Trump’s foolish Iran policy only makes war more likely
It is unclear what, if anything, Iran can do to induce the United States and its regional allies to halt their escalating war of attrition before it provokes all-out conflict. When Donald Trump reneged on the UN-ratified nuclear agreement with Tehran last year, he said he wanted a better deal. Iran must change its behaviour, he said, and act like a “normal country”.
This was always disingenuous. Iran’s authoritarian and abusive rulers certainly need to mend their ways. But what Trump and his imperious advisers really meant was that they must do what America says, in conformity with American interests. What they want is an end to 40 years of post-revolution defiance. What they want is regime change in Iran.
Tehran’s leadership now has three choices – capitulate, wait or resist. Capitulation is no real option at all. Hassan Rouhani, the country’s moderate, conservative president, and senior allies such as the foreign minister, Javad Zarif, would not survive the sort of sweeping strategic and regional pullback required by the Americans.
The clerical establishment, led by the supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, rightwing fundamentalists and the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards, would exploit any attempted compromise to vanquish the reformist remnants of the so-called 2009 Persian spring. In short, the mullahs would double down on repression.
If, on the other hand, the regime were to lose control in the face, say, of urban uprisings encouraged from abroad, Iran could break apart. This is a land of large ethnic minorities – principally Azeris, Arabs, Baluchis, and Kurds – as well as smaller Baha’i, Turkmen, Christian and Jewish communities. None has particular reason to love the centre.
It is unlikely that the Americans have a plan for Iran in the aftermath of a regime collapse, any more than they had a plan for Iraq in 2003. Given that disastrous precedent, John Bolton, Trump’s neocon national security adviser and an architect of the Iraq invasion, should think twice. He and other myopic machinators must be careful what they wish for.
Iran’s second option – waiting for Trump to be voted out of office next year – is fraught with difficulty. For a start, he may win a second term. It is also improbable that any Democratic successor would reverse the current policy. He or she might ease the pressure. But in the turgid present-day US political climate, letting Iran off the hook is not on the cards.
The idea that the Europeans will ride to the rescue, implicit in Rouhani’s 60-day deadline for a resuscitation of the nuclear deal, is also far-fetched. Neither Britain nor France is happy with Trump’s tactics. But their hostile reaction to Rouhani’s threat to resume some nuclear activities was cautionary. They expect Iran, not the US, to back down.
Attempts by some European Union countries over the past year to circumvent renewed American sanctions have come to nothing. The commercial reality is that they cannot protect energy companies, banks and other businesses seeking to trade with Iran from Washington’s punitive secondary sanctions. Hopes that a discredited, divided UN security council will take the US to task for breaking international law are similarly chimerical.
Even with Trump out of the picture, Iran would continue to face the visceral enmity of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Without his reactionary soulmate in the White House, it might only be a matter of time before Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, revived past threats to bomb Iran. For the House of Saud, it’s an ancient blood feud.
Iran’s last option, resistance, has a dreadful air of inevitability about it. Bolton’s announcement this week of additional, nuclear-armed military deployments in the Gulf, and secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s melodramatic dash to Baghdad in the middle of a European tour, suggested that the White House was just spoiling for a fight.
Both men cited secret intelligence about an “imminent” attack by Iran or its proxies on American forces in Syria or Iraq. Perhaps it was accurate. Perhaps not. This vague, untested information reportedly came from Israel, which is skilled at putting the wind up the Americans. Whatever the truth, it had the desired effect.
Bolton, who has a long record of manipulating intelligence (he was at it again the other day over Venezuela), used the alleged threat to warn Iran that it would be held responsible for the actions of its proxies, however loose the links, wherever they may be. That means any stray Shia militia group in Iraq, or Houthi rebel in Yemen, now potentially has the power to trigger a direct, armed assault by the US on Iran itself.
Pompeo used his theatrical dash to Baghdad to dramatise the seriousness of a crisis he has helped to manufacture. His subsequent meetings in London with Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, and foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, became a propaganda platform for condemning Iran as a “lawless” rogue state. Pompeo misleadingly claimed to enjoy the UK’s full support. Hunt did not dare contradict him.
The US war of attrition is not merely economic and diplomatic. Iran has faced cyber attacks. Its scientists have been assassinated, its ballistic missile programme sabotaged. It is the target of fake news and disinformation about its past nuclear activities and present-day links to terrorism. It is a country under siege. And US officials say they are just getting started.
It is often suggested that Trump wants to avoid another Middle East conflict. But hawks such as Pompeo, Bolton and the vice-president, Mike Pence – who between them are running foreign policy while the president tweets and plays golf – are not so shy. Given past statements about armed intervention, they would probably relish it.
The Americans appear implacable. As threats to the regime’s survival escalate and intensify, the prospect of violent retaliation by hardline factions in Tehran, or their minions, grows by the day. Intentionally or not, the US is driving Iran down the path to war.
There are links in the OA.
Initial image: ‘Pompeo’s meetings with May and Hunt became a propaganda platform for condemning Iran … he misleadingly claimed to enjoy the UK’s full support. Hunt did not dare contradict him.’ Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty