Trump Is Not Extricating Himself on Iran. He Is Being ‘Dug in’
The consensus on ‘no conflict’ unfortunately, may turn out to have been overly sanguine. This is not because Trump consciously desires war, but because the hawks surrounding him, particularly Bolton, are painting him into a corner.
Little doubt: it was intentional, a tactical ploy. Trump initially appeared to distance himself from the hawkishness of his team on Iran, by saying that ‘no’, he didn’t want war: No – really, he only wanted the Iranians to call him. He even riffs Bolton for his propensity for war. Since then, the press has been full of stories of ‘channels’ to Iran opening, and of mediators aloft. And we are regaled too with hints of some potential rift between the President and Bolton.
Of course, it was all good PR, and pure Art of the Deal: Invite your counter-party to negotiate precisely at the moment it is experiencing maximum pressure, and is ‘weakened’. And the PR part worked as a charm. Hence the mediation hype in the media. So, why all this ‘hot and cold rhetoric’? Which is it? Is Trump having second thoughts about conflict, or not? Well, in a word: ‘not’. The tactics represent pressure: More pressure on Iran, that’s all.
Whilst all this plays out, the US military build-up against Iran persists, amidst mounting US claims of Iranian intent to threaten the US, and its allies (but absent any evidence). Yes, Pompeo did say, “we’re ready to sit down with them”. But, Pompeo then added, “the American effort to fundamentally reverse the malign activity of this Islamic republic, this revolutionary force, is going to continue”.
First, and foremost, Iran would have to begin behaving as “a normal country”, which as the WSJ observes, only comes about when Iran observes every one of the twelve conditions. “The US hasn’t dropped those demands,” the Journal writes, “and has increased pressure from economic sanctions as well as pursuing its military buildup in the region.”
Is it all bluster? Will Trump go all the way with his threats and pressures – but ultimately pull out, just short of war? That seems to be the general consensus today; but Team Trump’s view of Iran seems based in so many misconceptions, layered on other misconceptions, and on intelligence that amounts to no more than Mossad’s assessment of Iranian future intentions.
The consensus on ‘no conflict’ unfortunately, may turn out to have been overly sanguine. This is not because Trump consciously desires war, but because the hawks surrounding him, particularly Bolton, are painting him into a corner – from which he must either back down, or double down, if Iran does not first capitulate.
And here is the point: the main Trump misconception may be that he does believe that Iran wants, and ultimately, ‘will seek a deal’. Really?
It is quite difficult to imagine what President Rouhani’s response could be, if asked by the Iranian National Security Council: if you (i.e. Rouhani) were to enter talks with US, what precisely would you talk about; what would you say? The Trump Administration’s position is that Iran will not ‘be allowed’ to enrich uranium at all – which is to say that Iran would be precluded – contrary to the provisions of the NPT – from having nuclear generated electricity, as it has sought since the time of the Shah. (To suggest that the West would supply Iran with just enough uranium to work its reactors, but no more, is absurd. Iran would never place its industrial base in jeopardy, to some whimsical western decision to punish Iran for some one, or other, misdemeanor).
This has been the conundrum from the outset: Iran will not accept ‘zero enrichment’; and now Bolton and Pence will not allow it any enrichment. US policy has completed the circle, back to its positions of circa 2004: i.e. No Enrichment.
The Supreme Leader has said some days ago, that he only reluctantly agreed to talks with the Obama team on the assurance that Obama had indeed accepted the principle of Iranian in-country enrichment. With hindsight, Ayatollah Khamenei said, he made a mistake. He should never have allowed the talks to proceed.
Indeed, there is nothing to talk about – except how the US might revert to the status quo ante its JCPOA withdrawal, and how it might quietly re-enter the nuclear accord – without too much loss of face. But this is absolutely not an option for Bolton, or for his US Christian Zionist allies.
And some symbolic encounter, Trump – Kim Jong Un Singapore-style, is not an option for Iran. Nor, is a ‘freeze’ of the situation, as in North Korea. A freeze would mean that Iran continues under maximum US pressure, for as long as the freeze might last, and at no cost to the US.
Why then, is Trump heading down this ‘dead-end’ road that might trip him into an unwanted, and politically costly, conflict of some sort? Well, possibly because Trump has been ‘fed’ some nonsense ‘intelligence’ that Iran is on the cusp of an economic and political implosion – which is about to sweep away the Iranian Revolution into the dustbin of history. This is ‘the line’ currently being purveyed by Netanyahu and Mossad, and by others inside the US (based on the usual, suspect exile stories). Trump might conclude from such assessments that war is not a risk, since the imminent collapse of Iran would make acting out any military threats redundant. He can afford, in short, just to wait out the collapse. If you detect a whiff of Iraq in the run-up to 2003 about all this (i.e. the input of Curveball and Chalabi), you would be right, in more ways than one – it is more than just the part played by embittered exiles in framing the prospect for war.
There is a conception that Bolton, as National Security Adviser, has little clout over the Pentagon. But the American Conservative, in an article entitled ‘Amassing War Powers, Bolton Rips a Page Out of Cheney’s Playbook’, points out the misconception:
“The elevation of Patrick Shanahan to the secretary of defense position will likely make National Security Adviser John Bolton the most powerful voice inside President Donald Trump’s cabinet.
“So say defense analysts who spoke to TAC this week. Former US officials also said they fear that Shanahan’s relative lack of experience may set America on a path to war, and cited a New York Times report that Shanahan had delivered to Bolton a plan to send as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East. Subsequent reports indicate that the Pentagon might be making plans to send even more … Stephen Wertheim, assistant professor of history at Columbia University, added, “when senators ‘think Shanahan’ [at confirmation hearings], they should think Bolton. Because a vacuum at the top of DoD, means that the department becomes a rubber stamp for Bolton””.
But more than this, the America Conservative ‘Cheney Playbook’ tag is right in another way: Bolton chairs at the NSC, the regular and frequent strategic dialogue meetings with Israel – intended to develop a joint action plan, versus Iran. What this means is that the Israeli intelligence assessments are being stovepiped directly to Bolton (and therefore to Trump), without passing by the US intelligence services for assessment or comment on the credibility of the intelligence presented (shades of Cheney confronting the analysts down at Langley). And Bolton too, will represent Trump at the ‘security summit’ to be held later this month in Jerusalem with Russia and Israel. Yes, Bolton truly has all the reins in his hands: He is ‘Mr Iran’.
Daniel Larison writes: “The Trump administration is still chasing after the fantasy that Russia will help push Iranian forces out of Syria”:
“A senior White House official said in a conference call with reporters that the US plans to stress to Russia during its trilateral national security advisers summit in Jerusalem this month that Iranian forces and their proxies have to leave Syria.
“The administration has been seeking Russian cooperation on this front for the last year. It has never made sense. The Russian government has no reason to agree to the US plan. Why would Russia do the US the favor of supporting the administration’s anti-Iranian policy? The administration’s problem is that they wrongly believe that other governments share their opinion of Iran’s role in the region. Reuters quotes an administration official saying this:
“But beyond discussions to prevent any unintended military escalation, the US official said the goal of the talks would be “to see how we can potentially work together to get rid of the primary irritant in the Middle East, which is the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
“The US and Israel may consider Iran to be “the primary irritant,” but Russia doesn’t see things this way and it isn’t going to respond favorably to efforts to enlist them in an anti-Iranian pressure campaign. Russia wants to cultivate good relations with Israel, so they are participating in the meeting, but that participation shouldn’t be taken as a sign that they are interested in giving Bolton what he wants. All in all, this meeting in Jerusalem will make for a curious photo op, but it isn’t going to produce anything significant.”
Yes. Another misconception, it seems. But one that is hugely convenient for Bolton – for, if the US fails to achieve a commitment on the part of Russia to ensure the expulsion of Iran from Syria, then we are likely to witness escalation by Israel – backed by the US – against Iranian elements in Syria. Already, we have seen missiles landing in occupied Golan in recent days – as a signal that Syria and Iran may be ready to activate the Golan as a new front in the conflict with Israel.
The Bolton squeeze with regard to Iran is in high gear. The aim, Col Pat Lang suggests, “is probably to pressure Iran until they lash out somewhere against US forces or interests”.
It may be, (or it may not be), that Trump is bluffing in his menaces to Iran. Trump may indeed be opposed to war – though, on the other hand, he has never missed an opportunity, over the years, to castigate and demonise Iran, whilst lauding Saudi Arabia in extravagant language. Bluffs do get called. And, does Trump really understand how improbable it is that Iran now will ‘lift the phone to call him’? Is he at all familiar with the complexities of more than a decade of nuclear negotiations with Iran?
No? Well Bolton and Netanyahu surely are – as they lead a willing President down the narrowing path, to the point where he has no alternative but either a humiliating retreat back down that path, or to double-down and go further.
So where is this taking us? Well, firstly, there will be Iranian push-back (to Bolton’s delight). For the present, Iran remains within the JCPOA; but it is limiting and curtailing its partial commitments (which is permitted, under the terms of the accord – when a signatory to the accord is not observing the deal). Iran has indeed started to accelerate enrichment, but has not breached the limits on its holding of uranium or heavy water – though it likely soon will. After 60 days, if the EU is not moving towards normalizing of its economic relations with Iran, we may see Iran increase the level of enrichment above 3.67%. And secondly, Iran has clearly signaled that US Gulf Allies who have urged, and supported the US attrition against Iran, will begin to experience pain, too. Iran has warned that any new ‘Gulf War’ would include the destruction of the energy infrastructure of some Gulf States. It would take twenty years for the Gulf to recover from such an event,
And whilst it is true that the US is not in a position to mount a full war on Iran, this does not mean that the US cannot escalate military pressures on Iran via Special Forces working with insurgent ethnic minorities inside the country to destabilize it, or to degrade Iranian infrastructure through missile or ‘bunker-buster’ attacks.
And when Iranian push-back starts, as the pressures escalates – and when it becomes clear that Russia will not act as America’s policeman in respect to Iran, Hizbullah or the Hash’d a-Shaibi, as Russia won’t – then the ‘war party’ will urge Trump to send Iran a painful ‘message’ of American ‘deterrence’ – and then what? Is it safe to conclude Trump will demur?
No. It is not possible to assert ‘there will be no conflict’. There is some risk. And Iran knows it.