Trump must stop the sanctions that are hurting his allies as much as Iran.
London: What is President Donald Trump’s real policy towards Iran? This is an important question to which there is currently no clear answer.
While Iran is unquestionably a major cause of the instability in the Middle East, Trump created the current crisis himself when last May he pulled out of the highly successful 2015 nuclear accord, in which Iran agreed to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Trump hated this accord, mainly because it had been one of the many successes of the Obama administration. Trump’s visceral hatred of Barack Obama is driving him to destroy every successful policy of the previous administration.
When it backed out of the accord and introduced new sanctions, the Trump administration took a bet that Iran would be forced to curb its weapons programme and end its support of brutal governments and uprisings in the Middle East. It’s extremely unlikely that this bet will be won and already Trump appears to be backtracking. Here’s what he said recently in an interview on the Fox News Channel: “I just don’t want them to have nuclear weapons and they can’t be threatening us.” Really? Had he forgotten that the accord was actually working, preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons? He had something, destroyed it and now claims to want it back!
No one is surprised nowadays by contradictions coming out of the White House; the list is too long. But when they increase the danger of a major war, they are far too important to ignore. Why is there such disarray in policy from the White House?
The answer lies both in the confused mind of the President and in constant staff changes. Contrary to what he claims, he is not an “extremely stable genius”. In just over two years as President, Donald Trump holds the record for staff turnover in the White House. Among those on a long list are four Secretaries of Homeland Security, three Chiefs of Staff, three Attorney Generals and, of huge significance, four National Security Advisers. Trump appears to be incapable of choosing or holding onto quality personnel.
The most important arrivals have been John Bolton as National Security Advisor and Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State. It’s hard to find two more anti-Iran figures in Washington. Trump now has two senior advisors who are far more hawkish than him and, being resistant to advice, he is clearly finding them difficult to control. Bolton is well known for his “bomb Iran” rhetoric and his intense desire for regime change. Congress suspects Pompeo of selective use of intelligence reports to justify action against Iran, echoing the State Department’s disastrous “cherry picking” of intelligence in 2003.
So what does President Trump, a self-proclaimed expert on complex topics, want to do? Does he want to destroy Iran or achieve regime change? “Neither”, he claimed last week, “I just want to talk”. Contradicting Bolton and Pompeo, Trump has suddenly morphed into a peacenik. Perhaps he has realised that war against Iran is absurd. Iran is four times bigger than Iraq, with more than twice the population. Iran has 873,000 military personnel, supported by defence deals with Russia. Short of flattening the country by nuclear weapons, any military action by the US against Iran is simply unwinnable.
So what about regime change, the repeated choice of John Bolton? There is little doubt that Iranians are unhappy with their lot, blaming their rulers for their economic woes. However, it is sheer fantasy to believe that they would embrace the idea of the toppling of their government. Iranian civil society is more unified and far stronger than that of Iraq before the invasion, from which they will have learned that regime change by force can have catastrophic consequences. There is no evidence that the Iranian regime is anywhere near to collapse.
In fact the direct opposite. As US ramps up the sanctions, the Iranian regime is becoming stronger. Its domestic legitimacy relies partly on its public defiance of the US. Also, despite its declining economy, the Ayatollah regime is beefing up investment in the country’s internal security service, which is well practised in crushing dissent. Fifty years of trying to destroy the Castro regime in Cuba should have provided the White House with clear evidence of the futility of sanctions for regime change. Sanctions can sometimes change behaviour, but not regimes.
Both Washington and Teheran declare that they don’t seek war, but many worry that any miscalculation at this fraught moment could spiral out of control. The First World War started this way. The fact that last week Donald Trump felt it necessary to tweet a denial that there had been “infighting” within his national security team is worrying. Particularly when soon after, Bolton released a strikingly bellicose statement threatening Iran with “unrelenting force”.
President Trump has no legal authority to wage war against Iran, neither from Congress nor the UN. He has repeatedly insulted his allies in NATO, who will certainly give him no support if he behaves recklessly. Sanctions will not bring Iran, a proud nation with 5,000 years of history, to the negotiating table. This has been repeatedly confirmed by its leaders. If he wants negotiations, which in his latest U-turn he says he does, Trump must temper down the rhetoric, stop the sanctions which are hurting his allies as much as Iran, and swallow his pride (which admittedly would be a first for Trump) on the nuclear accord. This is the only way to avoid a cringing climb-down, as in the case of North Korea, or a potential catastrophe.