Stirring the fire

Print edition : June 21, 2019

A parade marking al-Quds (Jerusalem) International Day in Tehran on May 31. It is held on the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramzan and calls for Jerusalem to be returned to the Palestinians. Photo: AFP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. He said his country would have no option but to resume construction of the Arak nuclear reactor which was deactivated after the signing of the nuclear deal. Photo: AFP

U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton (left), Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (centre) and Vice President Mike Pence at an event in the White House on June 7, 2018. Bolton and Pompeo are spoiling for a fight with Iran. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

War clouds are looming again on the horizon, with the Trump administration issuing threats and orchestrating “psychological warfare” against Iran.

The Donald Trump administration’s announcement in early May that it was despatching an aircraft carrier task force along with B-52 bombers and Patriot missiles to the Persian Gulf with the express purpose of threatening Iran into submission has the potential to ignite yet another devastating war in the region. It is another matter that United States aircraft carriers are already in the region. The U.S. keeps on rotating aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf region where it has numerous military bases surrounding Iran. Trump’s National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton, who has apparently been on the payroll of the Israeli lobby and other anti-Iran groups such as the terrorist Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), said the deployment of the U.S. aircraft carrier was “a clear and unmistakable message to Iran”.

The press release issued by the NSA’s office said the decision to send a strike force was in response “to a number of troubling and escalatory indications and warnings”. The Trump administration refused to indicate what exactly these threats from Iran were. The alleged sabotage attempts on four oil tankers owned by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the third week of May off the UAE coast has come in handy for the war hawks in the Trump Cabinet. Without providing any proof whatsoever, Bolton rushed to judgment, holding Iran guilty for the attacks.

Some commentators have already started describing it as a stage-managed “Gulf of Tonkin like incident”. The 1964 “Gulf of Tonkin” incident staged by the Pentagon was the precursor to the U.S.’ war in Vietnam. Overriding the veto by Congress, the Trump administration, citing an “imminent” military threat to Saudi Arabia and the UAE from Iran, has gone ahead with the plan of selling billions of dollars more of arms to the two countries. After assuming office, Trump had stated that there would be no more foreign wars and that he would stop the race “to topple foreign regimes we know nothing about”. He had pledged to end the “destructive cycle of destruction and chaos” that characterised the two administrations that preceded his. But today, if his senior advisers have their way, Trump could trigger more than one war. His senior officials have repeatedly stated that “all options are on the table” in Venezuela too. With his latest actions, Trump is sending the same message to Iran.

In one of his acrimonious tweets, Trump threatened to obliterate Iran if it dared to challenge the U.S. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again,” he wrote. In July last year, Trump warned via Twitter in capital letters that Iran “WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE”. Jawad Zarif, the Iranian Foreign Minister, responded by warning the U.S. President to never threaten Iran again with “genocidal taunts”. “NEVER THREATEN AN IRANIAN. TRY RESPECT. IT WORKS,” Zarif tweeted.

In the third week of May, Trump announced the despatch of an additional 1,500 U.S. troops to the Gulf. Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had been urging Trump to send a significantly larger number of troops. The statement from the NSA’s office in the first week of May said that any attack on U.S. forces or its allies in the region “will be met with unrelenting force”.

Bolton and regime change

Bolton has been advocating regime change in Iran since the time of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. It was on the initiative of the NSA and the Secretary of State that the Trump administration, in an unprecedented move, decided to label Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as a “terrorist grouping” in April this year.

Before the announcement, there were unsubstantiated reports appearing in the Israeli and U.S. media that a so-called terrorist plot hatched by one of Iran’s “proxies” against U.S. military interests in the region was thwarted in the nick of time. Much of the fabricated intelligence about the alleged malign activities against U.S. interests in the region is provided by Israeli intelligence. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proudly claimed credit for persuading Trump to tear up the landmark U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. Sheldon Anderson, Trump’s biggest campaign contributor and Netanyahu’s financial patron of long standing, had called for the nuking of Iran in 2013. The Iranian Foreign Minister has been saying that “only the three Bs want war with Iran”, referring to Benjamin Netanyahu; Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia; and Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE.

“It is absolutely the case that we have seen escalatory action from the Iranians, and it is equally the case that we will hold Iranians accountable for attacks on American interests,” Pompeo said. “If the attacks come from Shia groups, the Hizbollah or the Houthis, we will hold the Iranians directly responsible for that.” The Houthis, as previous U.S. governments have admitted, are no proxies of Iran. Besides, the Houthis are reacting to the indiscriminate Saudi and Emirati attacks on Yemeni civilian targets. Houthi drone attacks on Saudi targets are now being blamed on Tehran.

Shia militias operating in the region have also been put on notice. According to former U.S. officials who worked with the Obama administration, there have been no attacks since 2011 on U.S. military targets by groups close to Iran. The secret contacts that led to the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal had started by then. Many of the Shia militias do not see eye to eye with the Iranian political establishment on many issues.

The U.S. has also conveniently forgotten that Shia militias played a big role in militarily defeating the Islamic State (Daesh) in the region. The militias, many of them closely aligned with Iran, fought side by side in the fight to cleanse the Daesh from Iraqi territory. President Trump had declared victory over the Daesh before announcing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Syria. His hawkish advisers, led by Bolton and Pompeo, however, made him reverse his decision and retain U.S. soldiers in Syria. To bolster their argument, they cited the growing Iranian influence in the region.

The Trump administration considers Hamas also as a proxy of Iran. It has certified as legitimate the recent military overkill by Israel in the Gaza Strip. When the beleaguered Gazans retaliate with home-made weapons, it is painted as a terrorist act aided and abetted by the Iranian government. The U.S. also views the Hizbollah movement, which is part of the ruling coalition in Lebanon, through the prism of terrorism.

The movement has played a sterling role in the resistance movement against both Islamist terrorism and Zionist expansionism. Hizbollah played a key role in ensuring the end of a permanent U.S. military presence in Lebanon in the 1980s. It was Hizbollah that fought the Israeli army into a stalemate when it invaded Lebanon in 2006. Bolton and company want to break the “axis of resistance” that has been forged since the 1980s between Hizbollah, Syria and Iran. This alliance has been able to withstand both U.S. and Israeli pressure to compromise on the Palestinian issue.

The Iraqi government is also being inexorably drawn into this alliance. Senior Iraqi government officials have warned the Trump administration from going to war against Iran. The Iraqi government has also indicated that it will not adhere to the sanctions regime imposed by the Trump administration on Iran. The U.S. ordered the withdrawal of all its diplomats from Baghdad in the third week of May citing imminent threats to their security.

Iran’s response

The IRGC played a stellar role in defending Iran during the eight-year-old war with Iraq. The Iranian Foreign Ministry said that henceforth it would consider all U.S. soldiers deployed under the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) as “terrorists”. Iran’s Supreme Military National Council has said that the Trump administration’s announcements are part of the orchestrated “psychological warfare” being waged against their country. A senior adviser to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the U.S. was “neither willing nor capable” of military action against Iran.

At the same time, Iran has signalled that the draconian sanctions imposed by the U.S. could permanently impact the landmark Iran-U.S. nuclear deal. President Hassan Rouhani announced in the first week of May that his government would stop adhering to two of the commitments that figured in the nuclear deal. Iran, he said in a nationally broadcast speech, would begin to build up its stockpile of low-enriched uranium and of heavy water which is used in its nuclear reactors. Unlike his U.S. counterpart, he did not renounce the entire agreement. Rouhani said that he would give European nations 60 days to live up to their commitments. Germany, France and the United Kingdom are signatories to the nuclear deal under which all sanctions were lifted on Iran. The U.S. has decreed that all nations should stop their oil trade with Iran.

“The path we have chosen is not the path of war, but a path of diplomacy. But diplomacy with a new language and a new logic,” Rouhani said in his speech. If the Europeans failed to keep their end of the deal, the Iranian President warned, his country would have no option but to resume construction of the Arak nuclear reactor which was deactivated after the signing of the nuclear deal. If Iran is not allowed to resume its oil trade and “reap our benefits” within 60 days, the country will increase its uranium-enrichment activity meant for powering nuclear power plants from the current low level of 3.67. Rouhani said that “without economic progress” the country would “not consider any limit” on enrichment. It has been acknowledged that Iran has the necessary expertise to produce weapons-grade materiel though it has never attempted to do so thus far.

Both Russia and China, which are also signatories to the accord, have blamed the U.S. for the current dangerous situation. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has endorsed Iran’s stand and has once again voiced its strong opposition to the unilateral U.S. sanctions against Iran. The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, speaking to the media after a meeting with the Iranian Foreign Minister in New York in May, criticised the “unacceptable situation” created by “the irresponsible behaviour of the United States”. Zarif had described the Trump administration’s efforts to block Iran from all avenues of international trade as “economic terrorism”. The Iranian President has invited all the signatories to the nuclear deal for fresh talks but insisted that the “2015 agreement” must be the basis of any future talks.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are trying their best to provoke a conflict. In an emergency meeting in Riyadh in the last week of May held under the auspices of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the Arab League, the discussions centred around the urgent need to counter the growing Iranian influence in the region. The Iraqi delegation objected to the communique issued after the summit which put all the blame for the crisis in the region on Iran. The Saudi King in his speech urged the international community to use all means to stop the Iranian regime from interfering in the affairs of other countries.

The Iranian Foreign Minister on a recent visit to neighbouring Arab countries said that his country wanted normal relations with the Gulf countries and called for the signing of a “non-aggression pact”. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were quick to reject the offer.

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