The Road to Trump’s Face-off with Iran

I was flying over the Strait of Hormuz when I first learned Iran had downed a US drone just 12 hours earlier.
My Emirates Airlines 777 was on the final approach to Dubai and I had turned on the BBC World live feed to catch up on the news after the 14-hour flight from Seattle.

The first thing that came to mind was the inevitability of the military clash. The second thing was the ironic timing. At that moment, my new book, America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs and the Road to Donald Trump, was arriving in bookstores.

And no, the fact that I was in roughly the same airspace where the clash occurred did not escape my notice.

But then almost 40 years of covering the Middle East has taught me that it's not hard to find yourself at the intersection of misguided American policies and the region's endless turmoil.

I can trace a dotted line from my arrival in Beirut in the summer of 1980, a year after the Iranian Revolution, to the confrontation playing out in the Gulf today.

Like the meandering path of the drone on the maps tweeted by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, the road to Donald Trump's face-off with Iran is long and complicated. It is paved with the failed policies of successive administrations, built on intentions both good and bad.

The road to Donald Trump's face-off with Iran is long and complicated

That path took me to the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq war, where the America's secret support for Saddam Hussein helped extend a brutal conflict that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Iran suffered a disproportionate share of the casualties, a fact that colours Iranian views of the US to this day.

The path took me back to Beirut, where Ronald Reagan's ill-conceived support for Lebanon's Christian minority government turned Lebanese Shias against the US and led to the suicide bombings of the US Marine barracks, three US embassies and a wave of kidnappings of Americans and Europeans, all orchestrated by Iran.

The path then loops back to Iraq, where George H.W. Bush called on the Shia to rise up against Saddam Hussein and then abandoned them to slaughter by Saddam's troops, and where George W. Bush unleashed the "shock and awe" that toppled the dictator but empowered Iran and cleared the way for its Iraqi Shia allies to take power.

The Saudis saw the invasion of Iraq for what it was, a naïve and fatal geopolitical miscalculation. It wasn't the deaths of hundreds of thousands of fellow Arabs that bothered them; it was the fact that by removing Saddam Hussein, America unleashed Iran, the Saudis' bitter rival for regional power.

Read more: Iran says it will abandon nuclear deal next week

"Iran is being handed Iraq… on a golden platter," Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal said in 2005. "Iraq is finished forever. It will be dismembered. It will cause so many conflicts in the region that it will bring the whole region into turmoil."

Yet in a twisted way, the Saudis ended up the biggest beneficiaries of this regional turbulence. Sectarian violence has sowed chaos in the Middle East, with both Sunnis and Shias culpable for anti-American terrorism. But rather than pragmatically standing aside, the US has firmly thrown in its lot with the Saudis. Some might even say Riyadh has now been handed the keys to American policy.

Donald Trump's first trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia, the culmination of decades of American policymakers genuflecting to the Saudi oil god.

At a summit ostensibly designed to build a global alliance against terrorism, the American president whitewashed Saudi Arabia's role in fostering the extremism of Al Qaeda, Islamic State and their offshoots and cast his lot with the House of Saud in its face-off with Iran, which he framed as a "battle between Good and Evil."

Some might even say Riyadh has now been handed the keys to American policy

American weapons are being used by Saudi Arabia and the UAE in their brutal war against Iranian proxies in Yemen, where the death toll nears 100,000 in what has been declared the world's worst humanitarian crisis.

American policymakers are cynically turning a blind eye to the UN's conclusion that there is "credible evidence" tying Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman to the brutal murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

And now the American military is in a confrontation with Iran over oil from Saudi Arabia and the Emirates, two countries with the most to gain from open conflict between their American patron and their regional nemesis.

Given history, what could go wrong?

Lawrence Pintak is a veteran journalist and scholar at Washington State University. His latest book, America & Islam: Soundbites, Suicide Bombs and the Road to Donald Trump, is available in shops this week.

Follow him on Twitter: @Lpintak

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