The crisis triggered by Donald Trump’s assassination of General Qassem Suleimani has crystallised Iran’s official thinking around a single, overriding demand: that American military forces should pack up their weapons, close their bases, and leave the Middle East for ever. The odd thing is, Trump seems to agree.
Referring to last week’s retaliatory strikes on US targets, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s leader, declared: “Military action like this is not sufficient. What is important is ending the corrupting presence of America.” Hassan Rouhani, the country’s president, said the only answer was to “kick all US forces out of the region”.
This long-held Iranian position does not differ greatly from Trump’s views, at least in theory. The US president has repeatedly argued in favour of reducing the American troop presence around the Middle East. In northern Syria last autumn, he got his way – with chaotic results that dismayed allies and delighted Turkey, Russia and the Syrian regime.
Trump has never proposed an across-the-board retreat. In Israel’s case, he has sought closer political and security ties. He has cosied up to the wealthy Saudi royals. Yet, judging by his speeches and tweets, Trump is unconvinced by traditional arguments that stress the region’s vital strategic importance to the US.
His attitude is part ideological, part gut. When Trump vowed in 2016 to end America’s “forever wars” in his presidential campaign, he was specifically referring to the Bush-Obama legacy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trump has dismissed both occupations as misconceived, and a waste of lives and tax dollars. For him, liberal, Tony Blair-type ideas about the international community as a collective, the imperative of “humanitarian intervention”, and nation-building are an anathema.
Trump is interested in markets, not morality. He holds no vision of the greater good, has no sense of a US global mission, other than putting America first. Speaking last week about a hypothetical rapprochement with Iran, his businessman’s focus was on its untapped economic potential and natural resources.
There are other reasons, on the American side, for asking how long the US will continue to maintain a military presence that includes extensive bases and facilities in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Oman and Afghanistan. One reason, mentioned by Trump last week, is that the present-day US is much less reliant on imported oil.
The so-called Carter doctrine, announced by president Jimmy Carter after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, declared the region (and its oil) to be a de facto US protectorate. “An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the US ... and will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force,” Carter declared.
In effect, Carter was completing America’s post-1945, post-Suez takeover from Britain as the Middle East’s leading external power – and as time passed, its footprint grew. But now times are changing again. Thanks to the shale oil boom, the US has become the world’s leading producer of crude oil. Middle East supply-lines no longer matter so much.
Geopolitical priorities are shifting, too. The US is more focused nowadays on China as an economic and military rival, and on defending its interests across the Asia-Pacific region, than on curbing Russian influence or fixing the Middle East. Trump believes his allies in the region, like Nato’s European members, should be more self-reliant – and is happy to sell them expensive US weaponry to that end.
The US certainly worries about Iran’s behaviour and jihadist terrorism. Trump craves the kudos of brokering a peace deal in Palestine. But Beijing’s military expansionism, its belt and road “debt diplomacy”, open trade lanes in the South China Sea, and democracy in Taiwan and Hong Kong are Washington’s bigger, long-term concerns.
On the Iranian side, the demand that the Americans leave does not arise simply from old grievances dating back to the 1953 coup against the democratically elected prime minister Mohammad Mosaddeq, although they play a part. Nor does Iran merely want the US out of the way so it can gain a free hand – although it is unlikely to abandon its ambitions as a regional power-broker.
There is a firm belief in Tehran, common to other post-colonial theatres, that the Middle East as a whole would fare better if it were no longer a venue for great power rivalries, foreign armies and imperial fantasies. Most educated Iranians are instinctively pro-western, not pro-Arab. But the post-1979 US vendetta blocks normalisation.
There is also reason to believe antagonistic regional states might more readily resolve their differences if they no longer had the US to fall back on, or to blame, when they get into disputes. As Trump’s commitment to regional security appeared to wane last year, for example, Saudi Arabia and Qatar took steps to patch up their differences.
Shared security concerns have led to ongoing, informal contacts between Arab states and Israel, notwithstanding – or possibly because of – Trump’s bias against Palestine.
If the US is no longer seen as a reliable defender of its friends, and if it no longer needs or wants to be in the Middle East – then surely it is time to leave. Yet if the Americans did pull out, what would happen?
1. Iraq and Syria
Recent events in Iraq and Syria do not encourage confidence in a post-American future. After the Syrian civil war erupted in 2011, the US and its Gulf allies backed disparate rebel forces. But some of these groups harboured jihadists and extremists, which bolstered Bashar al-Assad’s claims to be fighting terrorists and divided the resistance.
The US withdrew its support for the rebels. It also declined to intervene directly when Barack Obama’s “red line” on chemical weapons use was crossed. Trump has since hastened American disengagement, notably by abandoning Syrian Kurd allies. Russia filled the vacuum, and is now winning the war for Assad with a merciless bombardment of Idlib.
Following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, US forces officially left in 2011, but in fact several thousand remain, primarily tasked with fighting Isis. Following the Suleimani killing, Iraq’s parliament demanded all US troops leave. But there are signs of second thoughts, amid doubts over the ability of Iraq’s politicians and security forces to hold a divided country together while containing Isis. Syria is a chilling reminder of what can happen when the US turns its back and walks away.
A wholesale US military pull-back would be a traumatic experience for Israel, and one it would try to avoid. The Jewish state has been surrounded by enemies since its conception. Although proudly self-reliant in defence, a symbolic weakening of America’s protective shield would be a blow that could encourage the country’s foes.
For these and other reasons, any US regional troop drawdown would almost certainly be accompanied by additional American security guarantees for Israel, possibly including a mutual defence treaty as recently proposed by prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Israel’s supporters in Congress would ensure the country was not abandoned.
At the same time, such a shift could force a much-needed reset for Israel’s political stalemate, undermining the Trump-backed, nationalist hard-right – typified by Netanyahu – and opening the way for a centrist coalition more prepared, for example, to cut an equitable two-state deal with the Palestinians.
The seemingly endless conflict in Afghanistan, which began with the US invasion after the al-Qaida attacks in September 2001, has been a particular bugbear of Trump’s. He says, not without reason, that billions of dollars have been wasted on a chaotic and often corrupt nation-building exercise that has failed to bring security or effective democratic government and caused record levels of civilian casualties.
Trump began in 2017 by sending additional troops, like Obama before him. When that did not work, he resorted to secret negotiations with the Taliban that led to an aborted peace summit at Camp David. The basic problem was familiar: the Taliban insisted US troops must agree to leave before they would accept a ceasefire or talk to the Afghan government.
Since the Taliban are unlikely to relent, Trump or his successor will probably be forced eventually to order a withdrawal, even if it leads to a fundamentalist takeover. The problem, in such a case, is that many of the gains made by Afghans will be lost, and their sacrifices over nearly 20 years worth nought.
4 Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states
The shock of large-scale US downsizing would be felt most keenly here. The modern-day prosperity and influence of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait have been underwritten by American security guarantees, exemplified by the 1990-91 US-led intervention to expel Saddam Hussein’s invasion forces from Kuwait.
Without the Americans to hold their hands and watch their backs, the Saudi royals’ behaviour could improve significantly. No more kidnappings of Lebanese prime ministers, for example, or murders of high-profile journalists. Military adventurism of the type that produced the humanitarian disaster in Yemen would be less likely.
The Saudis and the smaller Gulf states, although better armed than Iran, might also be incentivised by American disengagement to take a more conciliatory line towards Tehran – something that has reportedly already been happening in recent months.
On the other hand, they might look around for new protectors – in the shape of Russia or China, a big Gulf oil customer. No US president could easily countenance such a loss of influence – nor the loss of lucrative Arab world investments and weapons sales. Getting out is not as simple as Trump might think.
5 Terrorism and anti-Americanism
A reduction in the US regional profile could be expected, over time, to bring reductions in anti-Americanism and the targeting of American and allied interests by terrorists who regard the US presence as an affront to the entire Islamic world. A key source of tension with the west might be removed.
On the other hand, any loss of US leadership in fighting Isis and successors would be serious. Nato might step into the breach, as Trump last week suggested it should. Regional organisations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council and the EU could invest more in security, shared defence and intelligence capabilities – which might be no bad thing.
A lowered profile might also reduce tensions with Turkey which, although nominally an ally, has grown impatient with an “arrogant” America. And it could force dictatorships such as Egypt’s, underwritten by Washington, to change their ways – to the undoubted benefit of all the peoples of the Middle East.
Quite how this imagined loss of control, this demotion from hegemon to the status of ordinary country, this ending of the era of American exceptionalism might affect the US itself is an intriguing question. Coming down in the world is a hard thing to stomach. Seventy years on, Britain has still not recovered from its loss of empire. Could America’s self-image cope with such a relegation? Could Trump?