The Trump administration has been lucky. Now in a real crisis, and one of its own making, its cavalier ineptitude and absence of anything resembling process is on full public view. Threats and bombast get you just so far. Iran has called Trump’s bluff.
Just over a year ago, when Trump tore up the nuclear deal that the US, France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China had hammered out over years of diplomacy to keep Iran from a bomb, I wrote:
“President Trump is withdrawing the United States from an Iran nuclear deal that has worked, in the name of unrelated demands that are unworkable, at very high cost to America’s alliances and the value of its word, with no viable alternative policy in place and at the risk of igniting the Middle East.”
Here we are, on the brink of ignition. Over the past year, Bolton has threatened military action multiple times, telling Iran there will be “hell to pay,” ratcheting up tensions wherever possible and extending potential pretexts for war.
Pompeo has been a willing dance partner in this exercise. He has declared a determination to drive Iran’s oil exports to “zero” and energetically pursued the grotesque objective of conflating Iran, a Shiite nation, with al-Qaeda, an expression of murderous Wahhabi Sunni extremism. In fact, as former Secretary of State John Kerry told me, “Iran has helped in the war against the ISIS”, another Sunni terrorist group.
The aim of the Bolton-Pompeo Iran-equals-al-Qaeda manoeuvrer has been obvious: to bring war with Iran within the 2001 Authorisation for Use of Military Force that was passed by Congress in response to September 11, whose perpetrators were overwhelmingly Saudi. Shameless is the only word for such contempt for truth in pursuit of a casus belli.
Where exactly the truth lies in the allegations and counter-allegations around the downing of the RQ-4 Global Hawk surveillance drone – essentially a dispute over whether it had violated Iranian airspace – and the recent attacks on shipping in the Gulf of Oman is unclear. Iran has behaved provocatively. Then again, it has been provoked. It could not ignore the deployment to the region of some 2500 American troops, an aircraft carrier group, B-52 bombers, missile batteries and the rest. It has said it does not seek war. Nor will it accept humiliation.
“The Trump administration policy has been unnecessary, counter-strategic and dangerous,” Kerry told me. “It has completely upended the legitimacy of approaching certain issues – Yemen, Hezbollah, missile technology – while having the nuclear issue in a box in the most accountable, transparent nuclear deal on the planet. All they have done is given life to the deeply held Iranian belief that you cannot trust or negotiate with the United States, while trying to squeeze Iran into economic oblivion in pursuit of regime change that would only hand power to the hard-line Republican Guards, not some democrat.”
The Islamic Republic is a repressive regime with a hideous human rights record that underwrites Hezbollah and pursues interests opposed to America’s across the Middle East. Since 1979, it has been an enemy of the US. It is also a sophisticated society and substantial economy whose highly educated population seeks greater contacts with the West. Its political system is not monolithic.
The strategic thinking behind the imperfect but effective nuclear deal, the fruit of painstaking diplomacy, was that it might over time bolster the more moderate forces in Iran. Trump’s ripping-up of the deal was a gift to the hard-liners. This month, Iran said it would stop honouring the limit on how much low-enriched uranium it is allowed under the deal to stockpile. How is that good for the United States, or indeed for Israel?
The American miscalculation has been flagrant. Kerry said: “The CIA has evidently been unable to penetrate Trump’s mind with a psychological profile of the people he’s dealing with. The Iranians have been around for several thousand years. This policy just tightens their willpower to hang in there.”
Trump the showman has lied and bragged his way into this mess. He tore up the nuclear deal only to declare later that his aim was to keep Iran from a bomb, which is what the deal did. He is a bully whose chief interests are his hold on power and his business empire. Those urges are tugging in opposing directions over Iran; hence the chaos.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former chief strategist at the White House, told me: “I don’t think any Trump supporters support further military engagement in the Middle East right now. His default position is not to be an interventionist. I never thought he’d be this far down this path, and I’m not loving the trend line. For the Trump base, war would hurt.”
“Worse than a crime, a mistake” are words often attributed to Talleyrand, Napoleon’s chief diplomat. Trump should not stumble from the everyday outrages that are his political staple into catastrophic error in matters of war and peace.
The New York Times