One was willing to credit Trump with some degree of sanity when he rescinded the order to retaliate with force against Iran, till he chose to go for new sanctions. Slapping of fresh sanctions on Iran is neither a climb down in order to seek a solution of a problem that is entirely of US’ own making, nor intended to provide a diplomatic space to the opponent. The new measures declared by Trump have been described by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as “outrageous and idiotic.” Most unbiased observers would find it hard to disagree with that characterisation. The new sanctions are intended to keep the maximum pressure to make Iran budge on the nuclear issue—that is what Trump wants but Bolton and company would like to see a different outcome.
The US president thus finds himself in an unfamiliar position—a divergent strategic objective in Washington forcing him to exert a tight leash on the Iran-hawks that surround him, to avoid a direct confrontation with Iran. It was a sobering thought that Trump had gotten down from his high-horse—quite a change of position from what we had observed a few weeks ago, when he made it look as if he was going as per the advice of his foreign and security policy advisors, who would want to see another Armageddon launched against Iran. But he has not restricted himself only to tweeting his foreign policy options and indulging in his usual rhetoric. Wanting to appear not to have pulled back, he “retaliated” by hitting back through a cyber-attack on Iran’s missile control system and imposing more sanctions while offering for talks without precondition.
When Trump stepped back from the brink, it was perhaps for the first time that his action was prompted by rational assessment of the ground realities rather than sentiments. And there are very good reasons why Trump chose discretion over valour, despite the fact that, by his own admission, the hawks around him have been goading him to assume a tougher position on Iran, more so after Iran had shot down a US drone over the Strait of Hormuz, claiming that it had trespassed into its territory which was, predictably, denied by the Americans. He even didn’t hesitate to put his two most trusted advisors under the bus when he blasted them saying, “These people want to push us into a war, and it’s so disgusting.”
However, the US president’s reaction to the felling of the US drone, threatening to obliterate Iran, has been more than an overreaction. Just compare to the USS Vincennes bringing down Iran Air flight 655 on July 3, 1988. Some of the US media and scholars continue to perpetuate the “accident” myth. The US defence system “mistook” a passenger liner for a fighter aircraft, and that cost 290 civilian lives. And they want the world to believe it. If shooting down a drone, even if it was in international waters, merits “obliteration” of the country allegedly responsible for it, what should be the consequence of shooting down a jetliner in international airspace and the deaths of innocent people?
The US administration would like the world, and more importantly, its allies to believe that Iran wants to provoke the US, a view also touted by some US academics, but the reasons given do not wash. The US has not furnished any incontrovertible proof that Iran was behind the attacks, while the reactions of the US’ western allies have been intuitive. The picture that the US defence department has circulated showing the crew of an Iranian gunboat removing a limpet mine from a damaged oil tanker proves nothing about Iran’s involvement in the attack. One has not heard of another instance where an attacker is seen making safe the very vessel it wanted to destroy.
Some critics point the finger at Iran saying that these are but Iran’s way of testing the wind, to see US reaction and test its resolve. The counter-argument is, what benefit would Iran derive from acting in ways that would allow the US to exploit Iran’s action to manufacture an excuse to launch an attack on Iran? And the US is past master in manufacturing excuses through deceits and lies. There is ample evidence of US’ deceitful tactics in the past to precipitate a situation in its favour: the Gulf of Tonkin for example, and even more recent instance where intelligence was manufactured and, by one count, more than a hundred excuses were fabricated to show that Saddam possessed WMDs to justify a patently illegal war on that country.
One wonders whether the US has a policy on Iran. And if there is one it is a bundle of confusion that is created by the central actors in the administration. The Iran policy is being driven by the PBB triumvirate (Pompeo-Bolton-BB Netanyahu), who want a regime change in Iran while Trump wants to renegotiate the nuclear agreement. And Trump is averse to any further entanglement in the Middle East since that goes against his electoral promise.
It is just as well Trump did not pull the trigger of what he claims a cocked gun. It would have unleashed a situation whose scope and magnitude are imponderable. If the US has multiple choices of targets in Iran so has Iran of US targets which are spread all over the globe. And Iran is not Iraq of the 90s. One of the consequences of the US policy to isolate Iran over the last two decades is that it has made Iran more self-reliant on defence matters—producing much of its defence equipment itself. Under the biggest threat would be the US assets in Iraq, in which Iran has the largest body of sympathisers. What the US invasion of Iraq and its policy subsequently thereof have done is to virtually hand over that country to Iran.
But can US meet its objective(s) in Iran in the way it is proceeding? Iran has not wilted so far, and given its long history and culture and the moral strength of its civilisation that goes back six or seven millennia, it is not likely ever to do so. He is a fool who would think of launching an invasion of Iran, in the way that the US did in Iraq. The US is still suffering the consequences, having spent seven trillion dollars so far in the region since then, without getting any substantive strategic benefits but managing only in fawning terrorism and extremism and creating a cauldron in the region.
As for creating tension and sponsoring extremism, it is hardly for the US to call anyone in this regard. Its policies, in the Middle East in particular, have done more to fester tension, extremism and conflict than any other country. Bombing sporadic targets in Iran will not achieve any political or long-lasting military objective. It will only make the Iranian people more hostile to the US.
And how unconditional is the US “talks offer” when it has been laying conditions since its abnegation of the JCPOA in May 2018, an agreement that was signed not only by the major powers but endorsed by the UN as well? In fact Resolution 2231 (2015) not only lifts sanctions and calls for normalising trade relations with Iran but also obligates the member states, under Article 25 of the Charter of the United Nations, to accept and carry out the Security Council’s decisions as well. Does a “normal country”, which the US wants Iran to be and act like, withdraw from international obligations? The US has not only done that, but it is also openly asking other countries to violate a UN Resolution and even coercing countries with sanctions if they did not violate the Resolution. Some normal country indeed.
One cannot hold a gun on an adversary and at the same time offer “unconditional” talks. US behaviour as the most powerful country in the world has been far from normal. In fact, according to one Democratic presidential contender, President Trump is the biggest threat to the US. Indeed, if President Trump carries through with the ill-considered of the PBB, the White House aspirant may well be proven right. One hopes that the US policymakers would go for the right choice having exhausted all the wrong choices.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (retd) is Associate Editor, The Daily Star.