Trump and the phone call that wasn’t

The Iranians know they have the upper hand in dealing with the US

Iranian President Hasan Rohani dealt a slap to the face of his US counterpart Donald Trump when he refused to take part in the phone call arranged between the two men by France’s Emmanuel Macron. It was supposed to take place amid much publicity on the side-lines of the annual session of the UN General Assembly in New York, which all three leaders were attending. Macron had his people set up a special secure phone line for the purpose.

But there was a problem. The French had told the Iranians that the Americans were prepared to ease sanctions against their country and recommit to the nuclear agreement as a prelude to this renewed dialogue. But Trump himself denied that, repeatedly and categorically. That being the case, the Iranians decided not to take part in such a ‘pantomime’ and opted to snub the US president instead.

There are several reasons why Iran feels it now has the upper hand in its dealings with the US.

For one thing, draconian economic sanctions have failed to bring it to its knees. It still manages to export oil to China, Turkey, India and elsewhere.

More importantly, the Iranian leadership is convinced that the US would never dare launch a military strike against the country.

Nor are America’s allies in the region in any position to go to war. The Saudis have been pummelled by Houthi drone and missile attacks and humiliating defeats on the ground in their war on Yemen. The Israelis – chief cheerleaders for a war on Iran – are mired in domestic political chaos, and their principal Iran-basher PM Benjamin Netanyahu may soon find himself jailed on corruption charges. Their protector, Donald Trump, meanwhile faces impeachment proceedings at home.

So why should anyone be surprised by the turnaround in the strategic picture in the Middle East? Trump has gone into “‘if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em’” mode with regard to Iran. He has been desperate to engage in some high-profile meeting or conversation with the Iranian leadership to justify climbing down. Prior to his attempt to arrange a phone-opportunity with Rohani in New York, he tried to gate-crash Macron’s meeting with Iranian Foreign Minister Jawad Zarif at the G-20 summit in Biarritz. Trump imposed sanctions on Zarif personally in revenge for his refusal to meet but nevertheless did not bar him from travelling to New York for the UN General Assembly.

As for the Saudi leadership, it was earlier threatening to “take the war into Iran” by sponsoring armed groups in the country as it did in Syria and Libya but is now sending go-betweens to Iran to ask for dialogue and de-escalation — a total climb-down/turnaround attributable to developments in the Yemen war.

The world only respects those who respect themselves, refuse to submit to blackmail and rely on their own resources to defend themselves and their interests. That is the path the Iranians have taken, developing their human potential and defence capability, going for the long haul, and establishing a state based on institutions rather than acting on the whims of individuals.

The US deceives, humiliates and blackmails its Arab allies, especially the Gulf states. It milks their coffers to supply them with exorbitantly expensive weapons systems which cannot even hold back the lightly-armed Houthis and their allies or protect Saudi Arabia’s airports and oil facilities from their attacks. Iran, in contrast, supports its allies and provides them with money and arms. That is why one side is winning and the other is losing.

Dialogue and de-escalation between Iran and its Arab adversaries would be welcome. The Trump administration is desperate for it, and it would be no surprise if it ended up accepting Iran’s conditions, lifting the sanctions, and acknowledging Tehran’s leading role in the region.

When China announces multi-billion dollar investments in Iran, Turkey vows to continue importing Iranian oil and to ignore US sanctions, and Russia coordinates its policies in Syria and the region with Iran, it is evident that a ‘New Middle East’ is in the process of being born. Not the American-led one heralded by Condoleeza Rice when she coined the phrase, but the Middle East led by Iran.


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