The Washington Post had an op-ed this morning — Our new Saddam Hussein — that got me to thinking about our insistence on repeating the same mistake in the Middle East, a region notoriously unforgiving of mistakes.
- We backed Shah Reza Pahlevi in Iran, he was a ruthless dictator, and he was overthrown in 1979 by religious fanatics who continue to make trouble for the US and the world.
- We backed Saddam Hussein, a ruthless dictator, because he sold us oil and opposed Iran. Then we overthrew him and created a chaotic mess in Iraq that Iran continues to exploit.
- Now we are backing Mohammad bin Salman, another ruthless dictator who butchers Americans, who is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen. But he could be overthrown by Wahhabi fanatics who hate Iran — and also hate us.
A bit of history — OK, a lot of history. In 1951, Mohammad Mossadegh, having failed to get the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now British Petroleum) to give Iran a larger share of the profits and to treat its Iranian workers better, got the Majles (Parliament) to nationalize the oil industry. The UK was still recovering from WWII and didn’t have the resources to take it back, so Winston Churchill appealed to the US for help. President Harry Truman, having decided that the Iranians had a valid point,refused. But then Eisenhower won the 1952 election, and announced that he was placing the Dulles brothers in charge of the CIA and the State Department. The Dulles boys were fervent anti-communists, and Churchill persuaded them that Mossadegh was a Soviet agent (he wasn’t); they in turn persuaded Ike to agree to a CIA operation to stage a coup that would remove Mossadegh, restore the Shah to power (he had fled the country by this point), and put Anglo-Iranian Oil back in business.
The coup succeeded, the Shah returned to his throne and promptly began a reign of terror against all opposition, forcing Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni into exile in Paris, and in addition making the United States, previously seen as a friend of democracy, into a supporter of dictators. After the 1979 revolution, President Jimmy Carter inadvertently reinforced this view when, at the urging of Henry Kissinger, he allowed the Shah, by then dying of Waldenstrom’s Syndrome, to come to the US for medical treatment. That in turn led to the takeover of our embassy in Tehran and the animosity that exists between the US and Iran to this day.
That was strike one.
While all that was going on, Saddam Hussein was taking power in Iraq and terrorizing anyone who (a) disagreed with him or (b) caught the eye of one of his sons. He also had a lot of oil, maybe even more than Iran, and he started a war with the Ayatollah’s forces. So the US decided to get on his side with money and arms and closed a blind eye to his murders — until he invaded Kuwait, which looked like (and probably was) a bid to control even more of the West’s oil supply. Bush the First then organized a war to recover Kuwait, which he did, but he at least had the good sense not to go into Iraq. Bush the Second had no such caution, and as we all know, started a war to get rid of Saddam, get control of his oil, and not incidentally set up a puppet regime that would continue the fight with Iran. So while Iraq was moderately pleased that we got rid of Saddam for them, they were not all pleased with the chaos we triggered afterwards, our blatant attempts to control their oil, and the way in which we totally ignored Sunni-Shi’a and Arab-Persian complexities. We are still at war in Iraq (on a much smaller scale), Iranian influence there has increased, and we have made more enemies in the Middle East.
That was strike two.
Now we come to Saudi Arabia, another country that has long opposed Iran (again, for Sunni-Shi’a and Arab-Persian reasons) and which has a new dictator effectively in charge, Mohammad Bin-Salman (MBS), who is fighting a proxy war with Iran in Yemen, murdering those who challenge him (in particular Jamal Khashoggi, a US resident), and generally behaving much like the Shah and Saddam before him. But like those two, he sits on a lot of oil, and like Saddam, he opposes Iran, so the US is flattering him (and being flattered by him) and giving him lots of arms and support, and turning not just a blind eye but a big smile his way.
So is this going to be strike three?
There is a religious component at work here that is similar to what happened in Iran (though not in Iraq), which is the Wahhabi movement. This was started in the late 1700s by Abd Ibn-Wahhad, a fanatic who wanted to return Islam to the way it was in Mohammad’s time, when it was “pure.” He made a bargain with Ibn Saud, the leader of a local tribe, who gave him military support in return for religious backing. The Wahhabis at one point captured Mecca and Medina and set about destroying everything that displeased them (including Mohammad’s tomb), but were eventually driven out by the Ottoman Empire’s forces. Now the Saudis are in charge of Arabia, but the Wahhabis, though they have a lot of power under them, are not happy with the way the royal family behaves.
MBS may well face the same fate as the Shah, driven from power by religious fanatics — who also hate Iran. Actually, they hate pretty much everything that is different from their mythology about the “lost purity” of the Prophet and his righteous ancestors (the “Salaf”, from which we get the term Salafi). Al-Qaeda was an offshoot of Wahhabism, and ISIS appears to use the same theology, though I am not as sure of a direct connection there. If the Saudi royal family falls and the country is taken over by these fanatics, they will have access to all that lovely weaponry we’ve been selling them, plus control of even more of the world’s oil.
Now if that doesn't keep you up at night, here’s a bit more: There are reports MBS is looking at nuclear technology, perhaps with a view to building a nuclear bomb. That, of course, will make Iran even more nervous and give them more reason to further develop their own — and Trump has made that more of a possibility by giving them an excuse to exceed the limits imposed on them by Obama and Europe. MBS may be enough of a realist not to want to start a nuclear war with Iran, but the Wahhabists would be eager to do so, as they are assured of heaven if they die as martyrs. Oh yes, they would also want to take out Israel at the same time.