Protesters in Lebanon and Iraq in the last year have turned their ire not only against conditions in their own countries, but against Iran’s corrosive influence in them. Past Palestinian protests in Gaza against the Iran-supported terrorist group Hamas, and protests in Iran itself, against the use of scarce Iranian resources for its leaders’ foreign malign expeditions, have voiced similar frustrations. Syria has been virtually destroyed by a now over nine-year civil war in which much of the population has fought the Iran-backed Syrian leadership.
These flashpoints are revealing the fury of Arabs — and Iranians — with the leaders of the Iranian regime. They also reflect a changing Middle East: Notably, this anger is not being directed against Israel, even if the West has wrongfully long seen an Arab-Israeli divide as the region’s fulcrum of conflict, but against Tehran.
Now, yet another country has announced it will open diplomatic ties with Israel: After the US-brokered deal with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain has become the second Gulf state to normalize relations, a move that sends further shock waves through a region in which Arab countries have long resisted any diplomatic recognition of Israel.
The Middle East is slowly being transformed by the combination of these anti-Iranian regime protests and the potential of peace agreements between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors, which are now tantalizingly within reach.
The Abraham Accord between the United Arab Emirates and Israel — the name for the US-brokered agreement between the two countries to open normalized diplomatic relations — has shattered roadblocks between Israel and its Arab neighbors and has put an end to the veto card over progress in the region that the Palestinian leadership held for decades to the significant detriment of the region around them. The Bahrain announcement only underscores the seismic nature of how Middle East politics are changing as more countries recognize their common interests and the true threat to security in the region.
The Abraham Accord was motivated in part by an Arab and Israeli concern with Iran’s unquenchable thirst for regional hegemony and nuclear weapons. While the UAE has said that the deal was not directed at Iran in particular, it is clear that the regional threat of Iran has become the foremost point of common interest for two countries situated at opposite ends of the Middle East.
Indeed, as a result of entering into the Abraham Accord, the United Arab Emirates has now become an even a bigger target for Iran. The rest of the region is watching and waiting to see if they too can bring their nations to the table of peace and long-term prosperity. Some may follow the courageous lead of the UAE Crown Prince, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, and others may simply find it safer — or at least less complicated and less painless — to stay on the sidelines. But that would be to the detriment of their countries. (The Palestinian leadership, for its part, failed to get the Arab League to condemn the agreement.)
Today, our focus must be on the «Iranian Occupation»: what I find to be the best term for Iran’s sprawling influence across the region, from its exertion of political influence in Iraq (via ties to Shia political actors and militias that are part of the official state security apparatus) to its support for Hamas in Gaza, to its long-standing backing of the terrorist group Hezbollah, to its involvement in the Syrian war to prop up the dictator Bashar al-Assad via its proxies. Those countries in the region who want to provide lasting safety, security and prosperity to their populations must act to contain the Iranian regime.
In the United States and western Europe, complaints about so-called «occupation» have been misdirected for years against Israel. In reality, Arab populations have now developed a different concern: They recognize the brutal and devastating «Iranian Occupation» in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq, Yemen and Syria.
The new liberation movements in these Middle Eastern countries and Gaza do not emanate from the Arab left, are not directed against Israel, and are regionwide. American and Western European progressives hold outdated views. They would do well to shred these views and adjust to where the Arab and Iranian people are.
An honest assessment of the approach of the West to the problem of the Palestinians since 1948 is that it has yielded years of empty resolutions at international organizations and conferences, and false, broken promises. It has trapped Palestinians in a time warp — those who are forced to live for decades in what are called refugee camps but seem in fact to be a permanent arrangement, those stuck and suffering under the brutal Hamas regime in Gaza and even those in the areas under the control of the Palestinian Authority who fare better than other Palestinians, but who are living nowhere near their potential or to a level that they deserve. Indeed, the Palestinians made real progress only when they reached agreements with Israel — on politics in Oslo in 1993 (though today most view the Oslo Accords as a failure) and on economics in Paris in April 1994.
Today, because of the bold recommendations of President Donald Trump, the Palestinians have yet another opportunity for peace and a better future — one that is supported by the Prime Minister of Israel. Much of the West has not encouraged the Palestinian leadership to work with this offer to see where it can lead. In fact, many in the West have chosen to continue to make false promises to the Palestinians that ultimately are likely to be broken, again. These countries will continue to use their taxpayers’ hard-earned money simply as a way to keep kicking the can down the road instead of taking a look at hard truths and trying to effectuate real change.
What a missed opportunity.
Similarly, the West has ignored or never understood the plight of the Lebanese, Iraqis, Yemenis, and Iranians — and what they have in common with the Palestinians: They all suffer under Iran’s influence.
Many of these peoples understand that the Iranian regime has produced only death, failure, poverty and sheer destruction across the Middle East. The cowardly opposition in the so-called UN «Security» Council on Aug. 21 to snapping back sanctions on Iran for its nuclear ambitions, is part and parcel of this terribly misguided approach.
Arab and Iranian people have sounded a wake-up call. The United Arab Emirates, for instance, is now unafraid to say that Iran, not Israel, is the real regional threat.
Others in the region should join them in calling this threat out — and indeed, it seems Bahrain may be well on its way to doing so. If today’s announcement is any indication, more countries are acknowledging that they have more in common with Israel, and are more unified in aligning against Iran, than observers of the region have previously supposed.
The West should discard its imperious attitude of telling the Middle East that it knows what’s best for the region and instead should defer to the Middle East when it comes to the dangers the region itself faces most directly. It is time to hold the Iranian regime to account and demand an end to the Iranian regime’s occupation, destruction and tyranny.
Jason D. Greenblatt was the White House’s Middle East Envoy for nearly three years in President Donald Trump’s administration. The opinions in this commentary are his own.