More Bluster and Bluff on Iran

For all Team-Trump’s tough talk on Iran – and its repetition of the lie that Iran is No. 1 in terrorism – the chances for a major escalation of tensions remain low, reports Gareth Porter for Middle East Eye.

By Gareth Porter

The first public pronouncements by President Donald Trump’s administration on Iran have created the widespread impression that the U.S. will adopt a much more aggressive posture towards the Islamic Republic than under Barack Obama’s presidency. But despite the rather crude warnings to Tehran by now ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and by Trump himself, the Iran policy that has begun to take shape in the administration’s first weeks looks quite similar to Obama’s.

Donald Trump speaking at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. (Flickr Gage Skidmore)

The reason is that the Obama administration’s policy on Iran reflected the views of a national security team that adhered to an equally hardline stance as those of the Trump administration.

Flynn declared on Feb. 1 that the Obama administration had “failed to respond adequately to Tehran’s malign actions” and suggested that things would be different under Trump. But that rhetoric was misleading, both with regard to the Obama administration’s policy toward Iran and on the options available to Trump going beyond that policy.

The idea that Obama had somehow become chummy with Iran doesn’t reflect the reality of the former administration’s doctrine on Iran. The Obama nuclear deal with Iran angered right-wing extremists, but his nuclear diplomacy was based on trying to coerce Iran to give up as much of its nuclear program as possible through various forms of pressure, including cyber-attacks, economic sanctions and the threat of a possible Israeli attack.

Despite Trump’s rhetoric about how bad the nuclear deal was, he has already decided that his administration will not tear up or sabotage the agreement with Iran, a fact made clear by senior administration officials who briefed the media on the same day as Flynn’s “on notice” outburst. Trump’s team has learned that neither Israel, nor Saudi Arabia wish that to happen.

On the larger issues of Iran’s influence in the Middle East, Obama’s policy largely reflected the views of the permanent national security state, which has regarded Iran as an implacable enemy for decades, ever since the CIA and the U.S. military were at war with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Shia militias in the Strait of Hormuz and Beirut in the 1980s.

The antagonism that the Trump team has expressed toward Iran’s regional role is no different from what had been said by the Obama administration for years. Secretary of Defense James Mattis has referred to Iran’s “malign influence” and called Iran the “biggest destabilizing force” in the region. But Obama and his national security advisers also had talked incessantly about Iran’s “destabilizing activities”.

In 2015, the Obama administration was using phrases like “malign influence” and “malign activities” so often that it was said to have become “Washington’s latest buzzword.”

Different Presidents, Same Policies

Beginning with President Bill Clinton, every administration has accused Iran of being the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, not on the basis of any evidence but as a settled principle of U.S. policy. Starting with the World Trade Center bombing of 1993, the Clinton administration blamed Iran for every terrorist attack in the world even before any investigation had begun.

An Iranian child holding a photo of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei at one of his public appearances. (Iranian government photo)

As I discovered from extended investigations into both the Buenos Aires terror bombing of 1994 and the Khobar Towers bombing of 1996, the supposed evidence of Iranian involvement was either nonexistent or clearly tainted. But neither reality inhibited the continued narrative of Iran as a terrorist state.

Some Trump advisers reportedly have been discussing a possible presidential directive to the State Department to consider designating the IRGC as a terrorist organization. But such a move would fall under the category of political grandstanding rather than serious policy. The IRGC is already subject to sanctions under at least three different U.S. sanctions programs, as legal expert Tyler Culis has pointed out.

Furthermore, the Quds Force, the arm of the IRGC involved in operations outside Iran, has been designated as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist” for nearly a decade. About the only thing the proposed designation might accomplish is to allow the United States to punish Iraqi officials with whom the Quds Force has been cooperating against the Islamic State group.

The Trump team has indicated its intention to give strong support to Saudi Arabia’s regional anti-Iran policy. But it is now apparent that Trump is not inclined to do anything more militarily against the Assad regime than Obama was. And on Yemen, the new administration is not planning to do anything that Obama did not already do.

When asked whether the administration was “reassessing” the Saudi war in Yemen, a senior official gave a one-word answer: “No.” That indicates that Trump will continue the Obama administration policy of underwriting the Saudi-led bombing campaign in Yemen – providing aerial refueling, bombs and political-diplomatic support – which is necessary for Riyadh’s war. Both Obama and Trump administrations thus appear to share responsibility for the massive and deliberately indiscriminate bombing of Houthi-controlled cities as well as for the existing and incipient starvation of 2.2 million Yemeni children.

As for Iran’s missile program, there is no discernible difference between the two administrations. On Feb. 3, Trump officials called Iran’s late January missile test “destabilizing” and “provocative.” The Obama administration and its European allies had issued a statement in March 2016 calling Iranian missile tests “destabilizing and provocative”.

Trump has imposed sanctions for Iran’s alleged violation of the 2015 U.N. Security Council resolution – despite the fact that the resolution used non-binding language and that Iran’s missiles were not designed to carry nuclear weapons. The Obama administration imposed sanctions for Iran’s allegedly violating a 2005 Bush administration executive order.

Use of Force Unlikely

However, one may object that this comparison covers only the preliminary outlines of Trump’s policy towards Iran, and argue that Washington is planning to step up military pressures, including the possible use of force.

Former Vice President Dick Cheney.


It is true that the possibility of a much more aggressive military policy from the Trump administration cannot be completely ruled out, but any policy proposal involving the threat or use of force would have to be approved by the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that is very unlikely to happen.

The last time the U.S. contemplated a military confrontation with Iran was in the George W. Bush administration. In 2007, Vice President Dick Cheney proposed that the U.S. attack bases in Iran within the context of the Iranian involvement in the Iraq War against U.S. troops. But Secretary of Defense Robert M Gates, supported by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, headed off the effort by insisting that Cheney explain how the process of escalation would end.

There was a very good reason why the plan didn’t pass muster with the Pentagon and the JCS. The time when the U.S. could attack Iran with impunity had already passed. In 2007, any attack on Iran would have risked the loss of much of the U.S. fleet in the Gulf to Iranian anti-ship missiles. Today, the cost to the U.S. military would be far higher, because of the greater capability of Iran to retaliate with missiles and conventional payloads against U.S. bases in Qatar and Bahrain.

In the end, the main contours of U.S. policy toward Iran have always reflected the views and the interests of the permanent national security state far more than the ideas of the president. That fact has ensured unending U.S. hostility toward Iran, but it also very likely means continuity rather than radical shifts in policy under Trump.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This article first appeared at Middle East Eye.]

23 comments for “More Bluster and Bluff on Iran

  1. delia ruhe
    February 15, 2017 at 18:10

    “Both Obama and Trump administrations thus appear to share responsibility for the massive and deliberately indiscriminate bombing of Houthi-controlled cities as well as for the existing and incipient starvation of 2.2 million Yemeni children.”

    Too bad no one in Washington knows anything about R2P — except as a mechanism for achieving Regime Change.

  2. Bill Distler
    February 15, 2017 at 02:23

    Iran is not the enemy of the people of the United States. The oil companies of the United States and Europe are the enemies of Iran.
    On Sept. 11, 2001, according to a Who’s- Who article in TIME Magazine, only Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the United Arab Emirates recognized the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. The countries that supported the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, or United Front, were Russia, India, and Iran.
    How did Iran become our enemy and Saudi Arabia and Pakistan our allies? Is it possible that our wise men and women of foreign policy are just a bunch of very skillful murdering, lying thieves. Nah! It can’t be! They are so well-dressed and well-spoken, how could they be rotten murderers?
    On Sept.11, 2001, according to the New York Times, Senator John McCain went on every TV and radio show he could get hold of and “invariably” gave the same message: After we dealt with Afghanistan, we would have to go after the other “terrorism-supporting” countries. His initial list included Iraq, Iran, Libya, and Syria. So far, McCain has gotten almost everything he asked for, to the detriment of every decent person on this planet, and to the benefit only of the scum of the earth oil baron pigs that he works for.
    None of the countries mentioned by McCain were supporters of the Taliban. The only common denominator was that, unlike Saudi Arabia, the oil of these countries was not yet under the control of US corporations.
    Just coincidentally, construction on the natural gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, through Afghanistan and Pakistan, to India, that even many liberals said could never be built, had its ground-breaking ceremony on Dec. 13, 2015 in Turkmenistan. But just keep repeating: “It’s not about oil.”

  3. Change Iran Now (@ChangeIranNow)
    February 14, 2017 at 21:04

    Iran continues its campaign against the U.S., and it won’t end so long as the regime endures. Therefore American policy must rely on dismantling the Khamenei regime as peacefully as possible, perhaps from the inside out. Antiregime demonstrations erupt in Iran all the time, and most experts believe the vast majority of Iranians detest Mr. Khamenei and his henchmen. With U.S. support, these millions of Iranians could topple the Islamic Republic and establish a secular government resembling those in the West.

    • Adrian Engler
      February 14, 2017 at 21:37

      It is doubtful that many Iranians would support toppling the Iranian government with US support. There have been too many US interventions with catastrophic consequences. I think a scenario with a perestroyka-like development in Iran some time in the future is much more likely (while any attempts at military help for tegime change and installing a US puppet government in Iran would mean a setback and strengthen the conservative forces in the Mullah regime).

    • Rob Roy
      February 15, 2017 at 00:27

      I’ve never believed “ignorance is bliss.” “Iran continues its campaign against the U.S.” Silly beyond words. Iran has NO campaign against the US. It would be understandable but it doesn’t. Plus Iran hasn’t wanted a nuclear weapon since 2003 (documented) but ignorant politicians and war mongers keep saying that same old thing, “We can’t let Iran get a nuclear weapon.” Iran SHOULD have a nuclear weapon to send to Israel when it attacks Iran, but they don’t. Notice in the negotiations for the “Iran deal” Iran never once said to the US, “But you have them. Israel has them.” Never could figure out why that was never mentioned. Told not to, I suppose. Anyway, the “Iran deal” was a set-up and its progress laid out by the Brookings Institute in 2009 (though taking out seven ME countries was planned by PNAC in the early 90s). The plan was to offer a good deal to Iran, then later find some reason to say Iran screwed up and broke the deal so they brought this war on themselves. It’s their fault we have to bomb them. Hey, Garth Porter, you should know this. I have documentation if you want to see it.

    • Realist
      February 15, 2017 at 02:22

      Gee, where have we heard that before? And, who assigned us the job? Is all the ensuing death and destruction worth it just so America gets a regime it approves of in (name a country of your choice)?

    • Sangy
      February 15, 2017 at 03:19

      And we should embark on regime change because we have such a great track record with this strategy? Please the only winner will be ISIS.

      Unless of course, that is exactly what the chicken hawk carbo-narco-ammo entrepreneurs want: a “de-regulated” chaos in which to ply their trade, disorganized warring factions to engage in proxy wars with their “business” rivals, and then when all else fails, call in the Cavalry to establish “democracy” and feed the war profiteers.

    • David Nelson
      February 15, 2017 at 11:46

      How cute and brave of you to risk other people’s blood the way you do. Bravo!

      /end of sarcasm

  4. Cal
    February 14, 2017 at 16:47

    I pray that egotist Netanyahu gets on the wrong side of egotist Trump. And then when the Israel First congress attacks him for his lack of subservience to Israel he takes to twitter and exposes the whole Isr con game in the US….all of it.

    • Trump Firster
      February 15, 2017 at 15:05

      Actually that was my secret sympathy for Trump.
      The only one with not caring and big enough ego to say: Who’s the commanding country here?
      To be honest he will be worse than Obama on Israel-Palestine. His Ku-Klusner guy has investments in settlements and so on…
      To live to see that someone smacks Israel verbaly without beeing afraid about backslash, not seen in a long time.
      Although, on practical side, besides words, he won’t do anything.
      What to say, take what they offer, and no one offers anyrhing, so a good laugh is something.

  5. Joe J Tedesky
    February 14, 2017 at 15:34

    We Americans should just accept the fact that America is no more in charge of it’s Middle East policy, as America is heavily reliant on Israel and Saudi Arabia’s aims and wishes.

    The American hate campaign against Iran in our MSM has acknowledged very little to none the Iranian excuse for blowback which was inspired by a 1953 CIA coup, and by putting in place a Western appointed Shad who ruled Iran with an iron fist for nearly thirty years. No American apology, nor any American self reflection, but only more hate on top of hate.

  6. Zachary Smith
    February 14, 2017 at 15:29

    But despite the rather crude warnings to Tehran by now ex-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and by Trump himself, the Iran policy that has begun to take shape in the administration’s first weeks looks quite similar to Obama’s.

    I can’t deny this is better than what Hillary planned for Iran, but on the other hand continuing Obama’s crap policies doesn’t impress me as being all that swell.

    • JGarbo
      February 14, 2017 at 21:09

      I doubt Hillary ever planned anything. At best she was following orders. In any Fascist state the “leader” is no more than a figurehead.

  7. Katherine
    February 14, 2017 at 15:26

    “In the end, the main contours of U.S. policy toward Iran have always reflected the views and the interests of the permanent national security state far more than the ideas of the president. That fact has ensured unending U.S. hostility toward Iran, but it also very likely means continuity rather than radical shifts in policy under Trump.”

    This confirms what I have long suspected — presidents are only sock puppets whose faces change every 4 or 8 years and the puppet masters remain the same.

    • JGarbo
      February 14, 2017 at 21:07

      Of course the POTUS is a puppet. Would the “masters” let one person of questionable judgement wreck their empire? Never. The masters’ plan unfolds regardless of the players on the stage.

  8. Dan Kuhn
    February 14, 2017 at 15:06

    I wonder if Russia and China would sit by while the US pounded Iran into the dust. I think it prudent that the US Government take that little problem into consideration before acting hastily.

    • nexusxyz
      February 16, 2017 at 23:56

      I doubt it as Iran is a significant source of oil and gas. They have recently found additional reserves. Additionally, if Iran goes Russia and China would be next. ‘Pounding’ Iran would not be a costless exercise and a US attack may stall due to losses.

  9. Bill Bodden
    February 14, 2017 at 15:04

    “The Flynn Drama” by George Friedman makes interesting points related to Flynn’s actions and resignation –

  10. Procivic
    February 14, 2017 at 14:22

    Successive U.S. administrations have engaged in threatening Iran with little benefit for Washington. This constant “terrorist” accusation rings particularly hollow when Trump announced the banning of visitors from the designated seven countries, including Iran. Even the mainstream media concede the absurdity by repeating that no one from these countries has acted against the U.S., while America’s Middle East allies are at the top of the list in creating mayhem.

    The “terrorist” label simply means Washington doesn’t consider a targeted sovereign state a lackey willing to toe its line.

  11. Drew Hunkins
    February 14, 2017 at 13:39

    This de facto alliance that was melded together roughly 15 years ago between the Zionists and the Saudis has thrown up a very ominous cloud over the world. That “Iran’s the biggest terrorist exporter and terror supporter!” is such baloney to anyone who researches these issues on even an elementary basis. But the crucial point is that this obvious prevarication can pass with all earnestness in the U.S. mass media, that’s the truly frightening part.

    U.S. citizens are confused and bamboozled over what’s going on. The Washington-Zionist Terror Network could get us all killed. They’ve just successfully ousted Flynn — a somewhat (somewhat) moderate influence — who wanted to strengthen diplomatic ties with the Kremlin and virulently go after ISIS-Wahabi-Al Qeada terror. At the present moment, neocon warmongers are virtually the only folks at Trump’s ear. Tillerson may be the only hope. Look for a propaganda campaign and trumped up charges soon formulated against Tillerson once (if?) he decides to seriously buck the Zionist Power Configuration and American military empire builders.

    • Adrian Engler
      February 14, 2017 at 21:22

      Flynn was moderate as far as relationships with Russia are concerned, and he disagreed with neocons by giving high priority to the fight against Daesh. But at the same time, Flynn also had extreme anti-Iranian positions that were not too different from neocons. Therefore, as far as a potential detente with Iran is concerned, the departure of Flynn might be a good thing.

  12. Wm. Boyce
    February 14, 2017 at 13:11

    “It is true that the possibility of a much more aggressive military policy from the Trump administration cannot be completely ruled out, but any policy proposal involving the threat or use of force would have to be approved by the Pentagon and the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and that is very unlikely to happen.”

    We can only hope. As Mr. Trump’s political situation grows worse, he may realize or be advised that a good war is needed to prop up his popularity. It’s an old formula, and I can see such an unstable person such as he using it.

    • Adrian Engler
      February 14, 2017 at 21:16

      The risk that Trump will start a war when he is in trouble because of political problems certainly exists. Other presidents (Bill Clinton) did so, as well. But I doubt very much that such a war would be against Iran. The US has attacked many countries, but for decades, it has not attacked a country with an army that is as strong as the current Iranian one. Probably, right after the attack, there would be widespread destruction of US military bases all over the Middle East and the Mediterranean (and perhaps beyond), there would be many victims, and it would be difficult to predict how the war would further escalate and which countries might become involved. That is not the kind of war governments start to boost their popularity. (Furthermore, an US attack against would probably be condemned almost unequivocally by the international community, I don’t know how much Trump would care).
      A complete surrender of Iran seems quite unlikely, and after an US attack, it would hardly be possible to convince the Iranian government that nuclear weapons are not needed to prevent further attacks.

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