Dispatches from Deena Stryker
On February 9th, my Open Letter to Rex Tillerson in TGP concluded with this paragraph:
“Beyond theology, the crux of the Sunni-Shia divide is whether Iran or Saudi Arabia will be the preeminent power in the Middle East. Russian-Iranian relations have varied over time, but Western economic sanctions on Iran only strengthened it, making Iran the only country in Western Asia invited to join the Collective Security Treaty Organization, President Putin’s response to NATO’s encroachment.
As perhaps the world’s foremost petroleum executive, you know that relations between Russia and Iran go beyond their shared existence as oil producers. With so many urgent tasks ahead, I hope you can prevail upon the Trump Administration to pursue a seamless shift away from Saudi Arabia, that supports its number one enemy, ISIS, and recognize Iran as the leading Middle East power, whose efforts will be directed toward a vital process of healing.”
You’re a busy man, running an almost deserted State Department, so I guess you rely on the NYT for opinion, but your statement prior to landing in Moscow yesterday and your opening statement in talks with Russia’s foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov today reveal that even in the face of dangerously deteriorating relations, you continue to follow a script that bears little relation to ‘realities on the ground’.
Since President Trump took his first foray into muscle-flexing as opposed to ‘cooperation’ with Russia, you’re phrasing the US position in slightly different language, inadvertently perhaps revealing what’s behind it. You wonder why Russia would want to be allied with ‘the likes of’ Iran, Syria and North Korea rather than with ‘the West’. Well, Mr. Secretary, ‘the West’s’ allies in the Middle East — which Americans could imagine as the equivalent to the US’s ‘backyard (pre-Castro Latin America) — are the Sunni countries led by Saudi Arabia that back ISIS — whidh the US claims to want to fight alongside Russia.
We finally can see where the trouble lies in the US’s failure to ‘understand’ why Russia would choose Iran over ‘the West’ — as well as the key to President Putin’s overall attitude toward Washington:
After the US saved Europe twice in the 20th century from its German trouble-maker, Washington assumed that its job for all time was to lead the world so that it would no longer be subject to terrible wars. Unfortunately, that voluntarily assumed role of savior led to a seemingly unending series of US aggressions (The world was a dangerous place and only we (this long before the current ‘I only’) can ensure — not tranquillity, ‘right’, whatever the cost to tranquillity.
For seven decades after the end of WW II, no other country achieved a position of strength that enabled it to challenge US supremacy as stated in its foundational geo-political goal: “To ensure that no other power can challenge US hegemony”. The US was free to gradually undermine the social-democratic foundations of the European Union through forced injections of neo-liberalism, while pursuing ‘regime change’ in a series of Middle Eastern countries to which treasure had not brought Enlightenment governance.
Nothing is forever. The US slow, painful fall from grace has transformed the White House into a circus tent, where, very quickly, President Trump’s vision of international cooperation, starting with Russia, dissolved in the Syrian sands. Today, his foreign minister, appropriately, a Big Oil man, faces Russia’s foreign minister, who makes clear that Russia is not interested in becoming yet another US yes-man (following on Europe’s refusal to endorse more anti-Russian sanctions yesterday, as it timidly grows a spine after seventy-odd years of subordination to the US). (Another US idea is that Russia should cosy up to that US-dominated Europe, instead of organizing the entire Eurasian continent in partnership with China…)
Secretary Tillerson’s reference, in Moscow, to the US’s ‘Middle Eastern allies’, starting with Saudi Arabia, as part of ‘the West’ was on the order of Sean Spicer comparing Assad (which he pronounced Ashad) to Hitler. As a brilliant product of the US education system (and I have sincerely admired the White House Press Secretary’s command of current events and his ability to deal with the press corps in daily briefings), does not know a great deal about World War II, in which Hitler gassed 6 million people. Secretary Tillerson, also a brilliant product of the US educational system, who worked his way up to head a major oil company, dealing primarily with the countries of the Middle East, appears oblivious to the fact that the Sunni-Shia divide has a major political component: the Shia have since the death of the prophet, been the underdog, the Sunni representing the business elite.
I hate to repeat myself but this fact cannot be ignored when considering Russia’s alliance with Iran. Not only do the two countries — almost neighbors — have a long history, but the country that carried out the first socialist revolution has been a natural ally of the one in which clerics carried out the Shia version of a socialist revolution. As a result of that revolution, in tiny, faraway Lebanon, the Shia left achieved a significant voice by creating a highly disciplined armed wing known as Hezbollah, which has supported the Palestinians — and Bashar al-Assad, who belongs to a small Shiite sect known as the Alawites. Assad’s father, known to history as a brutal dictator, was able to bring this small sect to power in a predominantly Sunni nation that had barely emerged from French oversight after World War II, Catholic France having played an important role in Syria since the Crusades.
And just as Vladimir Putin did not throw the socialist baby out with the Communist bathwater, since 1968, when Hafez al-Assad took power in a country that had been under Catholic French mandate since 1946, Syria has been the only secular regime in the Middle East (including Israel…) with a French educational system and emancipated women — a basic premise in all socialist regimes. When Secretary Tillerson wonders why Russia would spurn ‘the West’ — where it would be expected to fall in line — he is trying to make the public believe this is about ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’ as opposed to a variety of authoritarian regimes. The only problem is that he expects the public to ignore that Saudi Arabia and its satrap regimes spread across the Middle East not only are far from being socialist — or social democratic — or governed by the rule of law — they constitute a US shield against the progressive regimes that could be expected to flourish were Iran — with Russia’s backing — to gain the upper hand in that region. And that, Mr. Secretary, is one of the many enlightened reasons why Russia is not about to join ‘the West’.
Well, you might say, what about North Korea? Nobody likes Kim Jung Un, but as long as he remains a thorn in the US side, neither Russia nor China — as Xi presumably told Trump at Mar a Lago —(and we can assume that he did because that much heralded visit was followed by a deafening press silence in ‘the West’) —is going to read him the riot act, even as the US sends a fleet of warships to Asia in preparation for taking on China after dispatching Russia — or maybe the other way around, depending on which side of the bed Trumps gets up on any given morning. Whichever it is, Russia under Vladimir Putin will not cooperate.
P.S. The South China Morning Post just headlined that Xi phoned Trump to inform Trump that ‘China Wants Peaceful Means To Resolve North Korean Issue’.