By Sirous Amerian
Once again it seems as though Iran and the United States are at each other’s throats and hostilities have risen. Frankly, this is nothing new for those who have been following the trajectory of politics in the Middle East. Ever since the Shah of Iran was removed by popular protests and a revolution in 1979, the two countries have been at odds. But perhaps the most important point of conflict in the past decade between has been Iran’s nuclear program.
In 2015 an end to the nuclear dispute seemed imminent, and many Iranians rejoiced that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed by Iran, the US, and several European nations: in exchange for tight controls on Iran’s nuclear ambitions, tough economics would be lifted. The JCPOA had been incorporated into international law in a United Nations Security Council Resolution, UNCSR 2231, and had been endorsed by the Security Council. Iran as a country could once again enjoy foreign investment, openness to the outside world, economic growth and higher employment and opportunities.
But the joy was short-lived. Iran’s internal bureaucracy, corruption, and pressure from those who had profited immensely from many years of sanctions slowed down the process of opening up and attracting new deals and contracts. And then, within two years, Donald Trump took over the White House. He was a staunch enemy of the JCPOA, believing his predecessor Barack Obama was ‘soft’ on Iran and he could negotiate a better deal. The pressure started to build again. After unilaterally exiting the deal, although the IAEA periodically accepted and verified Iranian compliance with their end of the plan, companies were forced to exit Iran and to not invest in its economy. Iranian oil was also sanctioned again and countries were forced to cut back on buying of oil and many more instances of such acts. All of this happened while Iran was keeping its end of the deal – and the weak European members of the JCPOA made regular announcements condemning US moves.
Despite all this, observers believed that members of the Trump Administration like Generals Mattis and McMaster, and others, could affect the President’s impulses and not escalate the issue. But things got worse when Trump replaced those administration officials with hawkish neoconservatives like John Bolton, chiefly known for supporting and backing the invasion of Iraq. Interestingly, Bolton never felt sorry for that blunder. Bolton, generally believes the US is the sole hegemon of our world and should not be bound by treaties to lesser states. During the George W. Bush Administration, Bolton helped remove the US from ABM treaty and during his tenure with Trump, helped orchestrate the INF Treaty exit. He has also argued for years that the US should bomb Iran and regularly appeared and got paid to speak – alongside Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani – at events organised by an armed resistance group called the MEK. The Mujahedeen – e – Khalq (MEK) are a cult like, left-handed terrorist organisation who are working to overthrow the regime in Tehran, and who separate parents from their children in the name of ideology. Read more about them here. They are, in other words, an organisation that is as far away as one can get from democracy and openness, ideas the US say it wants to spread in the world – and Iran.
With Bolton and former CIA chief Mike Pompeo in the White House, the drums of war started to beat. The hawkish officials got regular support and backing from Israel, Saud Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates who would prefer to see the US invade Iran and overthrow the regime in Tehran, essentially ensuring that it never rises to be a regional power again.
As with his attempts to negotiate a nuclear deal with North Korea, Trump deployed his threats of war and destruction against Iran – usually over Twitter. But regime change or a war with Iran runs contrary to everything he campaigned on. Trump was touted as an isolationist – preferring to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and end the spending sprees in those countries. His slogans were (and are) ‘America First’ and ‘Make American Great Again’ – a far cry from the rhetoric of spreading ‘democracy and freedom’ around the world. Trump is not a supporter of liberal hegemony.
Would starting a new war with Iran help the US pull out of those zones, or stop military overspending, or make American great? Absolutely not. It would, in fact, incur a heavy monetary and human casualty on US armed forces and cause a massive human disaster for the 85 million people of Iran and its extended neighbours, and further destabilise the region. The only likelihood is creating another failed state. America never faced much strong resistance during their missions in Iraq or Afghanistan, nor did those two countries use their conventional military assets to hit back at US bases or those countries who have asked for the US to fight another war and bring trouble back to the Middle East. But Iran is determined to fight back.
If Iran were to be attacked, a migration catastrophe would dwarf the crisis brought on by the ongoing conflict in Syria. And further, the price of oil will certainly rise and effect petrol prices – which Donald Trump and his base really do care about.
Fortunately, it appears that Trump has realised that he is being played by the likes of Bolton and other pro-war officials. During his recent visit to Japan, Trump talked to Iran using a softer, more approachable and open tone, something that Bolton would not likely have advocated. It appears he has been side-lined in both the Iran and North Korea case. Just a reminder, Bolton has also been a staunch advocate of bombing North Korea too. With this side-lining, the tone and discourse and objective with Iran is changing too.
Bolton, Giuliani, and Pompeo have been forced to moderate their views. Trump in his Japan visit stated that he is not looking for regime change in Iran, running contrary to what Giuliani said back in 2018. And that is a breath of fresh air for Iran observers – and Iranians themselves. It looks as if Trump has realised he was being dragged into a war he didn’t want by his own staff and allies.
One thing that has been clear about President Trump is that he does not like President Obama, preferring to dismantle the legacies from the Obama presidency. Trump wants his own markings on everything, including the JCPOA, and I believe Iran should understand that and prepare itself to talk to the Trump administration directly. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a rare move, instead of talking to CNN or other US television networks as he usually does, talked to Fox and reached out to Trump directly, and I think this should continue. Certainly, the US went back on their word and unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear deal, but Iran should offer Trump a lolly, extend the sunset clauses in the deal by 20 years or so and grant Trump a victory, as one with North Korea looks to be further away every day. And this should all be for the sake of its own population who have been under immense economic pressure and would welcome an opportunity to open up to the world, and begin reforms.
Sirous Amerian is a Ph.D. Candidate and Tutor at the Centre for Defence and Security Studies, at Massey University.