“Sand and death.” With a phrase that sounded strangely poetic, U.S. President Donald Trump prophesied what lies ahead for the armed forces of the United States should this country maintain a military presence in Syria indefinitely. Given Trump’s past utterances on the same subject, these off-the-cuff remarks in the White House Cabinet Room on Jan. 2 were hardly shocking, but what came right after was, shall we say, unexpected.
Iran’s experience of sending its troops into Syria had left the Tehran regime with a similarly bleak perception of its neighbor, Trump suggested.
“Iran is no longer the same country. Iran is pulling people out of Syria,” said the president. “They can do what they want there, frankly, but they’re pulling people out, they’re pulling people out of Yemen. Iran wants to survive now.”
That last point should not be dismissed as out of hand, even if it was as part of a stream of consciousness on foreign policy that also contained preposterous claims (e.g., that the Soviet Union, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to prop up the Communist regime in Kabul, did so “because terrorists were going into Russia.”)
Trump is correct—as he made sure to remind us—that Iran’s economy has suffered severely since he became president. The reimposition of tough sanctions has come at the same time that Tehran has invested massively in its regional proxies stretching from Yemen to Lebanon, and cutting through Iraq and Syria. Iran’s regime has also been experiencing the only pushback it really understands in the form of frequent Israeli airstrikes on its military convoys and facilities in Syria.
In terms of its relationship with their subjects, Iran’s rulers are also experiencing a degree of turmoil. When Trump said there were “riots every week in every country,” he likely meant the student-led anti-regime demonstrations that ebbed and peaked in 2018, and which have picked up again in the last two weeks following a horrible bus crash in which 10 students from Azad University were killed and 27 injured.
And even within the regime, there are some clerics who are talking up the notion that Iran is in the midst of a “crisis.” Arguably, the most interesting of these figures is Hassan Khomeini—grandson of the Islamic Republic’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini—who spoke on Dec. 29 of the “continuous fragmentation of society” under the Islamist regime, “spreading hatred, grudges, hypocrisy, double standards and dishonesty.”
Hassan Khomeini’s anxiety is based on his fealty to the governing concept of velayat-e-faqih (“guardianship of the jurists”) introduced by his grandfather. At the same time, given that his family has been marginalized under the present ruling clique, Khomeini Jr. is also engaging in political maneuvering, so it may suit him to present the Islamic Republic as facing collapse. But as far as the Iranian regime itself is concerned, where others see “sand and death” and imminent collapse, they also see opportunity knocking.
In a speech in Tehran on Jan. 3, Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, painted a rosy picture of a multipolar world in which “it is a big mistake to think that there are superpowers.”
As a real-world example, Zarif boasted of Iran’s enhanced status in Syria, alongside Russia and Turkey. But he also cast a broader eye over the opportunities presented by a world composed of multiple powers, advocating the efficacy of propaganda as a means of inspiring “resistance” among one’s rivals.
“The factor that brings about victory is creating public hatred of the invaders,” noted Zarif in a nod to the trusted method of propaganda merchants since Josef Goebbels. That is a clear message that even if we assume Iran is presently retreating, it’s not going to do so quietly. And once the United States is out of the way, it is quite conceivable that the surge of power that Tehran has enjoyed over the past decade will be reinvigorated.
That’s the inherent problem with dividing the world (as both Trump and Zarif do) into zones of influence based on geographic proximity. As is depressingly usual in the Middle East, the Kurds will again be the first victims of this new shift in the power balance; in order to ward off a threatened genocide at the hands of Turkey, Syrian Kurds may have to turn to Russia, to the Assad regime in Damascus, and ultimately, to the Iranians for military and political assistance. When you realize that assistance would come from a power that, even now, is repressing its own Kurdish minority of more than 6 six million people, you get some sense of the political price America’s Kurdish allies will have to pay for yet another abandonment.
It’s often said that Jews are a civilizational equivalent of the proverbial canary in a coal mine, and that is true of the Kurds as well. In a region that has seen the periodic mass slaughter of thousands of Kurds during the last 30 years—from Saddam Hussein to ISIS—their fate is intimately tied to that of the region as whole. The tremors of Trump’s decisions now, if they are actually implemented, will be felt long after he has departed the White House.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in “Commentary,” “the New York Post,” “Haaretz,” “The Wall Street Journal” and many other publications.