President Trump now has his own war. The two terror attacks in Iran that left 12 people dead are its opening shots.
ISIS took credit for the attacks, which served its goal of stoking sectarian war. Not coincidentally, the attacks also advanced Trump’s goals of escalating U.S. hostility toward Iran.
Trump inherited wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, and a cold peace with Iran based on the international agreement to limit Iran’s nuclear program. Trump is abiding by the agreement while searching for ways to turn the cold peace into a hot war. His method: commit the United States to take sides in the long-standing political struggle between the Sunni and Shia traditions of Islam.
The Sunni cause is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia, the region’s richest nation, which just bought $110 billion worth of U.S. weapons and relegates women to second-class citizenship. The Shiites are led by anti-American Iran, which has the region’s largest population, 17 women in parliament, and a democratically elected moderate president, Hassan Rouhani.
Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia last month was not a joke about a glowing orb. It was a war council, in which Trump allied the United States with the Sunnis and declared war on the Shiites. And what vital U.S. interest is served by taking sides in a religious civil war waged thousands of miles from American territory? The answer remains obscure and undiscussed in Washington.
In his May 22 scripted remarks in Saudi Arabia, Trump cited terrorism: “For decades, Iran has fueled the fires of sectarian conflict and terror. It is a government that speaks openly of mass murder, vowing the destruction of Israel, death to America, and ruin from many leaders and nations in this very room.”
But all of the terrorists who attacked in Manchester, Paris, New York and Washington were Sunni fundamentalists. None of them were connected with Iran. Iran’s attacks on Americans and Westerners occurred mostly in the 1980s and ’90s. Since 2000, more than 95 percent of terrorist casualties worldwide have been inflicted by Saudi-influenced militants. Trump’s policy is based on a false premise.
ISIS Gets a Pass
An ignorant and embattled commander-in-chief has aligned the United States with Saudi’s theocratic monarchy and its international brigade of Sunni foot soldiers, known as ISIS. The militants of ISIS are Wahhabists, devotees of a Saudi fundamentalist tradition, which abhors Shiism, democracy and women’s rights as contrary to the wishes of Allah. ISIS loathes the heretics of Iran even more than it despises the infidels of the West.
As ISIS lost ground in Iraq and Syria earlier this year, it promised (via a video) to strike in Iran for the first time. Now ISIS has made good on its threats—and the militants, whom Trump likes to describe as “radical Islamic terrorists,” get a pass from the White House.
After ISIS took credit for killing children at a pop music concert, Trump tweeted his rage. After ISIS attacked Iranian tourists and parliamentarians, Trump tweeted about his trip to Cincinnati. The White House later issued a statement that did not mention ISIS or “radical Islamic terrorism,” but did say “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” which is pretty much what Osama bin Laden said after the 9/11 attacks.
The president may be morally bankrupt, but his political message is consistent: don’t criticize Saudi allies who are taking the fight to Iran, at least not by name.
War Is Spreading
Trump’s escalation promises more war in a region already punished by armed conflict. Saudi Arabia’s bombing campaign against Iran’s allies in Yemen, waged with U.S.-supplied weapons, has created a humanitarian disaster. The same holds true for Bashar al-Assad’s cruel war on his own people and Saudi-funded ISIS rebels.
Oblivious to the region’s complex realities, Trump fans the flames of war via Twitter.
Yesterday, Trump took credit for the decision of Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf nations to sever diplomatic ties and air travel with Qatar, a tiny wealthy emirate of only 200,000 people. Qatar is the only country in the Gulf that maintains relations with Iran. The goal is to force Qatar to abandon Iran, the better to unify the Sunni countries for the coming conflict.
About Qatar’s isolation, Trump declared grandly:
…extremism, and all reference was pointing to Qatar. Perhaps this will be the beginning of the end to the horror of terrorism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 6, 2017
Not quite. Hours later, ISIS struck in Tehran.
Flashpoints to Watch
The Sunni-Shiite conflict is already spreading to flashpoints where the United States could be drawn into the religious civil war. Two stand out.
Al-Udeid airbase in Qatar: The largest U.S. military base in the region is now hosted by a sovereign government with whom the United States, following the Saudi lead, is now virtually at war. The State Department, under the hapless leadership of Rex Tillerson, appeared to be surprised by this development.
The U.S. military says its flights in and out of the Combined Air Operations Command will be “unaffected” by the sense of crisis pervading the region. The reality is the United States feels the need to issue reassuring statements because the stability has given way to uncertainty under Trump’s provocative policy.
Was Trump unaware his actions would raise the threat level facing U.S. forces? Or did he intend to put U.S. forces on war footing? No one knows because we have little information about how Trump made his decision. Both possibilities are disturbing.
El Tanf in Syria: This city, located on the Syrian-Iraq border, is home to an American base. On Tuesday, U.S. military reported that it attacked allies of the Syrian regime, including Iranian militias, for the second time in three weeks after they ignored warnings to move away from the U.S. base.
American commanders on the ground want to prevent the Iranian militias from using the road to El Tanf as a supply line from their Shiite allies in Iraq. That would strengthen their position as they press the fight on ISIS in northern Syria.
In other words, the United States is now stepping up attacks on the front-line Iranian forces that are fighting ISIS. To wage war on Iran, Trump’s actions relieve pressure on ISIS.
This is new. Before Trump came to office, the U.S.-led coalition focused on ISIS (also known in the region as ISIL or Daesh) and did not initiate fighting with Iranian militias also fighting ISIS. That is now changing, thanks to the influence of National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis, both of whom are hawkish on Iran.
Barbara Slavin, Middle East correspondent for Al-Monitor newspaper, stated what is obvious to the region.
hard to believe attacks in Iran after Trump visit to Saudi a coincidence. serious escalation
— Barbara Slavin (@barbaraslavin1) June 7, 2017
Far from coincidence, the Tehran attacks were the result of the U.S.-Saudi understanding forged last month. While Congress bickers, Trump inflames a religious war and terrorism breaches another frontier.
Jefferson Morley is AlterNet’s Washington correspondent. He is the author of the forthcoming biography The Ghost: The Secret Life of CIA Spymaster James Jesus Angleton (St. Martin’s Press, October 2017) and the 2016 Kindle ebook CIA and JFK: The Secret Assassination Files.