Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1333, (23 February - 1 March 2017)

Ahram Weekly

No change in Trump’s Iran policy

For all its grandstanding, the Trump administration is following in an American tradition of trying to coerce Iran

The first public pronouncements by US President Donald Trump on Iran have created the widespread impression that the US will adopt a much more aggressive posture towards the Islamic Republic than under former president Barack Obama’s administration.

But despite the rather crude warnings to Tehran by now ex-national security adviser Michael Flynn and by Trump himself, the Iran policy that has begun to take shape in the administration’s first weeks looks quite similar to Obama’s. The reason is that the Obama administration’s policy on Iran reflected the views of a national security team that adhered to an equally hardline stance as those of the Trump administration.  

Flynn declared on 1 February that the Obama administration had “failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions” and suggested that things would be different under Trump. But that rhetoric was misleading, both with regard to the Obama administration’s policy towards Iran and on the options available to Trump beyond that policy.

The idea that Obama had somehow become “chummy” with Iran does not reflect the reality of the former administration’s doctrine on Iran. The nuclear deal with Iran angered right-wing extremists in the US, but Obama’s diplomacy was based on trying to coerce Iran to give up as much of its nuclear programme as possible through various forms of pressure, including cyber-attacks, economic sanctions and the threat of a possible Israeli attack.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric about how bad the nuclear deal was, he has already decided that his administration will not tear up or sabotage the agreement with Iran, a fact made clear by senior administration officials who briefed the media on the same day as Flynn’s “on notice” outburst against Iran. Trump’s team has learned that neither Israel nor Saudi Arabia wish to see the end of the agreement.

On the larger issues of Iran’s influence in the Middle East, Obama’s policy largely reflected the views of the US national security state, which has regarded Iran as an implacable enemy for decades since the CIA and the US military were at war with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Shia militias in the Straits of Hormuz and Beirut in the 1980s.

As a result, the antagonism that the Trump team has expressed towards Iran’s regional role is no different from what had been said by the Obama administration for years. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis has referred to Iran’s “malign influence” and called Iran the “biggest destabilising force” in the region. But Obama and his national security advisers also talked incessantly about Iran’s “destabilising activities”.  

In 2015, the Obama administration was using phrases like “malign influence” and “malign activities” so often that it was said to have become “Washington’s latest buzzword”. Beginning with former president Bill Clinton in the 1990s, every administration has accused Iran of being the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, not on the basis of any evidence but as a settled principle of US policy.

Starting with the World Trade Centre bombing in New York in 1993, the Clinton administration blamed Iran for every terrorist attack in the world even before any investigation had begun.

As I discovered from extended investigations into both the Buenos Aires terror bombing in 1994 and the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the supposed evidence of Iranian involvement was either non-existent or clearly tainted. But neither has inhibited the continued narrative of Iran as a terrorist state.

Some Trump advisers reportedly have been discussing a possible presidential directive to the US state department to consider designating the IRGC as a terrorist organisation. But such a move would fall under the category of political grandstanding rather than serious policy. The IRGC is already subject to sanctions under at least three different US sanctions programmes, as legal expert Tyler Culis has pointed out. Furthermore, the Iranian Al-Quds Force, the arm of the IRGC involved in operations outside Iran, has been designated as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” group for nearly a decade.

About the only thing the proposed designation might accomplish is to allow the United States to punish Iraqi officials with whom the Al-Quds Force has been cooperating against the Islamic State group.

The Trump team has indicated its intention to give strong support to Saudi Arabia’s regional anti-Iran policy. But it is now apparent that Trump is not inclined to do anything more militarily against regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad than Obama was. On Yemen, the new administration is not planning to do anything that Obama has not already done.

NO REASSESSMENT: When asked whether the administration was “reassessing” the Saudi war in Yemen, a senior official gave a one-word answer: “no”.

This indicates that Trump will continue the Obama administration’s policy of underwriting the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen, providing the aerial refueling, bombs and political-diplomatic support necessary for the war.

Both the Obama and Trump administrations thus appear to share responsibility for the massive bombing of Houthi rebel-controlled cities in Yemen as well as for the starvation of 2.2 million Yemeni children.

As for Iran’s missile programme, there is no discernible difference between the two administrations. On 1 January, Trump officials called Iran’s late January missile test “destabilising” and “provocative”. But the Obama administration and its European allies had also issued a statement in March 2016 calling Iranian missile tests “destabilising and provocative.”

Trump has imposed sanctions on Iran for the country’s alleged violation of a 2015 UN Security Council Resolution, despite the fact that the eesolution used non-binding language and Iran’s missiles were not designed to carry nuclear weapons. The Obama administration imposed sanctions for Iran’s allegedly violating a 2005 Bush administration executive order.

However, it might be objected that this comparison covers only the preliminary outlines of Trump’s policy towards Iran and that Washington is planning to step up military pressures, including the possible use of force.

It is true that the possibility of a much more aggressive military policy from the Trump administration cannot be ruled out, but any policy proposal involving the threat or use of force would have to be approved by the Pentagon and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that is unlikely to happen.

The last time the US contemplated a military confrontation with Iran was in the George W Bush administration. In 2007, the then US vice president, Dick Cheney, proposed that the US attack bases in Iran within the context of the Iranian involvement in the Iraq war against US troops. But the then secretary of defense, Robert M Gates, supported by the joint chiefs of staff, headed off the effort by insisting that Cheney explain how the escalation would end.

There was a very good reason why the plan did not pass muster with the Pentagon on this occasion: the time when the US could attack Iran with impunity had already passed. In 2007, any attack on Iran would have risked the loss of much of the US fleet in the Gulf to Iranian anti-ship missiles.

Today, the cost to the US military would be far higher, because of the greater capability of Iran to retaliate with missiles and conventional payloads against US bases in Qatar and Bahrain.

In the end, the main contours of US policy towards Iran have always reflected the views and the interests of the US national security state far more than the ideas of the president. That fact has ensured unending US hostility towards Iran, but it also very likely means continuity rather than radical shifts in policy under Trump. 

The writer is an investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 UK Gellhorn Prize for journalism.

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