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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 19 November 2018

John McCain and the Middle East: A staunch critic of Iran 

The late senator's position on seven key issues in the region

Senator John McCain addresses a press conference in Beverly Hills, California, in 2008. AFP
Senator John McCain addresses a press conference in Beverly Hills, California, in 2008. AFP

Hailed as a war hero and remembered for his service in Congress, Senator John McCain died at 81 in his home in Arizona, sparking an outpouring of condolences and tributes from all over the world.

The senator had been battling glioblastoma, an aggressive brain cancer, discovered by his doctors last year.

McCain was known for his unwavering stance on Middle East issues, including support for a Palestinian state and opposition to the Iranian regime.

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These are the senator's positions on seven key issues in the region:

A staunch critic of the Iranian regime

Iran, said McCain last year, has "literally been getting away with murder". The senator praised President Donald Trump's move to end the Iran nuclear deal, saying that many of its terms would make it harder to pursue a strategy favourable to the US.

"I agree with the president that the deal is not in the vital national interests of the United States," he said.

McCain often condemned Iran for threatening the US, saying "it is the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world".

Iran's links to unsavoury organisations and governments, including Hezbollah and President Bashar Al Assad's regime, deeply troubled the senator, who said that Tehran had "contributed to hundreds of thousands of deaths and the displacement of millions, destabilising nations across the Middle East".

In an opinion piece for The New York Times in October 2017, he wrote: "A web of Iranian proxies and allies is spreading from the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula, threatening stability, freedom of navigation and the territory of our partners and allies, including with advanced conventional weapons. Iran itself continues to test ballistic missiles, menace its neighbours and use its sanctions relief windfall to harmful ends".

When anti-government protests erupted, McCain was the first to back the Iranian people. In 2009 he voiced his support for the Green Movement uprising and called for effective sanction on Tehran. In late 2017, as more anti-government protests spread across Iran, McCain took to Twitter to support the demonstrations.

"For too long, the Iranian people have been oppressed by their government, which cares more about sowing instability abroad than its own citizens. The US stands with the brave protesters who yearn for freedom, peace and an end to corruption in Iran," he said.

Support for the Arab uprisings from Tunisia to Egypt, Libya and Syria

When, in 2011, the Arab world rose up against their respective regimes and demand basic human rights, McCain proved a vocal supporter of the sometimes violent revolts, calling them a “collective demand for human dignity, economic opportunity and peaceful political change”.

While some policymakers and critics of the Arab Spring warned of dangerous power vacuums and the region's need for an iron fist, the senator pushed against the notion that the people were unprepared for democracy.

"It should also put to rest the ugly claim, heard all too often over the past decade, that the Arab world is somehow condemned to despotism – that unlike people everywhere else, Arabs are not ready, not capable, or not fit for democracy,” the senator said.

McCain was especially critical of Mr Al Assad's regime and openly pushed for the US to step up and rid the country of its president.

“We must do all we can, short of military action, to help the Syrian revolution to succeed,” he said in 2011. “To believe that despite all of this that Bashar Al Assad is a reformer is an exercise in gross self-deception."

"This could be the death knell for the brand of global terrorism that attacked us 10 years ago, and I for one am happy that Osama bin Laden got to hear it – just before a team of American heroes ended his wretched life,” McCain said of the Arab Spring, oblivious to how events would soon unfold.

Pushed for military action in Libya

During the 2011 Libyan civil war, the senator was clear and uncompromising in his belief that decisive action should be taken against dictator Muammar Qaddafi. McCain called for US strikes to destroy Qadaffi's command-and-control sites and for then president Barack Obama's government to recognise the transitional national council in Benghazi as “the legitimate voice” of the Libyan people.

In April 2011 he travelled to Libya to meet rebel fighters, referring to them as "heroes" and praising their efforts to overthrow the dictator.

He defended Mr Obama when the former president acted with limited congressional consultation, saying there was no time to waste in debating the use of military force. Ultimately he criticised the US government for handing over control to Nato and withdrawing air support.

Supported political process to address Kurdish aspirations

"Let me be clear," McCain wrote in a New York Times opinion piece last year, “if Baghdad cannot guarantee the Kurdish people in Iraq the security, freedom and opportunities they desire, and if the United States is forced to choose between Iranian-backed militias and our long-standing Kurdish partners, I choose the Kurds.

The bold statement came in the wake of the Kurds’ referendum for independence in September 2017. The call by then-Kurdish President Massoud Barzani for a vote troubled the US, who for years had tried to juggle Kurdish and Arab aspirations. It also deeply angered Baghdad, which responded with military action in Kirkuk and other disputed areas.

“Clashes this month between the elements of the Iraqi security forces and Kurdish fighters around Kirkuk are deeply troubling, in particular because of the United States’ long-standing friendship with the Kurdish people,” he said.

“The United States offered arms and training to the government of Iraq to fight [ISIS] and secure Iraq from external threats – not to attack Iraqi Kurds, who are some of America’s most trusted and capable partners in the region.”

Criticised early withdrawal from Iraq

When ISIS overran parts of northern Iraq in 2014, McCain lambasted then-president Obama for his decision to withdraw US troops from Iraq in 2011.

The senator blamed Mr Obama for the rise of ISIS, calling for the resignation of his entire national security team. “It’s a colossal failure of American security policy.”

The terror group’s swift rise to power triggered Republican criticism over troop withdrawal. Many feared that the years, funds and manpower invested in Iraq would be swept away by Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi’s men – and in many ways, they were not wrong.

A supporter of Israel and two-state solution

McCain was a staunch Israel advocate and often called on Palestinians to recognise the Jewish state. He believed in a two-state solution but did not offer a critique of the illegal Israeli settlements that over the decades have displaced countless Palestinian families. Instead, he identified Hamas and its military force as the country’s most pressing problem.

McCain made no secret of his admiration of the Zionist project. “Anybody who is familiar with the history of the Jewish people and with the Zionist idea can't help but admire those who established the Jewish homeland,” he said in an interview with The Atlantic in 2008. He first visited the country in the late 1970s and would return countless times.

He blamed what he called “Islamic extremism” for the dangers faced by the region and called out Iran for supporting terrorist organisations set on destroying Israel and the US.

On the 60th anniversary of the founding of Israel, he said: "The close and enduring US- Israel relationship has thrived as well, and I am proud to support the vital ties between our two countries … There will always be an Israel, and there will always be a vital bond between our two peoples."

Supported Lebanese Cedar Revolution in 2005

McCain was a vocal supporter of the 2005 demonstrations that followed the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14. The protest movement, later called the Cedar Revolution, pushed for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the end of Damascus’s influence in internal politics. Crowds estimated at between one and two million turned out in a country of just over 4.5 million people.

It was coupled with growing international insistence – led by France and the US –for Mr Al Assad's regime to withdraw from Lebanon. Just over a month after the huge bomb that killed Hariri, Syrian forces were crossing the border.

"Those who are systematically killing Lebanese patriots and denying the Lebanese people their democracy must be brought to justice. I commend Lebanese of all religions and sects who reject Syrian and Iranian terror and tyranny and embrace the great principles of the Cedar Revolution," McCain said on the third anniversary of the uprising.

He hailed the mass demonstrators for bringing “Syrian occupiers and Iranian proxies in their midst” to their knees.

In the post-revolution years, McCain was a strong vocal supporter of an independent government in Beirut and encouraged the work of the March 14 Movement of anti-Syrian political parties.