The Fire Again? Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf

By Cooley, John K. | Harvard International Review, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Fire Again? Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf

Cooley, John K., Harvard International Review

Historical amnesia often distorts Western perceptions of the Middle East. In a manner comparable to that taken in the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, Western policymakers attempting to develop an effective strategy for dealing with Iran are experiencing troubling lapses of historical memory regarding the colonial and post-colonial past. Such analytical failures could make the world pay the dreadful price of a new regional conflagration that would result from a US or Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear installations. Seasoned analysts such as Seymour Hersh of The New Yorker have already published forecasts of such an attack.


I arrived in Beirut in 1965 as the Christian Science Monitor's Middle East correspondent after covering North Africa's colonial and post-colonial wars. Our small community of correspondents was covering the Ba'ath party's 1963 seizure of power in Syria as well as its efforts to gain similar control in Iraq with the support of a ruthlessly ambitious and CIA-assisted politician known as Saddam Hussein.

Four decades later, the administration of US President George W. Bush was able to convince the US public and Congress that the same Saddam Hussein's largely nonexistent weapons of mass destruction (WMD) program posed a clear and imminent threat to US security. A cabal of Bush's neoconservative advisers, influenced and informed by Israel, had convinced many US citizens of this alleged threat. They drew the United States into a costly conflict that has drained US manpower and has helped to push the budget deficit close to its statutory red line of US$ 11.8 trillion. Now in 2006, history and more authentic intelligence point to regional dangers from a possibly nuclear Iran. But in order to develop an effective understanding of what ought to be done regarding this situation in Iran, it is necessary to understand first how historical amnesia contributed to the US decision to engage in a costly and destabilizing military invasion of Iraq.

Iraq and Israel: An Ancient Enmity

One of the most commonly overlooked dimensions of the US occupation of Iraq is the historical relationship between Iraq and Israel. The United States' failure to factor this rivalry into its calculations in the run-up to the war in Iraq may have contributed to a bias toward Israel that warped its perception of the security threat posed by Iraq.

The millenia-long rivalry between the Jews and the Mesopotamians has its roots in the biblical Babylonian captivity of the Israelites. These tensions were later manifested in the enmity between Israel and Iraq. By 1948 the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had become the central point of contention between Iraq and Israel. Israel's founder, David Ben-Gurion, and his fledgling intelligence apparatus oversaw the covert and overt evacuation of about 300,000 Iraqi Jews to Israel between the late 1940s and 1951. Iraq's Hashemite monarchy and its wily senior minister, Nuri al-Said, managed to remain allies with Britain, the United States, and Turkey while simultaneously opposing the rise of Israel beginning with the 1948 to 1949 Arab-Israeli War.

The traumatic 1947 to 1951 exodus of Iraqi Jews, including many prosperous and highly educated professionals, reinforced the enmity. It was further exacerbated by Israel's alliance with Iraq's Kurds, an alliance that was temporarily strengthened in the 1970s with help from the Shah of Iran and the Nixon-Kissinger leadership in the United States. As a result, Iraq, unlike Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, is the only Arab belligerent never to have signed a peace treaty, temporary armistice, or cease-fire with Israel. Until now, this history has remained a persistent backdrop for Iraq's role in Arab-Israeli confrontations over Palestine.

Complicating this relationship was the Desert Storm military expedition to expel Saddam Hussein's forces from Kuwait in 1991, which eradicated the preexisting US support for Saddam Hussein and his opposition to revolutionary Iran.

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The Fire Again? Iraq, Iran, and the Gulf


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