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Iran Crisis or ‘Circus’? A Weary Middle East Wonders



CAIRO — The drums of war are sounding across the Middle East, driven by the Trump administration as well as by disputed attacks on Saudi Arabian tankers and an oil pipeline. But Rohile Gharaibeh, a prominent Jordanian politician and newspaper columnist, has watched it all with a mixture of disdain and weary exasperation.

“A circus,” Mr. Gharaibeh said in a phone interview, describing recent events as little more than a spectacle with multiple foreign actors on the stage. “It’s no more than shenanigans to apply more pressure on Iran.”

As the Trump administration squares up against Iran, with what many see as alarming echoes of the buildup to the Iraq war in 2003, people across the Arab world are trying to figure out how worried they should be. In interviews, writers, businessmen and exiles expressed fear of a potentially dire war between the United States and Iran that for many has been brewing since the 1979 embassy siege in Tehran.

But they have also grown accustomed to an American president who often favors bluster over diplomacy as a tool of negotiation, yet ultimately backs down.

“If we were to believe everything Trump has said for the past three years, there would have been war with China, North Korea and Mexico,” said Joseph Fahim, an Egyptian film critic. “The guy’s a joke, he’s not serious. We don’t know if these threats are something to believe in, or just another of his many stunts.”

In Lebanon, Rami G. Khouri, an academic at the American University in Beirut, spoke from his apartment terrace, which looks out over the Mediterranean. “I’m watching for American missiles to come over the horizon,” he said wryly.

In the Qatari capital of Doha, a businessman, Farhad Sayed, had just finished suhoor, his last meal before starting the daily Ramadan fast at dawn. “This may lead to something small,” he said sarcastically.

Yet, beneath the jokes and skepticism lie a festering worry that the escalating showdown could prove the exception to the rule, the moment when Mr. Trump’s tactics accidentally tip the United States — and the Middle East — into an unwanted war.

“The Iranians wanted to wait Trump out,” Mr. Alyahya said. But when the president reimposed suffocating oil sanctions, “they realized they couldn’t wait. That’s why we are seeing this frenzy of activity in the Gulf.”

“What’s really sickening is seeing people who are advocates for Iran in the West making excuses,” he added, noting Iranian support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “Some of the things you hear from Trump critics would make a Syrian who lost his family cringe.”

Bruce Riedel, a former Central Intelligence Agency official now at the Brookings Institution, said Saudi Arabia’s apparent appetite for confrontation with Iran stood in stark contrast to its former leadership.

“This problem with Iran goes back decades,” he said. “Now, it’s about money: Trump is close to the Gulf countries because he wants to make money from them.”

The current tensions were unlikely to lead to war, he added, “but neither will they lead to peace. We need to find a political solution.”

Mr. Gharaibeh, the Jordanian politician and newspaper columnist, said that, like so many times before, most Arabs had been reduced to the role of extras or spectators in an elaborate production hosted by larger foreign powers.

And as so many times before, he added, “they will end up paying the cost of it.”


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