The last few days we have all been preoccupied with the assassination of Qassem Soleimani and what might be the repercussions of this bold (some would say “reckless”) action. Despite all the speculation, the truth is, no one knows for sure what, if anything, Iran will do. I doubt they will ignore it yet I also doubt, all the chest thumping, saber rattling, threatening texts aside, that this is the start of World War III. 

What I do know is that there is a larger context for the events that are unfolding before our eyes and NO ONE seems to be talking about that. Context is determinative for everything is life. Without the larger context, nothing really makes sense. And the reason it gets ignored in the sound bite/Tweet news cycle in which we now live, is that it is complicated. So, give me seven minutes and I will unpack it for you.

First of all, we have to know that what is going on today in the Middle East has been going on for 4,000 years! Back then, in what historians call the “Cradle of Civilization,” long before there were nations, there were three great empires that vied for complete hegemony—the Persians, the Semites, and the Egyptians. Back and forth it went, with alliances and wars too numerous to count, each trying to control the natural resources and wealth in this part of the world. Yes, even before there was oil, there was great wealth in this region. [For those interested in Jewish history, the kingdom of Israel was a minor player in this scenario, whose only major importance was the relatively easy north-south land bridge it afforded conquering armies.]

Fast forward to the 7th century CE to the visionary Prophet Muhammed, who sought to unite all the ethnicities under one monotheistic religion—Islam (whose very name means, “pursue peace”). Both through the truth of his message as well as military conquest, he was enormously successful. However, upon his death, Islam pided into two major blocks (as well as several minor ones created over time) which exists to this day—Shia and Sunni. The pision that the Prophet sought to heal is yet to be realized as the struggle for hegemony, with all its carnage, continues on a daily basis.

Of course, lots have happened since then, much too much to cover in a single blog—The Crusades, the Ottoman Empire, World War I, the control of the Middle East by Britain and France, the creation of nation states after WW II, the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, and the economic as well as military influence of the United States. Suffice to say though, in spite of all that, the battle among these ancient ethnic groups for numero uno status continues.

Today, backed by Russia, Iran is the most powerful Islamic nation in the Middle East with proxy (terrorist) armies in Lebanon, Gaza, and now Syria as well as Iraq. Its desire to have a nuclear bomb would cement its position and its control. The United States is Iran’s chief adversary as we see our economic interests (primarily oil which is refined for fossil fuel) endangered by Iranian hegemony and so we have attempted to cripple their economy through harsh sanctions, all the while hoping for regime change. Our chief allies in this gambit are the oil rich Arab-Semite nations as well as Israel (which has the bomb) who see Iran’s encroachment as a threat to their national sovereignty and freedom, perhaps even their very existence. 

The imperfect deal which President Obama negotiated was an attempt to delay Iran’s inevitable movement towards the capacity to build a nuclear bomb in exchange for relaxation of the sanctions. It was the hope of this treaty that with an invigorated economy the Ayatollah’s regime, which faced increasing pressure from the Iranian public for both economic as well as personal freedoms, would give up their pursuit of the bomb. According to the team of inspectors, the terms of the agreement were being adhered to by Iran.

Nevertheless, Iran continued its pursuit of domination of the Middle East by conventional means as well as acts of terrorism. They had long taken advantage of the power vacuum in Lebanon to install Hezbollah. They sided with Palestinian terrorist groups (Hamas and Islamic Jihad) sworn to the destruction of Israel. Along with Russia, they came to the aid of the despot Assad in Syria, who was desperate for any help to hang on to control of his civil war torn nation. And with Saddam Hussein out of the way (remember, he fought a ten year, no-winner war against Iran?) they have inserted themselves in Iraq which seems poised to kick out our American troops. 

Is Iran our enemy? I guess the answer to that question depends on what one sees as America’s best interest. It certainly is the enemy of the oil-rich nations with whom we are allied. To the extent that we rely on fossil fuel, the uninterrupted flow of this natural resource is essential to our economy. Clearly, by word and deed, it is the sworn enemy of the only democracy in the region, Israel. For make no mistake about it, a nuclear Iran, under its current leadership, represents a true existential threat to the very existence of Israel and perhaps some others. That is why back in 2012, Prime Minister Netanyahu pleaded with the United Nations to prevent Iran from getting the bomb. As a result, we had a multi-nation deal which, despite the unproven claims that there were secret sites, seemed to be working. Now? It’s anybody’s guess.

P.S. This blog was written on Tuesday morning (1/7). Late that night, Iran launched missiles at an Iraqi base which houses U.S. soldiers. From what we know, it appears that the attack was meant to flex muscles AND do no real harm. Iran stated that this would be the end unless the Americans retaliated. Let’s hope that calm and rational heads will call this a draw, at least for now.