NOTE: Please note, promote (and read) my latest piece in Middle East Eye, Ignore the Propaganda: A US War Against Iran Would be a Costly Mistake.
Amongst Donald Trump’s many infantile traits is an obsessive tendency to keep score in battles against his (and America’s) enemies. He portrays himself as a valiant defender of our interests. Enemies are always trying to sucker us. He is the ruthless clear-eyed deal-maker who sees through the trickery, knows all the cards in the deck, and wins every hand. When he wins, America wins. And America is always winning when he’s around.
Except when it’s not. In the current round of simian chest-thumping between the U.S. and Iran, initiated by John Bolton, we’re definitely not winning. Yes, we’ve steamed a carrier task force lethal enough to wipe out the planet, right up Iran’s ass into the Persian Gulf. We’ve sent our diplomats around the world to warn our allies of the perfidy we expect from Iran, as it plans to kidnap and kill our troops in the region. We’ve sounded alarm bells over oil tankers being bombed and a Saudi oil pipeline being sabotaged. We’ve tantalized the world with unseen images of Iranian dhows loading alleged cruise missiles meant to attack U.S. targets. We’ve released war plans calling for 120,000 U.S. troops to attack Iran. We’ve rattled sabers and let loose the dogs of war. But the outcome of all these efforts has been exceedingly thin.
We’ve convinced practically no one that Iran poses a clear and present danger. Our allies remain skeptical. Iran experts are publishing reports debunking key elements of our bill of attainders against Iran. Democratic politicians and presidential candidates have awakened from their slumber and begun to raise an anti-war hue and cry. The Wall Street Journal says that all the claims of Iran’s imminent plans to unleash attacks on U.S. forces may just as credibly be explained as defensive plans by that country in case the U.S. launches a first strike against it.
The temperature has risen so high that the President himself has taken pains recently to cool the overheated rhetoric. Supposedly, he objects to media characterizations of John Bolton driving his hawkish policy on Iran. He’s pulled a Jim Baker and offered Iran his personal phone number, and invited it to call when ready to negotiate an end to the stalemate. Though Trump may’ve liked the saber-rattling to a point, he’s apparently come to a realization that he doesn’t actually want another shooting war in the Middle East. Especially considering that on the campaign trail he’s railed against the quagmires we got ourselves stuck in in Afghanistan and Iraq.
After this climb-down, Trump looks exceedingly weak. He’s thrown the kitchen sink at the Iranians and has nothing to show for it. Yes, they remain under punishing sanctions and their economy faces ever more dire conditions. But the regime remains as stable and secure. There is no groundswell of protest by dissidents and activists seeking radical change or the ouster of the clerical elites. Iran’s military leaders can say, quite credibly: we faced down the Americans, called their bluff, and they blinked.
Trump can invite a Swiss diplomat to the White House and relay a placating message to Iran. He can tell Pres. Rouhani to give him a call when he’s ready to talk. But none of that carries any weight in comparison to the embarrassment of John Bolton blustering on the world stage about going to war, after which he’s given a dressing down by his boss for overstepping his position.
Iran will step back and smile at the disarray in Washington. Like any good politician when his opponent is mired in scandal, he will retreat into the background and let the glare of publicity and scandal shine on his adversary. Iran is under no obligation to throw Trump a lifeline. As the wily negotiators they are, it will let him stew in his own failure.
Not to mention, the Iranians themselves cannot trust Trump to negotiate in good faith. In fact, if they did call and begin talks, they would have no idea which Trump they would face: the truculent candidate who dismissed the Iran nuclear deal and railed against those who negotiated it, including Iran’s current foreign minister, Zarif; or the rougish dealmaker who broke with a half-century of official U.S. hostility toward North Korea, declaring his undying affection for dictator, Kim Jong Un, and his intent to bring Kim in from the cold in return for complete denuclearization.
The Iranians must be scratching their heads at the outcome of those two summit meetings, which ended with Trump abandoning Kim seemingly at the altar, as they were about to solemnize their vows. Unlike Kim’s North Korea, Iran is not a one-man dictatorship. Policies are not devised or revised on a whim. The political structure in Iran is complex and carefully balanced. No one there wants to take a flyer on the off-chance that they might win the lottery and end 75 years of enmity with America.
Ironically, as Iran’s enemies try to paint it as impulsive, irrational, and even insane, it is the U.S. government which bears more than a passing resemblance to that portrait. We have a president whose policies change on a dime. He’s hot one day and cold the next. He invites China’s president to Mar-a-Lago one day and declares all-out trade war the next. The Iranians know they cannot trust Trump. Besides, they’ve been burned numerous times by U.S. presidents who appeared far more predictable than Trump. Why should they risk anything on such an unstable figure?