An anti-U.S. mural outside the former U.S. Embassy in Iran. Credit: Majid Saeedi/ Getty

August 13, 2018   5 mins

Which is the greatest threat to stability in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia or Iran? President Trump’s decision to impose two waves of sanctions on Iran, in spite of the UN-mandated nuclear agreement suggests he thinks the latter.

The unilateral sanctions1 are designed to collapse the Iranian economy, escalate popular protests, and topple the clerical regime – all without a war that would send oil prices through the $100 per barrel ceiling of a few years ago.

Such is the US concern about the mid-level Middle-East power, in an effort to deepen instability, certain factions are abetting anti-regime sentiment

Since admitting to the American public that you want a war with Iran is politically insensitive, the administration is pushing the idea that it can bring down the dangerous Iranian theocracy in the same way Reagan pressured the former Soviet Union, with economics.2

Such is the American concern about the mid-level Middle-East power, in an effort to deepen instability, certain American factions are abetting anti-regime sentiment.

For sure, ordinary Iranians have grievances. But episodic protests since December about the hardships of university graduates (42% of whom are unemployed) and truckers facing high fuel or insurance costs, or the mismanagement of water resources in Arab Khouzestan, a region prone to drought, have been contained with a minimum of state violence.

They harbour, too, a welter of resentment towards the lifestyles of the jeunesse dorée, or ‘aghazadehs’ in Farsi. The children of the elites are all over social media; the son of one reformist politician recently explained his prosperity in terms of ‘good genes’. The lavish wedding of a model and the son of another diplomat – all posted on Instagram – occasioned much furious comment from the 12 million young Iranians too poor to marry.

Another grievance is the vast sum being expended on external adventurism by the IRGC, particularly in Syria, where maybe 2,000 Iranian personnel have perished, including IRGC generals who lead from the front.

But, with the exception of a three day protest in Tehran’s central Bazaar over the plunging rial, these protests have not generally included middle-class Iranians in the big cities. Furthermore, the regime knows how to calm any political dissent with talk of restoring Iran’s Senate (abolished in favour of the Guardian Council in 1979) or releasing from house arrest the three men who led the 2009 Green Movement after Mahmoud Ahmadinejad rigged his re-election as president.

The idea that ordinary Iranians are ever going to coalesce around these murderous sects appeals to hawkish US thinktanks – but is like a sick joke in Iran

In the eyes of US hawks, it probably seems pretty simple to turn these protests into an existential crisis for the regime. But most Iranians have keen memories of US (and British) interference in their country – on a vacation there, my friend Jack Straw was recently handed a parchment list of such malign interference extending back to the 1840s – and they are well-informed about botched western interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, not least since they still host two million Afghan refugees.

Moreover, were the mullahs to fall, the two alternatives are unappealing to most Iranians. The most likely would be a military or revolutionary guard strongman, a role for which IRGC Quds force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani is ideally suited. He would have none of the clerics’theological inhibitions about nuclear weapons. People know that this would mean war.

The second alternative would be the Islamo-Marxist terroristic cult, Mujahedin-e-Khalq (MEK), an unpopular faction which key members of the Trump team have assiduously cultivated.

The MEK was among the plethora of groups which toppled the Shah in 1979. It was the only grouplet to actually kill six Americans, in line with its song “Leave American, your blood is already spilling on the ground”. After innumerable assassinations of Iranian regime personnel, the group was expelled in 1981. Then, after being evicted from France for plotting terrorist activities, welcomed five years later by Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Based at Camp Ashraf north of Baghdad, they fought for Saddam and raided Iran, as well as helping Saddam crush uprisings by the Kurds and Shia in 1991.

Although the MEK was the first entity to be listed on the United States Foreign Terrorist Organization roster in 1997, Camp Ashraf was never disbanded by the US military after the 2003 occupation. Instead, it mutated into a hermetically sealed ‘Jamestown’style headquarters for the cult, which is based on worship of its leader Maryam Rajavi. Her husband Massoud disappeared in 2003, and is still wanted for crimes against humanity by the Iraqi government. MEK is like the Iranian equivalent of the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers. They have about as much credibility in the eyes of Iranians as a British SS formation would have had for us in the 1940s.

It is, therefore, all the odder that a galaxy of US politicians and securocrats – including John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani, Andrew Card, Tom Ridge, Howard Dean, Wesley Clark, Jim Woolsey, Porter Goss, Anthony Zinni, and Michael Hayden – have accepted fees of between $25,000 and $50,000 to speak at rallies calling for the delisting of the MEK, and deployment of it as a ‘third force’ against the regime in Tehran.

It is Saudi Arabia rather than Iran which is destabilising the region with a hopelessly erratic foreign policy

The Americans have also been quietly cultivating Kurdish-Iranian militants, who regularly carry out assassinations inside Iran from a Kurdish Autonomous region which is also the lair of the Kurdish-Turkish PKK, another designated terror organisation.

Presumably the idea that ordinary Iranians are ever going to coalesce around these murderous sects appeals to hawkish thinktanks in Washington DC, but it is like a sick joke in Iran.

Which brings us to the final point, namely that it is Saudi Arabia rather than Iran which is destabilising the region with a hopelessly erratic foreign policy. It was not the Iranians who took Saad Hariri the prime minister of Lebanon hostage in order to forcibly alter the country’s internal political affairs.

Nor can the de facto collapse of the regional Gulf Cooperation Council, after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman felt emboldened by Trump, be attributed to Tehran. The malicious economic isolation of Qatar has nothing to do with Iran, but everything to do with Saudi and Emirati hatred of Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani Emir, of al-Jazeera, and of Doha as a putative commercial rival to Abu Dhabi and Dubai. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was forced from his job after he opposed a Saudi/UAE invasion, though not the insane scheme to excavate a canal cutting off Qatar, and gifting a new nuclear waste dump on its side.

The same diplomatic duo have been responsible for the disastrous military incursion into Yemen where they have triggered a massive humanitarian crisis in the Arab world’s poorest nation.

The Saudis and their Emirati and Bahraini sidekicks have deployed tens of millions of dollars and pounds sterling via PR firms and lobbyists to spin stories for the western media

Worse, the Saudis and Emiratis have struck secret deals with Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in south western Yemen, recruiting them as mercenaries to fight the Houthi, or paying them to vacate positions with their weapons intact. AQAP are regarded by informed observers as the most technologically-sophisticated bomb makers in the organization (devices in printer cartridge nearly downed a plane). This is why the US government has hit them with 140 drone and airstrikes since 2017.

But of course, unlike Iran, the Saudis and their Emirati and Bahraini sidekicks have deployed tens of millions of dollars and pounds sterling via PR firms and lobbyists to spin stories for the western media – not to mention the billions they expend on buying arms that keep people in work in Lancashire and the like. This may be why there has been remarkably little comment about Riyadh’s angry severing of relations with Canada, which bravely drew attention to the arrest of women who had led the protests against the driving ban, after this mutated into something like civil dissent. So much for the much-feted ‘MbS’ as the modernising reformer.

Incredibly, the US and UK seemed to regard Canada and Saudi Arabia as equal allies having a tiff, whereas in reality Canada has been a Nato stalwart for seven decades, while Saudi Arabia is at best an autocratic ‘frenemy’ with a lot of money. So instead, we buy their convenient fictions about Iran.

  1. In any case, the remaining five signatories to the JCPOA may have a say in this; they could thwart the sanctions by employing workarounds which would mean using the Euro or Yuan to trade oil, or by imposing their own blocking legislation
  2. It is, though, an absurd comparison, since the Soviets were nuclear-armed peer competitors of the US, with client Communist parties in almost every country in the world. There is also no one in Iran comparable to Mikhail Gorbachev from whose hands the reins slipped. Iran, in comparison, is at most a regional power which has never succeeded in exporting its unique governance model – with the exception of Hizbollah in Lebanon, where it is part of the ruling coalition and an ally of Maronite Christians. Even in majority Shia Iraq, the recent general election was largely fought over curbing Iran’s political influence.

Michael Burleigh is an historian and commentator on world affairs. His 12 books include The Third Reich: A New History (Samuel Johnson Prize 2001) ; Moral Combat; Small Wars and Faraway Places and The Best of Times, Worst of Times: The World As It Is which appears in November.