The Middle East has a knack for creating grandiose causes that often end up being a trap for those who once created them. Whether the cause for resistance, the cause for Palestine, the cause for democratic change, the cause for Islam and Sharia-based political order, they tend to turn into monsters eating up those who fed them. Currently, Iran is on its way to create a new cause for nuclear rights which is, if we are to depend on regional history, likely to come back with a vengeance.
The history of the modern Middle East is that of devotional causes that went rogue. Once a holy cause is established, it becomes independent of its origins and grows a life of its own, often consuming the very original conditions for its existence. Such causes are always easy to ratchet up, but almost impossible to ratchet down. The cause of post-colonial Arab national liberation championed by Arab nationalists in Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Algeria ended up with military officers rolling on top of tanks, and Arab capitals starting a continuous history of military coups and counter-coups, building some of the most brutal and monstrous political order in Arab history. For many Arab historians, injustice and crimes of European colonialism look like humanitarian interventions compared to Saddam’s Iraq, Ghaddafi’s Libya or Assad’s Syria.
The Palestinian cause, the holy grail of all causes, ended up setting the regional infrastructure for a world of guerilla warfare, armed militias, terrorism, a cult of suicide bombings and an insatiable messianic zeal. The cause for Palestine unleashed long series of wars, defeats, losses of resources, destruction of any prospects for healthy Arab political life, justification for brutal repression; in short, it became completely out of control. The cause ended up starting civil wars in Jordan and Lebanon, hijacking Arab passenger planes, entering coalitions with vicious and destructive forces and destabilized the foundations of the very states that once helped establish the cause itself. The same thing can be said for Islam and Sharia law. Once desiring to morally upstage their opponents, the Arab rulers who wanted to play the Islamic card ended up being their first victims. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who freed Islamists from prisons in order to take down his Socialist opponents and introduce Sharia law into the Egyptian constitution, was the first Arab ruler to be assassinated by Islamic terrorism, leaving Egyptians to this day stuck with a constitution no one dares change. Once the cause is up, it’s very difficult for it to come down.
When Hezbollah made its debut as the hero of Lebanese resistance against Israeli occupation, even many Lebanese Christians helped to ratchet up the resistance cause. After the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, the Lebanese people discovered that resistance is an eternal condition that cannot be resolved, even with the negation of Israeli occupation. The Lebanese state was left with no political power, no functional institutions and no viable path towards normativity. Resistance is endless, and if Hezbollah saw the Israeli occupation as a cause worthy of resistance, it saw in the Israeli withdrawal a conspiracy worthy of even more resistance.
In the Middle East, regimes have the nasty habit of tabbing into holy causes for legitimacy, yet those holy causes become new religions that no one can control. Today, the Islamic Republic is setting itself a classical Mideast trap. The nuclear cause and hegemonic quest are turning into a holy doctrine regardless of Iran’s economic capacity, developmental needs, international hostility or the potential for dystopian nuclear proliferation in one of the most volatile regions of the world. Iran is pushing forward with a new cause that will prove to be difficult to swiftly moderate even if its leaders wanted to do so. The more the Islamic Republic depends on such causes for its survival, the more it entangles itself in a trap that cannot be avoided. The more entangled it gets, the less it is possible for the Iranian people to survive such a trap without deposing the Iranian regime.
We are not saying that Iran will abandon its nuclear goals or its hegemonic ambitions easily. It probably will do neither of those without the credible threat of military force. At this point, it does not look like the Biden administration has a realistic appraisal of the real nature Iranian threat against the United States or the moral courage and stamina for yet another military confrontation in the Middle East.
The problem of an Iranian nuclear bomb is not limited to Israel and the Gulf states. There is a strong connection between Caracas, Venezuela, and Tehran, Iran, and a high probability that the Iranians are transferring their weaponry to the Western hemisphere. The American public, as well as our policymakers, are seemingly oblivious to the fact that the Iranians are working with the rabidly anti-American regime of Nicolás Maduro to replicate what Israel faces in its northern border with Lebanon, home to approximately 150,000 missiles.
This is not just an Israeli issue or a Sunni Arab State issue or even a Republican issue. This is an American issue. We have often asked ourselves what there is in the phrase “Death to America” that many Americans refuse to understand.
Yes, the Iranians are building a trap for themselves, although it might look to them at the moment that they are winning. With their swagger and braggadocio, they are testing their limits and playing with fire. The only thing that will convince them that they are in the trap is the credible threat of military force. And that threat will, most likely, not come from the Biden administration.
It might, however, come from a new NATO-like alliance forming between Israel and the Gulf Arab states. They understand and appreciate the military might and sophisticated intelligence capabilities of the Israelis.
The Iranians might be laughing at the United States, Israel and the Gulf nations while they are negotiating in Vienna. But America might find itself in a position, one day, where it will be thanking its ally, Israel, and the newly formed friendships in the Gulf for protecting all of us from the megalomaniacal Islamic Republic of Iran.
Sarah N. Stern is founder and president of the Endowment for Middle East Truth (EMET), a pro-Israel and pro-American think tank and policy institute in Washington, D.C. Hussein Aboubakr Mansour is director of the EMET Program for Emerging Democratic Voices from the Middle East and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.