In Trump's sights
Yassamine Mather reports on the formation of a ‘NATO’ type alliance against Iran
Last week, the United States started a process that could lead to the setting up of a Nato-like alliance against Iran. At a time when under a new president, less antagonistic to Russia, the US is considering its position vis-à-vis Nato, we could be witnessing the start of a new cold war - or maybe not so cold war - against Iran. According to reports in the Wall Street Journal, the proposed new alliance will include a “group of Sunni nations that would share intelligence with US and Israel”.
Many Israeli papers, including the Times of Israel, have also covered the story: “the concern about Shi’ite Iran’s expansionist aspirations unites these nations, and the goal is to create a pact whereby an attack on one of them would be treated as an act of aggression against all of them, according to five unnamed sources, who are involved in the ongoing discussions on behalf of those nations.”1
This information seems to have originated in leaks following the recent visit by Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Washington, and perhaps help explain some of the more outrageous statements made at last month’s Munich security conference by Saudi and Israeli officials.
On February 19 the Saudi foreign minister, Adel al-Jubeir, told the conference that Iran’s Islamic Republic was the main sponsor of global terrorism, alleging that the country was a destabilising force in the Middle East that wanted to “destroy us”. Now this is rich coming from the foreign minister of a government that played a significant role in the birth of Al Qa’eda2 - not to forget more recent reports that Saudi royals and businessmen, if not the government itself, are considered by western intelligence services to be financial backers of Islamic State, Al Nusra, etc.
No doubt Iran’s Shia allies have played their role in destabilising the region, but as far as 21st century terrorism is concerned, no-one in their right mind can ignore the pivotal role played by the Saudi kingdom. In this regard Iran comes a poor third or fourth (after Saudi Arabia, the Emirates of the Persian Gulf, and Turkey).
But, of course, the Saudi pronouncements about Iran’s role in global terrorism were repeated by the Saudis’ new ally, Israeli defence minister Avigdor Lieberman:
It’s clear today that we suffer in the last period from lack of political determination. The results of soft power we see today in the Middle East, and not only with regard to Iran. The Iranian deal is ‘copy/paste’ of what we had with North Korea … No doubt, if you ask every man and woman in the Middle East, they’ll say Iran will be another example of the North Korean deal.3
Lieberman insisted that the top three security challenges are: “Iran, Iran and Iran”. He claimed Iran’s “pattern of behaviour” was one of creating proxies throughout the region and beyond:
In Lebanon, we have Hezbollah; in the Gaza Strip, we have Islamic Jihad and Hamas; we have the Houthi militias in Yemen; the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, etc, etc … and all this activity falls under the umbrella of the biggest and most powerful, sophisticated and brutal terror organisation of the world: the Iranian Revolutionary Guards under the control of terrorist number one in the world, Qassem Soleimani.
Lieberman alleged that Iran’s “ultimate objective” was to undermine Riyadh, and called for a dialogue with Sunni Arab countries to defeat “radical” elements in the region: the “real division” was not between Jews and Muslims, but between “moderate people” and “radical people”. So the Israeli defence minister is now concerned that the authority of Saudi Arabia - a fundamentalist religious state, whose clerics sponsor IS and whose rich princes fund Al Nusra - is being ‘undermined’!
Reuters reporters John Irish and Andrea Shalal summed up the situation correctly when they noted that Saudi Arabia and Israel are presenting a de facto united front against Iran:
While Saudi Arabia remains historically at odds with Israel, their ministers demanded at the Munich Security Conference that Tehran be punished for propping up the Syrian government, developing ballistic missiles and funding separatists in Yemen.4
The new alliance is likely to include that other ‘democratic’ Islamic state, Turkey. Recently we have heard a lot about the tensions between Iran and Turkey. In early February, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, speaking in Bahrain, accused Iran of trying to split Iraq and Syria by resorting to Persian nationalism - a policy which, according to Erdoğan, must be confronted. But by the time we got to the Munich conference, Turkey’s tone was harsher. Minister for foreign affairs Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, speaking on February 19, said: “Iran is trying to create two Shi’ite states in Syria and Iraq. This is very dangerous. It must be stopped.”
In fact the tension led to postponement of a bipartite business forum, which was due to take place in Tehran on February 25. According to the website, Al Monitor,
Turkish businessmen had been waiting for such a forum, hoping to find lucrative opportunities in energy, petrochemicals, mining, construction, retailing, logistics and tourism, as some sanctions on Iran are being lifted. [Turkey’s Foreign Economic Relations Board] issued a statement saying that the meeting could have been instrumental in increasing the volume of trade to the desired level of $30 billion in two years.5
The latest episode to clearly demonstrate the beginning of a new era in the US state department came on February 26. In line with other Oscar nominations, the traditionally pro-Democrat Hollywood made sure no-one was in any doubt what it thought about Trump’s foreign policies and migrant ban. The Iranian film The salesman was chosen as best film in a foreign language. The director, Asghar Farhadi, stayed away from the ceremony in solidarity with Iranians who cannot travel to the US, and his speech was read by Iranian-American Anousheh Ansari, the first female ‘space tourist’. Farhadi said:
My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhuman law that bans entry of immigrants to the US. Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear - a deceitful justification for aggression and war.
All this was predictable, but what was less expected was the reaction of the US state department. In an official Farsi tweet, it sent out and then deleted a congratulatory message to Farhadi and the Iranian people! “A congratulatory tweet was posted,” a state department spokeswoman said. “We later removed the post to avoid any misperception that the [US government] endorsed the comments made in the acceptance speech.”
All this happened at a time when Iranian royalists were reporting a meeting last week between the ex-shah’s son, Reza Pahlavi, and Donald Trump and his advisors. The pretender to the Pahlavi dynasty claims that Trump has promised “change” and, of course, as the reactionary allies of our rather dim former crown prince assume, this means regime change from above.
It seems there is no end to the contacts and communications between sections of Iran’s official and unofficial opposition and the new US president. The People’s Mojahedin (Mojahedin-e Khalq) claims its men in the Trump administration, Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton, are paving the way for a transfer of power to them. Other opposition groups in the US, Canada and western Europe hope they will be the beneficiaries of US funds for regime change and inside the country Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has also contacted Trump. According to reports from Tehran, on February 26 he sent a very conciliatory letter to the US president. Many Iranians have commented on the similarities between the rightwing populism of their former president and the current US one.
In the letter, Ahmadinejad congratulates Trump for winning through despite the predictions and pressure from the liberals and for describing the US political system and electoral structure as “corrupt and anti-public”. However, like Reza Pahlavi he also addresses the issue of the ban on visas issued for Iranians: “The presence and constructive effort of the elite and scientists of different nations, including the million-plus population of my Iranian compatriots, has had a major role in the development of the US”, which “belongs to all nations”.
Ahmadinejad, whose letter was delivered to the Swiss embassy in Tehran (Switzerland currently represents US interests in Iran), has a history of writing letters to US presidents. He wrote to both George Bush junior and Barack Obama - although those letters were far from conciliatory or congratulatory.
Ahmadinejad’s intervention should be seen in the light of the forthcoming Iranian presidential elections in Iran in May 2017. As far as current president Hassan Rouhani is concerned, the celebration for the nuclear deal with the P5+1 countries seems a distant dream. Promises of economic prosperity have not materialised. US banks and financial authorities have kept in place many of the sanctions imposed on Iran over the last few years.
Uncertainty about the new US administration’s attitude towards the nuclear deal has deterred many European countries from investing in Iran and soon after coming to power, adding insult to injury, Donald Trump issued a ban on Iranians visiting the United States. Of course, the ban was rejected by the US courts, but no-one believes that 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. That is because the Revolutionary Guards practically own and run the state and large sections of the economy in both the public and private (privatised) sector, meaning that most Iranians will be affected by such a ban, because, whether they are aware of it or not, they work for RG-controlled companies and institutions.
All this has had a negative effect on Rouhani’s attempts to improve relations with the west. From the day he took office in 2013, he has insisted that agreements concerning Iran’s nuclear programme will solve the country’s economic problems and with that will come ‘reconciliation’. There is a lot of talk about such national reconciliation, mainly by ‘reformists’ - former president Mohammad Khatami has recently started a campaign to achieve it. However, what he means by ‘national reconciliation’ is peace between the factions of the regime, although it is often portrayed by sections of the Iranian media as reconciliation between the state and the peoples: ie, the many nationalities in Iran.
No-one in their right mind denies there are differences between the two factions of the regime, but these are insignificant compared to mutual antipathy between the state and a large section of the people, as was made more than clear by the protests of 2009. Unfortunately for the ‘reformist’ camp, to which Rouhani belongs, it is faced with a hugely powerful opponent in the shape of supreme leader Ali Khamenei. That is why Rouhani’s re-election as president was in doubt even before Trump took office l
2. See www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/network/alqaeda/indictment.html.