Iran Crisis or ‘Circus’? A Weary Middle East Wonders

Iran Crisis or ‘Circus’? A Weary Middle East Wonders

CAIRO — The drums of war are sounding across the Middle East, driven by the Trump administration as well as by disputed attacks on Saudi Arabian tankers and an oil pipeline. But Rohile Gharaibeh, a prominent Jordanian politician and newspaper columnist, has watched it all with a mixture of disdain and weary exasperation.

“A circus,” Mr. Gharaibeh said in a phone interview, describing recent events as little more than a spectacle with multiple foreign actors on the stage. “It’s no more than shenanigans to apply more pressure on Iran.”

As the Trump administration squares up against Iran, with what many see as alarming echoes of the buildup to the Iraq war in 2003, people across the Arab world are trying to figure out how worried they should be. In interviews, writers, businessmen and exiles expressed fear of a potentially dire war between the United States and Iran that for many has been brewing since the 1979 embassy siege in Tehran.

But they have also grown accustomed to an American president who often favors bluster over diplomacy as a tool of negotiation, yet ultimately backs down.

“If we were to believe everything Trump has said for the past three years, there would have been war with China, North Korea and Mexico,” said Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic. “The guy’s a joke, he’s not serious. We don’t know if these threats are something to believe in, or just another of his many stunts.”

In Lebanon, Rami G. Khouri, an academic at the American University in Beirut, spoke from his apartment terrace, which looks out over the Mediterranean. “I’m watching for American missiles to come over the horizon,” he said wryly.

In the Qatari capital of Doha, a businessman, Farhad Sayed, had just finished suhoor, his last meal before starting the daily Ramadan fast at dawn. “This may lead to something small,” he said sarcastically.

Yet, beneath the jokes and skepticism lie a festering worry that the escalating showdown could prove the exception to the rule, the moment when Mr. Trump’s tactics accidentally tip the United States — and the Middle East — into an unwanted war.

“Could it escalate, turn into something full-blown?” said Mr. Fahim. “Maybe.”

Those tensions are already being felt in parts of the Arabian Peninsula. Early Thursday, huge explosions rocked the Yemeni capital, Sana, as warplanes from the Saudi-led coalition carried out a wave of airstrikes against targets linked to the Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels who control most of northern Yemen.

The airstrikes came two days after the Houthis claimed responsibility for the attack on the oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival in the region and, with the United Arab Emirates and Israel, the principal supporter of the Trump administration’s ramped-up stance against Iran.

Yemen’s Health Ministry said that six people had been killed in Thursday’s airstrikes, among them four children. Houthi officials distributed graphic pictures of bleeding, dust-covered children lying on hospital beds.

In an editorial published on Thursday, Arab News, the main Saudi English language newspaper, said the next strikes should target Tehran.

“Our point of view is that they must be hit hard,” said the newspaper, which often reflects the official Saudi position. “While war is always a last resort, an international response is a must to curb Iranian meddling.”

Mr. Trump’s approach to Iran, crafted primarily by his hawkish national security adviser, John R. Bolton, is “the only thing he’s gotten 100 percent right,” said Mohammed Alyahya, the editor in chief of Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned news channel based in Dubai.

“The Iranians wanted to wait Trump out,” Mr. Alyahya said. But when the president reimposed suffocating oil sanctions, “they realized they couldn’t wait. That’s why we are seeing this frenzy of activity in the Gulf.”

“What’s really sickening is seeing people who are advocates for Iran in the West making excuses,” he added, noting Iranian support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Some of the things you hear from Trump critics would make a Syrian who lost his family cringe.”

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency official now at the Brookings Institution, said Saudi Arabia’s apparent appetite for confrontation with Iran stood in stark contrast to its former leadership.

The previous ruler, King Abdullah, was strongly averse to open conflict, even to the point of obfuscating Iranian responsibility for the 1996 Khobar Towers terrorist attack, which killed 19 United States Air Force personnel. (The United States ultimately concluded that Iran was responsible.)

But under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto Saudi ruler while his aging father sits on the throne, “they like the confrontation,” Mr. Riedel said.

In an ominous portent, he said, an animated video appeared online last year depicting the crown prince — often referred to by his initials, M.B.S. — leading a Saudi invasion of Iran. “If that video is any insight into M.B.S.’s thinking, we should all be very worried,” Mr. Riedel added.

Uncompromising statements from the White House, and the sudden profusion of incidents like Sunday’s mysterious attack on two Saudi oil tankers, have stoked fears in some quarters that Mr. Trump and his aides are trying to gin up a case for war, much as the Bush administration did before the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

At the same time, many Arabs feel there is a need to counter Iranian expansionism. Through alliances with local armed groups, or by smuggling weapons and money, Tehran has steadily extended its footprint across the region for the past 15 years. Its arc of influence runs through Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Yemen.

“Iran has created the atmosphere for this warmongering,” said Monalisa Freiha, an editor at an-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. But, she added, she had little faith that Mr. Trump’s approach would prove a successful counter to Iranian aggression.

“I don’t see a calculated war on the horizon,” she said. “But miscalculation is possible at any time.”

Khaled al-Sharif knows about the sharp end of American policy. A Libyan anti-Qaddafi rebel, he was arrested in Pakistan in 2003 and held for two years in a Central Intelligence Agency dungeon in Afghanistan where, he says, he suffered extensive torture that left him with persistent mental health problems.

Many Libyans welcomed American military support for the revolution that overthrew Libya’s longtime dictator Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi in 2011, Mr. al-Sharif said. But since then it has been hard to tell when Washington might favor democracy, as it purports to do in Iran, and when it will stick squarely with autocrats, like in Saudi Arabia or Egypt.

“This problem with Iran goes back decades,” he said. “Now, it’s about money: Trump is close to the Gulf countries because he wants to make money from them.”

The current tensions were unlikely to lead to war, he added, “but neither will they lead to peace. We need to find a political solution.”

Mr. Gharaibeh, the Jordanian politician and newspaper columnist, said that, like so many times before, most Arabs had been reduced to the role of extras or spectators in an elaborate production hosted by larger foreign powers.

And as so many times before, he added, “they will end up paying the cost of it.”

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