Threats must be taken seriously
Yassamine Mather looks at the US-Iran conflict against the background of Donald Trump’s contradictory pronouncements
The June 13 attack on two oil tankers marked a serious escalation in the current conflict between Iran’s Islamic Republic and the United States. Dozens of crew members were rescued when they had to abandon ship, and both Iran and the US claimed they were involved in the rescue operation.There were also two versions of the incident itself. According to the US navy, mines from small boats caused the blasts in the Gulf of Oman, one of the world’s busiest oil routes. The US central command later released a grainy video showing what they claimed is a small Iranian boat, removing an “unexploded limpet mine” from the hull of one of the tankers. However, Yutaka Katada of Kokuka Sangyo, owner of the oil tanker, contradicted the American version: “The vessel was struck by a projectile and not by a mine. We received reports that something flew towards the ship.” Both tankers were on their way to Japan and this was certainly an interesting development, given the presence of Japanese premier Shinzo Abe in Tehran for a meeting with Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei.
The war of words soon escalated. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo used the video to blame Iran, while a senior Iranian official told the BBC: “Iran has no connection with the incident ... Somebody is trying to destabilise relations between Iran and the international community.” In fact oil prices rose by 4.5% from a near five-month low following the incident, although they have subsequently come back down.
Khamenei told Abe: “We don’t trust Trump and we will not talk to him.” Although one can sympathise with the idea that Trump cannot be trusted - after all, he frequently changes his mind about major decisions several times - it is not quite true that Iran is not talking to the United States. There are many signs that secret negotiations (albeit through intermediaries) have taken place in recent weeks.
Unlike Trump, who is normally looking for a photo-opportunity, Iran’s leaders are quite ready to negotiate, as long as the talks are secret. Iran’s only open talks with the US - over the nuclear deal - ended badly and it is unlikely to repeat that mistake in the near future. However, there are clear signs that, at least until the latest incident, the US and Iran had come to some agreement (maybe negotiated through intermediaries) to reduce the tempo of the propaganda war.
Those following Trump’s comments about Iran have been surprised at how he suddenly changed his tune regarding Iran around mid-May. Subsequently an article in Asia Times stated:
It all has to do with the Strait of Hormuz. Blocking the Strait could cut off oil and gas from Iraq, Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Iran - 20% of the world’s oil ... An American source said a series of studies hit president Trump’s desk and caused panic in Washington. These showed that in the case of the Strait of Hormuz being shut down, whatever the reason, Iran has the power to hammer the world financial system, by causing global trade in derivatives to be blown apart ….
And Trump himself seems to have given the game away. He’s now on the record essentially saying that Iran itself has no strategic value to the US … He really wants a face-saving way to get out of the problem his advisors, Bolton and Pompeo, got him into. Washington now needs a face-saving way out. Iran is not asking for meetings. The US is.1
Irrespective of what we think of the above argument, there is a definite shift in US policy towards Iran. Just days after the alleged Iranian attack of June 13, the US president called the incident “very minor”.2
In late May, speaking in Japan, Trump was quoted as saying: “Iran can be great again under its current leadership” - to the horror and fury of Iran ‘regime change from above’ advocates, including royalists and the formerly leftwing cult, Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK).
In addition to the above statement we have seen some significant moves in terms of reducing the US propaganda war against Iran. There was the abrupt end to funding for the Iran Disinformation Project, which claims it “brings to light disinformation emanating from the Islamic Republic of Iran via official rhetoric, state propaganda outlets, social media manipulation and more”.
Back in 2018, when Donald Trump was telling the world why the US had to abandon the Iran nuclear deal, which was, according to him, “very bad”, he used the excuse that Iran had subsequently increased its military budget. When the Washington Post asked for a source for this, the White House quoted an article published in Forbes business magazine by a writer named Heshmat Alavi.
Yet, according to The Intercept website, “Heshmat Alavi is a persona run by a team of people from the political wing of the MEK”. This “fake persona has been managed by a team of MEK operatives in Albania, where the group has one of its bases, and is used to spread its message online”. Apparently “Alavi is known inside Iran to be a ‘group account’ run by a team of MEK members” and “Alavi himself does not exist”.3
Before the June 13 incident, it seems that Khamenei, addressing crowds gathered for the end of Ramadan, was doing his best to moderate outright opposition to US estekbar (global arrogance). When they chanted, “We will fight estekbar”, he replied: “We don’t want to fight anyone - we will resist global arrogance.”
Before looking at some of the reasons why the Trump administration is threatening war one day and promising negotiations the next, we should remember that punitive sanctions are crippling Iran’s economy. Medical staff in Iran have raised concerns about infant mortality, as well as the rate of growth of infants born since the imposition of new sanctions. Iranians complain of the shortage of basic food items and the economy is in freefall - inflation is running at around 40%.
However, in a clear sign that the elite made up of the various factions of the regime does not have a clue about the suffering of ordinary people, last week the country’s information minister made the bizarre claim that Iranians are now suffering from sanctions because they usually “consume too much”.
In the first year and a half of the Trump presidency Iran’s leaders kept talking of how they would be able to survive for another two to three years - after that Trump would no longer be in office. Most of us knew at the time and know now that this was just wishful thinking. But in more recent times Iran’s supreme leader has concentrated on Trump’s personal failings: “The fate of more than 300 million humans is in the hands of a person with such characteristics. This is a sign of America’s political decline.”4
In this recent speech Khamenei went further and predicted that the world hegemon power will be replaced by clusters of smaller powers. Of course, this is nonsense: the decline of a superpower starts almost as soon as it reaches its peak and the process leading to its replacement by one or a number of other powers can take decades, even centuries. At a time when the United States has succeeded in paralysing Iran’s economy, at a time when there is a serious, imminent threat of military attack, it is criminal to create illusions about US decline - and imply that as a result we will soon see the end of hunger, poverty and the threat of war.
Iranians have suffered badly from the devastating effects of sanctions. They will not believe such nonsense, when the US’s unilateral withdrawal from the nuclear deal has had such a devastating effect on Iran’s economy - most European firms have been forced to leave Iran, fearful of colossal penalties for circumventing US sanctions. Iranians holding accounts in international banks face daily problems, because the banks dread being prosecuted by US authorities.
However, Iran’s supreme leader has a point when he says Trump’s claims of wanting to talk to Iranian leaders are not worthy of a reply. In the last few months alone, the US president has walked out of trade deals with a number of countries (before changing his mind and returning to them). He has imposed tariffs on China, under the slogan ‘Let us make America great again’, only to find that such tariffs have negative consequence for the US economy. A president who, according to mainstream US media, delivers dozens of lies daily in his tweets and speeches, a president who talks of dismantling the very organisations that ensure the US remains the current superpower - Nato, the European Union, the United Nations, etc - and then reverses his opinion about them on a regular basis.
Contrary to Trump’s claims, all the indications are that the US economy is slowing down and the rate of growth is falling. US tariffs have meant that China’s industrial output hit a 17-year low in May. But this has affected Chinese purchasing power, with direct consequences for the world economy. In other words, Trump’s nationalist, protectionist efforts have not gone exactly to plan. When China’s middle classes stop buying foreign cars, workers are made redundant in the US. It is difficult to “make America great again” under such circumstances!
This is a president who still faces the threat of impeachment at home. In fact, if I understand it correctly, the Democratic-led Congress has not initiated such a move, partly because it would not get through the Senate, but also because it believes the current situation will help the Democratic candidate in the 2020 presidential elections.
All this makes Trump very vulnerable and therefore very dangerous. That could be one explanation for the apparently contradictory policy of threatening military intervention, while calling for talks. By 2020 Trump will need an escalation of the conflict in the region - or perhaps a photo-opportunity, demonstrating he has made a ‘good deal’ with Iran, as opposed to Barack Obama’s “very bad deal”.