Stepping up the threats
Trump is garnering support for his crusade against Iran, but there is widespread opposition too, reports Yassamine Mather
Last week the US website Onion published a Photoshopped image of a “Bleeding John Bolton” stumbling into the Capitol, above a mock story where he claimed that “Iran shot him”.1
This was in response to claims by US neoconservatives that Iran was attacking US forces in the Middle East. Iran is being blamed for half a dozen incidents in the Middle East - any one of them could have been used as a trigger for war. Yet it is difficult to verify exactly what happened and decide who was responsible in any of them. The list includes Saudi and Norwegian claims that two Saudi oil tankers and a Norwegian ship were damaged last week in what Saudi Arabia claimed was an “act of sabotage”, while Thome Ship Management, the owners of the Norwegian vessel, said an “unknown object” had created a hole in the hull of one of its ships. This happened the day after a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline, caused “minor damage”. Responsibility for that was claimed by a Houthi group, but, of course, the United States and Saudi Arabia pointed out that the Houthis are Iran’s allies. So Iran must be to blame.
Then on May 19 a Katyusha rocket exploded near the US embassy in Baghdad. As if it was expecting something like that, a couple of days earlier Washington had ordered “non-emergency government employees” to leave Iraq, citing the danger of conflict with Iran. This was followed by Germany and the Netherlands suspending military training in Iraq and Exxon Mobil evacuating all its foreign staff from Iraq’s West Qurna 1 oilfield.
By this stage people in Iran were rightly concerned about a military escalation and preparing themselves for the worst - if all this is part of a war of nerves, it is clearly succeeding. In the meantime, Iranian analysts and academics, including some on the ‘left’, were calling on Tehran to negotiate, while royalists and other supporters of ‘regime change from above’ were advising the US government not to trust the leaders of the Islamic Republic.
The reason why Trump’s apparent attempts at distancing himself from rogue elements in his own administration (such as national security advisor Bolton) have not worked so far is not because of the steadfast anti-imperialism of the Islamic Republic, or because the regime ‘never’ compromises, as pro-regime change exiles claim. In reality Tehran has bent over backwards to please global capital - eg, during ‘Irangate’, before the Iraq war and the US invasion of Afghanistan, and during military action against Islamic State in Syria. The problem is, Trump does not want serious negotiations: he just wants a photo opportunity - and to be able to claim he has stopped Barack Obama’s “very bad deal” - in the same way as he attempted to use his meaningless negotiations with North Korea. Iran, on the other hand, wants secret negotiations and the lifting of at least some of the sanctions - something Trump cannot deliver without losing face. Hence the impasse.
By this week the war of words was reaching new heights. Trump tweeted: “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!” The reply from Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, came swiftly: “Iranians have stood tall for millennia, while aggressors have all gone ... Try respect - it works!”
Iranians are more than concerned that talk about “the end of Iran” implies the annihilation an entire country. People see a resemblance between Trump and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hated rightwing populist, who was the country’s president between 2005 and 2013. Inevitably Trump’s tweet has been compared to Ahmadinejad’s talk of the “disappearance of the state of Israel”. How can anyone take seriously the British media and politicians’ obsession with ‘anti-Semitism’, when Trump’s threat of obliteration gets almost no reaction and is apparently taken as acceptable.
However, the tweet’s real significance is the fact that it tells us what the real aims of the current US administration are. Clearly the aim is not just the overthrow of the Islamic Republic, but the breaking up of Iran. From the beginning this conflict had nothing to do with terrorism or nuclear weapons - no regional rival to Israel or Saudi Arabia can be tolerated by the Trump administration. This is in line with US foreign policy after World War II: every war, from Vietnam to Iraq and Libya, has had one aim: destruction. The intention is the same - to weaken rivals, deprive them of access to cheap natural resources, cut them off from potential allies.
With Iran, the aim is to divide it into smaller, less powerful states. Iranian nationalists and royalists, who are for regime change from above, should take note: their beloved country will be destroyed in the process. In fact, going by the example of other regime-change plans, such as for Iraq, they should be aware that if there is a war, not only will there be untold death and destruction, the end result could be the dismemberment of the country and a massive influx of jihadis and Salafis sponsored by Saudi Arabia. As Jefferson Morley writes in the New Republic, “Iran has not posed a serious terror threat to the United States since the 1980s. Sunni terrorism, on the other hand, has.”2
In the United States, however, there is large-scale opposition to a new war in the Middle East. Democrats have compared some of the hysteria about holes in tankers with the warning of George Bush and Tony Blair about Saddam Hussein’s “45 minutes” threat to western Europe. Leftish independent senator Bernie Sanders was the most vocal:
Trump, the schoolyard bully, is threatening to take us into another war in the Middle East. Just what we need! But it will not be Trump’s or his billionaire friend’s kids and grandkids who fight and die in that war. It will be working class kids. No war with Iran!3
Four of the seven senators running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination have signed a bill that would prohibit the US military from spending money to attack Iran.4
In Europe internal politics have meant that in both France and the UK rightwing politicians have been competing with each other to support Trump.
In the UK, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt and defence secretary Penny Mordaunt - both looking for votes amongst rightwing pro-Brexiteers, when it comes to the Conservative Party leadership election - were blaming Iran for ‘interfering in the affairs of other countries’. Now we know that these two late appointments in the decaying May administration are seriously challenged when it comes to international affairs, holding high office well beyond their capabilities. However, even someone with minimum information about the Middle East should know that Iran’s interventions have largely resulted from the tensions created by the United States and its allies in the region. The overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan and of Saddam in Iraq strengthened the position of the Shia government in Tehran, beyond its wildest dreams. The US and UK were warned about this, yet they paid no attention.
Saudi Arabia and the emirates of the Persian Gulf have relied on their jihadi allies - many of them reincarnations of al Qa’eda - to start civil wars in Iraq in order to advance the Sunni cause. This, together with the common practices of US occupation forces in dealing with their opponents - be it in notorious prisons such as Abu Ghraib in Iraq or in the bombing of towns such as Tikrit and Mosul - have helped swell the ranks of the jihadis, who all along were the beneficiaries of Sunni Arab sponsorship. In subsequent civil wars, when IS was threatening the entire region, Iran got involved - to the applause of the United States. As far as Lebanon is concerned, Iran sees its alliance with Hezbollah as a type of insurance to prevent Israel bombing its industrial and military installations. So it would be interesting to know what exactly Hunt and Mordaunt mean when they talk of Iran’s ‘interference’.
Amongst Iran’s neighbours, Iraq is the most concerned. The fragile peace following the defeat of IS can easily be broken. Washington has been spreading a lot of rumours about Iran’s top military leaders telling Shia militias in Iraq to prepare for war, so, despite the insistence of Baghdad that it wants to stay out of any conflict, the reality is that, in the event of a military conflagration between the US and Iran, Iraq will be dragged into yet another deadly conflict.
As far as Israel is concerned, the surprising recent silence of Binyamin Netanyahu about a possible war between Iran and the United States has led to speculation that, despite all the efforts of the Israeli premier to achieve US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, Israel is weary of war with Hezbollah. According to Al-Monitor, “If full-blown war breaks out, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps will enter the picture. Should that happen, Israel believes that it would be in the top tier of Iranian targets.” Apparently Netanyahu has instructed his security apparatus to stay out of the current escalation of conflict, while downplaying “support for the stance of US national security advisor John Bolton, who advocates direct conflict”.5
It is fair to say that the majority of the opinion columns in US press and national media networks, with the exception of Fox News, are carrying alarmist reports about a new clash in the Middle East. The headline of an opinion column in The Washington Post sums it up: “A war with Iran would be the mother of all quagmires”6; while The New York Times advises on “How to stop the march to war with Iran”.7
According to a Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll, “More than half of Americans believe the US will go to war with Iran within the next few years”. Fewer than 40% approve of Trump’s handling of the crisis.8
If the intention of the Trump administration has been to increase tension inside Iran and isolate the leadership, the recent escalation has had the reverse effect. The many factions of the Islamic Republic might not like each other, but in the face of foreign aggression they always unite. Ordinary Iranians, facing harsh economic conditions, remain angry about the corruption and incompetence of their leaders, but, when faced with the threat of a devastating war, they are united in their opposition to US aggression.
When I speak to friends and relatives in Tehran or read various posts on social media, I am amazed by how well-to-do, upper middle class people, often with rightwing opinions, are all posting militant anti-war messages, expressing horror at Trump’s plans. If the US administration cannot win the support of this layer, how can it expect to enforce ‘regime change from above’?