Flop of the century
Donald Trump’s attempts to manufacture ‘good news’ in the Middle East have so far been a dismal failure, writes Yassamine Mather
The launch of Donald Trump’s campaign for the 2020 US presidential elections was supposed to coincide with a number of new successes, particularly in the Middle East, which would take attention away from the aftermath of the Mueller investigation, as well as the faltering US economy.
The first such success would be to convince the sanctions-hit Islamic Republic of Iran to enter into new negotiations with the United States and its allies in order to extend the previous nuclear deal so as to include the country’s ballistic missiles. Over the last few months Donald Trump - not known for his grasp of complicated international issues - has faced conflicting views regarding Iran, with senior members of his team, such as John Bolton, Rudy Giuliani and maybe Mike Pompeo, calling for regime change to be achieved through military action, while generals and informal advisors have warned him against any such military escalation.
The perceived wisdom around Trump had been that increasing sanctions would force the Islamic Republic to accept the abandonment of the ‘Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’ (JCPOA), which was, according to Trump, “a very bad deal for the United States”, and come to the table to negotiate an agreement that would include dismantling Iran’s ballistic missiles, as well as reaching some kind of agreement regarding what the US calls Iran’s ‘interventions’ in the region. I need not remind readers that those ‘interventions’ are mainly a direct consequence of US-initiated wars in the region, as well as Saudi and Gulf state support for jihadi groups, but that is another story.
What the advisors of the US president had failed to convey to him was the fact that Iran’s rulers are unlikely to give in to US demands that easily - at least publicly. Such a move would lead to a loss of their only raison d’être inside the country. In many ways the legitimacy of the regime amongst its own supporters (and they still remain a force) is the claim of maintaining political independence.
Iran’s supreme leader, ayatollah Ali Khamenei, summed it up in a speech last week: since the fall of the shah, Iran is no longer the west’s tou sarikhor (mistreated servant). Yes there is mass poverty and hunger, but there is also that illusion of political independence. I call it an illusion because clearly without a level of economic independence and self-sufficiency (increasingly impossible in our time) no country can claim full political independence. Iran’s economy is currently far more integrated within global capitalism than the day the shah left - partly because of the way globalised capital works, but also because Iran’s clerics and successive governments that have served them are committed defenders of private property and capital.
However, if there is one thing the Iranian government cannot give up, it is the pretence of ‘political independence’. Far from being a bad deal for the US, the JCPOA of 2016 was a poor deal for Iran. Under pressure from the west, Russia and China, the country’s rulers were forced to give up on their ambition of developing a nuclear capability - in my opinion they had never intended to develop nuclear weapons, but they did want to get to the stage where they could be on the verge of doing so, which would strengthen their hand at the negotiating table. Iran’s ballistic capability has proved more than useful in recent weeks. (It is rumoured that the Islamic republic has threatened to use missiles against Dubai in the event of a US air strike against its military bases.) This has convinced all factions of the Iranian regime that the country’s future depends on its ballistic missiles. After all, bringing down the US spy drone from an altitude of 50,000 feet would have been impossible if the regime had succumbed to US pressure, supported by the likes of French president Emmanuel Macron, to give up its ground-to-earth missiles.
In addition to the failure to bring Iran back to the negotiating table on the JCPOA, despite what appear to have been both open and private invitations from Trump, there is the humiliation of a superpower threatening a third-world country with military action and then pulling back. If we are to believe the US president, the attack was just 10 minutes away when he called it off. No-one believes that he did so because he was told that around 150 Iranian lives would be lost - since when has US imperialism been concerned about such ‘collateral damage’? One of two other reasons are rather more likely.
1. The drone, despite US denials, was actually flying over Iranian air space. There seems little point in flying a 120-million-dollar ‘data hoover’ (data about military systems, of course) over ‘international waters’.
2. Trump listened to last-minute warnings from his advisors about what sections of the US media have labelled a possible endless war with Iran.
Whatever the reason, the reversal of the decision to bomb Iran has been compared by hawks with Obama’s decision to stop short of bombing Syria after allegations that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had used chemical weapons. The Saudis were apparently furious. Maybe this explains Trump’s attempt to placate Mohammad bin Salman during last weekend’s G20 meeting - although the latter’s involvement in the gruesome murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi last year in Turkey seems beyond doubt following the UN investigation.
Far from getting a better deal from Iran, Trump has managed to create a situation where Iran has responded to the US’s unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA by exceeding the 300kg limit it agreed on the stockpiling of uranium. According to foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, “We have clearly said what we will do and we will act accordingly. We deem it part of our rights under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.”
In the meantime, responding to Iranian threats of complete withdrawal from the nuclear deal, the European Union is finally taking serious steps regarding Instex - the financial hub which is supposed to be Europe’s way of circumventing US sanctions on Iran. Initiated by the UK, France and Germany, and supported to date by seven other European countries, it will be based in Paris.
Even though the initiative is expected to start with modest funds (a few million dollars, according to the Financial Times), the delayed project is a small victory for Iran, as it is a way of actually bypassing sanctions. If a company wanting to sell to Iran registers everything with Instex, it would attempt to find another company buying from Iran. The idea would be to match the two cash flows, so that in effect the two European companies pay each other. There would be no cash transaction with Iran, as the money would stay entirely within the EU.
Ironically the United Kingdom is very keen on Instex, but it will be interesting to see how this aspect of foreign trade will be managed if Brexit happens on October 31. While Boris Johnson has declared his “full support” for Trump’s position on Iran (let us ignore the question of which of his contradictory positions), how would that affect the UK’s stance on Instex if he wins the Conservative Party leadership contest and becomes prime minister?
The significance of the move in favour of Instex just before the G20 meeting, where confronting Iran was part of the agenda, was not its economic capabilities (known to be limited by all accounts), but the fact that it represented a ‘diplomatic shield’ for the European signatories of the JCPOA.
Of course, all this can change if Iran continues to enrich uranium beyond the limits set out in the 2016 nuclear deal. Trump claims Iran is “playing with fire” and a recent presidential statement claimed: “Even before the deal’s existence Iran was violating its terms.” Clearly the official White House press office has taken to imitating Trump’s tweets.
The second Middle East initiative was Jared Kushner’s “deal of the century” for a settlement in Israel/Palestine. The omens were already not so good for this one. Binyamin Netanyahu, Kushner’s main ally, is facing another general election, while Kushner’s other ‘best friend’ on WhatsApp, Mohammad bin Salman, is seriously damaged by allegations about his role in the Khashoggi murder. Yet, despite all this, on June 26 Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor presented what was labelled the economic part of his ‘deal’ to invited Arab guests at a workshop in Bahrain.
Details are still sketchy, but basically one can summarise the proposal as an attempt to buy off Palestinian citizens with US and Saudi money paid via Egypt and Jordan, in exchange for ‘Israeli security’. Even the docile Palestine Liberation Organisation thinks there is no chance for such a deal. Veteran PLO negotiator Saeb Erekat has described the proposed deal as an insult. Palestinians would be obliged to carry white and green identity cards, and their cars would have number plates showing them as Palestinians and thus second-class citizens.
Hanan Ashrawi, another senior figure in the PLO, said of Kushner’s plan: “It is totally divorced from reality. The elephant in the room is the occupation itself.” Compared to the 1993 Oslo accords, which had a (be it feeble) vision of some kind of two-state solution, Kushner’s deal has nothing to offer. He thinks the decades-long conflict can be settled by throwing in a little bit of money.
Even The Guardian - very much a promoter of soft Zionism - could not find a good word to say in its favour:
The $50 billion (£39 billion) pledged, effectively as a start-up fund for the region’s Palestinians, was less than enthusiastically received in Jordan, Egypt and in Lebanon - where leaders in Beirut, not usually inclined to turn away from a $6 billion money pot, dismissed the pitch as a shameless bribe … In the end, the “deal of the century” was little more than a failed clearance sale. Jared Kushner arrived in Bahrain touting bedrock principles at untenable discounts. And even then there were no buyers ...
Of course, every US president of recent times has tried and failed to deliver a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. However, few have managed to unite Palestinians of all political opinions, of all religious backgrounds, inside and outside the occupied territories, against the proposal. The ‘deal of the century’ has in reality been the flop of the century.
To summarise, so far the moves in the Middle East have failed to help the US president, who is desperately seeking to manufacture good news as the 2020 presidential campaign gets underway. Having said that, the situation is extremely volatile and it could be that in desperation Trump will decide that a military attack on Iran is the best way to divert attention from his internal problems. He might not like it, but inside Iran the joke is: “Trump has made Iran great again”.