I suspect that most regional leaderships would breathe a deep sigh of relief if they woke up to discover the belligerent Iranian regime had disappeared in a puff of smoke but obliging genies conjured from lamps are merely the stuff of storybooks. The US president is no genie but intent on reining-in the ayatollahs’ meddling in Arab affairs and containing what Israel refers to as a existential threat, he may be the next best thing.
Let us look at the most optimistic scenario premised on Iran’s return to the negotiating table, although I do admit that might be Pollyannaish in light of the country’s hardliners who railed against former US President Barack Obama’s nuclear deal from the get-go. The objectors who said the US cannot be trusted feel vindicated by America’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). That said if the Trump administration’s constraints on Iran’s economy and threats of military intervention succeed in extracting good behaviour pledges from the Iranian government, all is well and good.
The Lebanese would be released from Hezbollah’s stifling yoke as well as the fear that its secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah would trigger another devastating war with Israel. Iraq would be forced back into the Arab fold.
Yemen’s Al Houthis would disappear into the hills without Tehran’s funding and weapons. There would be no Iranian military bases in Syria and Bahrain would be free of pro-Iranian spies and rabble-rousers. Most importantly, the people of the Gulf would be able to sleep well at night in the knowledge their enemy across the water had been tamed. And let us not forget those Iranian people yearning for expanded individual freedoms as well as non-Persians currently treated as inferior citizens.
Unfortunately, Trump’s strategy is anything but transparent. Some commentators maintain he doesn’t have one, they say he is acting off the cuff without mulling potential repercussions.
Others speculate he is under the influence of his hawkish neoconservative National Security Adviser John Bolton and Special Envoy Elliott Abrams — both signatories to the Project for a New American Century’s recipe for the projection of US power through endless wars headed ‘Rebuilding America’s Defences’. Bolton was instrumental in the Bush administration’s devastating invasion of Iraq and once famously said, “To stop Iran’s bomb, bomb Iran”.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has flown to Baghdad in an attempt to lure Iraq’s leaders away from Iranian clutches. He insists the US does not want war with Iran while threatening “a swift and decisive’ US response to any Iranian attack. Do the warships, aircraft carriers, B52 bombers and patriot missiles being deployed in the Gulf constitute a deterrent show of force or are they a component in an as yet unveiled grand plan that could hinge on a Gulf of Tonkin-type scenario?
It is extremely unlikely that Iran is courting a conflict with the United States which they would inevitably lose. After all, Tehran did not respond or retaliate in answer to repeated Israeli bombings on its Revolutionary Guard Corps and Hezbollah depots in Syria. But with war drums sounding at a time when American and Iranian vessels share the same space, the prospect of unintended consequences is real.
America’s European allies unwillingly find themselves stuck in the middle between the US and their commitments under the JCPOA. Iran has given European signatories a 60-day ultimatum to provide mechanisms for Tehran to circumvent US trade and banking sanctions else it will reduce restrictions on its nuclear programme without going as far to renege on the terms of the deal... at least for now.
Conversely, the United States has warned Europe against setting up a non-dollar trade mechanism to enable trade with Iran at pain of facing sanctions. Likewise, Pompeo has reportedly ordered Britain to get on board his nation’s Iran policy or risk the special relationship, which the UK will sorely need the day after it leaves the European Union.
Provided the Ayatollah Khamenei sees the writing on the wall and shows willingness to negotiate with ‘the Great Satan’, Iran will miss the bullet. Otherwise, there is a slim chance we may be looking at a repeat performance of Iraq. Bombs will only rattle the cage. Regime change will require ground troops and a blueprint for the day after.
As Winston Churchill once said, “Meeting jaw to jaw is better than war”. For its own sake and that of an already troubled region, Iran would do well to heed that advice.
Linda S. Heard is an award-winning British political columnist and guest television commentator with a focus on the Middle East.