Armed conflict between the US and Iran is becoming more probable by the day as super-hawks replace hawks in the Trump administration. The new National Security Adviser, John Bolton, has called for the US to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 and advocated immediate regime change in Tehran. The new Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, has said the agreement, which Trump may withdraw from on 12 May, is “a disaster”. Trump has told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that he will not accept a deal with “cosmetic changes” as advocated by European states, according to Israeli reporters. If this is so, then the deal is effectively dead.
The escalating US-Iran confrontation is causing menacing ripples that could soon become waves across the Middle East. The price of crude oil is up because of fears of disruption of supply from the Gulf. In Iran, the value of the rial is at its lowest ever, having fallen by a quarter in the last six months. In Iraq, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi admits his greatest fear is a confrontation between the US and Iran fought out in Iraq.
A dangerous aspect of the super-hawk approach to Iran is similar to that of the Bush administration in the run up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In both cases, those calling for use of armed force had, or have, lethally little knowledge of what they were/are getting into. Pompeo had a simple solution to the Iranian problem when he was still a congressman, telling reporters it would take “under 2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity”.
Optimists, though these have become fewer on the ground in Washington in the last few weeks, are dismissive of such bellicose rhetoric. But whatever Trump and his lieutenants think they are doing, their words have consequences. Governments have to take threats seriously and devise counter-measures to meet them in case the worst comes to the worst. In the wake of the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, American neo-conservatives boastfully proclaimed it would be “Baghdad today, Tehran and Damascus tomorrow”. These slogans were enough to ensure the Syrian and Iranian governments did everything in their power to make sure that the US could not stay in Iraq.
Looking back, the invasion of Iraq marked the turning point for the hegemony of the Anglo-Saxon powers – the US and the UK – on the world stage. The fraudulent justification for the war and the failure of those who launched it to get their way against relatively puny opponents turned a conflict which was meant to be a show of strength into a demonstration of weakness. Foreign intervention in Libya and Syria in 2011 produced similar calamities.
If we are on the edge of a fresh crisis in the Middle East, centring on Iran, then the US is in a much weaker position than it was pre-Trump. Domestically divided and short of allies, it can no longer control the rules of the game as it once did. Over the last year there are two examples of this: in May, Trump visited Saudi Arabia giving unequivocal backing to its rulers and blaming the troubles of the region on Iran. But it turned out that the prime target of Saudi Arabia and UAE was not Iran but tiny Qatar. All Trump had achieved was to break the previously united front of Gulf monarchies against Iran.
In another major misjudgement by the US in January, the supposedly moderate Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced that the US would be keeping its forces in Syria after the defeat of Isis, and intended to get rid of President Bashar al-Assad and roll back Iranian influence. This ambition was largely fantasy, but the Russian and Turkish reaction was real. Four days after Tillerson’s arrogant declaration, the Turkish army poured into northern Syria with Russian permission and within two months had eliminated the enclave of Afrin, inhabited by Kurds who are the only US ally in Syria. The Kurds are now rather desperately hoping they will not be left in the lurch by the US in the event of a Turkish military assault on the main Kurdish-held territory in north-east Syria.
I was in the Kurdish-held zone in Syria earlier this month and wondered what the US will do if the Turks did decide to advance further. The north Syrian plain east of the Euphrates is dead flat with little cover, while the main Kurdish cities are right on the Turkish border and highly vulnerable. The US only has 2,000 troops there, and their effectiveness depends on their ability to call in devastating airstrikes by the US air force. This is a powerful option, but would the US really use it in defence of the Kurds against Nato ally Turkey?
What Trump claims was President Obama’s weakness of will and poor negotiating skills was in reality an astute ability to match US means to US interests and avoid being sucked into unwinnable wars. This was never really understood by the Washington foreign policy establishment, which is stuck in the pre-2003 era when US strength was at its height in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still less is it grasped by super-hawks like Bolton and Pompeo, with no idea of the political and military minefields into which they are about to stumble.
The US establishment and its allies may be aghast at Trump withdrawing from the nuclear deal, but it looks more than likely he is going to do it. Sanctions on Iran may be reimposed, but these are never quite the winning card that those imposing them imagine, whatever the suffering inflicted on the general population. Sanctions unilaterally imposed by Trump may damage Iran, but they will also isolate the US.
Whatever the outcome of a confrontation between the US and Iran, it is not going to “Make America Great Again”. The northern corridor of the Middle East, south of Turkey and north of Saudi Arabia, has always been the graveyard of US interventionism: this was true of Lebanon in the 1980s when the US embassy was blown up, and when 241 US services personnel (including 220 marines) were killed by a truck bomb in Beirut. This was true in Iraq between 2003 and 2011, and Syria from 2011 to the present day. The US has commonly blamed Iran for these frustrations, an explanation that has some validity, but the real reason is that the US has been fighting a sect rather than a single state. All these countries where the US has failed either have a Shia majority, as in the case of Iran and Iraq, a plurality, as in Lebanon, or are a ruling minority, as in Syria. As the most powerful Shia state, Iran has an immense advantage when it comes to fighting its enemies in such a sympathetic religious terrain.
The new line-up in Washington is being described as “a war cabinet” and it may turn out to be just that. But looking at ignorant, arrogant men like Bolton and Pompeo, it is difficult to avoid the feeling that it will all end in disaster.