Bush’s woefully misguided invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, carried out under false pretences, has not only drained the United States treasury, but reduced Washington’s standing in the Middle East in a way not yet fully grasped by most commentators. Whereas Washington once played off Tehran against Baghdad, while involved in a superpower zero-sum game with the Soviet Union, the Bush administration is now engaged in a zero-sum game, as a virtual equal, with Iran. That is, America’s loss has become Iran’s automatic gain, and vice-versa.
To grasp the steepness of Washington’s recent fall, recall that until Saddam Hussein’s disastrous invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, the zero-sum doctrine in the region applied only to Iraq and Iran, two minor powers on the world stage. Having emerged in a self-congratulatory mode as the “sole superpower” after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the U.S. now finds itself competing with a secondary power in the Middle East. This humbling realization seems to have finally penetrated the minds of top policy makers in the Bush administration, causing concern. More than anything else, that explains the sudden spurt of presidential interest in healing the long-running Israeli-Palestinian sore by holding a Middle East conference in Annapolis, Maryland. The real objective of the Bush team had more to do with mollifying Arab leaders in order to hold them together in its ongoing confrontation with Tehran than realizing a genuine urge to create a viable, independent Palestine within a year. With his invasion of Iraq in 2003, George W. Bush diverged wildly from the policies of his two Republican predecessors: his father, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. Both of them had proved erudite enough to maintain the zero-sum game between Iraq and Iran.
The zero-sum doctrine
While the United States and the Soviet Union vied for supremacy in the oil-rich, strategically important Middle East, the rivalry between Baghdad and Tehran was long submerged in the Cold War between the two superpowers. After the Communist coup in Czechoslovakia in February 1948, a zero-sum doctrine came to dominate that global “war.” From then on, each Soviet gain was automatically seen as a loss in Washington, and vice-versa in Moscow. This status quo held for 30 years. In April 1978, a Soviet-inspired military coup in Afghanistan toppled the regime of Daoud Khan — who had earlier overthrown his cousin, King Zahir Shah, and founded a republic — replacing it with a pro-Moscow republic. That alarmed the administration of President Jimmy Carter. The turmoil that ensued in Afghanistan would last two decades, at the end of which the puritanical, Sunni, Islamic fundamentalist Taliban movement would seize control of almost the entire country. (Being staunch Sunnis, the Taliban held Shi’a in low esteem, which helped raise tensions with Shi’a Iran to a fever pitch in 1998.) In the Middle East, meanwhile, a historic zero-sum game had prevailed between the pro-American Shah of Iran, re-installed after a CIA coup in 1953, and the Soviet-leaning regime of Arab nationalist officers in Iraq that followed the overthrow of the pro-British monarch in 1958. In the eight-year war between the two neighbors, started by Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980, President Reagan maintained a pretense of neutrality, while covertly supporting the Iraqi dictator, as some “rogue” officials in his administration sold weapons secretly to Iran’s fundamentalist regime that had toppled the Shah in 1979. In the mid-1980s, when Saddam’s defeat became a real possibility, the Pentagon introduced the U.S. Navy into the conflict. While the ostensible purpose was to escort tankers, carrying Kuwaiti oil, through the Persian Gulf to foreign destinations, this was an overt U.S. tilt toward Iraq. The war ended in a stalemate, leaving the regional zero-sum equation intact. Following the expulsion of Saddam Hussein’s occupying Iraqi forces from Kuwait in February 1991, President George H. W. Bush, leading a coalition of 28 nations, called on Iraqis to rise up against Saddam. Both the Kurds in the north and the Shi’a in the south answered his call. Bush senior came to the rescue of the Iraqi Kurds under the guise of United Nations Security Council Resolution 688 (relating to “the repression of Iraqi civilian population”). By contrast, he allowed Saddam’s forces to deploy helicopter gun ships to mow down the Shi’a rebels in the south. Why? Bush and his top officials, including then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, understood that Saddam’s overthrow would end the classic Iraqi-Iranian zero-sum game. Once the long-suffering Shi’a majority in Iraq was in the driver’s seat in a post-Saddam Iraq, it would naturally ally with predominantly Shi’a Iran.
The zero-sum fiasco
The coming to power of the anti-Shi’a Taliban government in Afghanistan, culminating in its killing of a dozen Iranian diplomats in the regional capital of Mazar-e Sharif in the summer of 1998, raised Tehran-Kabul tensions to an explosive point. Tens of thousands of Iranian Revolutionary Guards gathered along the international border with Afghanistan for “military exercises.” Although the two governments pulled back from the brink of war, Iran continued to regard the Taliban, a creature of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, as an intensely hostile entity. Contrary to Iran’s public posturing, including protests against the Pentagon’s aerial strikes on Afghanistan between October and December 2001, its government actually shared intelligence on the Taliban with Washington, using back channels. Like its politicians, the Iranian public was glad to see the Taliban defeated, and Iran’s diplomats cooperated with their American counterparts to install Hamid Karzai as the leader of the post-Taliban Afghanistan. Then, in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the Shi’a-dominated government feared by the first Bush administration came into existence. The overthrow of its enemies to the east (in Afghanistan) and to the west (in Iraq) – wrought by Bush junior to advance his own blinkered agenda — had now prepared the ground for Iran to assume the regionally dominant role its leaders consider their right. Iran has the largest population in the region, is four times the size of Iraq, shares land and water borders with nine countries, and has a coastline that runs along the whole Persian Gulf as well as part of the Arabian Sea, not to mention the land-locked Caspian Sea. It also has the second largest reserves of oil, as well as natural gas, in the world. In its regional policies, it does not differentiate between Sunnis and Shi’a. It has taken the lead in offering aid, material and moral, to Hamas, even though it is a Sunni Palestinian movement. Iran’s stance is in line with popular sentiment among Arabs. Hassan Nasrallah, Ismail Haniyeh, and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — respectively, the heads of the Lebanese Hizbullah movement, the Palestinian Hamas movement, and Iran — now top opinion polls as favorite leaders in Arab countries. That is, ordinary Arabs generally ignore sectarian differences, except when it comes to occupied Iraq. Worried by this fact, Arab rulers have resorted to stressing their sectarian, rather than ideological or policy disagreements, with Iran. The Bush administration has encouraged them to do so. Eager to counter rising Iranian influence by any means, its top officials are now trying to rally Arab rulers as Sunnis against Shi’a Iran, forgetting that a hasty and unnecessary invasion of Iraq was what has brought about this wretched mess in the first place. Increasingly, Washington under Bush will be the loser, no matter who prevails in the region — an apt definition of a superpower in decline and of a genuine zero-sum fiasco.
Dilip Hiro is the author of “The Iranian Labyrinth, Secrets and Lies: Operation ‘Iraqi Freedom’ and After,” and, most recently, “Blood of the Earth: The Battle for the World’s Vanishing Oil Resources,” published by Nation Books.