DUBAI—It was a hell of a week in the Middle East. It began with Saudi Arabia and its friends imposing the modern equivalent of a feudal siege on tiny Qatar. Next came an assault on the Iranian parliament and a suicide bombing at the Tehran tomb of the man whose followers pioneered the tactic, both claimed by the so-called Islamic State. Then the Turkish parliament voted to send troops to Qatar to defend it from its Arab brothers.
By week’s end, the tidy “good versus evil” dichotomy of the new U.S.-Saudi alliance against “terror”—and against Iran—is looking pretty tattered, and it’s less than a month since it was announced. Black and white has morphed into shifty shades of gray.
The events playing out might be laughable if they weren’t so tragic—and dangerous. This story has all the elements of a bad spy thriller: Arab potentates. A Twitter-obsessed American president. A glaring Ayatollah right out of central casting. Hooded jihadis. Russian hackers. Turkish troops. American airbases. And lots and lots of fake news.
This is a part of the world, after all, where we’ve learned of late that the enemy of my enemy is in fact my enemy. It’s also a place obsessed with conspiracies, real, imagined, or a bit of both.
Was the Tehran attack by ISIS trying to recoup some credibility as it’s being forced out of its Iraqi and Syrian capitals? Was this the Saudis using terror to fight terror? Or the Russians throwing more kindling on the Middle East bonfire? Or the CIA? Or perhaps the Iranians putting on a show to discredit the Saudis? Or generate sympathy for themselves?
There’s a lot going on here, so let’s go with the Cliffs Notes version of events:
Background: In March, Saudi Arabia’s Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the favored son of the king and the driving force behind many of his government’s policies, including the most bellicose, had a low-key tête-à-tête with President Trump in Washington. Little is known about what was said.
Then early last month MBS, as the prince is known, gave an interview to Saudi television describing Iran as his country’s irreconcilable enemy. As the Saudis see it, while the moderate strains in the Iranian government negotiated a nuclear deal and preached reconciliation, the hardliners in the government pursued an expeditionary and expansionary policy, using overt troop deployments, proxy forces, and covert action in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and parts of Saudi Arabia as well. So MBS said he wanted to take the fight to Iran before Iran brought any more of it to Saudi Arabia:
“We know we are a major target for the Iranian regime,” MBS told Al Arabiya TV. “Reaching the Muslims’ qibla [Mecca] is a major aim for the Iranian regime. We will not wait until the battle is in Saudi Arabia but we will work so the battle is there in Iran and not in Saudi Arabia.”
Then, at the end of last month, on his first trip as president to any country outside the United States, President Donald Trump sipped apple juice with the king of Saudi Arabia and a few dozen leaders from across the Muslim world and declared an anti-terror alliance against ISIS and against Iran, which was not invited to the pan-Islamic confab.
Among those who were invited was the young emir of Qatar, who met with Trump and was praised as a strategic partner, not least because his country hosts more than 10,000 American service personnel and the forward command centers for all the U.S. military operations in the region from Syria to Afghanistan. But Qatar, in part to assert its independence from Saudi Arabia, has long cultivated warm relations with Iran and with the international Muslim Brotherhood, both of which the Saudis see as direct threats to their monarchy.
Escalation: Last weekend, Qatar’s emir was quoted by his official news agency mouthing off about his fellow Arab leaders and saying nice things about Iran. As if on cue, an uproar ensued in the rest of the Gulf media. A few hours later, the same Qatari news agency said it was hacked and the quotes were fake news. (In fact, they were not totally out of character in terms of policy, only in terms of attribution.)
On Monday, Saudi Arabia and its allies announced a complete diplomatic and economic break with Qatar. Land, sea, and air ties were cut—as if the whole thing was planned in advance. Qataris had 48 hours to get out of Dodge and vice versa. Qatar gets most of its food from Saudi Arabia. That’s now rotting on the border. On Wednesday, the Turkish parliament rammed through approval for its military to deploy troops to Qatar, with which it has a mutual defense treaty. “We will not allow Qatar to be beaten up,” a senior Turkish official was quoted saying.
And the incendiary war of words continued to heat up.
Influential Saudi columnist Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, adopting one of the American president’s favorite characterizations, called Qatar’s emir a “nut job.” Qatar has “chosen to ride the tiger of terrorism and extremism,” said UAE Foreign Minister Anwar Mohammed Gargash. To avoid confusion, his government announced anyone expressing sympathy for Qatar online faces up to 15 years in prison.
“They’ve made it very clear to us how this is to be reported,” a journalist at a Saudi-backed television channel told me.
The Confusion: Gulf unity was the cornerstone of Trump’s new alliance. When he was in Riyadh and high on the excitement of multibillion-dollar deals, he had what seemed to be a cheery meeting with the emir of Qatar. But Tuesday, he seemed to take credit for the Arab siege on that country with what Marwan Bishara, an analyst for Qatar-based Al Jazeera, which the Saudis want shut down, called a “hate tweet.”
“During my recent trip to the Middle East I stated that there can no longer be funding of Radical Ideology,” Trump typed into his phone. “Leaders pointed to Qatar — look!”
The State Department and the Pentagon apparently don’t subscribe to Trump’s feed. The U.S. ambassador to Qatar tweeted her praise for the Qataris; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called for negotiations between the feuding Arab cousins; and the U.S. Central Command, which operates America’s huge military base there said it is “grateful” to the Qataris.
By Thursday, in a very Trumpian bit of policy whiplash, the president was on the phone with the Qatari emir and the Saudi king offering to get everyone together to smoke a peace pipe in the White House.
The Conspiracies: Tensions showed no sign of abating, however, and the intrigues suddenly developed new wrinkles. The Qatar News Agency article that was the pretext for one part of this crisis suddenly appeared to be the work not only of hackers, but of Russian hackers. CNN reported that the FBI has confirmed the Qatar News Agency hack was orchestrated by Russia, an Iranian ally, which certainly has plenty to gain from throwing Molotov cocktails into America’s plans for a so-called Arab NATO led by Trump’s Saudi buddies.
Then came the attack on the Iranian parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic.
The first reaction among the Saudis and their satellites was to suggest this was a false flag operation—maybe the work of the Iranians themselves. They noted that a dozen guards and civilians were killed, but no members of parliament.
“I just feel it’s a whole theatrical play and I’m not buying it,” said Lebanese security analyst Riad Kahwaji. Three guys in London with a truck and knives did almost as much damage, he suggested.
That’s not really so surprising. After a long history of terror attacks in the 1980s, including one bombing where 74 senior officials and 27 members of parliament died, the Tehran parliament is considerably better protected than the pubs and restaurants of Borough Market in London.
“The atmosphere here is one of concern, worry about what the next step will be,” says Rasheed el Enany, the dean of social sciences at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies in Qatar. “The media here say this whole thing was a plot.” But by whom?
Kahwaji, the Lebanese security analyst, noted that to stir up support for the war, the Syrian regime occasionally stages Potemkin attacks in downtown Damascus, in which a few supposed terrorists come running in with guns and are shot by the police. He believes the Tehran incident has all the same hallmarks.
“It makes them look on the same level as London and other places struck by ISIS. [They can say] ‘We are also victims of terrorism,’” he explains.
To stay with our theme of suspicion and skepticism, we also have to remember Kahwaji is based here in the UAE, which is now allied with Saudi Arabia in open confrontation with Iran.
Without naming names, the Iranian blamed the Saudis and their Arab allies.
"Terror-sponsoring despots threaten to bring the fight to our homeland. Proxies attack what their masters despise most: the seat of democracy,” Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif tweeted.
In all of these countries, the question of “who benefits from the crime” is used to point to whoever you want to make the villain of the piece, until eventually untrue facts become certitudes, and fake news becomes real news.
And then there’s the Middle East’s favorite bogeyman, America. Didn’t the CIA just appoint as head of Iran operations the guy known as the Dark Prince, who led the search for bin Laden and directed the drone program that killed thousands of people—good and bad? Perhaps this is the inaugural operation of his new gig?
Or Tehran might want the Muslim world to think that.
A simpler explanation: ISIS really did manage to stage the attack in Tehran, not only claiming credit but posting video of the slaughter in progress. And this was done precisely in hopes of provoking an all-out war between Sunnis and Shiites—an apocalyptic objective much more dear to it than attacks on the West. The attack on Tehran is a morale booster as ISIS is losing its hold on Mosul and Raqqa, its two greatest conquests. And there’s even a dividend in its rivalry with al Qaeda. Terrorism analyst Charlie Winter writes of the attack, “It’ll be framed as, ‘We promised to hit the Safavids [Shia Iran], and we’ve followed through. Al Qaeda, on the other hand, is a friend of Iran.’”
Taken as what it appears to be, no more and no less, the ISIS operation in Iran is a provocation and a trap for both Tehran and Riyadh, and if they fall into it—as the escalating confrontations and confusion of the last week suggest they might—then they could well drag the United States down with them. In any case, and for sure, the growing crisis in the region is not the kind of problem that can be solved in 140 characters or less.