Trump targets Iran
Yassamine Mather says the theocratic regime in Tehran is expecting a long siege
A number of events point towards an escalation of conflict between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the United States. Though we still have a cold war, as the various prime ministers and heads of state gathered in New York for the 73rd session of the United Nations general assembly, one cannot but sense the looming threat of a new conflict in the Middle East.
Although he manifestly detests the UN, Donald Trump placed himself centre stage. Last Friday Trump tweeted: “I will chair the United Nations security council meeting on Iran next week!” Not quite true. The session included other issues such as the “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction”.
As I have written before, the new US sanctions imposed on Iran have created a dire economic situation. Transnational companies, fearful of the secondary sanctions, are leaving, or threatening to leave, the country. The currency has fallen by 70% this year alone. All before Iran faces the abyss of US sanctions against the sale of Iranian oil in November.
A clear sign that we were entering a new phase in the Iran-US cold war came with the announcement that the Tehran government is introducing “electronic coupons for the fair distribution of essential commodities.” President Rouhani has apparently allocated $13 billion to provide support for low-income people through to March 2019. The money will be used to subsidise essential commodities coming from abroad.
The Rouhani government failed to anticipate the psychological impact of the announcement. It reminds many Iranians of the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. That was the last time Iranians experienced food rationing. On social media people expressed their frustration, their doubts and their fears. Meanwhile, international economic commentators questioned the Tehran government’s long-term ability to finance subsidies.
Mohammad Mehdi Mofatteh, spokesperson for the economic committee in the Islamic parliament (Majles), admitted that “the prices of essential commodities have been on the rise as a result of the economic war the United States has waged against Iran”. He added that “people are struggling to meet essential daily requirements for protein.” While it is true that the sanctions have already had a devastating effect on Iran’s economy, most Iranians are well aware that widespread corruption and currency speculation have also had a significant impact on the worsening situation.
It is not clear how the government intends to identify the first 10 million Iranians who will be classified as the most needy, nor how the government intends to stop black market dealings in coupons: this was common practice during the Iran-Iraq war. One should expect, given past experience, that coupons will be issued not to those in greatest need, but to those closer to the corridors of power and the mosques.
The US administration constantly repeats the same propaganda line. At the UN, Trump branded Iran as the “the leading state sponsor of terrorism with a near-global reach”. As much as I loathe Iran’s rulers, this is bizarre. US allies in the Middle East are proven sponsors of al-Qaeda, Isis and a variety of other equally horrible Salafi groups. Nonetheless, Trump also repeated his “desire” to meet Iranian leaders. This is rather strange, since he roundly condemned the former US secretary of state, John Kerry, for talking to Mohammed Javed Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister. Trump’s tweet on the subject is priceless: “He told them to wait out the Trump Administration! BAD!” Trump went on to attack Kerry in this wonderfully eccentric manner: “illegal meetings” with “hostile Iran” over the nuclear deal are a “detriment to America”. Why then, if Iran is the ultimate terrorist state, does Trump want to meet its leaders?
Last week we also had foreign-based Persian media (from BBC Persian service to Voice of America Persian) going crazy over what is a non-story. As far as I can tell, around fifty rather ignorant individuals, mainly the sons and daughters of Iran’s royalists, signed a statement launching a new party. Financed by US neo-conservatives (they proudly admit it), this outfit is gung-ho for Trump’s warmongering policies.
From what I have read, this new organisation is a semi-fascist version of the Shah’s Rastakhiz Party (the former monarch merged two pro-royalist parties: Iran Novin and Mardom). At the time, he contemptuously commented: “what is the point of having a ‘yes’ and an ‘of course’ party?”. Since the declaration of the new party, BBC Persian, VOA and the Saudi-financed TV stations are covering its every statement as if this was the most important political development in world politics since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
According to one of the royalists, “war is good, nations get strong after defeat in a war”. Well, tell that to the Iraqis, Afghans and Libyans! As one comrade wrote on my social media page: “I imagine people in Iran already preparing beautiful signs in English to put on their roofs with ‘PLEASE BOMB US!’ on them - just like the Syrian people do, according to the leader of the new party.” Just to prove that I am not exaggerating the intellectual capabilities of this leader: apparently, Nikki Haley (currently US ambassador to the UN) is “popular in Iran”. Definitely fake news.
Last but not least, we are told by this new media-friendly political group that the Holocaust has been exaggerated! I assume that if you like wars then you need to play down atrocities, but I keep wondering why no one condemns or arrests these genuinely anti-Semitic right-wingers?
Iran is the victim of terrorism. The most recent example being, of course, the attack on the military parade in Ahvaz on September 21. It is difficult to comprehend why a country under siege should waste so much money and effort ‘celebrating’ the anniversary of the start of Iran-Iraq war in every major city. After all, Iran lost.
Four gunmen opened fire. They killed 25, including members of the Revolutionary Guard, and injured 50 more. An anti-government group called the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz claimed responsibility. However, a day later Isis maintained that this was one of their ‘operations’. A video shows one Farsi speaker and two Arab speakers in a vehicle. The Farsi speaker says: “God willing, I’m going to die” and talks of destroying the Revolutionary Guard. Both the Movement for the Liberation of Ahvaz and Isis are backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Unsurprisingly, Iran’s leaders were quick to blame these countries for the atrocity.
By the time Rouhani arrived in New York, accusations and counter-accusations between Iran and US had reached unprecedented levels. Trump’s speech to the general assembly will undoubtedly be remembered for the wave of laughter it provoked when he boasted about how his government had “accomplished almost more than any administration in history of our country”. I don’t think even Iran’s former president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was notorious for his silly comments at the UN, ever achieved such distinction. However, this is what Trump said about Iran: “We can’t allow the world’s leading terror sponsor to possess the world’s most dangerous weapons.” Apparently, Iran’s leaders “sow chaos, death and destruction in Syria”. Trump went on:
They do not respect their neighbours and borders. Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond. The dictatorship used the funds released by the [nuclear] deal to finance terrorism and fund havoc and slaughter in Syria and Yemen. We will deny the regime the funds it needs to advance its bloody agenda. We re-imposed hard-hitting sanctions that were lifted. More sanctions will follow. We are working with countries that import Iranian oil to cut their purchase substantially. We cannot allow a regime that chants death to America and that threatens Israel, to possess the means to deliver a nuclear warhead to any city in the world.
True, the Iranian government terrorises its own population. It is an anti-working class government which is harshly implementing neo-liberal economic policies. However, as far as the accusations of ‘international terrorism’ are concerned, Rouhani’s response was accurate: “We fought against al-Qaida and the Taliban before the attacks on New York and Washington. We were engaged in the fight against Daesh before their operations in Paris, London and Brussels.” Last week, BBC radio news played a phone message from Massud Khalid (the Jihadist who was behind last year’s Westminster attack), which he had left for his wife. In the message he defends Isis: “I never hear you say there’s any good in Isis, I never hear you say at least they’re fighting against the Shia, they’re doing some good. All you say is they’re bad, they’re evil and they’re wicked, there’s no good in them”.
This is an interesting comment in that it shows how, in the eyes of Isis and its militants, the greatest evil on earth is Shia Islam. Irrespective of whether Isis, or Saudi-/UAE-financed Arab separatists were behind the terrorist attack on Ahvaz, many Iranians have - rightly or wrongly - come to the conclusion that their country’s military intervention in Syria was necessary in order to stop Isis. For all the differences between Syrian and Iran, for the first time since the Iran-Iraq war there is the realisation that Iran could become embroiled in war and civil war, just as Syria has.
There is an impatience in the Trump administration to reach the final stages of ‘regime change from above’ in Iran. Trump, Guiliani and Bolton cannot stop expressing their frustration with EU efforts to save the Iran nuclear deal and to maintain trade with Iran. For their part, European leaders don’t like the tone of Trump’s anti-globalisation, nationalist line. They are fully aware that Steve Bannon is travelling from one European capital to another in order to mobilise and finance right-wing nationalist groups.
UN general secretary Antonio Guterres did not mention Trump or the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, but his message was clear: “Today, world order is increasingly chaotic. Power relations are less clear … Universal values are being eroded. Democratic principles are under siege.” Guterres went on to warn of a return to 1930s, with the world being carved up into spheres of influence, ushering in a return to great power rivalry.
The French president, Emmanuel Macron, went further. He reminded the UN that the world order based on “sovereignty and equality among nations” which came into being in the 1600s was facing a “far-reaching crisis. Nationalism always leads to defeat ... If courage is lacking in the defence of fundamental principles, international order becomes fragile and this can lead as we have already seen twice, to global war. We saw that with our very own eyes.”
Macron pointedly added: “bilateral agreements, new protectionisms, will not work ... How will we solve the situation in Iran and what has already allowed us to make progress?”. In a press conference after his speech, the French president also blamed the US administration for the rise in the price of oil. If Trump wants to promote peace and achieve the declared aim of lowering prices, Macron suggested, then he shouldn’t impose sanctions on Iranian oil exports.
On a more practical level, the other signatories to the 2015 nuclear deal - the UK, France, Germany, Russia, China and the EU - decided to defy Trump’s new sanctions on Iran. In a press conference with Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, Frederica Mogherini, the EU’s high representative, argued that a new payment system should be designed in order to enable companies to continue trading with Iran. No details of how this it will work have been revealed, but it is clear that Europe, China and Russia are determined to trade with Iran without relying on the US dollar.
Clearly, EU and Iranian leaders hope that, after November’s mid-term elections, a weakened Trump administration will be in no position to stop the new payment system. All this is speculation, however. For all we know, the new sanctions on oil trade and banking, already announced by the Trump administration, will herald a more dangerous phase in the Iran-US cold war.
Far from reassuring ordinary Iranians, the UN general assembly, coming as it does on the heels of the Ahvaz terrorist attack, sends them a chilling message. The threat of war is serious. Iran can either become entangled in a terrible, destructive civil war of the kind that what we saw in Syria. Or, should the leaders of the Islamic Republic lose patience and embark on adventures, Israel and US will find their excuse to launch a military attack.