Given the growing potential for broad conflict now existing in the Middle East, it might be worthwhile to look at that region in terms of past U.S. foreign policy to see just where we do or don’t fit in.
Islam has been divided since 632 AD when, after the death of Caliph Muhammad, Muslims were unable to agree on the selection of a new, permanent Caliph. This ultimately resulted in the division of Islam into its two main branches, the Sunnis and the Shias, two branches that have fought for almost 1400 years for primacy in Islam.
America had minor commercial ties with Muscat and Oman under Andrew Jackson as early as 1833, largely at the behest of the Sultan, who saw America as a sort of protective balance against the overwhelmingly negative influence of the encroaching British Empire in the region.
In the post-World War I era, with the defeat of the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France had managed to colonize just about all of the Middle East. Compared to the machinations of those two empirical powers, the United States looked pretty benign and, at least for the moment, had a relatively good reputation in the region.
All of this changed in the post-World War II era as America began to sign commercial agreements with regional powers designed to give us a handle on the control of Middle East petroleum. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s comment to an English diplomat on the Anglo-American Petroleum Agreement of 1944 was “Persian (Iranian) oil ... is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.” In terms of the Shia-Sunni split, please remember that Persia (Iran) was and is Shia and Saudi Arabia was and is Sunni. Thus, petroleum has played an important role in regional internal Muslim conflicts (not to mention Western conflicts) in the Middle East, since the middle of the 19th century.
Our reputation in the region was not helped by our involvement with Britain in the 1953 coup that overthrew the only democratically elected leader the Iranians have ever had. Additional U.S. efforts in Syria, Iraq and Egypt did not help our reputation.
And thus began the era which is just now coming to a close — the era in which the world’s need for petroleum products dominated everyone’s Middle East policy. That is no longer true, particularly for Americans who now produce far more petroleum products than we need.
Why then does it seem that the Middle East is breaking out into open warfare? Why does it seem, as in the recent cases of the shoot down of the American drone and of the demolition of Saudi petroleum production, that local countries in the Middle East are becoming increasingly bellicose and prone to increasing violence?
There is general consensus that the drone attack, and particularly the recent attack on Saudi refining capabilities, were both Iranian-inspired operations. Think of this against the region’s demographic realities. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 290 million Sunnis and 50 million Shia in the Middle East. Despite this major disbalance, the bulk of sheer fighting power is represented in Shia Islam — Iran, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon.
Even more significantly, the Shia in Iraq and Iran have the potential at any time of their choosing, to shut down the Straits of Hormuz, which is the route through which all Middle East oil flows, most emphatically including that which comes from the regional Sunni producers like Saudi Arabia. And this may well be the main purpose in recent Iran-sponsored hostilities toward their Sunni brethren. Perhaps it is all designed to show the Sunnis that they, the Shia, are the ones who will control any future intra-Muslim conflict.
Would the United States and Europe come to the aid of the Sunnis? After 18 years in Afghanistan, Americans are sick of Middle East conflicts. In addition, there is no written agreement that would bring America to Saudi Arabia’s or any other Sunni’s aid in the event of conflict.
On the European side, those who, along with the United States, signed The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) (China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom) which severely limited Iran’s nuclear development activities, only to see it incredibly stupidly trashed by President Trump, have little reason to support the Sunnis in any future conflict. They would far prefer to see the JCPOA re-established, along with the potential for regional peace it would bring.
As long as the JCPOA remains inoperative and the USA remains Iran-bellicose, we will see unwanted Chinese and Russian interests and activities in the region. That is definitely not in Europe’s or our national interest.
Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in east and west Europe, and the Middle East, as chief of the CIA’s counterterrorism staff and executive assistant in the director’s office.