On October 13, Donald Trump delivered the first speech by a sitting U.S. President solely focused on the topic of Iran in more than three decades, as he announced that he would not be certifying the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action(JCPOA), or Iran nuclear deal. The world watched as Trump continued down his path of a more aggressive foreign policy toward Tehran to the dismay of the other signatories to the landmark 2015 deal, including the countries of the European Union.
The significance of the speech could not be overstated, nor could the kind of language Trump was careful to use, which indicated this was more than just an attack on the JCPOA. It was an attempt to cast the Iranian state as a completely illegitimate entity, through the uttering of phrases such as ‘Iranian regime’ and ‘dictatorship’ and the refusal to refer to it as a ‘government’. He even managed to use the phrase ‘Arabian Gulf’ rather than ‘The Persian Gulf’, an issue of immense sensitivity to Iranians. The message was clear: Iran was a supporter of terrorism, a rogue state that threatens the security of the region and the world. It had to be combated at every turn or the future of the planet would be in jeopardy.
This hard-line posture of Trump taken last month toward the Islamic Republic is nothing new or particularly surprising. His 2016 Presidential campaign indicated that while he would seek better relations with countries such as Russia on the one hand, he would take a firm stance against the ambitions of Iran and China to fully emerge in the context of a multi-polar world. While he threatened to label China a ‘currency manipulator’, Trump blasted Obama’s efforts at signing the JCPOA, calling it ‘the worst deal ever’. The offensive against these countries formed the bedrock of his foreign policy when he took office in January, although since then his fostering of at least surface-level ‘friendly’ relations with Xi Jinping has scaled back the anti-Beijing campaign.
Trump takes office, takes shots at Iran
On the other hand, the anti-Tehran offensive has never lost steam. On February 1st, less than a week after Trump was sworn in, his short-lived national security advisor Michael Flynn said he was officially “putting Iran on notice” for carrying out a missile test, as well as an attack on a Saudi ship in Yemen by Houthi rebels the U.S sees as a mere proxy force of Iran. When White House officials were quizzed by reporters about what the ‘notice’ meant, the response was that “we are considering a wide range of options.” The message was clear: a military option was not off the table, and this administration would not be afraid of raising the prospect of direct confrontation.
Although Flynn’s tenure in office was brief and he would be gone before he was even fully settled into the job, there were no lack of other anti-Iran hawks that Trump surrounded himself with as he crafted his foreign policy strategy. Most notable was James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, a former Marine Corps General and former head of U.S. Central Command operations in the Middle East and North Africa. Before taking the role of Secretary of Defence, Mattis was known mostly for his controversial statements on Iran, such as declaring in April of 2016 that Iran was a greater threat to the region than the Islamic State, saying "I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief. Iran is not an enemy of ISIS. They have a lot to gain from the turmoil in the region that ISIS creates." Trump undoubtedly agrees with such statements, but he even went considerably further in his JCPOA speech by declaring – to the amusement and bewilderment of those who closely follow the politics of the region – that Iran has supported al-Qaeda!
Divisions within the administration?
Yet, despite Mattis’ views that the Iran nuclear deal wasn’t ideal, he broke with Trump on the issue of de-certifying it, telling the Senate Armed Services Committee days before the deadline, “Absent indications to the contrary, it is something that the president should consider staying with.’’ Mattis’ position wasn’t based on a turn away from hostility to Iran, but rather because he always said that in any confrontation between the two countries, he would prefer to face a ‘non-nuclear Iran’ rather than one armed with nuclear weapons (even though Iran had declared on countless occasions that its enrichment of uranium was only being carried out for non-military purposes). Mattis wasn’t alone on defying Trump’s stance on the JCPOA, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also saying that he favoured retaining U.S. commitment to the deal, while he also broke with the President openly on the issue of attempting to engage in direct negotiations with North Korea.
These challenges from members of Trump’s own National Security Council show that while the President favors often strong and aggressive rhetoric (who can forget his comments that Pyongyang would soon face ‘fire and fury’ and threats to ‘totally destroy North Korea’?), those he has surrounded himself with are much more cautious in their approach to how to handle situations with countries that they deem to be threats to the United States It’s not that they are necessarily less militaristic or wouldn’t like to see the destruction of the government in Tehran. It ultimately boils down to the question of tactics and strategy.
In a similar vein, one can’t say with any degree of seriousness that the Obama administration was somehow a friend to the Iranian government despite its entering into the JCPOA, highlighted as one of Obama’s major accomplishments in office. Similarly, Obama’s opening toward Cuba was not undertaken as an act of genuine friendship, but because he deemed half a century of U.S. attempts to enforce an embargo against Havana as something that never properly worked, ultimately isolating the U.S. rather than the socialist government in Havana. Obama’s strategy toward regime change in Cuba came under the guise of ‘normalized relations’, much as the JCPOA was presented as a step toward peace – but not acceptance of Iran’s growing regional influence and its independence from the diktat of U.S. economic domination.
Interestingly, Trump’s presidency has meant that the resumed isolation of the U.S., with its level of prestige in the world perhaps lower than at any other historical point in memory. Trump’s desire to find something – anything – wrong with the JCPOA was widely ridiculed by other western powers, who knew full well that the IAEA had verified that Iran was indeed in compliance with the accord.
A war on North Korea or Iran?
The question presents itself rather seriously in light of the tough talk being espoused by Trump – are he and his team of generals preparing for war, or is it mere sabre-rattling? If they are, will it be a direct conflagration or a proxy war? Most importantly, is it to be a war on the Korean peninsula or conflict with Iran?
It would seem that in light of Trump’s recent two week trip to the Asia Pacific in which he stopped in Japan, South Korea, China, and Vietnam, and the deployment of military carriers to the region amid threats of obliterating the DPRK, the greater threat of war appears centred on the Korean peninsula. However, this is made less likely and ever more risky by the fact that Pyongyang possesses a nuclear deterrent, meaning that any attack by the U.S. would almost certainly mean a destructive toll perhaps far too immense to even comprehend.
In terms of a prospect of U.S. war on Iran, the developments over the past several months in the form of the so-called Gulf Crisis involving principally Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the removal of Prime Minister Hariri from office in Lebanon supposedly at the behest of Riyadh, and the victory proclaimed in Syria by government forces in tandem with Hezbollah, highlights how volatile the situation in the region is becoming. In addition, the extent of control exerted by the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) in Iraq as the Islamic State has been crushed (despite the fact that U.S. airstrikes aided these forces in their anti-Daesh campaign) and the ongoing Saudi bombing campaign in Yemen indicates that although the so-called Syrian Civil War may be winding down, the proxy conflict that has characterized that conflict is far from over.
It’s no secret that the Saudi monarchy is among the primary beneficiaries of U.S. support, along with Israel. Ironically, these two countries are now officially collaborating, a major development between two states that have historically been in conflict over the Palestinian question and have lacked official relations of any kind. Despite the official U.S. position advocated by Secretary of State Tillerson in the Saudi-Qatar spat that put forward neutrality, Trump wasn’t shy about professing his support for the Saudi side, alluding to his trip to Riyadh in which he was supposedly told the greatest supporter of terrorism was Qatar. The alleged role of Iran as having established relations with Qatar despite objections from the Saudis was undoubtedly a major calculation in Trump’s decision to back Riyadh.
How realistic is U.S. direct war on Iran?
Despite the heightening tensions in the region, just how realistic is the prospect of a U.S. war on Iran? Or perhaps more accurately, how realistic is a direct U.S. war on Iran?
During the Obama years, the U.S. scaled down its military forces in Iraq and Afghanistan due to the major opposition these occupations had encountered from both the U.S. public and the resistance within these countries. At this point, Washington decided that any decision to deploy troops to another conflict would be far too risky, and serve to further alienate Americans whose appetite for war was already vastly diminished. Hence, when NATO undertook its bombing campaign against Libya in 2011, it was the first time that the United States did not lead such a mission, with France instead taking the pivotal role in that assault. While on the one hand, the Obama administration didn’t want to embroil the country’s military in any new theatres of war, Russia and China were also trampling upon the idea of a unipolar world, putting a stop to U.S. and western desires for regime change in Syria through the UN Security Council, and in Moscow’s case direct intervention on Bashar al-Assad's side of the conflict.
These factors make the prospect of a U.S. war against Iran indeed possible, but cause for reservation among the top echelons of the Pentagon and U.S. military. It’s evident that a key cause of the 1991 Gulf War in Iraq was the coming dissolution of the Soviet Union. To be sure, the U.S. saw the possibility of acting with impunity in the Middle East without any kind of threat from the rival superpower that no longer really existed. Yet, in 2017, an independent Iran is not on par with the nationalist government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq more than 25 years ago, or even 14 years ago at the start of the second Gulf War. Iran is far from isolated, as Russia would certainly not sit idle as the U.S. attempted to strangle a government in order to wrestle that country into its orbit – especially one so closely situated to its own territory. China, while generally walking a thin line between the west and the east in foreign policy matters, wouldn’t be willing to sit passively either as American policymakers threatened further destruction and destabilization in the region, especially as such policies have their ultimate end game in the overthrow of China’s government and the reassertion of U.S. global hegemony.
Still, despite the prospect of such a war looking far from imminent, there’s no question that Trump’s ascendancy to the presidency has made the world far more unstable. Trump’s cabinet can only run so much damage control in the aftermath of his erratic and aggressive statements that threaten annihilation of entire populations. Iran now has a perfectly valid and sensible justification for the further development of its military forces. Furthermore, the U.S. will no doubt continue its support for proxy forces in the region. In the same manner in which they have backed Saudi Arabia’s destructive campaign in Yemen, they would almost certainly greenlight a coming Saudi aggression elsewhere in the region as Riyadh aims to up-end the growing role of Tehran. Even if it chooses not to intervene directly in a future conflict or plays a limited role, the puppet master in Washington will continue in its unbridled quest to assert its interests across the region and the world.