All Signs from Trump Point to a Coming Conflict with Iran

By John Feffer | Foreign Policy in Focus | – –

Behind all of Trump’s boneheaded policies in the Middle East is an unmistakable urge for confrontation with Iran.

The Saudi war in Yemen is really directed at…Iran. Donald Trump’s first overseas visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel was specifically targeted at…Iran. The Saudi-led isolation of Qatar is actually about…Iran.

The escalation of U.S. military actions against the Syria government is… well, do I really need to spell this out any further?

Donald Trump has identified several number-one enemies to target. Throughout the campaign, he emphasized the importance of throwing the full weight of the Pentagon against the Islamic State. More recently, his secretary of defense, Jim Mattis, identified North Korea as “the most urgent and dangerous threat to peace and security.”

Other threats that have appeared at one time or another in the administration’s rotation include China, Cuba, the mainstream media, former FBI director James Comey, and Shakespeare (for writing Julius Caesar and then somehow, from the grave, persuading the Public Theater to run a scandalous version of it).

Through it all, however, Iran has loomed as the primary bogeyman of the Trump crowd. Fear of Iranian influence has prompted the administration to all but cancel the 2015 nuclear deal, intensify a number of proxy wars, consider pushing for regime change in Tehran, and even intervene in the mother of all battles between the Shia and Sunni variants of Islam.

You’re worried about Trump and the nuclear football? The prospect of blowback from an all-out U.S. assault on the Islamic State keeps you up at night? A preemptive strike against North Korea, which Mattis acknowledges would be disastrous, has you rethinking that upcoming trip to Seoul?

Sure, those are all dystopian possibilities. But if I had to choose a more likely catastrophe, it would be a direct confrontation between the United States and Iran. After all, everything seems to be pointing in that direction.

The Fate of the Deal

The nuclear deal that Iran signed with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union is hanging by a thread. Trump made no bones about his distaste for this Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He promised to tear it up.

He hasn’t done so. It’s not just that he’s gotten pushback from the usual suspects in Washington (diplomats, foreign policy mavens, talking heads, journalists). Even members of his inner circle seem to see value in the agreement. Mattis, who is otherwise hawkish on Iran, has stood by the JCPOA and diplomacy more generally. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has, albeit reluctantly, acknowledged that Iran has lived up to its side of the agreement. Then there are all the American jobs on the line from the Iranian purchase of Boeing jets.

Even though Trump hasn’t torn up the agreement, he has certainly attempted to give it a good crumple. He has directed the Treasury Department to apply additional sanctions on Iran’s missile program. He’s considering the option of declaring the Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. Congress, meanwhile, is pursuing its own complementary set of sanctions against Iran (though, because it’s bundled with sanctions against Russia, the legislation may not meet Trump’s approval).

None of this violates the terms of the JCPOA. But it challenges the spirit of the accord.

Adding insult to injury, Trump damned Iran with faint condolences after the recent terrorist attacks in Tehran. “We grieve and pray for the innocent victims of the terrorist attacks in Iran, and for the Iranian people, who are going through such challenging times,” Trump wrote. “We underscore that states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote.”

Talk about bad taste. After September 11, Iranians gathered for candlelight vigils to mourn the mostly American victims of the attacks. The Iranian government didn’t say anything about chickens coming home to roost after U.S. military interventions in the Middle East, for that would have been inappropriate (though accurate).

But Iran might yet have to make a statement that echoes Trump’s tone-deaf remark: States that tear up international agreements risk falling victim to the evil they promote.

Proxy Wars

The conflict is escalating in Syria, where Iran backs the regime of Bashar al-Assad and the United States supports a shifting set of anti-regime groups.

Both countries could decide to team up against the Islamic State. And indeed, Iran launched a missile attack against ISIS in Syria this last weekend in retaliation for the terrorist attacks in Tehran. As after September 11, when Tehran and Washington briefly worked together, cooperation against Sunni extremists would seem a no-brainer.

But the would-be caliphate, having lost most of Mosul and now teetering on the verge of conceding its capital in Raqqa, is shrinking at a rapid clip. Which may well explain why the United States has been wading deeper into the Syrian conflict. For the first time since the war in Syria began, U.S. forces shot down a Syrian government plane this last weekend. It’s only the latest in a series of attacks on Assad’s forces, according to The Atlantic:

Three times in the last month, the U.S. military has come into direct conflict with the combined forces of the Assad regime, Iran-supported Shiite militias, Hezbollah, and possibly even Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps. The clashes have reportedly resulted in the deaths of a small number of pro-regime forces, and are much more strategically important than the much-ballyhooed U.S. air strike on the al-Shayrat airfield back in April in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.

Several administration figures, notably Ezra Cohen-Watnick and Derek Harvey in the National Security Council, are eager to confront Assad and his Iranian backers more aggressively. Mattis, however, has reportedly opposed several of their risky propositions. Regardless of the Pentagon chief’s somewhat more risk-averse behavior, both Iran and the United States are maneuvering to control as much territory as possible in the vacuum created by the collapse of ISIS.

Even The Washington Post, which generally supports the JCPOA, is enthusiastic about the U.S. intervening more forcefully in the new great game in Syria. “The United States doesn’t have a strategic reason to control southern and eastern Syria,” The Post editorial board opines, “but it does have a vital interest in preventing Iran from establishing a dominion from Tehran to the Mediterranean with Russia’s support.”

How soon the Post forgets. The Iraq War against Saddam Hussein begat the war against the anti-occupation forces, which in turn generated a war against the Islamic State, which now promises to escalate into a war against the axis of Russia, Iran, and Syria. Thus have so-called national interests morphed into endless war.

Meanwhile, over in Yemen, the Saudis are bogged down in a war of their own that’s going nowhere (except in producing a severe humanitarian crisis). The Trump administration has been mulling for several months a boost in U.S. participation in that war. At the least, this would mean lifting certain restrictions on the assistance Washington is already providing the Saudi-led coalition — surveillance, refueling, and the like. Then there are the additional arms that Trump wants to provide Riyadh.

Now that the Navy SEALS have conducted two raids in Yemen under Trump — the most recent taking place last month — the prospect of more permanent boots on the ground may not be far off. Recall how the United States became involved in Vietnam to help out the failing French in order to prevent presumed Soviet expansion.

Yemen, where we may yet send troops to help the failing Saudis prevent presumed Iranian expansion, is the very definition of quagmire.

Regime Change?

Last week, Rex Tillerson was testifying in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In response to a query from Ted Poe (R-TX), a big fan of the Iranian radical group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK) and its efforts to destabilize Iran, Tillerson said,

Our policy towards Iran is to push back on this hegemony, contain their ability to develop obviously nuclear weapons, and to work toward support of those elements inside of Iran that would lead to a peaceful transition of that government.

It was the first public indication of regime-change sentiment from the administration.

But it’s not the only sign. Cohen-Watnick, the liaison on the NSC to the intelligence community, has reportedly confessed to other administration officials of his desire to oust the Iranian regime through espionage. And the fellow that’s now leading the Iran operation at CIA is Michael D’Andrea, otherwise known as the “dark prince,” a long-time operative who is fully capable of pursuing the harder line that Cohen-Watnick wants to see.

But wait, didn’t Iranians just overwhelmingly back the reformist Hassan Rouhani in elections last month? This popular government has engaged in domestic reforms and external engagement of the “Great Satan.” In other words, Iranians have changed their own regime — peacefully — since the days of the more confrontational Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Of course, Washington has overturned the wishes of Iranian voters in the past, helping to overthrow Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953.

Whenever oil interests (Tillerson) intersect with chickenhawk ambitions (Bannon), talk of regime change is sure to follow.

Clash of Civilizations

When Donald Trump said a few nice things about Islam on his first foreign trip to Saudi Arabia, liberals back home breathed a sigh of relief. At least the new president wouldn’t follow senior advisor Steve Bannon’s more extreme narrative of a new crusade against the infidels.

“This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects, or different civilizations,” Trump said. “This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life, and decent people of all religions who seek to protect it. This is a battle between good and evil.”

But even as he rejected the larger religious frame, Trump has embraced a different kind of war: a clash within a civilization. The battle lines between Sunni and Shia have hardened throughout the Middle East, and Trump is wading into this mess firmly on the side of the Sunni. And not just any Sunnis, but the most extreme Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam as represented by the ruling sheikhs of Saudi Arabia.

Let’s be clear: Trump is not making a doctrinal statement by siding with extremist Sunnis. He knows nothing about Islam and is not interested in learning. This is about power — who will control the Middle East.

In the past, however, the United States in its infinite naiveté thought that it could control outcomes on the ground in the region. Today, that naiveté has developed into a kind of aggressive ignorance as the Trump administration simply follows the Saudi lead, with Israel pushing from behind. In this way, the United States will be propelled toward war with Iran.

But wait, actually, Donald Trump himself anticipated this outcome.

Back in 2013, Trump said,

We will end up going to war with Iran because we have people who don’t know what the hell they are doing. Every single thing that this administration and our president does is a failure.

Who knew that Donald Trump could be so prescient? The president has proven himself high-performing in at least this one regard: self-fulfilling prophecies.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the dystopian novel Splinterlands.

Foreign Policy in Focus

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Related video added by Juan Cole:

Al Jazeera English: “Tensions high in Syria as Iran targets ISIL, US shots down government jet”

15 Responses

  1. The USA treasury use of the SWIFT banking network to “punish” Iran is just driving most countries on earth to use the new Chinese version of SWIFT. As countries move to the Chinese network, the USA loses all ability to monitor all transactions and Chinese banks gain revenue by hiding transactions from the USA.

    And if the USA tries to punish Chinese banks (mostly controlled by he government), the Chinese will just make it harder for USA companies to operate in China, making Chinese companies wealthier and USA companies poorer.

    Basically, the USA is handing China global leadership on a golden platter inscribed with a big “T.”

    • So basically, like abandoning TPP without any discussion of a strategy to prevent China from signing up capitalist states for an alternative trade pact that’s even worse for workers and the environment?

      Seems to not just be a right-wing problem here. More like, Americans across the spectrum can’t imagine what other nations will do with the corpse of the American Empire, because they can’t be bothered to learn any history or accept its infinite, mind-boggling cynicism unless you dress it in medieval robes and call it “Game of Thrones”.

      • All empires end.

        What really differentiates the ends of empires is how much the former empire implodes and how quickly.

        Americans seem to want the implosion to be spectacular, quick and as damaging to the USA as possible.

        Rather than manage the end of the empire, the USA seems to making decision based on how much damage they can do to themselves.

  2. It’s not just in Iran. Bone headed is the very definition of US policy in the Third World.

  3. Well, I agree with the vast majority of this post. Trump and many of his top advisers are clearly very hawkish on Iran, and there have been lots of unwise moves directed at Iran made recently. But I think Feffer overdoes it a bit.

    Clearly the most important and most central issue is the nuclear deal. Yes, Trump dissed it, but I suspect that the fact that he has not dumped it so far means he will not do so in the future. Feffer is precisely accurate on this, noting that the unpleasant moves by Trump and Congress are all within the agreement, if clearly hostile. I suspect that even Israel is for keeping it, despite all the rhetoric from Netanyahu, which is mostly political propaganda for Israeli yahoos (yes, there are dumb Israelis). His military/intel people know better, and I suspect he does as well. They know the agreement puts the Iranian nuclear weapons genie into a box, at least for awhile, and that is good for Israeli national security.

    I would note one sloppy point, although Feffer was probably just being rhetorical himself. The ruling group in Saudi Arabia do not call themselves “sheikhs.” They are royals carrying titles of “emir,” prince. There are people in Saudi Arabia who do bear the title “sheikh,” respected newspaper columnists, such as Sheikh Ahmed Tashkandi, and other notable public figures. But none of these people are members of the ruling royal family, and they know it.

    As it is, the worst dangers look to be a possible troops on the ground involvement in the disaster in Yemen, and overdoing going after Iranian forces in Syria. But bad as these would be, they are not remotely as bad as an outright attack on iran, which Muhammed bin Salman has seemed to support. Maybe US intel will be trying to overthrow the Iranian regime from the inside, but I suspect that such efforts will go exactly nowhere and probably not lead to some broader conflagration.

    • God help them if they think the soft underbelly of the Iranian Empire is located in Lebanon. Hezbollah is smarter than any of the other actors elbowing each other in Syria.

    • There simply is no way for the US to launch a meaningful military action on Iranian territory without facing massive resistance… unless it’s a large nuclear first strike.

      • The blowback from a USA nuclear strike will end the USA.

        Remember that there are three nuclear nations downwind of Iran (China, India, Pakistan) and all three now have the capability of nuking the USA with ICBMs.

        The downwind nations will be “very unhappy” that their food supplies are contaminated by the USA blasts.

        BTW – guess who else is downwind of Iran – the USA food supplies in California and the Midwest – there is a very good reason why EVERY nation on earth no longer sets off nukes in the atmosphere – it contaminates everyone’s food. Note that even NK tests underground – not even NK is crazy enough to do it in the air..

        • POTUS Bonehead doesn’t care. Besides, California voted against him in November.

          A deal is likely already been struck with the Saudis and Israel to do this?

  4. Has no one wondered what the reaction of the Iranians would be? Saud ain’t got the juice to take on Iran so the US would have to get in.
    Always a mistake to underestimate what desperate people will do. Certainly a huge risk for Israel.
    Europe won’t be too happy to be flooded with refugees. Probably push them closer to Russia. Speaking of whom, they’ll probably send every advanced weapon system they have and soldiers too.
    At that point we can pretty much kiss our asses goodbye.
    Do these idiots ever think “Well if I do this, what are these other people going to do?”
    The reaction of the US public might not be what the politicians expect. They’re already P.O. and ready to tar and feather the lot.

  5. The US has been arming only Sunnis for decades. It may be an attempt to divide and conquer Islam in general but it sure seems like a never ending war on Shiites.

  6. One can’t be completely sure but it looks like this is an attempt to unite the Sunni front before attack on Iran by this front takes place. US military presence makes sure that it will be part of the attack willy or nilly. Israel may enter the fray directly if necessary.
    I know I haven’t added anything new to the discussion but I hope that Iran is ready to defend itself. I was always dismayed that Iranians could not build even one nuke to act as the deterrent when they had time. There is no guarantee that Iran will not buckle under the combined air and ground assault. It is a pity since Iran has such a subtle and beautiful civilization. I have Iranian friends; they are very sensitive and generous. Aljazeera just ran an article about Polish refugees from Soviet Union who settled in Iran during the 2nd World War. The story goes like this: When Poles were being driven from port of Anzali to Tehran people threw objects at them. Poles thought they are rocks but they were actually pieces of candy. Such was hospitality of a nation that itself was experiencing famine and was under the occupation of Allies.

    • Iran does not need nukes.

      Iran already has more than enough conventional weapons to make the entire Mideast one giant pile of rubble.

      Per the IDF there are over 50k very accurate missiles pointed at Israel right this minute, which is why the IDF leadership told Bibi to shut up about attacking Iran.

      Iran has been preparing for over 35 years for a massive USA attack and has developed the engineering and manufacturing infrastructure to make any attack EXTREMELY PAINFUL for the attackers.

      The USA might be able to devastate Iran, but in the process the USA will be devastated and will never be powerful again.

  7. When the news reports regularly broadcast sentences such as “Iran is the greatest source of terrorism in the ME” in between reports of ISIS atrocities you can be sure we in the US are being prepped for war with the Shia. Its revolting.

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