Obstacle to Iran's ambitions will come from the Arab people – not the US

Dick Cheney might worry about Donald Trump's withdrawal from the Middle East but following American misadventures in the region, political outlook towards Tehran has changed in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon

VP Dick Cheney, 46th Vice President of the United States of America at Arab Strategy Forum: Forecasting the Next Decade 2020 - 2030.

(Photo: Reem Mohammed/The National)

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As the architect of America’s more controversial recent military interventions in the Middle East, former US vice president Dick Cheney is well acquainted with the pitfalls of getting the balance wrong when it comes to Washington’s military involvement in the region.

As a key figure in the administration of US president George W Bush from 2001-2009, Mr Cheney played a pivotal role in Washington’s decision to launch the military operation to overthrow the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

And he was one of the more enthusiastic cheerleaders of the subsequent campaign to overthrow Iraq dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003. Indeed, Mr Cheney, as one of the more hawkish members of the Bush administration, was among those who sought to blame Saddam personally for carrying out the September 11 attacks, a claim that subsequently turned out to be completely false and was one of the reasons that the Iraq war ultimately became so unpopular.

So there will be a strong temptation among many policymakers to dismiss with a pinch of salt the warning Mr Cheney made this week during an address to the Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai about the pitfalls of the Trump administration's desire to scale down dramatically its military presence in the region.

In his keynote speech, the 78-year-old Mr Cheney warned that the withdrawal of US troops from key areas of the Middle East not only caused alarm for Washington’s allies in the region but that this departure from the “sound traditions” of US foreign policy would only benefit states hostile to American interests, such as Iran and Russia.

After all the controversy America’s military presence has caused in the region when Mr Cheney was in power, there will be many who believe that a reduction in US involvement is to be welcomed, rather than a matter for regret.

US President Donald Trump (L) speaks to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after a bilateral meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on the sidelines of the NATO summit at the Grove hotel in Watford, northeast of London on December 4, 2019. / AFP / Nicholas Kamm
In October, Donald Trump, left, decided to withdraw US forces from northern Syria, which resulted in Turkey launching an offensive against the Kurds there. AFP

Yet, while Mr Cheney’s personal involvement in the region is likely to be the subject of controversy for many years to come, his comments in Dubai this week nevertheless demand to be taken seriously, not least because his concerns about the likely implications of a further reduction in America’s military footprint in the region are thoroughly valid.

Mr Cheney's critique focused on US President Donald Trump's decision in October to withdraw US forces from northern Syria, which resulted in Turkey launching an offensive against the Syrian Kurds, who had hitherto played a vital role in the US-led military campaign to defeat ISIS.

When announcing the decision, Mr Trump used the occasion to articulate his long-standing opposition to America’s involvement in the Middle East, which he claims has cost the American taxpayer a phenomenal $8 trillion. “Let someone else fight over this long bloodstained land,” Mr Trump declared.

And with his eye firmly fixed on next year’s campaign for re-election, Mr Trump will be well aware that his appeal to bring American soldiers back home from far-flung battle zones will be a vote-winner among his blue collar electoral base.

Yet, as Mr Cheney made clear, actions have consequences and the inevitable result of US forces withdrawing from key areas of the region is that other countries like Russia will seek to fill the vacuum.

“Russia is always on standby to fill power voids,” he explained. “That is how it happened that Russian troops swept in when the US left northern Syria. To sum up that still unfolding story: nobody will remember it as our finest hour.”

Mr Cheney was also highly critical of Iran, which he argued was one of the main beneficiaries of what he called “American disengagement".

(FILES) In this file photo taken on September 22, 2018 members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) march during the annual military parade marking the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating 1980-1988 war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq, in the capital Tehran. - President Donald Trump on April 8, 2019 announced the United States is designating Iran's elite military force, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a terrorist organization. Trump said in a statement that the "unprecedented" move "recognizes the reality that Iran is not only a State Sponsor of Terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances, and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft." (Photo by STRINGER / AFP)
Dick Cheney highlighted the determination of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to undermine regional stability. AFP

"If anyone is against American influence in the region, it is the regime in Tehran," he said. "We know what the mullahs in Tehran want. The nuclear deal made five years ago was unwise in the extreme. It offered no concrete assurance for US or regional security. It rewarded the mullahs for 35 years of bad faith and a regime that bullies its people."

He highlighted the role of the Quds Force, the foreign operations wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which sought to undermine regional stability by conducting cyber attacks. “Tehran continues adding to its military capability and its stock of ballistic missiles, subsidising terrorists spreading trouble and violence.”

With regard to extremist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS, Mr Cheney warned that “inaction can carry even greater risk than action".

“There are some deeply malign forces at work in the broader Middle East, as well as disturbing influences from outside,” Mr Cheney concluded. “Disengagement is just another term for leaving all the power to them.”

Mr Cheney’s warnings will certainly resonate in those corners of the region, such as Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, that have seen an upsurge in Iranian activity, particularly since the signing of the 2015 nuclear deal.

The argument can be made, of course, that Iran would not have been able to make inroads into the likes of Iraq had it not been for Mr Cheney’s enthusiasm for removing Saddam, a sentiment that is today very popular among ordinary Iraqis.

Yet the reality is that nearly two decades on from the September 11 attacks, the political outlook of the region is undergoing a profound transformation, one where Iran is determined to emerge as a key player.

The only real obstacle, therefore, to Iran maintaining its attempts to increase its influence in the region is likely to come not from the US, but the ordinary Arab citizens of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq who have no interest in having their lives subjected to the dictates of Tehran’s fanatical regime.

Con Coughlin is the Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor