Haviland Smith: The real Middle East conflict

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Haviland Smith, of Williston, who is a retired CIA station chief who served in East and West Europe as well as the Middle East. He was executive assistant in the CIA director’s office and the first CIA chief of counterterrorism. His other writings can be seen on rural-ruminations.com.

It is absolutely fascinating to sit here in America and examine the Middle East, not only for what it really is, but for what Americans have been led to believe it is. The fact is that there is an extraordinary amount of misinformation about that region that is constantly circulating here.

It is probably fair to say that the invention of the internal combustion engine and the concomitant need for fuel to run it determined our early policy in the Middle East. The fuel was in abundance in Sunni Saudi Arabia. Our friend and ally, Great Britain, was already firmly established there, so we signed on with the Saudis, not fully understanding what that meant in regional religious terms. What we did was ally firmly with the Sunni side of Islam and we did so strictly for commercial reasons. Ultimately, that put us in opposition to the Shia and Iran has evolved as the leader of that sect.

Given our current highest production levels of energy in the world, is our present deep involvement in the Middle East in our national interest?

At this moment, it is ”understood” in America that Iran is making trouble throughout the Middle East using “terrorism” as its primary weapon. Iran was defined as a “terrorist state” after the 1979 overthrow of the Shah and the incarceration of American diplomats in Tehran. Since then it has been accused by the international community of funding, providing equipment, weapons, training and giving sanctuary to “terrorists.”

The 19th century produced a lot of terrorist activity, much, if not all of it motivated by revolutionary nationalism in which aggrieved citizens attempted to overthrow their own repressive governments.

That type of terrorism continued to be the norm after the Second World War with revolutionary groups trying to eject occupying colonial powers.

Terrorism as it exists today was profoundly affected by the activities of combatants in the Second World War. Almost all of them, particularly those fighting against the Axis of Germany and Japan, got involved in non-traditional paramilitary operations against their enemies. Groups running the resistance inside Axis-occupied countries, including partisan and guerilla movements, were organized and outfitted by the Allies and were acknowledged to have had a major positive effect on the ultimate Allied victory. Many of the tactics and techniques used in the war were simply translated into the post war modus operandi now employed by resistance movements around the world. Also, they continued to be used in the worldwide operations of western governments.

Anti-colonial groups around the world undertook unconventional operations designed to eliminate Western colonial influence and install indigenous regimes. Many countries felt the sting of these operations and found it necessary to battle these insurgents.

There was, therefore, a time when U.S. administrations found themselves facing worldwide paramilitary and insurgent movements in countries we needed to remain as our allies. What could we call these movements and these groups? It had to be something that all Americans, as well as our democratic friends around the world, would consider threatening and thus worth fighting against.

“Terrorism” with all its emotional connotations became the watchword. If we didn’t like what was going on in any given country, we immediately called the insurgents “terrorists,” hopefully galvanizing against both Americans and the nationals of the country involved.

We did this in Afghanistan when we labeled the Taliban terrorists, in Vietnam with the Viet Cong, Yemen with the Houthis (Shia), Syria with the Alawites (Shia), Iraq with the Shia, Iran with the Shia. The list goes on and on, but the fact remains that when we are angry with or disagree with a foreign group, we tend to label them “terrorists.”

Iran is the world’s terrorist bad boy. Their support of “terrorists” around the world is a formulation of our making. Our president has just referred to them before the UN General Assembly as “the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism. In fact, what Iran is doing is supporting their Shia co-religionists. They support the Shia in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and Iraq. In fact, just about all the conflict that exists in the Middle East is not terrorism perpetrated by terrorists. It is the Sunni and Shia fighting against each other in support of their fellow co-religionists. That represents a very unhealthy environment for our involvement.

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