The mistake Trump risks repeating in the Middle East
A Middle Eastern power seeks regional hegemony. A Western power with a history of military intervention initiates a campaign to weaken that country’s economy and isolate it from the world. The ensuing showdown drives a wedge in the transatlantic alliance and pushes the region to the brink of war.
That sounds like the current situation between the United States and Iran, but it also describes the conflict between the United Kingdom and Egypt in the 1950s.
Although Washington and Tehran averted war in the immediate aftermath of the Trump administration’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani, the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and imposition of crushing sanctions against the Islamic Republic have set the two powers on a collision course. Even though an armed confrontation has been avoided for now, national security experts still worry that Iran could strike the United States again if it lets its guard down. “Iran has a long history of striking when their adversaries least expect it,” Andrew McCabe, the former deputy director of the FBI wrote in the Washington Post.
Since the assassination, Iran’s continued threats to restart its nuclear program raise the specter of a U.S. or Israeli preemptive strike, which could trigger a costly and chaotic war. This, in turn, could spur an even deeper backlash against America’s presence in the region. Simply put, the United States is on the precipice of a potential catastrophe.
Indeed, history has shown us the dangers of this kind of Western posturing. The mid-twentieth century rivalry between Great Britain and Egypt provides a cautionary tale about a foreign policy rooted in maximum pressure.
The day before Churchill resigned as prime minister in 1955, he signed a treaty aimed at securing British influence in the Middle East for years to come. The treaty, known as the Baghdad Pact, sought to pull London’s allies in the Middle East into a mutual self-defense agreement. The UK, which remained the most influential country in the region in spite of increasing American power, wanted to knit together its former colonies into a pro-Western coalition. Its primary concern was maintaining a foothold at the Suez Canal, a vital waterway. Three quarters of British imports came through Suez, making Egypt the lynchpin of Britain’s economic security. Just as global energy interests collide in the Strait of Hormuz today, the Suez Canal was the maritime chokepoint that set the boundaries of the 1950s geopolitical playing field.
But the newly independent Egypt had no interest in British security guarantees. Egypt’s president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, viewed foreign military presence in Egypt as a violation of his country’s sovereignty. In a January 1955 article written for Foreign Affairs, Nasser argued that “the defense of the Middle East must rest primarily with the inhabitants of the area.”
Prime Minister Anthony Eden viewed Nasser and Arab nationalism as existential threats to British interests. In a July 1956 letter to President Eisenhower, Eden urged the United States to join Britain’s campaign to bring “maximum political pressure to bear on Egypt” and to be ready “in the last resort, to use force to bring Nasser to his senses.” The parallel with Iran today could not be clearer.
Cairo and London faced off in a regional contest for power. But the crisis also facilitated the rise of a new regional player: the Soviet Union. Nasser soon struck an agreement with Czechoslovakia to procure $200 million of Soviet weapons in response to both the Baghdad Pact and Israel’s purchase of French arms.The deal, a victory for Nikita Khrushchev, was the first major expansion of Soviet influence into the Middle East.
Nasser then took his most dramatic step yet: nationalizing the Suez Canal. Soon after, Dwight Eisenhower dispatched Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to deliver a critical message: the White House would not back a military solution. Nevertheless, British Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd characterized the imperative of taking back the canal as tantamount to preventing a “potential Hitler,” as he wrote in his memoir. (Today, Trump officials make the same historical comparison, likening Iran to Nazi Germany and comparing the JCPOA to the 1938 Munich agreement.)
Britain then signed onto a secret military plan with France and Israel to retake control of the canal. The casus belliwas an Israeli feint toward the canal zone, requiring an Anglo-French intervention to protect the international waterway. Eisenhower urged Eden not to take military action, warning that the use of force would turn Arab public opinion against the West. Eden ignored him.
But just as Eisenhower warned, the Anglo-French invasion of Egypt triggered massive Arab resistance. Riots erupted across Iraq. To quell the uproar, Iraq cut relations with France and excluded Britain from all meetings of the Baghdad Pact. In Egypt, Nasser ordered the sinking of ships to blockadethe Suez Canal. If hewasn’t going to control the canal, no one would.
Even more damaging to Britain was the reaction of the superpowers. Khrushchev delivered the first Soviet nuclear threat of the Cold War, threatening to attack Western Europe with nuclear weapons if Britain did not withdraw. London found no diplomatic support from its closest allies in Washington; Eisenhower dispatched Dulles to the floor of the UN General Assembly to condemn the military action.
The ensuing military fiasco and subsequent withdrawal of British troops from Egypt under U.S. and Soviet pressure reverberated throughout the region, permanently discrediting Britain in the Middle East.
By 1956, Egypt had evicted all British forces, and Syria was drifting into the Soviet camp. The final blow to British influence in the Middle East came in July 1958 when nationalist officers overthrew the Hashemite monarchy of Iraq. Army officers sympathetic to Nasser’s pan-Arab vision seized power, murdering the pro-British royal family. The Soviet Union, sensing the imminent unraveling of the pact, promptly recognized the new Iraqi government. By year’s end, Soviet and Iraqi diplomats signed what would be the first of several trade and military assistance agreements. This was the very outcome the alliance had been created to prevent.
At the end of the decade, Britain’s role as the dominant power in the Middle East was over. Its regional defense alliances had collapsed. Soviet arms were arriving in Arab capitals. The United States no longer trusted Britain to uphold the regional order. London knew its days were numbered. By 1960, British troops were out of the Middle East for good.
Trump’s national security team would do well to recall this history. The UK’s miscalculations in the 1950s left it humiliated and ultimately weakened in the region. By demonizing Nasser and applying its own form of “maximum pressure,” the British government triggered exactly the result it sought to avoid.
Even if war today is averted, Baghdad’s weakened support for America’s military presence in Iraq is a sign that U.S. policy is alienating allies and producing unintended consequences that hurt America’s strategic position in the Middle East.
History, therefore, may not be repeating itself, but as Mark Twain’s adage goes, we are certainly seeing it rhyme. President Trump campaigned on keeping America out of military adventures overseas. His policy toward Iran may be taking him exactly where he said he didn’t want to go.
Andrew Hanna and Alistair Somerville are graduate fellows at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Hanna is an M.S. Candidate in Foreign Service at Georgetown and has written for Politico Magazine, Crooked Media, and elsewhere. Somerville is an M.A. Candidate in German and European Studies at Georgetown and the host of the podcast, The Europe Desk.