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The Wrongologist

Geopolitics, Power and Political Economy

Iran: Trump Is All Gambit, No Plan

The Daily Escape:

The Mitten Buttes, Monument Valley, UT – photo by Nathan Fitzgerald

Here we go, a new gambit on Iran. The Trump administration moved on Monday to isolate Tehran economically and undercut its power across the Middle East by not extending the waivers of sanctions against countries purchasing Iranian oil.

Secretary of State Pompeo announced that the waivers which allowed eight countries to import Iranian crude oil without being subject to US sanctions will expire on May 2nd. The eight countries included are China, India, Turkey, South Korea, Japan, Greece, Italy and Taiwan. From the NYT:

“Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in announcing that current sanctions waivers…would expire on May 2, clearing the way for American economic penalties against all companies or financial institutions that continue to take part in transactions linked to buying Iranian oil.”

This decision to stop Iran’s biggest customers (China, who buys half of Iran’s oil exports) along with Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey, is a strike at Tehran’s lifeline. They export one million barrels of oil daily, and it accounts for 40% of their GDP.

Immediately, there were repercussions. Bloomberg reported that Iran threatened to close the Straits of Hormuz, a choke point in the Persian Gulf, while the Washington Examiner reported that the US has positioned a second aircraft carrier in the region.

What Trump seems intent upon is regime change. He campaigned against further wars in the Middle East, but now is catering to Saudi Arabia and Israel, both of whom, along with National Security Advisor John Bolton, are intent upon toppling the Iranian regime.

Trump’s Iran obsession makes us look terrible. Taking pages from the Iraq War playbook, Trump and Pompeo paint a picture of a rogue, outlaw, terrorist regime bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and whose “malign activities” are the cause of all the chaos in the Middle East.

This is straight from the neocon playbook: The one they’ve used before. They are building a case for war. America wants Iran out of Syria. We condemn their support for Hezbollah. We say that Iran supports the Houthis in Yemen, against our great friends, the Saudis.

This latest move is called the doctrine of “Maximum Pressure”. The goal is to cut Iran’s oil exports to zero. Will this gambit force the capitulation, or collapse, of the regime? That seems difficult to believe, but Trump and Bolton may have teed up a war.

Think about this: America is now decreeing to the rest of the world that only we decide which countries get to trade with whom. We’re telling China, the second largest economy in the world, that it lacks the sovereign authority to buy oil from Iran if it so desires.

Which do you think China will do? Both Iran and China appear to hold a better hand than the US. We can’t invade Iran and win. We can’t force China to do anything they refuse to do.

The rest of the world will have trouble understanding what Trump thinks the US can gain from this gambit, because there is no plan behind it. If Iran closes the Straits of Hormuz, will we bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb, bomb Iran?

If China, Turkey, India and Japan continue to purchase Iranian oil, will we freeze their dollar-denominated assets in the US? If this leads to the creation of a non-dollar global payments system, what happens to the dollar as the global reserve currency? Has anyone in the Trump administration thought about that?

Once, the US used its reserve currency status and clout (largely) for good. Now, it’s just more bullying by Trump. In the end, the Trump administration may achieve a new level of worldwide cooperation against a common enemy: the USA.

Aren’t Americans sick of this neocon warmongering? Americans don’t want to be drawn into yet another ME action. It isn’t an accident that Trump’s National Security Advisor John Bolton, declared unequivocally in November 2002:

“We are confident that Saddam Hussein has hidden weapons of mass destruction and production facilities in Iraq…”

Is now the chief strategist behind Trump’s drive towards war, with Secretary of State Pompeo, happily riding shotgun.

It doesn’t matter that US intelligence, along with Israeli intelligence and the International Atomic Energy Agency confirm that Iran is complying with the Iran Nuclear Agreement. Or, that the US invasion of Iraq is the principle cause of Middle East chaos today.

Trump officials will cherry-pick information, package it, and amplify it, exactly as the Bush administration did in the lead-up to the Iraq war.

The real question is whether American voters will fall for this again.

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Bolton Hijacks US Middle East Policy

The Daily Escape:

Spice market, Grand Bazaar, Istanbul – 2013 photo by Wrongo

The struggle between the neocons and Trump over control of foreign policy has become ridiculous. The WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum reported on Sunday that John Bolton asked the Pentagon to provide military options to strike Iran:

The request, which hasn’t been previously reported, came after militants fired three mortars into Baghdad’s sprawling diplomatic quarter, home to the US Embassy, on a warm night in early September. The shells—launched by a group aligned with Iran—landed in an open lot and harmed no one.

Bolton’s team held a series of meetings to discuss a forceful American response. Their request triggered alarm. The WSJ reported:

People were shocked. It was mind-boggling how cavalier they were about hitting Iran.

More:

The Pentagon complied with the National Security Council’s request to develop options for striking Iran, the officials said. But it isn’t clear….whether Mr. Trump knew of the request or whether serious plans for a US strike against Iran took shape at that time.

If that isn’t serious enough, the WSJ reported:

Alongside the requests in regards to Iran, the National Security Council asked the Pentagon to provide the White House with options to respond with strikes in Iraq and Syria as well.

Anyone surprised that someone like Bolton, with his neocon bone fides wants war with Iran? Since Bolton took his post last April, the Trump administration has been more confrontational with Iran. Some will say that the Pentagon already has detailed plans drawn up for a strike against Iran, and that this is completely routine for our military.

That may be true, but a request from the White House is a different matter. Bullies love to taunt the weak, but Iran isn’t weak. The Iranian military wouldn’t be the pushover for us that the Iraq army was. They are much better equipped, motivated and have a healthy stock of air defense missiles.

And where is our strategy? Once you send a few bombs into Iran, you’ve started a war, and you never know where it will go. Suppose the Iranians consider (probably correctly) that it was Israel’s influence on the Trump administration that led to the US attack.

And they launch a few missiles at Israel. What would happen next? Would Hezbollah again move against Israel too? If the US attacks Iran, then there is no reason whatsoever for Iran not to attack the various US military units scattered around the Middle East in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria.

And who would the Russians side with? If Russia intervenes, is the US prepared to lose an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean?

Finally, how would the conflict end? Iran can’t be occupied by the US, and there isn’t a significant loyal Iranian opposition to back.

Surely even Trump must realize that Bolton’s idea is lunacy squared. It would be a major ME escalation, with Trump’s name all over it. It would sink his 2020 chances. How would he justify his response to a few mortars that landed in a car park? How would he justify the certain loss of American lives?

We have to be thankful that Trump didn’t authorize military strikes against Iran, but it is time to revisit our alliances and policies in the ME.

We back our loyal ally Saudi Arabia, and have made Iran our enemy. But let’s compare these two countries: Would you believe that Iran has a Jewish population that feel safe there, and has no interest in living in Israel?

In Saudi Arabia, if you renounce Islam, it can be a death sentence, as we saw with the Saudi young woman who sought asylum in Canada.

Women have careers in Iran, and can drive cars. In fact, there’s a female owned and operated taxi company in Tehran with 700 female drivers. Women in Saudi Arabia have few freedoms.

Iran has taken in refugees from the recent ME wars. Saudi Arabia has taken virtually none from Syria or Yemen, where they are perpetuating a humanitarian nightmare.

Iran is a multicultural country. Saudi Arabia is a medieval monarchy that has been exporting the most extreme version of Islam (Wahhabism) around the world, fueled by their oil money. Many of the jihadis in the past few decades can be traced to Saudi’s Wahhabi teachings.

If you have a choice, and you will in 2020, which country sounds like a more attractive ally for the US?

When are we going to stop our failed “Assad must go”; “Gadhafi must go”; “Saddam must go”; and “Mubarak must go” foreign policy?

We shouldn’t even be thinking about bombing Iran.

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Donny and Bibi’s Folly

The Daily Escape:

Hyner View State Park, Hyner, PA – photo by Scott Hafer.

Maybe it’s early to have a full perspective on Trump’s decision to leave the Iran Nuclear Accord, but Wrongo is reminded of this quote from Benjamin Netanyahu, on September 12, 2002:

If you take out Saddam’s regime, I guarantee you it will have positive reverberations on the region.

He said this while he was pressing for the US to attack Iraq, who was an Israeli foe in 2002. Naturally, the results were far from positive for the region, and the outcome for the US was catastrophic in both financial and human costs.

Bibi has again been successful in urging another Republican president to start an adventure in the Middle East, this time, by backing out of the Iran deal. Once again, Bibi has set up an opportunity for the US to attack another Israeli foe. This decision is a truly consequential foreign-policy blunder.

Steven Walt in Foreign Policy:

It is important to understand what’s really going on here. Trump’s decision is not based on a desire to keep Iran from getting a nuclear bomb; if that were the case, it would make much more sense to stay firmly committed to the deal and eventually negotiate to make it permanent.

Walt says that this is what’s really going on:

Abandoning the JCPOA is based on the desire to “keep Iran in the penalty box” and prevent it from establishing normal relations with the outside world. This goal unites Israel, the hard-line wing of the Israel lobby…and hawks including National Security Advisor John Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and many others.

Walt says that the hawks’ great fear was that the US and its Middle East allies might eventually have to acknowledge Iran as a legitimate regional power.

The preferred strategy to keep Iran from becoming a regional power has been regime change. US neo-cons and others in the Middle East have pursued this for decades. The neo-cons see two possible routes to regime change. The first relies on ramping up economic pressure on Tehran in the hope that popular discontent will grow, and that the clerical regime will simply collapse. This is the same strategy that worked so well failed in Cuba. Since the Nuclear Accord would end the sanctions that were keeping Iran weak, it was reason enough for most Republicans and hawks to be against it.

The second option is to provoke Iran into restarting its nuclear program, which would give Washington the excuse to launch a preventive war. The Israelis and Saudis would be happy to watch the US and Iran fight. The thought is that a war would eliminate Iran’s nuclear infrastructure and inspire its people to rise up and overturn their leaders.

This scenario shows how little thought these people give to outcomes: If we bomb Iran, their first reaction will not be one of gratitude. Bibi will again be wrong, there will be no “positive reverberations”. Rather, it would trigger fervent Iranian nationalism and the regime would become more popular.

Leaving the deal is another spectacular “own goal” from the Trumpkinhead. They must be dancing in Moscow and Beijing, the two biggest winners of the Trump withdrawal.

Other winners include the Iranian far-right, who will say that Rouhani and the reformists were naive to trust that the Americans would honor any agreement, and the Iranian public should move to the right in the next parliamentary election.

Bibi and his government will now campaign on how every Israeli should be terrified at the prospect of returning Iran back toward the possibility of becoming a nuclear power, something Bibi has worked hard to bring about.

Both Israel and Saudi Arabia get closer to a pretext for the direct military confrontation that they want, purchased with the blood of Americans, blood that the American neo-cons will be happy to spill. With friends like Israel and Saudi Arabia, who needs enemies?

Ultimately, Iran will probably end up getting nukes. But, every other country also wants some atomic insurance. The hawks need to remember that nuclear fission and fusion are 75-year old technologies. Even North Korea, among the poorest countries on earth, has mastered it. The bar just isn’t that high.

So, nuclear proliferation has a natural tailwind, and destroying America’s credibility removes the last wisp of an obstacle to it.

 

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Why Can’t We Quit Poking Iran?

The Daily Escape:

Fall in the Eastern Sierras – photo by Deirdre Harb

You may not remember the tangled history the US has with Iran, but you know that Trump decertified the Iran deal that was developed by the US and 5 other major powers (Russia, China, Germany, England and France). In his decertifying speech, Trump said:

We will not continue down a path whose predictable conclusion is more violence, more terror and the very real threat of Iran’s nuclear breakout…

Just three countries publicly support Mr. Trump’s decision: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. We all know that Iran calls the US “the great Satan”, but we forget how we earned the title. Here is a quick review from the BBC:

  • In 1953, the US overthrew Iran’s elected government. We (and the UK) were not going to stand by and let their Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq nationalize Iran’s oil industry. The CIA led a military coup, and re-installed the Shah.
  • In 1979, a coup overthrew the Shah, and Ayatollah Khomeini took control of the Iran government. In November 1979, Iran took over the US embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for what was 444 days, until 1981.
  • In 1985-86, the US secretly shipped weapons to Iran in exchange for Tehran’s help in freeing US hostages held by Hezbollah in Lebanon. The profits were channeled to rebels in Nicaragua, creating a political crisis for President Reagan.
  • In 1988, a US warship shot down an Iranian Airbus A300 killing all 290 people on board. We said it was a mistake, and Iran apparently forgave us.
  • In 1999, Iran’s new president Katahimi called for “a dialogue with the American people” that went nowhere.
  • In 2002, GW Bush denounced Iran as part of an “axis of evil” with Iraq and North Korea.

Now, nothing in the above excuses Iran’s efforts to destabilize parts of the Middle East, or their deep, abiding hatred of Israel. Nothing excuses Iran’s role in developing and introducing the IED’s that were so lethal to US troops in Iraq.

Time has done little to heal the wounds that each country has inflicted on the other. Mutual enmity remains on full display.

But Trump, like Obama and GW Bush, searched for a way to reduce our presence in the Middle East and shift attention to Russia and China. The solution for all three Presidents was to pit Middle Eastern governments against one another creating a balance of power, attempting to prevent any single country from becoming too influential.

If they make war against each other, that’s an acceptable outcome, as long as Israel remains unscathed.

In that context, Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons was something that the US and its European allies couldn’t allow. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), provided a means of halting the program’s progress without risking the outbreak of war. The deal prevented the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb destabilizing the region.

By attempting to reopen the JCPOA by withdrawing, Trump hopes to either rein in Iran’s regional meddling, or persuade Tehran to broaden the deal to include restrictions on its ballistic missile program, and on its support for militant groups, such as Hezbollah and Hamas.

Neither of Trump’s goals are reachable. Iran gains nothing by agreeing to them. And the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) agree that there is no evidence to suggest that Iran is not complying with the deal. So, as long as Iran upholds its end of the bargain, the Europeans plus China and Russia, are unlikely to agree with any US attempt to reinstate broad sanctions.

And Trump is making his negotiations with North Korea more difficult. Walking away from the Iran deal justifies North Korea’s belief that negotiation with the US on nuclear issues is futile. Particularly when one president’s agreement can be so easily torn up by his successor.

The American Right has considered Iran one of the “axis of evil” since 9/11. In that context, Trump’s desire to replace diplomacy with sanctions and eventually regime change, is ideologically consistent. The Right is simply using its electoral victory to advance a long-held policy.

We should remember that most of the GOP presidential candidates in 2016 were against the Iran deal, and probably would have acted similarly to Trump.

We are at a crossroads in our relationship with Iran. With the Iran deal, our long-term antipathy could have been moderated, and ultimately replaced by alignment of goals in the Middle East. Peace might have broken out.

But Trump has insured that will now take decades longer than it might have.

 

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Trump’s Dangerous Game: Regime Change in Iran

The Daily Escape:

Engelberg, Switzerland – photo by miracolei

Politico reports that the Trump administration is thinking about regime change in Iran:

As the White House formulates its official policy on Iran, senior officials and key allies of President Donald Trump are calling for the new administration to take steps to topple Tehran’s militant clerical government.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said just that in testimony to Congress about the State Department’s budget:

Our policy towards Iran is to push back on [its regional] hegemony, contain their ability to develop, obviously, nuclear weapons and to work towards support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.

As a member of Congress, Trump’s CIA director Mike Pompeo last year called for congressional action to:

Change Iranian behavior, and, ultimately, the Iranian regime…

All of this may have gone unnoticed in Washington, but it was heard in Iran. Iran’s ambassador to the UN filed a formal protest over Tillerson’s statement, saying it revealed:

A brazen interventionist plan that runs counter to every norm and principle of international law…

Critics of regime change say that political meddling in Iran, where memories of a 1953 CIA-backed coup that overthrew a democratically-elected Prime Minister Mossadegh remain vivid, risks a popular backlash that would only empower hard-liners. That’s why President Obama assured Iranians, in a 2013 speech at the UN, that “we are not seeking regime change.”

Then there is the Iran nuclear deal. The Obama administration worked with the international community to put in place a program that can prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. It’s important that this program work not just because Iran is an adversary, but it’s also key for preventing other countries in the region from developing their own nuclear weapons.

We can debate how rational the Iranian regime is, and whether or not their religious beliefs might make them less prone to act responsibly with a nuclear arsenal. The safer course is not to get distracted by regime change arguments, but instead, hold to a policy based on anti-proliferation and avoidance of a regional nuclear arms race.

But the Iran hawks want to change the status quo, because they say America can’t be safe this way.

They are blind to the fact that Iran is changing. It has now twice elected a (relatively) progressive president. Their young people are progressive. Obama understood that, and that it was likely that within the ten year life of the Nuclear Deal, progressivism and the desire of Iran’s young people to be part of the outside secular would prevail.

We can agree that Iran’s government poses some risk to the US, but we should also be clear that this has been true for decades, and it has been manageable. We have suffered more from the terroristic Sunni-based ideology exported by Saudi Arabia. Nothing comparable can be said about Iran. In fact, Iran’s primary effort at destabilization has been their support for Palestine vs. Israel.

So, our regional “allies” are working to make us less safe than is Iran.

We can’t disentangle ourselves from the region, but we should refuse to take actions that are sure to inflame things. From Booman:

It would seem our only compelling national interests in the middle east are nonproliferation, and humanitarian conflict-reduction both for its own sake and to reduce the attendant population flows and contagious violence.

Wikipedia lists 19 US efforts at regime change just since WWII. If there is one thing we should all know by now, it is that whatever takes the place of a toppled regime is frequently no better and often even worse than the government that has been overthrown. Let’s learn from history!

An attempt to overthrow the government in Iran is sure to fail, and the political fallout could be catastrophic. Iran’s current theocratic government exists because we overthrew their last democratically elected government, replacing it with the Shah. That sowed the seeds for the Iranian Revolution.

Calling for regime change in Iran is a fundamental error in strategy that endangers us, inflames the region, and will be catastrophic if we act on it.

Here’s a tune for Tuesday, Sam Cooke 1960’s hit “What a Wonderful World”, with a line that expresses Republican thought about Iran: “Don’t know much about history”:

Those who read the Wrongologist in email can view the video here.

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