An Iranian woman walks past an anti-U.S. mural in front of the former U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, 8 May 2018. (EPA-EFE/Stringer)

This article is part of a News-Decoder series of “decoders” that explain crucial background to big issues. For more decoders, click here.

By Alistair Lyon

Faith is often flaunted in the Middle East, but there are no angels here.

One religiously-based state shrouds its nuclear arsenal in ambiguity. It has a long record of destabilizing its enemies by means of assassinations, air strikes, ground incursions, full-scale invasions, sometimes in alliance with sectarian militia proxies, and territorial expansion.

That would be Israel.

Saudi Arabia, whose conservative brand of Sunni Islam is echoed in the more radical versions espoused by al-Qaeda and Islamic State, also has a habit of bullying its neighbors.

Traditionally it relied on cash inducements, but for the last three years it has led a Western-backed bombing onslaught on impoverished Yemen, inflicting vast suffering for scant military gain.

U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia have made common cause against Iran, which cast itself as a regional heavyweight even before the 1979 Islamic revolution. They are alarmed by the nuclear aspirations and ballistic missiles of the Shi’ite power, which projects political and military influence abroad directly or via proxies in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Gaza and to a limited degree Yemen.

So when U.S. President Donald Trump sounded the death knell of an international deal that trades constraints on Iran’s nuclear-fuel program for the lifting of some sanctions, Saudi and Israeli leaders openly rejoiced. The rest of the world was aghast.

Dusting off military adventure

The accord was signed in July 2015 after years of patient diplomacy to avert the incalculable consequences of a war pitting Iran against Israel or the United States or both.

Hawks in America, Israel and Saudi Arabia have long advocated military action to destroy Iran’s nuclear facilities, if not its ruling system. Trump’s betrayal of the nuclear deal on May 8 makes such a project more likely, though not inevitable.

Trump suggested Iran would knuckle under in the face of U.S. sanctions and pressure on other nations to halt business with it. This is no more plausible than his veiled hints about regime change. His sabotage of the agreement is likely only to strengthen the hand of hard-liners in Tehran.

If Iran eventually resumes uranium enrichment, inching closer to the nuclear threshold, a military confrontation will loom again.

Two days after Trump’s announcement, Israel rained missiles on dozens of alleged Iranian military sites in Syria after what it said was an Iranian salvo of rockets fired towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Previous Israeli strikes in Syria were reported to have killed eight Iranians.

Trump, echoing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said “this horrible, one-sided deal” was dangerously ineffective because it failed to rein in Iran’s ballistic missile development or its “malign” behavior in supporting terrorism and destabilizing the Middle East.

That’s a bit like criticizing a car for not being a space-craft.

The United States and its partners – Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia – forged the accord with Iran to restrain its nuclear work in exchange for economic carrots. Since then, stringent international monitoring has certified Iranian compliance.

The six world powers, however, were not trying to impose a new order on Iran or the region.

Unintended consequences

Arguably it is the United States, not Iran, which has done most to destroy any semblance of order in the Middle East – and to empower Iran in the process. Its invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 overthrew two sworn enemies of the Islamic Republic: the Taliban in Kabul and Saddam Hussein in Baghdad.

Trump vilifies Iran as the embodiment of all evil, much as former U.S. presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan demonized Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, respectively.

The Islamic Republic does not have clean hands. Its human rights record is at least as bad as those of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Yet for all the abuses and flaws of  its clerical-republican system, Iran is not an absolute monarchy like Saudi Arabia. Nor does it hold another people under colonial occupation and grab their land for itself, as Israel does in its inexorable annexation of the West Bank.

Undeniably, Iran, along with Russia, has helped sustain President Bashar al-Assad’s blood-drenched rule in Syria. It exerts indirect sway in Lebanon through its local Shi’ite ally Hezbollah, whose fighters have battled anti-Assad rebels in Syria’s civil war.

Iran has gained great influence in its former rival Iraq as a political power-broker and a sponsor of Shi’ite militias. Last year, those militias helped to expel Islamic State militants from Mosul as part of an improbable de facto coalition with Iraqi regular forces, Sunni tribesmen, Kurdish pershmerga, U.S. special forces and Western warplanes.

Struggle for survival

Does all this mean Iran is the incorrigibly belligerent power depicted in the more or less identical talking points of its U.S., Israeli and Saudi foes?

Not necessarily. Its supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is viscerally hostile to Israel and its ever-indulgent U.S. benefactor, but he cares most about the survival of the system and its ability to defend the country against outside threats.

Like the leaders of Israel and other nuclear powers, he may consider a doomsday weapon as the ultimate deterrent to potential attackers.

Many Iranians have a keen sense of vulnerability, nurtured by a long history of big-power meddling and the still vivid experience of invasion by Saddam’s Iraq in 1980, a year after the Islamic revolution that toppled the U.S.-backed shah.

During the costly, inconclusive eight-year conflict that followed, Iraq made lavish use of chemical weapons while the world turned a blind eye. Western powers sold sophisticated weapons to Iraq, whose war effort also relied on the deep pockets of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Syria, then led by President Hafez al-Assad, a bitter rival of Saddam, was the only Arab country to side with Iran. That long-standing alliance, as well as Syria’s logistical role in the Iranian arms pipeline to Hezbollah, helps explain Iran’s commitment to the Assad clan.

Iran helped create Hezbollah as the spearhead of Shi’ite-led resistance to Israel’s 22-year occupation of south Lebanon. The Israelis had invaded Lebanon in 1978 and again on a far greater scale in 1982 to chase out Palestinian guerrillas with the help of Lebanese Christian militias – only to alienate the Shi’ite community and end up with a far more formidable enemy than the PLO.

Today, Iran may value Hezbollah first and foremost as a deterrent force, whose rockets, missiles and battle-hardened fighters could be unleashed against Israel in the event of war.

Even if Iran is throwing its weight around partly to counter perceived threats, mainly from Israel and the United States, that does not mean it occupies the moral high ground.

Nor can any other power sparring for hegemony in the Middle East lay claim to that hallowed and perhaps fanciful space.

alyonAlistair Lyon is former Middle East diplomatic correspondent for Reuters. During three decades at the news agency, he covered conflicts as well as political and economic news in the Middle East and beyond. He began in Lebanon and headed bureaus in Jordan, Turkey, Pakistan/Afghanistan and Egypt/Sudan. He spent five years in London as Middle East diplomatic correspondent and five in Beirut as special correspondent, Middle East.

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DecodersAngels, demons, double standards in Trump’s Mideast