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We are facing the terrifying result of the West’s three stupid mistakes in the Middle East

In Jerusalem and Tehran, there are people who dream of final reckonings and pray for Armageddon

What happened on Saturday night was something the world has not seen before: it was the first time Iran directly attacked Israel from its own territory. Because there has already been in effect a proxy war between the two countries for decades, it is easy to underestimate the danger to the world. Doing so would be fatal.

What we’re seeing now is the working out of a terrifying truth: allowing the question of Palestine to fester doesn’t just bring misery to Palestinians. It has always threatened a much wider catastrophe. Complacency and myopia have brought that disaster one big step closer.

Almost as soon as the second World War was over, the United States and Britain began planning for the third. They assumed it would probably start in the Middle East and involve Iran. In 1946, the US Joint War Plans Committee imagined that the spark for the next great conflagration would be attempts by the Soviet Union to bring Turkey and Iran under its control. This would “force” Britain to retaliate to protect its interests in the region, triggering an all-out confrontation between the western and eastern blocs.

None of this happened, of course. But for a lot of my lifetime, the idea that a third World War would start in the Middle East was part of the background noise of life. It’s hard for people born after the end of the Cold War to grasp how weirdly normal was the assumption that some local war could light a fuse that would burn all the way to the nuclear apocalypse. Korea, Cuba and Vietnam all appeared at one time or another as likely candidates, but the Middle East was the default location for these dark imaginings.

Ironically, these fears led the West to do three very stupid things whose long-term consequences we are now experiencing. One of them was to overthrow democracy in Iran. In August 1953, the Americans and the British funded and organised a military coup d’etat against the democratically elected Iranian government of Muhammad Mosaddegh. Though he was in fact an anti-communist, Mosaddegh had angered the British by nationalising the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

They persuaded the Americans that he was a pawn of the Soviets and must be removed. The CIA and MI6 ran a covert operation (detailed most vividly in Taghi Amirani’s remarkable documentary film Coup53) that returned the Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to power. His vicious but western-approved regime was overthrown in 1979, leading to the creation to the equally vicious Islamic Republic. The West, in deliberately destroying Iranian democracy, created its own monster.

The second terrible mistake was to allow Israel to introduce nuclear weapons into the world’s most volatile region. France provided the raw materials and much of the technology for the development of Israel’s bomb. The US turned a blind eye. After the 1967 war, a nuclear-armed Israel was tacitly accepted by the West as a fait accompli – don’t ask, don’t tell.

Biden and the West have been sleepwalking into a Middle East war for so long that it is hard to awaken to its approaching reality

It was the Cold War that made this insanity acceptable: if the third World War was going to start in the Middle East, was it not useful to have a nuclear-armed western ally already on the spot? The effect, though, was to provide the excuse for the Iranian regime to develop its own nuclear weapons programme. A deadly logic was being locked in: a regional rivalry would sooner or later become a nuclear rivalry. And nuclear rivalries cannot remain regional. By allowing Israel to become a nuclear power, the West ensured that, in the long term, its wars would be global.

The third great mistake was to see the fate of the Palestinians as a matter of great power rivalry rather than of basic justice. To be pro- or anti-Palestinian became a proxy for identification with one or other of the Cold War blocs. This obscured the reality that allowing millions of people to remain displaced in one of the world’s most unstable regions was not just wrong but highly dangerous.

The irony is that though these terrible errors were driven by the apocalyptic fears of the Cold War, they have been sustained by the opposite phenomenon: post-Cold War complacency. Once the Cold War was over, the Middle East it had created no longer mattered so much. The disastrous effects of western policies on the region could be forgotten – the conflict could be reimagined as an ahistorical “clash of civilisations” fuelled by “ancient hatreds”.

In particular the Palestinian problem could, like the Palestinians themselves, remain indefinitely in suspended animation. For Israel this meant, in its repulsive terminology, “mowing the grass” – tacitly supporting Hamas’s tyrannical rule in Gaza but containing it by periodically engaging in short, sharp episodes of violent conflict. For the US and the EU it meant maintaining a “commitment” to a two-state solution that demanded no real action.

This swing from irrational fear to irrational smugness has created a kind of cognitive dissonance: the West does not know how scared it should be about the Middle East. The long-term consequences of its own dreadful mistakes in the region are coming back to haunt it, but it has spent too long pretending not to see those ghosts.

According to NBC News in the US, “president Joe Biden has privately expressed concern that Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is trying to drag the US more deeply into a broader conflict”. It makes complete sense for Netanyahu to do so, to preserve his own power and to stop the haemorrhaging of support for Israel over Gaza. So much sense, indeed, that Biden and those around him ought to have been able to see this coming – what else was Netanyahu ever going to do?

But Biden and the West have been sleepwalking into a Middle East war for so long that it is hard to awaken to its approaching reality. If events are left to take their course, they will be driven by those in power in Jerusalem and Tehran who dream of final reckonings and pray for Armageddon.

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