Trump’s anti-Iranian Efforts Are Backfiring, But the Threat of Another Middle East War Looms Large
There are two winners from U.S. President Trump’s ‘diplomacy’ in the Middle East, and Iran in particular: the U.S. military industrial complex (which thrives from threats of imminent wars even more than it does from wars themselves) and the pro-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei, or conservative camp.
As the situation stands now, the big losers are the reformists/pragmatists led by President Hassan Rouhani – and to some extent, even Trump himself and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump has targeted Iran ever since he stepped into the White House; especially, since he pulled the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Agreement (JCPOA, aka the ‘Iran Nuclear Deal) in May 2018 to the benefit of U.S. military contractors such as Lockheed Martin or General Dynamics, whose stock market valuations have achieved record levels. And that is the lenses through which to analyze, or attempt to analyze, the Trump administration’s singlehanded intensification of tensions with Iran.
The other, and perhaps more important explanation, needs more insight from psychologists than political scientists to decipher: Trump is trying to unravel President Obama’s legacy. And, arguably, the JCPOA was the former president’s most significant international achievement. It’s important to consider these motivations; because, neither one has anything to do with a grander U.S. strategy to contain Iran or even to reshape the map of the Middle East – at least as far as President Trump is concerned. The problem is that Trump has surrounded himself with ‘hawkish’ figures such as John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, and the former in particular may have overstepped Trump’s intentions, which become clear in the context of Obama and the JCPOA.
Trump, who sees himself as a as a quintessential dealmaker – believing that New York Madison Avenue real-estate agent tactics are suitable in international diplomatic contexts – wants Iran’s president Rouhani to call him to renegotiate another agreement. And, the resident of the White House seemed convinced that tightening sanctions and threatening a war would achieve this goal. Only, this time it would have Trump’s, and not Obama’s, signature on it for posterity. The problem is that Trump is not necessarily in charge of U.S. foreign policy: Pompeo and Bolton are. For every conciliatory step from the White House, his advisors sidestep the president and raise the stakes. After all, it’s becoming more evident that Bolton, and not Trump, ordered the USS Lincoln aircraft carrier and ancillary support vessels or 120,000 troops to the Persian Gulf. There’s no doubt that this is an intentional provocation. The Lincoln was already on its way to the Gulf, but the fact that Bolton has specified that its mission is to prevent Iran’s efforts to circumvent the U.S. oil embargo, represents a clear military threat – and military risk. And it was most likely Bolton, who encouraged the failed Juan Guaido’s (failed) coup attempt in Venezuela last April 30. In fact, Bolton has now put Trump into a high-stakes poker game –whereas, the Iranians play chess.
There are increasing rumors that Trump has grown weary of Bolton and that the ‘national security advisor’ may be on the way out – that is, Trump wants to fire him. Nevertheless, Trump has electoral ‘bills’ to consider. He hired Bolton to put pressure on Iran at the behest of casino billionaire and ‘Israel-firster’ Sheldon Adelson, who was Trump’s biggest campaign donor. As the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign has unofficially already started, it will be difficult for Trump to dislodge himself of Bolton’s influence; therefore, it will be difficult for Trump to reverse his belligerent course without ‘losing face’.
While Trump’s tone over Iran has somewhat softened, it’s unclear what is happening within the administration amid a series of political calculations and internal disputes. Therefore, the risk of confrontation remains.
What are Those Risks?
The risk now is that any sudden ‘movement’ in the Persian Gulf, whether an incident (think Vietnam War, Gulf of Tonkin, or WW1 and Archduke Ferdinand for example) near the Strait of Hormuz could trigger a military confrontation and cause oil prices to spike to levels that would cause serious damage to China’s economy (China being Iran’s most important oil importer).
Trump might be using the pressure on Iran and strangling economic sanctions to block China from buying Iranian oil in order to gain some leverage in his bilateral trade negotiations. But, he doesn’t realize that playing international politics using the methods described in his book ‘The Art of the Deal’, might work when buying or selling a casino in Atlantic City.
They won’t work when dealing with Rowhani or Xi Jinping. Exports from Iran have almost halved since a year ago (spring 2018). They are still about 1.3 million bbd. The White House wants to reduce “exports of Iranian oil to zero.” But, oil accounts for some 40% of Iranian GDP. The White House wants to isolate Iran, and probably, it wants to cause a major rift between reformers and conservatives (i.e. Rowhani vs Khamane’i) to foment internal strife and trigger an internal conflict. By hampering Iran’s ability to generate much needed revenue, while preventing it from operating beyond its borders, Washington, or at least Bolton and his neoconservative colleagues, want to at the very least prevent Iran from functioning as a normal country. But this kind of gunboat diplomacy is exactly the kind of policy capable of triggering a bloody conflict.
The United States has used similar situations, especially those involving ships and gulfs to start conflicts: Spain (1898), Hawaii/Pearl Harbor (the Japanese attacked after being strangled from essential oil and other resources) and Vietnam (1964).
But, the elimination of Iranian exports – and it’s unlikely China will abide by the sanctions – will put pressure on oil prices and the global economy in the short term – and even more in the longer term, when some of the potential military options will have materialized. Trump and others (see Netanyahu) have made too many threats against Iran to simply back away. Indeed, Trump may not like the effects – though US oil production has increased significantly – because higher oil prices won’t work for his ‘America First’ strategy – and they certainly won’t work for American consumers and Trump voters. The very type of person who made it possible for Trump to win the 2016 election (angry, lower class, possibly unemployed, from economically depressed areas of the US) who voted for him, would be the first to suffer. That said, in the medium and longer term, Saudi Arabia and other OPEC members would love to see oil prices to exceed $80 a barrel to meet their budget targets. Trump’s politics against Iran have forced some 1.5 million bbd. of oil to be eliminated from the market. And that was since he pulled away from the JCPOA. The new sanctions and threats announced in May will accelerate the reduction in supply. Even if Iran finds a way to sell oil to China, it will officially be off the record, thus, the market will not take it into consideration, favoring price hikes. The big winner from Trump’s policies might be OPEC. But apart from Iran, the big loser might be Trump himself in the long run. And then there’s the threat from Hormuz. Washington’s intimidation of Tehran has all but terrorized the United States’ European allies. Coupled with the developing ‘trade war’, a blockage of Gulf oil in the Strait of Hormuz would cause an absolute economic catastrophe.
That’s why, there’s hope that Trump – if not Bolton – may be looking for ways to resolve the crisis he’s created without losing face. Firing Bolton, as mentioned earlier might be one way. But, the sanctions are bringing Iran to its knees. While that is Trump’s intent, in order to reverse course, he must allow those same ayatollahs – or at least the so called pragmatist reformers like President Rouhani a ‘way out’. The alternative could come in the form of riots. Had Trump nothing to lose, the prospect of riots around the corner would be enticing. But, Trump’s re-election depends on a favorable economy; therefore, he must avoid a crippling oil crisis. For their part, the Iranian pragmatists aren’t wasting time. Rouhani has shown remarkable political savvy to buy himself some room for negotiation by giving the Iranian ‘people’ a chance to vote for/against nuclear research – the raison d’etre, or justification for the harsh sanctions – in a related referendum. The logic of the referendum is that the people would vote against the nuclear program, removing American excuses for sanctions while allowing Iran’s leaders to ‘save face’. More significantly, allowing the people to decide (against the national nuclear program) would also strengthen Rouhani’s position vis-à-vis Khamenei and the other ‘hardliners’. Rouhani is gambling, with a good hand, but he has little choice. First elected in 2013 and then re-elected in 2017, the current Iranian president won on a mandate of repairing relations with the West and the United States in order to gain access to blocked billions of dollars in U.S. banks, while opening Iran to foreign investments to launch massive infrastructure investments and facilitate economic growth. Trump’s hardline policies, however, have weakened Rouhani.
They have given the Supreme Leader Khamenei the opportunity to criticize the reformers for their “error” in signing the 2015 nuclear deal. In order to sign a new agreement, therefore, Rowhani must first remove the internal ‘obstacle’ of Khamenei and the considerable support he still enjoys from many people and from key institutions such as the Revolutionary Guards.
Such a scenario would also allow Trump to claim a personal victory, of achieving the basis for another Iranian nuclear deal and a bilateral meeting with Rowhani with associated photo-opportunity a’ la ‘Kim Jong-Un summit. In so doing, Trump would keep the oil flowing past the Strait of Hormuz and stopping Iran’s nuclear program; it’s certainly something to boast to his voter base ahead of the 2020 vote.
Trump and Netanyahu
The United States’ excuse for targeting and crippling Iran’s economy was its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons, which threaten Israel, and Saudi Arabia to a lesser extent. In a perfect world, removing the nuclear threat – if there even was one to begin with – should also temper Israel’s concerns. Yet, the geopolitical framework of the Middle East suggests this will not happen.
Israel, itself a nuclear power (and one that has not signed the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty) has used the nuclear issue as an excuse to target Iran, in order to isolate it and prevent it from backing and financing the Shiite movements and governments that have put up the biggest resistance to its expansionist ambitions: the Syrian Alawite leadership and Hezbollah in Lebanon but also Hamas in Gaza.
Barring any surprises, Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has just called for another election due to a failure to form a governing coalition, may win again, exploiting the Iranian card – though, perhaps weaker.
Even if his main opponent from the Labor Party, Benny Gantz, a former military general, should win, it will not alter the fact that for Israel any war will always necessarily begin in Lebanon, not Iran.Indeed, for Israel, the prospect of completely isolating and disabling Iran, is desirable because it prevents Tehran from providing military and financial aid to its Shiite allies throughout the region. If war breaks out, it will start from Lebanon and, then cascade to the Persian Gulf. Ever since Israel lost face by failing to defeat Hezbollah in the August 2006 war, Netanyahu has been itching for ‘revenge’ and resume the hunt for his main prey. Moreover, Hezbollah may well have become the single strongest and most effective Arab fighting force thanks to its comprehensive experience taking on both modern armies such as Israel’s and determined guerrilla style militias like Islamic State or al-Nusra in the Syrian war.
The Israelis ill claim, Hezbollah’s threat is compounded by its alliance with Iran. And therefore, Tel Aviv (or Jerusalem according to Trump) will most likely insist on finding new excuses to keep Tehran in check. Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, will argue the Israelis, are capable of inflicting devastating damage on its posts in the Golan (which the United States has recognized as being entirely Israeli) and all of Galilee. Nuclear or not, the ayatollahs have powerful rockets they can use to reach Tel Aviv. Should it come to a choice, Israel knows it can absorb the so-called home made ‘rockets’ fired by Hamas in Gaza. Yet, it has learned to fear Hezbollah’s capabilities.
The scenario for a renewed Israeli-Hezbollah conflict – encouraged by Iran’s economic and strategic stranglehold and – is, as always the Shebaa Farms – or Mount Dov in Hebrew. Israel captured this ten-square-kilometer area at the border between itself and Lebanon during the Six Day War in 196. Lebanon insists the strip of land to be its rightful territory. The Israeli military has been on higher alert in the area ever since, in March 2019, Trump acknowledged Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, while the Lebanese have responded, as thousands occupied the Sheeba Farms claiming their sovereignty last April.
It is this region where, a spark might ignite a conflict between
Israel and Lebanon.
And Israel concedes that this will be a difficult war, given Hezbollah has access to an arsenal of some 150,000 rockets. After the 2006 war, Hezbollah’s deterrent capacity has increased dramatically, and Israel will be eager to prevent a well-trained and armed Arab force from establishing itself near its borders. Thus, Lebanon could become the stage for a war of regional power and it would be easy to light the fuse, already stemming from the overall tension in the region. The so-called ‘Deal of the Century’, wherein, Trump and his son-in-law Jared Kushner have decided to effectively bribe Palestinians to forego claims to sovereignty and statehood – with financial backing from Bahrain Gaza and other lands – seems like just the right occasion to set off dangerous sparks of another regional war. Certainly, Hasan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, has called on all Muslim countries to boycott the so-called Deal. The danger is that Israel knows that a war would be costly for Iran and that allowing Hezbollah to consolidate and strengthen its political and military strengths makes defeating it ever harder.
The isolation of Iran and the inevitable anger over the latest American proposed Middle East plan certainly provides many incentives for an Israeli attack against Hezbollah.