latest in a parade of questionable incidents.
Jews and Middle Easterners often live in ethnic enclaves like Dearborn, Westwood or Beachwood, or in the inner-ring suburbs of cities in which our status as a minority is understated.
Unlike many Jews in America I spent significant portions of my youth in school districts with few Jews—both urban and suburban. I served in the Marine Corps and was almost always the only Jew. I knew that despite my white appearance, my obviously Jewish last name was the weakest link in my shaky White American identity. Jewish whiteness is fickle, fleeting, and often based on what one does. When Jews marched with African Americans during the 1950s, history recorded us as “white civil rights activists.” But Bernie Madoff the fraudster is a Jew. When Jews do something wrong their Jewish identity suddenly eclipses their white one. Middle Eastern and Muslim Americans share similar experiences, so why aren’t we more unified?
Until now, the debate over Israel and Palestine was the main point of contention dividing our communities. However, these divisions increasingly exist among Jews as well. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has proved one of the most divisive leaders in recent Israeli history and enjoys waning support from within the government and among citizens. The issue of settlements and a two-state solution are hotly debated in the Jewish American community by liberal voices such as Peter Beinart and vehement supporters of Netanyahu’s policies like Noah Pollak. Many Jewish Americans have long viewed the alleged singling out of Israel for criticism as a new form of socially acceptable anti-Semitism. But the aftermath of the Trump election reveals that a deep-seated, apolitical, and very “white” anti-Semitism still exists in America. Furthermore, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are two sides of the same coin.
The Trump administration’s pointed targeting of Iranians in his executive orders and rhetoric has opened the door to increased understanding between our communities. I regularly interact with Iranian student organizations at U.S. universities and they have been reassured by the airport protests and numerous opinion pieces in support of their right to study, live, and work in the U.S. They have also noticed a strong Jewish American presence in those efforts, which many view as a welcome surprise.
These Iranians are neither dissidents nor staunch supporters of Tehran’s policies. They are patriotic Iranians who want a peaceful understanding with the rest of the world and they are the future of Iran. Yet an obsession with the Iran deal among many Jewish Americans still preoccupies far too many communal resources. A revolutionary yet pragmatic Iran is a major challenge, but not an existential threat to Israel, as the last three heads of the Mossad have pointed out publicly. What does pose an existential threat to Jews as a whole is a growing anti-Semitism in the West.
It must be remembered that anti-Semitism is a central pillar of many of the “clash of civilizations” theories that Islamophobes peddle. On social media, supporters of the Muslim Ban often point out that Jews are some of the strongest advocates for Muslim immigration and civil rights as evidence of a Jewish conspiracy against White America. Yet some far right Jewish organizations routinely support figures like Gorka solely due to their stances on the Palestine question and Iran.
This is an increasingly dangerous road for Jewish Americans to take. It is critical not to make alliances with figures who merely see Jews as a lesser enemy in a greater fight against Muslims. If anything, now is the time for Americans with similar concerns to put aside geopolitics—if only for a moment— prioritize the values that bond Americans together, and stand against hate together.
When Trump won the elections, many worried that it could lead to war between the United States and Iran, due to his desire to kill the Iran nuclear deal. Now, thanks to the U.S. Senate, we may be one step closer to this nightmare scenario: The Senate is poised to pass legislation that will place President Trump’s trigger-happy finger on the ignition switch of a deadly conflict with Iran.
Introduced to coincide with the annual American Israel Public Affairs Council (AIPAC) conference that concludes today, the Countering Iran’s Destabilizing Activities Act of 2017 (S. 722) would give Trump new tools to violate the Iran nuclear deal. Perhaps most shockingly, a small group of Senate Democrats have joined Republicans to grant Trump some of the most dangerous authorities that would put the U.S. and Iran back on the path to war. The list of sponsors includes many of the usual suspects ― the consummate Iran hawks who worked to block Obama’s diplomacy with Iran and many of whom have sworn to “rip up” the nuclear deal: Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Bob Corker (R-TN), Marco Rubio (R-FL), Tom Cotton (R-AR), and Ted Cruz (R-TX). But the list of sponsors also includes Ben Cardin (D-MD) ― who opposed the nuclear deal but has said the U.S. should still abide by it ― as well as Bob Casey (D-PA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Michael Bennet (D-CO), Chris Coons (D-DE), and Joe Donnelly (D-IN) who supported the deal.
Yet now these senators are signed onto legislation that requires non-nuclear certifications that would block the president from removing sanctions that are set to expire in later stages of the nuclear agreement. Why would Democratic senators who support the nuclear deal sign on to a measure that would violate the agreement? Because, they have argued, the bill gives the president a case-by-case waiver for the deal-killing provisions. That means that these senators are trusting Donald Trump with new deal-killing authorities and abdicating to him whether the U.S. honors the nuclear deal or “rips it to shreds.”
The bill also enables Trump to re-impose sanctions on Iranian entities that were de-listed pursuant to the accord. And it mandates sanctions that would broadly target any person or entity that ― knowingly or unknowingly ― contributes to Iran’s ballistic missile program, including universities that conduct research and banks that process payments for the government. This would amount to a trickle-down reimplementation of sanctions on much of Iran ― and a violation of the nuclear accord. Finally, the bill would designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), an elite branch of the Iranian military, as a terrorist group ― a major escalation. The IRGC is a highly problematic organization that has benefitted from years of a sanctions economy at the expense of Iran’s people. It is not unusual for individuals within the IRGC to be sanctioned if they are believed to have connections to Iran’s ballistic missile program. However, designating a foreign military branch as a terrorist organization is an extremely dangerous provocation that Pentagon leaders in multiple administrations have advised against. AIPAC has urged for the IRGC designation for the past decade, yet Barack Obama and even George W. Bush resisted. But now, with Donald Trump in the White House, AIPAC is pressing ahead with its proposal.
If this legislation is passed the U.S. can expect a negative response from Tehran that will undermine moderates in Iran’s upcoming May elections and empower anti-U.S. hardliners. The ranking member of Iran’s Parliament, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, has already signaled that Iranian lawmakers will consider designating the U.S. Army as a terrorist organization in retaliation. It is naïve to assume this exchange will be limited to words. U.S. special forces and IRGC units are currently fighting ISIS on the same front in Mosul. Despite some evidence that IRGC units targeted U.S. troops with IEDs during the height of the Iraq War, there have been no such incidents since U.S. soldiers reentered Iraq in the summer of 2014. In effect, the IRGC and the U.S.-backed coalition have agreed to stay out of each other’s way as they fight a mutual enemy in ISIS. This bill could change that reality by removing any incentive for Iran not to attack U.S. troops in Iraq, forbidding any cooperation with IRGC-backed militias against ISIS, and placing our Iraqi allies in a diplomatic catch-22. It is for this very reason that back in 2007, President Bush’s Pentagon opposed an SDGT designation for the IRGC.
With thousands of AIPAC supporters on Capitol Hill to lobby senators on behalf of the bill, there is a strong chance that this bill could obtain filibuster-proof levels of support. If every Republican supports the bill, and just one more Democrat signs on, AIPAC’s bill will hit 60 votes. If that happens, and Congress sends Trump this legislation, our new president will be granted the tools and the greenlight from Congress to unravel the Iran deal and put us back on the path to a war with Iran. Unless Democratic senators stand up against this bill soon, opponents of the Iran nuclear deal may wipe away Obama’s diplomatic legacy with Iran faster than even they thought was possible.
Saudi Arabia—not Iran—is the biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world today and Wahhabism remains the source of most radical Islamic extremism. For years Iran has borne the unenviable title of “world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism.” However, out of the 61 groups that are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department, the overwhelming majority are Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded groups, with a focus on the West and Iran as their primary enemy. Only two are Shi’a—Hezbollah and Kataib Hezbollah, and only four have ever claimed to receive support from Iran. Nearly all of the Sunni militant groups listed receive significant support from either the Saudi government or Saudi citizens.
The Great Compromise
Wahhabism is an ideology of compromise between the ambitions of the zealot and the needs of the ruler. Wahhabism can be thought of as a religio-political subcategory of the Salafi approach to Islam. Salafis get their name from the al-salaf al-salih or “pious companions” of Muhammad whose practices they claim to imitate. What distinguishes Wahhabism from Salafism is that the former is dependent on the House of Saud for its power whereas the latter is a phenomenon that exists globally.
The 18th century partnership of tribal leader Ibn Saud and cleric Abd al-Wahhab wedded two parallel sources of legitimacy in Arabia—religion and tribal kinship. The clerics known as ulema received their authority from God and then conferred it upon the Saud clan themselves. In exchange the ulema are protected from the risks that come with governance. Wahhabis must be distinguished from jihadi Salafis because Wahhabism is inextricably linked to the Saudi state and therefore not revolutionary in nature. The Royal family walks a tightrope between the liberalization necessary for economic development and strong political ties with the West, and the more conservative demands of the Wahhabi movement. One such demand is to turn a blind eye to the sponsorship and export of terrorism and jihad in South Asia, the Middle East, and even the West.
Exporting Jihad And Buying Friends
Some contend that Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia are being used as scapegoats when in fact the real causes of Islamist terrorism are far more complex. Mohammed Alyahya made just this argument in his New York Times article “Don’t Blame ‘Wahhabism’ for Terrorism.” The crux of the argument is that “most Islamist militants have nothing to do with Saudi Wahhabism.” For example, he asserts that the Taliban are Deobandis which is “a revivalist, anti-imperialist strain of Islam that emerged as a reaction to British colonialism in South Asia” and al Qaeda “follow a radical current that emerged from the Muslim Brotherhood.” While a nuanced understanding of the causes of terrorism is important, it must not lead policymakers to ignore an obvious source.
It is certainly true that not all Sunni extremist movements find their roots in Wahhabism. Al Qaeda was inspired by the anti-state Islamist literature of Muslim Brothers like Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb. But organizations and movements evolve. The al Qaeda we know today is very much a product of the more extreme elements of the Wahhabi movement that is tolerated and promoted by Riyadh. However, it is Pakistan rather than the Arab world, which is the true ground zero of Saudi Arabia’s export of extremism. An invasive strain of Saudi-sponsored Salafism, often referred to as the Ahl-e-Hadith movement, has spread throughout Pakistan, all the while the fundamentalist Deobandi movement is increasingly supported by Gulf donors. According to a U.S. government cable, “financial support estimated at nearly 100 million USD annually was making its way to Deobandi and Ahl-e-Hadith clerics in the region from ‘missionary’ and ‘Islamic charitable’ organizations in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates ostensibly with the direct support of those governments.” This fusion of Salafism and Deobandism occurs at the expense of indigenous South Asian interpretations of Islam like the Sufi-oriented Barelvis.
The close relationship between Saudi Arabia and Pakistan began as early as the administration of Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. According to a recently available CIA report, in 1975, Bhutto “obtained assurances of generous aid from Saudi Arabia” during a state visit. In exchange for such support Pakistan “furnished military technicians and advisers to the armed forces of Saudi Arabia.” Other CIA documents reveal that during Zia ul-Haq’s military dictatorship, Pakistan viewed the Soviet presence in Afghanistan beginning in 1979 as an existential threat. So Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was more than enthusiastic to train Pashtun mujahideen to fight the Soviets with Saudi and U.S. assistance.
Saudi officials naturally garnered greater respect from Pakistani officers than their American counterparts due to the revered status of the Kingdom as caretaker of the two holiest sites in Islam. The U.S. also underestimated the extent to which Pakistani officers would develop sympathies for the militants they spent years training. The ISI became an intermediary between Saudi Arabia and militant Islamic groups across South Asia. During the 1990s, the ISI shifted its focus towards Kashmir and the Punjab in an effort to counter perceived Indian aggression. But the deep connections fostered between the ISI and various militants resurfaced after 9/11 when their focus pivoted back to Afghanistan.
Meanwhile the ISI fought some militant groups while allowing others like the Haqqani Network to remain powerful. When Osama bin Laden was discovered in Pakistan, the U.S. ramped up drone strikes against safe havens, and the ISI retaliated by releasing the name of the CIA’s Islamabad bureau chief which resulted in numerous death threats. Since 9/11, Gulf dollars have continued to bolster extremist groups inside Pakistan even as Pakistani civilians die by the thousands from suicide operations linked to Saudi-sponsored madrasas.
In exchange for tolerating Gulf-sponsored terrorism Pakistani leaders get security. While in power they have an unofficial army of militants they can call upon to deal with anything from Baluchi separatists to keeping India on its toes. Once they leave power they have an escape hatch to protect them and their family. When Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was found guilty of corruption, kidnapping, and hijacking, in the summer of 2000, Saudi Arabia accepted him to live in exile. Benazir Bhutto’s notoriously corrupt widow and ex-president, Asif Zardari, went on a “self-imposed exile” to the U.A.E. throughout 2016. And the former president and general, Pervez Musharraf, is currently hiding out in Dubai to avoid prosecution for treason charges.
But the export of extremism from Saudi Arabia is not always by design. In his history of Pakistan, Ian Talbot argued that “the exposure of the lower-class Pakistanis to the Islamic heartland further encouraged a mindset favourable to Islamization, although Zia was to find that its impact on sectarianism was to prove unpredictable and potentially destabilizing.” Saudi Arabia fears the effects of its own radicalization and recently deported 40,000 Pakistani workers over concerns of terrorism. Today South Asia is rocked by sectarian violence from the mountainous peaks of Kabul to the tropical markets of Karachi and posh hotels of Mumbai. This February, suicide attacks killed hundreds across Pakistan. The province of Sindh begged the central government to shut down Gulf-funded seminaries. Islamabad declined.
Controlling The Message
The internet age rendered in-person missionary work by Saudi clerics less relevant. The radical messages of Saudi preachers and their protégés can be viewed on mobile phones across the world. Students filter into the seminaries in Mecca and Medina and return to teach at the hundreds of madrasas spread across the world. These representatives of the Kingdom do not always preach a militant message. Sometimes, and perhaps more dangerously, they preach an apologist one.
In 2008, popular Indian televangelist Zakir Naik called 9/11 an “inside job” done by the Bush administration to defame Islam. He also commented that “If he [Osama bin Laden] is terrorizing America the terrorist, the biggest terrorist, I am with him.” Despite these comments Naik went on to win the King Faisal International Prize for his “service to Islam.” The conspiracy theories he peddles are crucial to Saudi Arabia’s standing among the Muslim masses that are not necessarily prone to violence. However, conspiracy theories that brush aside the problem of extremism within the Kingdom are nothing new. Rumors about U.S. involvement in the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca led to an attack on the U.S. embassy in Islamabad in 1979 resulting in the death of two U.S. citizens.
Meanwhile Saudi Arabia spends millions on public relations firms in Washington D.C. every year in order to ensure it is not viewed as a state sponsor—or even enabler—of terrorism. The Kingdom attempts to contain the effects of its own hate preachers by campaigning to distance itself from the most egregious acts of terrorism in the Muslim world while still embracing a Salafi message. All the while in D.C. the Kingdom scrambles to disassociate itself not only from terrorism but from extremism altogether.
A Complicated Relationship
Australian Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull once asked President Obama “aren’t the Saudis your friends?” Obama famously replied “it’s complicated.” It is complicated. How can Saudi Arabia possibly serve as an effective partner against terror when its internal security is dependent on the continued export of terrorism? The answer is that for both Saudi Arabia and the U.S. the other has always been the perceived lesser of two evils.
In the early 1930s when U.S. companies first began to explore the Saudi oil market they were favored by the Royal family over the British who were viewed as imperialists disguised as businessmen. This enemy-of-my-enemy partnership grew closer during the Cold War and the goal to contain the Soviets was described as the “complementary foreign policy” of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia in a 1983 CIA memorandum. The fact that Saudi Arabia promoted a resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism in order to counter the Soviet Union did not alarm the U.S. intelligence community. Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran cemented Saudi Arabia’s position as the lesser of two perceived evils.
When the Gulf War incited harsh criticism of the Royal family for hosting non-Muslim soldiers they responded by coopting the majority of Wahhabi scholars into official government positions. Those who were too extreme for government work were encouraged to go abroad. The “28 pages” report detailing connections between the Saudi government and 9/11 hijackers proved once and for all that it wasn’t only private Saudi citizens who provide financing and manpower to radical terrorist organizations but the government itself. But Saudi Arabia claims it too is in a fight against radical extremism. Yet the majority of terrorist attacks in the Kingdom remain directed at the Shi‘a minority in the Eastern Province and Western targets. In fact, the U.S. State Department website explicitly warns citizens in Saudi Arabia to avoid “places where members of the Shia-Muslim minority gather.”
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad recently wrote in Politico that the Saudis claim to have adopted a new “policy of honesty” and admitted to him that in the past they had funded extremists. However, partial confessions and lukewarm commitments to fight terrorism are a pillar of Saudi diplomacy. After 9/11, the Saudi government made some effort to share intelligence and set up rehabilitation facilities for low-risk terrorists. But this was largely a show of good will that produced few long-term gains in the war on terrorism. The infamous “Podesta emails” confirm that the U.S. intelligence community believes Saudi Arabia and Qatar are now “providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL.” The export of fanaticism and terrorism is a necessary release valve so that the fragile equilibrium of Saudi society does not implode.
One Terrorism Policy
When the late Taliban commander, Mullah Mansoor, was killed in May of last year, it was his recent trip to Iran that became the focal point of discussion. For years, however, Washington all but ignored that the vast majority of the ammonium nitrate used to construct IEDs that delimb American soldiers in Afghanistan comes from Pakistan. In 2007, at the height of the war in Iraq, the U.S. military estimated that 45% of all foreign terrorists targeting U.S. troops were Saudi. Now the debate in Washington is whether to designate Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as terrorist organizations. The Muslim Brotherhood has rarely engaged in terrorism and the IRGC’s main focus appears to be Iranian dissidents abroad and fighting ISIS in Syria. Meanwhile the metastasization of Gulf-sponsored terrorist networks continues unabated. Counterterrorism policy has been reduced to a popularity contest rather than an assessment of real threats.
The U.S. must stop treating implicit and explicit state sponsors of terrorism differently. Saudi Arabia’s compartmentalized efforts at containing rather than eradicating extremism should not be lauded as a genuine partnership. States that clandestinely sponsor terrorism, albeit sloppily, must be held to the same standards as those that openly provide support. Counterterrorism strategists must adopt a long-horizon approach and recognize that state sponsors of terrorist groups are responsible for the consequences even when those organizations inevitably go rogue and turn on their benefactor. And just as Pakistan paid a heavy price for tolerating Saudi support for Wahhabi terror, the U.S. and the West are starting to feel the brunt of their own negligence of Riyadh and Doha’s love affair with terrorists.
Indeed, the very phrase “biggest state sponsor of terrorism” is best removed from diplomatic vocabulary altogether because so long as it shines the spotlight on only one country, others will hide in its shadow.
As is too often the case on Capitol Hill, the hearing – which was framed as an examination of U.S. interests and risks to U.S. policy in the war in Yemen – devolved into a conversation dominated by Iran hawks who inflated Iran’s influence and sought to play down Saudi Arabia’s role in the conflict.
During the hearing, former Ambassador to Yemen (2010-2013) Gerald Feierstein testified that Iran is benefiting from the conflict in Yemen and even claimed Saudi Arabia’s image was suffering as a result.
“The government of Iran has been the main beneficiary of the conflict in Yemen at a relatively low cost. Iran has inflicted an expensive, draining conflict on the Saudis and their coalition partners. The Saudis have suffered reputational damage internationally and the conflict has caused friction between Saudi Arabia and its key Western partners,” said Feierstein.
Sen. Corker also suggested that Iran is ultimately at fault for the escalation of the Yemen conflict.
“Iran has exploited this conflict to increase its influence in the region. They continue to provide arms to the Houthi force despite a U.N. Security Council resolution prohibiting such actions. Houthis have used these weapons to attack U.S. ships off the Yemeni coast and they are launching missiles across the border into Saudi Arabia,” said Corker.
To interpret the war in Yemen as a competition that Iran has dragged Saudi Arabia into certainly reflects the Saudi kingdom’s narrative about the war, but it ignores a half century of history. After all, it was Saudi Arabia that instituted a naval blockade on Yemen in 2015 and began airstrikes against the Yemeni Houthi uprising, while Iran in fact warned the Houthis against occupying the capital of Sanaa. Last summer, the New York Times reported on leaked documents from the Saudi foreign ministry that reveal an obsession with Iran and Yemen that verges on the conspiratorial. Clearly, Saudi Arabia is primarily responsible for reputational damage as a result of its conduct in waging war against its neighbor.
While many have framed the war as one to push back against external Iranian aggression, in reality the roots of the conflict stem from tribal conflict and religious sectarianism from inside of Yemen. Yemen has faced a low intensity civil war and insurgency since the formation of South Yemen in 1967 and the unification of north and south in 1990. Significant fighting occurred well before the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1979. Feierstein, who is now at the Middle East Institute, alluded to the tribal roots of the civil war. “It is in fact a tribal conflict in many areas of the country,” said Feierstein. He added that “al-Qaeda is seen as a supporter of Arab Sunni tribal interests.”
Thomas Joscelyn who is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies acknowledged in his testimony that the Houthis are not actually a proxy of Iran but are indigenous to Yemen.
“Some have said the Houthis are not the equivalent of Hezbollah, or an Iranian proxy. That’s correct. I do not treat them as an Iranian proxy, but they are closely allied with Iran in the war so I don’t care if they are a proxy or not,” said Joscelyn.
Unfortunately for Joscelyn’s assertion, it is relevant whether the Houthis are a proxy of Iran or not because it gets to the heart of whether Iran controls the conflict – which it does not. Regardless of whether Iran supports the Houthis, the conflict is indigenous to Yemen, and as such requires a Yemeni answer.
Joscelyn testified to the indigenous nature of the conflict when he added “It’s not just Iran that is backing the Houthis but also Saleh’s network in Yemen plays a key role in this…he doesn’t want to necessarily serve Iran’s agenda in Yemen. His objectives are not necessarily in lockstep with Iran.” Ali Abdullah Saleh served as the president of unified Yemen from 1990 until his ouster in 2012 and enjoys support from Zaidi Shiites in the country.
Sen. Rand Paul, who – along with Senator Murphy – led past efforts to block military aid to Saudi Arabia in light of its actions in Yemen, departed from many of his colleagues at the hearing and questioned the Kingdom’s commitment to reducing collateral damage in the conflict.
“The United States has the technical ability to kill anyone, anywhere, anytime. Just because we can doesn’t mean we should,” warned Paul.
“I think we don’t have enough discussion about the practical ramifications of whether or not we kill more terrorists than we create. I think Yemen is a perfect example of this,” Paul continued. “We’re supplying Saudis with bombs, refueling the planes, picking the targets. I assume that we didn’t pick the target of a funeral procession but we wounded 500 people and 140 people. I say we–the Saudis did it, but with our armaments. You think the Yemenis don’t know where the bombs are coming from?”
Trump’s revised Muslim ban is set to go into effect this Thursday, March 16th. Since it’s announcement last week, we at NIAC have received an avalanche of questions from across the United States. In an effort to keep you informed, we posed the five most common questions that we’ve received to NIAC’s Reza Marashi and Adam Weinstein. Their answers are as follows.
Question 1: Iran is on America’s List of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Why shouldn’t it be on Trump’s Muslim ban list?
Reza Marashi: The Muslim ban list does nothing to punish the Iranian government for its inclusion on America’s state sponsors of terrorism list, and it is wrong to conflate the two separate lists. The punishment is almost exclusively felt by innocent Iranian nationals who seek entry into the United States for educational purposes, family visits, tourism, and medical care. It is these people seeking a positive connection with America — not Iranian government officials — that are wrongfully being targeted, and thus no tangible security or anti-terrorism benefits are derived from including Iran on the Muslim ban list. If the Trump administration truly believed the Iranian government’s inclusion on America’s state sponsors of terror list warranted Iran’s inclusion as part of a Muslim ban, it would have gone to much greater lengths to create carve-outs to ensure innocent Iranians were in no way, shape, or form affected. Its inability or unwillingness to do so further shows that this is a discriminatory Muslim ban rather than a necessary or well thought out national security measure.
Question 2: The new Executive Order respects the due process rights of visa holders. As a result, isn’t it now reasonable? Shouldn’t these countries – state sponsors of terrorism and hotbeds of terrorism – received extra scrutiny?
Reza Marashi: No, the new Executive Order is neither reasonable nor logical because it does not address the actual problem of terrorist threats facing the United States. Zero Iranian nationals have committed acts of terror in the United States that have killed American citizens. Meanwhile, Saudi, Egyptian and Emirati nationals account for 94% of terror deaths on U.S. soil committed by the foreign-born, and yet they are not included in Trump’s Muslim ban. Thus, the extra scrutiny being placed on Iranian nationals does nothing to address the Trump administration’s stated goal of preventing terrorists from entering the United States, and makes Americans less safe by focusing on what’s not an actual threat and taking our attention away from the extra scrutiny needed on what is actually a threat. Most importantly, no countries should be on a Muslim ban list because the very concept of blindly banning nationalities or religions is wrong and ineffective.
Question 3: Isn’t it reasonable for the U.S. to request additional information from Iran and the five other countries on Trump’s Muslim ban list? If these countries don’t comply, isn’t it their fault that visas cannot be issued?
Adam Weinstein: U.S. vetting procedures have always stood on their own and served as an example for the world to emulate. The suggestion that the U.S. should or would rely on dual vetting is simply inaccurate and an insult to the agencies that have successfully protected us.
More dubious is the notion that Yemen, Syria, Somalia, and Libya were banned due to their status as failed states with armed conflict. If the U.S. were to ban visas for all countries with ungoverned regions controlled by armed groups the list would have to include: Afghanistan, Colombia, Honduras, India, Israel, Egypt, El Salvador, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine to name a few.
Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly has on numerous occasions suggested that vetting cannot occur in countries without a U.S. consulate. This assertion is very misleading because nobody from the banned countries receives a visa without visiting an embassy or consulate. For example, Iranians must travel to Dubai, Ankara, Yerevan, or elsewhere to attend visa interviews.
Thus, Trump’s list of banned countries is not based on a rational counter-terrorism policy response to events on the ground or actual threats.
Question 4: Iraq was removed from Trump’s Muslim ban list by strengthening its intelligence sharing with the U.S. Why can’t the other countries do the same?
Reza Marashi: Iraq was not removed from Trump’s Muslim ban list because of strengthened intelligence sharing with the U.S. Rather, it was removed at the request of Secretary of Defense Mattis, who feared it would hamper coordination to defeat ISIS, according to Trump administration officials. It is therefore accurate to say that including Iran as part of Trump’s Muslim ban will hurt America’s fight against ISIS, as U.S. officials noted last year that Iran is already helpful in fighting ISIS and we have a shared interest towards that goal.
Question 5: Acts of terrorism in the U.S. have not been committed by nationals from these six countries, but since their governments sponsor terrorism, isn’t it reasonable to expect that nationals from these countries might take such actions in the future and America should therefore take precautions NOW against that potential threat?
Adam Weinstein: The overwhelming majority of “radical Islamic” terrorism attacks in the U.S. have been committed by lone wolf attackers with no sponsorship. Such lone wolves include the Boston bombers, San Bernardino shooters, Orlando nightclub shooter, OSU shooter, and Fort Hood shooter. The only recent example of terrorism on U.S. soil that may have included some state sponsorship was 9/11 and the alleged sponsors are certain Saudi officials. It is also notable that all of these particular terrorists adhered to an extreme Salafi ideology that also views most Iranians as apostates.