It’s a new year and what a difference a day makes. As 2017 ended the world watched and worried about the rise of the Shia Crescent, the regional influence of Iran’s Shia Islamist government’s agenda to fill the Sunni vacuum created as ISIS collapsed with the rise of a new Persian empire.
The world wondered what it would mean to have an Iran led by Shiite clerics marching west towards the shores of the Mediterranean. The Iraqi federal government felt the strain of being boxed in on two sides. The Shia from the east with their patchwork of militias already inside Iraq clearing a path across the Christian and Sunni villages across the Ninevah Plain to bore through southern Syria and ultimately reach the sea via Lebanon. There have been Iranian engineers surveying routes to build a natural gas pipeline and a commercial superhighway for decades. Such a Shia influence zone would draw a line in the sand bisecting the Northern and Southern Middle East with the Iranian Shia Crescent north of the Gulf and the Saudi and Gulf States Sunnis, less Qatar, in the Arabian Peninsula.
In the fourth quarter of 2017, it looked like the Iranians held all the cards; then US president Donald Trump changed the game.
After the better part of a year of evaluating the foreign policy of the United States, the Trump Administration swung into action. Determined to break the “no win scenario” of a go nowhere peace process that has held the Middle East hostage since the Six Day War in 1967, a frustration known to every leader and diplomat to ever tackle the problem, the US unilaterally decided to change the game by declaring that the United States would move its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
The calculus of the leverage of this move on the chessboard of the Middle East was clearly meant to do far more than just move a building. This was a deliberate stone thrown onto still water. It was clearly a strategy was to create ripple effects that would force the entire Middle East, the entire United Nations, to “wake up and smell the coffee” and begin the process of tangible realignment to put the peace process on a new track.
In December of 2017, this chess move played out spectacularly as US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley faced down a shocked international community using the power of a United States of America veto to quash a vote by the UN Security Council followed by a powerfully worded warning to the UN General Assembly announcing that the US was taking names and mulling consequences over a non-binding vote admonishing the sovereign rights of the US to place its embassies where it pleases.
Those consequences were swift in coming. Starting with a very exclusive club “friends only” invitation to January 3, 2018 reception at the UN, Haley quickly followed up with a hard financial hit to the UN’s operating budget aimed at trimming excess costs by eliminating funding that enable US inefficiency; you know, as if Haley’s boss knew something about managing cost of doing business expenses. Haley’s actions at the UN were amplified by President Trump, using his 21st century version of FDR’s fireside chat pulpit, Twitter, to hint that the US would be looking at all foreign aid with more scrutinizing eyes in 2018. McLuhan would be proud of this use of the “medium” but, don’t underestimate the organizing prowess of “Donald the Strong” as the Chinese call him, the “message” is in the official documents published by the US government by the Administration outlining Presidential Orders, Directives and Notices of Proposed Rule Making; and beneath those Twitter rants, these artifacts of the tools of statecraft have been coming out in a steady stream all year.
This may have been lost in the domestic noise that is the US cacophony of politics but around the world expectations are high, particularly in places waiting to taste democracy and freedom. Fledgling revolutions led by frustrated people looking to chart better destinies for themselves and their children; often acting on their dreams with haphazard timing and positioning against established regimes whose narrower agendas clash with the human desires of ordinary people. If that sounds a little like the echoes of the dreams of thirteen colonies in the 18th century, you’re reading this article correctly.
What you may be missing is the story of what happened just after 1776. Throughout the world and in the colonies in the Americas in particular, similar bands of colonists contacted a very new and very weak United States of America asking for help to prevail in their own struggles to throw off the vestiges of colonialism. Alas at the time, we were no military match for the great nations of Europe and so, in a series of papers about how to be “great” in that time, theorists like John Adams and Ben Franklin recognized we has the power to inspire others, to show them the path to their own dreams. We seem do be doing it again.
In 2017, we saw the dreams of the Kurds expressed in a referendum that did not fit neatly into the evolving design of a post-ISIS federal Iraq. In a practical sense, the Kurds are one colony among several in a post war landscape, where the parties need to band together to build a federated nation capable of protecting its national interests against powerful and covetous neighbors. In 2018, we shall see this process play out as Baghdad seeks to find ways to protect its western border from the turmoil that continues to embroil the eastern third of Syria. How central government in Baghdad finds or does not find a way to incorporate the nationalism of the Kurdish dream to strengthen the position of a viable and independent Iraq is a vital part of their national security strategy that will require both parties to see their common interests above their factional urges. For global stability’s sake, the world should continue to constructively encourage both parties to see they need each other more than ever.
And then the surprise of the new year. The dreams of the ordinary people of Iran. Well not really a surprise as much as an affirmation that all rubber bands have a breaking point. The Iranian people have been living in a 12th Century version of the world since the late 70’s. Generations of people and technology ago. Back then, there was no Instagram and Telegram actually meant sending via telegraph. Religious intransigence by Iranian leadership has plummeted a nation rich in people with dreams into an economy running on fumes. It’s become a government obsessed with regional and global interference at the expense of its domestic blossoming. It was an eggshell waiting to crack repeating a cycle that swept away the Shah of Iran and brought the Ayatollahs to power in the first place. And now, as 2018 dawns, we watch the contents of that egg drop into the frying pan. Perhaps, this time, the ordinary people will prevail.
Heck, even the North Koreans finally said they want to try to talk to the South Koreans again. Wonders never cease.