As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, the United States prepares to leave a torn Afghanistan and a fragile Iraq. If George W. Bush was the president who tried to accomplish an impossible mission, Joe Biden is the president trying to abort it. The unexpected twists and turns in the Middle East made and unmade many spectacles, heroes, villains and delusions. The United States no longer wishes to continue the dance with Iran and would rather leave the arena while Iran gladly holds the door open.
On the eve of 9/11, Iran was as revolutionary as it is today. Rallygoers chanted then as they do now, “Death to America!” Iranian leaders made bombastic declarations about destroying Israel. Yet, the situation couldn’t be more different. To the east, Iran was bordered by an anti-Shiite Sunni Taliban regime with which there were many border skirmishes. Any escalations would have had an immediate Sunni-Shiite flavor that could have induced Pakistan’s involvement. To the West was Iran’s arch-nemesis, Saddam’s Iraq, already proclaimed, by others as by herself, as the Persian Shiite/Arab Sunni frontier. A few years after 9/11, the United States had changed the situation dramatically for Iran ending both regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan and opening a closed geopolitical horizon for Iran.
As in any chess game, there’s no guarantee your opponent will take advantage of or even notice an unexpected gift. But Iran did both. Through a web of persistent strategies centered on incognito actions through a vast network of subsidiaries, contractors and clients, Iran was able to entrench itself in all territories it wished to control and made them into the pillars of further operations strategies. The story of Iranian success is only the other side of the American failure to identify, recognize and deal with a dance in which, willingly or unwillingly, the US was engaged all along.
Today, Iran is about to crown its strategy with the culmination of a long series of successful maneuvers, strategies, and tactics in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, New York and Vienna by finally ejecting the United States from the region with minimal cost and maximum returns. This prolonged war of attrition against American presence in the Middle East successfully exhausted American resolve in the region and even made the American public and political class “Middle East averse.” The region is no longer on the priority list of Washington.
It is unquestionable that Iranian strategic thinking outwitted that of America. Iran performed many dances at the same time: holding negotiations with international institutions, using back channels with American officials to assure them their support for American policies in Afghanistan and Iraq and even cultivating personal relationships with Western diplomats, while at the same time working to maximize American losses and casualties in the region. This was and is the primary mission of Al-Quds Force under Qassem Soleimani, which oversaw the killing of many Americans.
Iranian officials know how to have their cake and eat it too without flinching. Nowhere is this success story more obvious than in Iraq where the United States is decisively beyond its capacity of tolerance, while Iran maintains complete hegemony over the country. Lebanon is another success story where Iran helped transform the Lebanese power structure and irreversibly changed the sectarian balance. While Lebanon is a country that has a painful sectarian history that predates Iran, the irredeemable self-destructive direction of the Lebanese state today would not have happened without the Lebanese political dysfunction with a clear Iranian agenda that outmaneuvered all domestic and international players to become the sole arbitrator of the country’s destiny.
The Lebanese Maronite, Sunni and Druze political classes were successfully outmaneuvered into political impotence, largely due to their own missteps, and left with no tools to watch Iran and Hezbollah determine the fate of their country. The story in Lebanon is the product of both political stupidity and hegemonic predation and a micro model of the genius of Iranian strategic thinking.
On the nuclear front, the Biden administration also single-mindedly seeks to avoid further regional commitments or escalations and would rather leave the Middle East to pay more attention to the Far East. Despite the warnings from Israel, Saudi Arabia and others, the Robert Malley people insist on an agreement with Iran in which the JCPOA can be restored, and the US can disentangle safely. In this too, Iran wants to perform many dances at once, getting the sanctions removed while gradually enhancing its nuclear capability. If recent history is any indication, Iran is really good at getting what it wants.
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