Prior to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there were a number of Middle Eastern dictators as well as Al-Qaida and the Taliban. Post Sept. 11, the Taliban were removed from power in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden was killed in Pakistan, Saddam Hussein was executed in Iraq, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was eliminated by his own people and Bashar al-Assad has been bogged down in a bloody civil war in Syria.
What is left are the final key powerhouses. First there are the Saudis, who use their oil money to promote the extreme Wahhabi brand of Islam and to build madrassas in various countries. Currently, the young Saudi crown prince is acting like a powerful caliph by eliminating his opposition, bombing countries like Yemen, blockading smaller countries like Qatar and killing journalists.
Next, there is Iran, with its religious leaders who highjacked a people’s revolution in 1979 after the overthrow of the Shah. The Iranians are Persians who were overtaken by Arab Islamists during the third caliphate reign in 651 AD. Observing the Shiite branch of Islam — as opposed to Sunni faith of the Saudis — the supreme leader of Iran could issue a fatwa and have millions of faithful rise up to fight the “infidels.” While the moderates in Iran are trying to move the country forward, the extremists want to export their brand of religion. A majority of the population in Iraq are Shiites, and there are small pockets of Shiites in Lebanon, Yemen and many other Islamic countries.
Iran also has banked on supporting the Palestinian cause it believes has the sympathy of the majority of the world’s Muslims. It also supports the Syrian government and has forces in Syria. The presence of the pro-Palestinian Iranians in Syria and their proxies in Lebanon creates an existential threat for Israel, the third powerhouse in the Middle East.
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Although one of the ablest leaders in Israel’s history, Benjamin Netanyahu has in recent years been under heavy pressure from extremists within Israel, many of whom use biblical references to push an expansionist agenda. With a sympathetic Trump administration, Israel has already achieved major accomplishments, such as the move of the American embassy to Jerusalem and green-lighting the annexation of the Golan Heights. Since Syria is in no position to oppose such moves, the only force for Israel to reckon with is the belligerent Iranians. Israelis have joined the Saudis to urge America to counter Iran, knowing the sanctions have weakened Iran economically and another revolt may be in the making.
President Trump was prudent to call off the air strike against Iran. The extremists in Iran want a war. Former Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad once reminisced that the best post-revolution years was the period when Iran was at war with Iraq. That was when extremists cemented their power and eliminated their opposition as nearly a million Iranians were killed or wounded fighting Saddam Hussein. Israeli extremists want a war as well, because with Iran subdued many of the disputed Palestinian territories could be annexed or negotiated from a position of power.
Iran is possibly on its way to an evolutionary regime change. Many in Iran have had enough of the Islamic Republic and seek a Western-style secular government. Some in the administration, like Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, advocate for a military solution. Others promote sanctions and patience. While the former could invigorate Iranian extremists and create a chaotic Middle East much worse than the current state, the latter could result in Iranian moderates taking power who are more in line with Western values.