Trump ups the ante
The threat of military action against Iran is once more very much on the agenda, writes Yassamine Mather
One of the scariest characters around the new Trump administration is Steve Bannon, the 63-year-old who ran Breitbart News before joining the Trump campaign. Now he is chief strategist and senior advisor to the US president.
Just in case you are not familiar with Breitbart News, it is a rightwing outlet, known for headlines such as “Bill Kristol: Republican spoiler, renegade Jew” and “Birth control makes women unattractive and crazy”. Former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke very much approved of Bannon’s nomination, describing it as “excellent”, while Peter Brimelow, who is associated with the white supremacist website, VDARE, called it “amazing”.
There is a lot of information circulating about Bannon’s rightwing opinions, but the Washington Post in particular has given us an insight into how the Iran hostage crisis helped shaped his views:
It was just after midnight on March 21 1980, when a Navy destroyer navigated by Stephen K Bannon, a junior officer, met with the supercarrier, USS Nimitz, in the Gulf of Oman. The convoy headed near the Iranian coast, where a secret mission would be launched a month later to rescue 52 US embassy hostages held in Tehran.
Bannon’s ship, the USS Paul F Foster, trailed the Nimitz, which carried helicopters that would try to retrieve the hostages. But before the mission launched, Bannon’s ship was ordered to sail to Pearl Harbour, and he learned while at sea the rescue had failed. A US helicopter crashed into another aircraft in the Iranian desert, killing eight servicemen and dooming the plan to liberate the hostages.
.... As Bannon has told it, the failed hostage rescue is one of the defining moments of his life, providing a searing example of failed military and presidential leadership - one that he carries with him, as he serves as president Trump’s chief strategist. He has said he wasn’t interested in politics until he concluded then-president Jimmy Carter had undercut the navy and blown the rescue mission.1
Of course, the truth is more complicated. The Republicans had given their declared enemy, Iran’s Islamic Republic, details of the rescue plan, in an attempt to undermine Carter.
But Bannon is not alone in all this. There is general James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, who is also obsessed with Iran. Last year, the four-star general was forced out of his job by Barack Obama. Why? Because at a time when most of the world was thinking of the dangers posed by al Qa’eda and Islamic State in the Middle East, he was adamant that the Iranian regime is “the single most enduring threat to stability and peace”. Mattis recalls that, as commander of US troops in the Middle East, the first three questions he would ask his subordinates every morning “had to do with Iran and Iran and Iran”.
Media reports suggested it was Mattis’s eagerness for confrontation with Iran that led to his sacking by Obama. He was central command chief until 2013 - just before the US and other world powers were trying to engage with Tehran to secure a nuclear deal.
However, after Trump nominated him as defence secretary, the war of words between the US and Iran intensified less than a month into the new presidency, with Mattis calling Iran “the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world”, after Tehran confirmed it had tested mid-range ballistic missiles. Trump tweeted, “Iran is playing with fire”, as he ordered new sanctions on 13 Iranian individuals and 12 companies. When reporters asked him if a military action was possible, he replied: “Nothing is off the table”.
Many scenarios have been proposed on how and when such a conflict might start. Saeid Golkar, an Iran expert at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, is probably right when he told Al Jazeera: “I think people in the Trump administration will try to make Iran do something stupid” - so that the US can use this as an excuse for war. We have already seen new sanctions, the absence of which being one of Iran’s red lines for adhering to the nuclear deal.
Reza Pahlavi, the son of the former shah, claimed in a recent interview with Voice of America that he has written to Trump asking him to distinguish between the Iranian people and the regime, and urging the US to play a “pivotal role” in supporting what he called the Iranian people’s “quest for liberty and justice” in their homeland.2 If anyone from Trump’s government decided to hold a meeting with hated figures of the Iranian opposition - including the ex-shah’s son, or the Mujahedin, or other idiots clamouring for ‘regime change from above’, the government in Tehran would react. Let us not forget that the animosity between the Iranian regime and sections of the US government first started in 1979, when Washinton allowed the ex-shah to seek medical treatment in the US.
Globalresearch, described on its website as the “centre for research on globalisation”, recently published an article entitled “Eleven ominous signs that we are racing towards war with Iran”. Referring to the current “engineered disorder”, it claims that “Trump is taking the US on a sure course to war with Iran”.3
The website gives three fundamental reasons why Iran remains the principal target and lists them as follows:
Iran has become the arch-enemy of the Saudi-Israeli alliance, because it is the one country militarily and economically strong enough to challenge their dominance of the Middle Eastern region …
Secondly, Iran has been openly supportive of the fight against Zionism (by funding Hezbollah in Lebanon) and against the Sunni extremist group Isis (the pet Frankenstein of the US) …
Thirdly, Iran has forged a tight alliance with Russia and China in defiance of the Zionist-Anglo-American New World Order, which seeks to impose a unipolar One World Government on the world, with the international bankers at the helm. Iran remains one of the few countries in the world without a Rothschild-owned central bank. It refuses to bow to the will of the US or to allow the US to place its imperial military bases within its territory.
I would dispute the second reason. Everyone knows of Iran’s secret economic deals with Israel, and its support for Palestine has remained very much tired rhetoric, where actions do not match slogans. Supporting the Palestinian people is part of the regime’s propaganda in competing with Sunni states in the region and should not be taken seriously.
However, the website goes on to list the “11 ominous signs” as follows.
1. US foreign policy is being driven by the likes of the Brookings Institution, which in 2009 “advocated the US make a deal with Iran, then renege on the deal (making it look like Iran was refusing something very reasonable), and then attack Iran with support from the international community”.
2. Iran is at the centre of the “Muslim ban”, yet Saudi Arabia is not even among the seven states on Trump’s list, despite being “the source of 15 of the 19 alleged hijackers” on 9/11.
3. Iran “has formally announced it is ditching the US dollar for oil transactions as of March 21 2017”. The website claims that “the real reason for the invasion of several Middle Eastern countries over the last two-three decades was due to their desire to abandon the petrodollar (eg, with Libya’s gold in 2011)”.
4. Iran has been put “on notice” for its recent ballistic missile test. Trump’s ex-national security advisor, Michael Flynn, claimed before his February 14 resignation that the test had violated the nuclear deal and contravened UN resolution 2231, which calls on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons”. However, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, stated that the country’s missiles are “not designed for the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead”, but rather “to carry a normal warhead in the field of legitimate defence”.
5. White House press secretary Sean Spicer “falsely accused Iran of attacking a US naval vessel”, when actually it was a Saudi ship that had been attacked - and by “Houthi rebels from Yemen, not Iranians”.
6. As mentioned above, the US administration has accused Iran of being the world’s “biggest state sponsor of terrorism”.
7. New sanctions have been imposed on Iran by Trump.
8. Despite Trump’s defence of Vladimir Putin, US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has condemned Russia, which is in a “binding military alliance” with Iran.
9: China is also in a “binding military alliance” with Iran, and Beijing has also “been on the receiving end of some threats”.
10. Steve Bannon has even claimed there will be war with China “in the next five-10 years”, according to Globalresearch.
11. The US, along with the UK, France and Australia, have “conducted a joint naval operation named Unified Trident just off the Iranian coast”.
All this indicates that “the long-held agenda of initiating war with Iran is speeding up under Trump”, states Globalresearch’s Makia Freeman.
Of course, all this could change in the next couple of days. If Republicans as well as Democrats continue demanding an inquiry into the reason’s behind Flynn’s resignation as national security advisor, and into allegations that members of Trump’s team had been in regular contact with senior Russian intelligence officials during the presidential election campaign, the US president might be forced to delay any moves against Iran. On the other hand, he might not want to disappoint Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who is currently on an official visit to Washington. He might well announce new sanctions against Iran, paving the way for more confrontation.
Meanwhile, inside Iran itself, the southern province of Khuzestan has just suffered one of the worst dust storms seen in recent years. The thick plume of dust and sand forced officials to cancel 10 flights leaving Ahvaz airport, as the field of vision had been reduced to a mere 50 metres, according to Kourosh Bahadori, Khuzestan’s chief meteorologist.
The citizens of Ahvaz, the provincial capital, who are clearly frustrated by the inability of successive governments to improve the environment and deal with the effects of dust storms, took part in a large demonstration on February 11. However, despite the looming presidential elections, the government does not appear too concerned about such protests.
Hassan Rouhani is standing for re-election as president in May 2017, but the promise of economic prosperity following the nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries now seems a distant dream. US banks and financial authorities have kept in place many of the sanctions imposed on Iran, while uncertainty about the new administration’s attitude towards the nuclear deal has deterred many European countries from investing.
Then, of course, adding insult to injury, Trump issued a ban on Iranians visiting the United States. Of course, the ban was rejected by the US courts, but no-one believes this is the end of the story. The US administration is preparing new immigration legislation and there are rumours that by adding Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to the list of ‘terrorist organisations’, the ban on Iranians visiting the US will become permanent. The Revolutionary Guards run large sections of the state and the economy in both the public and private sector, which means that most Iranians would be affected - irrespective of whether they are aware of it or not, many work for or are connected with RG companies and institutions.
From the day he took office in 2013, Rouhani insisted that reaching agreement with the west on Iran’s nuclear programme would solve the country’s economic problems and that would produce national reconciliation. When Iran’s reformists talk of national reconciliation, as former president Mohammad Khatami has done recently, they mean reconciliation between the factions of the regime, although it is often portrayed by sections of the media as reconciliation between the state and Iran’s various nationalities. No-one denies the existence of these divisions - between both the two factions of the regime and between the state and the people - especially after the protests of 2009. Unfortunately for Rouhani and foreign minister Zarif, however, they have no powerful allies within the moderate factions of the regime and that is why Rouhani’s re-election as president was in doubt even before Trump took office.