Washington Wednesday – Turmoil in the Middle East

NICK EICHER, HOST: Coming up next on The World and Everything in It: turmoil in the Middle East and what it means for U.S. policy in the region.

MEGAN BASHAM, HOST: The U.S. airstrike that killed Iranian General Qasam Soleimani prompted alarm around the world. For a few tense days it seemed possible we were headed for another war in the Middle East. But the heated rhetoric has cooled considerably. And the focus of popular anger in Iran has shifted from the United States to the Iranian regime.

EICHER: On Saturday, the Iranian military admitted it accidentally shot down a Ukrainian passenger plane earlier in the week. The accident happened just hours after Iran fired a barrage of missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq in retaliation for Soleimani’s death. A military commander reportedly mistook the plane for an enemy aircraft. That admission after days of denials prompted thousands of Iranians to take to the streets. Instead of “Death to America!” they were shouting, “death to the dictators!” in Iran.

WORLD senior editor Mindy Belz joins us now to talk about this latest turmoil in a region she knows well. Mindy has traveled extensively in the Middle East during the past decade to report on the plight of its Christian communities.

Good morning, Mindy.

MINDY BELZ, GUEST: Good morning, Nick.

EICHER: Last week, all of the headlines concentrated on the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani—reasonably so, too. Just about everyone seemed to think that was a surprise move. But I have to say, the admission on Saturday by the Iranian military that it accidentally shot down a commercial airliner was probably a bigger surprise evan than that. What do you make of it? What does it tell us about the situation in Tehran, in light of the protests that we’ve seen there this week?

BELZ: Well, it tells us, I think, that the Iranian regime is weak and faltering and perhaps even in trouble, I would say. And, you know, one basic fact is that the sands of time are sinking for the Ayatollahs. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, is 80 years old. The average age of all of them is 65. And, if you look at the street, the scene that you’re describing, the throngs of young people, and we have to keep in mind, when they are standing in the street chanting, “Death to the dictator! Death to this rule!” those are crimes that can land them in jail, can land them on death row in jail. And I think that it spells to some extent the doom of the Iranian regime. It’s just none of us know how long. But what we do know is that on the military side, the death of General Soleimani is catastrophic for this regime. All their strategizing, all the tactical and logistical side of carrying out their hopes of spreading their power and influence across the Middle East—one way for them to lengthen their ability to stay in power—hinged on General Soleimani. And he’s gone. 

EICHER: That’s a good reminder that just the fact that people are taking to the streets in Iran, they are literally taking their lives in their hands. That’s a good reminder. But I wonder, Mindy, where does that leave U.S. policy in the region? Has anything changed fundamentally in the last two weeks?

BELZ: Yes. I think it has. The Trump administration—with the targeted killing of General Soleimani—recalibrated its mission in the Middle East, which for the past few years has been predicated on defeating ISIS. And at least for now, that mission has changed to protecting Americans and U.S. installations, the places where they are based. That seems like an arguably sound mission, but it’s limited in scope. And so I think what we’re going to be looking for is how this policy continues to change moving forward—how committed we still will be to defeating ISIS because I can tell you ISIS is still there in pockets. And how we will interact with both the Iranian and the Iraqi government.

EICHER: I read one analysis comparing the situation now in the Middle East to what we saw at the very end of the Cold War. We seemed to be on the verge of a devastating armed conflict with the Soviet Union right up to the point of communism’s collapse. Then almost overnight everything changed. Do you think we could be seeing something similar happening in the Middle East right now?

BELZ: That’s interesting because the shootdown of the Ukranian airline flight by Iran seemed sort of like that kind of moment. If you’ll remember—and you might not remember—but in 1983 Korean flight 007 was shot down over communist territory by a Soviet Missile.

EICHER: Yeah, I do remember that. And an American congressman was on board that flight.

BELZ: That’s right. So it was big news in the United States. It was really big news all over the world. And up to that time, everyone knew the Soviets were lying about what they were doing and what they weren’t doing. But the shoot down made it news that you couldn’t look away from. And so it seems to me like it is a similar moment. And one of the things that we saw on Monday, you know, several prominent state television news hosts—these are people employed by the government because it’s all state broadcasting—they quit. And these are people who are extremely well-known throughout Iran. One of them even issued a public apology. She said, “It was very hard for me to believe the murdering of my countrymen.” And then she said, “Forgive me for believing it too late. I apologize for lying to you on TV for 13 years.”

EICHER: Wow. That’s bracing. Hey, before we go, let’s focus a little bit on Iraq specifically. Before the U.S. airstrike that killed Soleimani, Iraqis had participated in large street protests for months. And a big part of what they were protesting was Iran’s influence in the country. We saw some of those protests starting up again last week. What does that say about Iran’s power in the region? Is it starting to wane?

BELZ: The street protests in Iraq have been continuous since October. And they’ve gotten little international coverage and especially little coverage in the United States despite hundreds of people being killed in these protests. At 4 a.m. on the night that General Soleimani was killed in that airstrike, people were streaming into the streets of Baghdad in celebration. And they were planning these protests. They were back in Basra, they were back in Nasri the very next day. What’s significant about that is that these are the Shiite strongholds. These are the places where Iran has been strongest, but that control and that influence looks like it was paper thin and it may even be completely gone because Iraqis have just had enough of other countries having a say about what happens in their own country. They want a secular government. They want Iran out. They want the United States out. They want a lot of things that we can all appreciate. They want bombs to stop falling on them from the sky.

EICHER: Seems like a real opportunity for the United States. What do you think it means for our relations with Iraq and, I guess in particular, the presence of U.S. troops in the country?

BELZ: Well, I think the U.S. started the war in Iraq 17 years ago this year and I think that’s significant that we’ve all been wanting to see the page turned. Iraqis, Americans, all of us. And, at the end of the day, it’s the Iraqis who are going to decide their future. It’s the people who live in the Middle East who need to decide their future and that’s good news for all of us. And I believe that U.S. policy has suffered—especially in recent years—because it has come across as purely self-interested. And so I’d love to see the United States come up with a long-term plan and be able to articulate what its long-term interest there is because I think Americans would appreciate that. And I think the Iraqis would too. And it ought to be something that’s in the self-interest of all of us. And I believe that’s possible.

EICHER: I do have one final question and I just want to say, embarrass you a little bit, Mindy. I don’t think there’s an American reporter who has better contacts than you do with the Christian communities inside Iraq. So tell me what you’re hearing from them? 

BELZ: Well, first off, because we talked about the protest movement, there’s a real interesting connection there. The churches—including the leadership—in Baghdad went out into the streets to show their solidarity with the protesters. So there’s a tremendous solidarity that I think is fascinating among Muslims, Christians, and others from minority communities in Iraq. There just hasn’t been an opportunity for us to see that the way we’ve seen it in recent months. The killing of Soleimani and the future of his militias, though, is like so many things we’ve seen—really a double-edged sword for the Christians. Many of them have been living in Nineveh Plain surrounded by these militias that were supposedly securing their communities but actually were trying to keep them out of them. So, in the short-term, the militias remain well-armed and they threaten Christians and may even threaten them with new retaliatory attacks because of where we are. But we in the long-term, if we do see Iran’s influence in Iraq weakened, that will definitely be a good thing for the Christians. We really are just waiting for the day when the role of the Christians in Iraq will again be seen as vital and valued—politically, in a community sense—and that their communities will receive the protection that they deserve.

EICHER: Mindy Belz is WORLD’s senior reporter and author of They Say We Are Infidels, a book about Christian persecution in the Middle East. Thanks for joining us today.

BELZ: Thank you, Nick.

(AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi) Protesters chant slogans while holding up a poster of Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, during a demonstration in front of the British Embassy in Tehran, Iran, Sunday, Jan. 12, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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