By Kumar David –
It is clear that for the time being at least, hawks Hugh Bolton and Mike Pompeo have been relegated to the B-team but it is not clear who makes up the A-team; probably the military brass, certainly not the Democrats pitiful in their inability to say boo to Trump’s rush to brinkmanship. Let us get it straight, the US did not withdraw from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPA), it violated it. Four cosignatories (France, Germany, Russia and China) are pathetic in their capitulation to American bullying, the fifth UK has been the bully’s henchman. Having started off with all the bombast typical of a narcissistic showman as in the North Korean case (“fire and fury”) the question remains why he climbed down and blinked when Iran shot down a RQ-4 Global Hawk drone valued at $130 million. After maximal show of force Trump backed down when Kim Jong Un called his bluff in 2017, then agreed to the 2018 Singapore love-in, but went on to snub Kim in Hanoi Feb. 2019. No doubt both the Iran and N Korean flip-flops have much to do with Trump’s erratic even bizarre personality. Though the White House is stewing in crisis there must be strategic calculations as well. I am interested in reflecting on the latter in respect of Iran.
Broadly speaking there are two facets; US foreign policy objectives and the 2020 presidential elections; the first has misfired and the second is endangered. Policy vis-à-vis Iran is guided by a desire to compel it to accept political and economic rearrangement in the Middle East with the US as its central focus and showing less hostility to Israel and America’s regional Arab allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The US crucially, also wants to cut Europe and China out of resurrection contracts after sanctions are lifted. Yes, America prefers to avoid war; it wants to push Iran into a new mould, imposing regime change is a last resort if all else fails. Sanctions are hurting, Iran is bleeding, people are hit and life has become hard. It is economic terrorism pure and simple but we are allowed to use the T-word only when jihadists do it; when great powers do it, they call it “making the world safe”. War and sanctions are but two sides of the same coin and the US was certain that it could bring Iran to its knees quickly, but that calculation went awry.
It backfired: Despite 14 months of relentless bullying the Ayatollahs have not caved in, the anger of people has hardened and Iranians living in the West, despite dislike of the regime in Teheran are outraged with America. Iran has become more intransigent. European leaders are whorish in appeasing Trump, chillingly reminiscent of the appeasement of Hitler by Britain and France in the 1930s. Global public opinion has swung against the thug. Trump, all in a muddle, makes one gaff after another and flip-flops from day to day.
Military action against Iran could be catastrophic unlike the solo bombing of Syrian positions last year. This is for two reasons; Iran has response capability; its missiles can reach US and allies (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh and Israel) civilian, economic (oil, electricity and water) and military targets (basses and naval units). Saddam’s Iraq or Syria never could. Second, Iran’s proxies are many with reach across the Middle East – vide military deadlock in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. The upshot of a strike on Iran would be chaos in the Gulf region and a rise in Islamic terrorism elsewhere including the American heartland. In all-out war Iran would be obliterated but it would have lasting degenerative effects on America. Trump’s legacy would be fouler than the younger Bush; America’s global standing would be irreparably damaged. The US never thought this through as is clear from its bumbling; it never expected this degree of defiance. A-team and B-team are at cross purposes; Donald goes this way and that; White House, Pentagon and State Department are stewing in bedlam.
The second fundamental thread in Trump’s behaviour is the 2020 election. One of the blasts in his Make America Great Again rhetoric was a promise to end foreign wars. “Foreign adventure is pointless expenditure of good dollars, why throw away resources to bring democracy to Timbuctoo?” “I will bring our boys home again, Bush and Obama brought body bags”. If Trump gets into a Middle East imbroglio his chances of re-election will be diminished for breaking this promise. If ground troops are committed the first body bag to come home will contain his second-term. War mongering, then flunking, exposes bombast (“Obliteration like you’ve never seen before”); already the US looks a shabby paper tiger. The man who poked fun at Obama for not crossing the “thin red line” is mired and muddled by a fat red bar of his own making. Do-or-don’t, either way he is losing ground in opinion polls. Visions of electoral gain by beating Iran into submission have receded. This is the second big reason why Trump and his B-team blinked.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guard (RG) for its part is also talking big. “US regional bases are in range of our weapons”; “US aircraft carriers in the Gulf are within reach of our precision-guided missiles”, etc. say RG spokesmen. “US forces in the region were a threat, now they are an opportunity. They do not talk about war because they know they are susceptible” boasts Amir Ali Hajizadeh head of the RG’s aerospace division on state television. Hardliners on both sides grab headlines and trade ugly insults (Iran’s President: “Trump is mentally retarded”). House Speaker Nancy Pelosi urges Trump to obtain congressional authorisation to use any kind of military force. Whatever Trump does Democrats in both House and Senate will seize every opportunity to pile misery upon him.
Trump discussed Iran with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. The Gulf States are split on US-Israeli military intervention. Abu Dhabi and Dubai urge action while Oman, Kuwait and Kuwait urge restraint. It all depends on which states fear a threat to themselves from radicalisation in the region. A lone rocket struck the Green Zone in Iraq’s capital Baghdad near the US Embassy in May; Iran is repositioning air defence systems to the west to intercept strikes; in the hours before the attack on two tankers in the Gulf of Oman the Iranians spotted a US drone overhead and launched a surface-to-air missile which missed its target, and so on. Israel is itching to go after Iran’s nuclear facilities before they go into full production again. Tension is building and one error by either side may unleash Armageddon. Time to buy gold?
Teheran surely is thinking that it makes no sense to refrain from full-scale refinement and nuclear weaponisation and that only a Trump could dream up the absurdity of withdrawing from a treaty and then insisting that the counter-party abides by it! Surely in the Ayatollahs’ view this must seem irrational and in this insane world Iran can protect itself by developing its own bomb and missile. The lesson North Korea has learned is that any deal Kim reaches with Trump will be written on water, like the JCPA. Kim will reckon that if he dismantles his bomb and launch-pad NK is dead meat to be badgered and bullied. The hubris and nonchalance with which the US trashed JCPA renders the next treaty Iran may reach with the US read like Aesop’s Fables. In the Ayatollah’ interpretations if they felt they could retaliate in kind Iran could feel safe. I have no idea if they have the savvy to pull it off before Israel and the America bomb their facilities back into the stone age.
One last matter is the concern domestic readers may have about spill over of Gulf conflicts into the Indian Ocean and this country. Markets seem to think a shooting war is unlikely – oil hovers around $60 a barrel and gold is barely over $1400 an ounce. But if the Middle East does go up in flames, there will be consequences in Lanka and I see local dynamics as more real than the Seventh Fleet docking in Trinco or Iranian missiles overhead. Two things are unavoidable. Enraged jihadist clusters will hit out anywhere in the world, and more to the point, Moor-hating chauvinists, on the rampage just weeks ago, will seize the opportunity to run amok again. There is another hidden factor. What does the pact Ranil has negotiated with the US say? Has it been tabled in Parliament? I have not seen the text. There is reason to be wary; we must not be drawn into America’s military sphere as it withdraws from other parts of the Indian Ocean; we need be no part of a US war effort. “Publish the Pact” is a timely demand!