As’ad AbuKhalil weighs Iran’s position at a dangerous point in U.S. relations, but says the prospects of war are not as high as Gulf regimes and Israel want them to be.
By As`ad AbuKhalil
Special to Consortium News
The crisis in Iranian-U.S. relations has reached a dangerous point, and Israel and its Gulf allies are hoping for a major U.S.-Iranian war. The Iranian regime clearly has limited options available to it since it is tied by the nuclear agreement, while reaping diminishing rewards from it with the reimposition of U.S. sanctions. But it has some options, nevertheless, especially in the event of military confrontation.
Its enemies have been operating on the assumption that the sanctions would either drive the regime to surrender or will lead to a popular revolution, which would end the Islamic regime. Neither of the two scenarios are likely in the foreseeable future, and the regime — if it faces a threat to its survival — will fight ruthlessly (and the Iranian regime has more of a popular base than the Syrian regime). But the prospects of war are not as high as Gulf regimes and Israel want them to be.
The Trump administration came on an agenda of exclusive focus on domestic politics, and President Donald Trump has long opposed U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. He criticized President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq early on, when many Democrats were marching to that beat.
Trump comes from a traditional Republican isolationist foreign policy although his administration is staffed with an odd mix of neo-conservatives and interventionist conservatives. (National Security Advisor John Bolton bristles at the suggestion that he is a neo-conservative because it implies he was once a Democrat, which he never was).
But Trump’s appointments in foreign policy and defense can’t be read as an indication of his foreign policy agenda or “doctrine” because he alienated so many members of the Republican foreign policy establishment that he couldn’t hire from the traditional Republican rolodex, and he seems to put personal loyalty and flattery way ahead of any ideological litmus test.
Trump’s Intentions Unclear
It has not been clear what exactly Trump wants from Iran. Even in the Middle East: he started his campaign by calling for a “neutral” U.S. stance toward the Arab-Israeli conflict, and yet exhibited from the White House the most pro-Israeli bias ever seen in the Oval Office (continuing the pattern of every U.S. president becoming more pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian than his predecessor, with the exception of the team of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker).
On Iran, Trump simply railed against the Iran nuclear deal without offering any specific criticisms (it is doubtful that he read the agreement or even listened to a detailed briefing). Just like the health care issue, Trump is less concerned about substance and public policy and more about his own brand name and legacy, and the desire to dismantle what is perceived — rightly or wrongly — as the achievements of the Obama administration.
Iran has been aware of the Israeli plotting in all this; of its eagerness to provoke Iranian forces in Syria into a confrontation. And consistently, the Iranian regime has resisted Israeli provocations but maintained its presence in Syria. It has continued to supply Hizbullah and Iraq Hashd militias with support and financing (despite the exaggerated reports by The Washington Post’s Liz Sly and other Western correspondents who seem to talk exclusively to foes of Iran and Hizbullah in the Middle East).
Iran is also aware that some factions in the Trump administration are aligned with Israeli-Saudi plans for a major military confrontation with Iran.
But the notion that the U.S. would go to war against Iran is rather unthinkable. The war against Iraq, an exhausted country, suffering from two successive major wars and from crippling U.S.-imposed sanctions, resulted in the debacle that spawned a variety of terrorist organizations. A war against Iran would cost (in human and financial terms) far more than the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Also, unlike Afghanistan and Iraq, Iran does indeed have supporters, allies, and clients throughout the region who would come to its defense in the case of a major war. There can’t be a limited war against Iran.
The Iranian regime is also split along ideological lines. President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif had promised prosperity and stability if talks with the U.S. proceeded and if a nuclear agreement were reached.
But the Rouhani-Zarif team, which prides itself on its knowledge and familiarity with Western thinking, made major mistakes in its negotiations with the team of President Barack Obama. It should have known that an agreement with a president in his last two years would not necessarily last if he is replaced by a president from the other party (in other words, they presumed that a Democrat would succeed Trump and would stick to the agreement). But the Iranian negotiators — who, incidentally, are far more skilled and shrewd than the negotiators for the Palestinian Authority, from Oslo until the last round of negotiations — failed in two major ways.
No. 1) They didn’t reach an official treaty, which would have required ratification by the U.S. Senate (which would have been unlikely under Obama).
No. 2) They didn’t include in the agreement a clause that would specifically reward Iran (or punish the U.S.) if Washington unilaterally decided to violate the agreement, which had the international juridical support of the UN Security Council.
The Rouhani-Zarif team always clashed with a hardline team in Iran, which did not put faith in talks with the U.S. The Supreme leader identified with the hardline team yet wound up going along with the plan by Rouhani-Zarif.
Tehran Must Be Frustrated
Tehran, today, must be frustrated: While it clings to the deal and adheres to its terms, the Europeans have failed to engineer an alternative financial mechanism to allow Iran to buy and sell on the international market. U.S. sanctions have become more effective, and U.S. global bullying has intimidated countries and corporations from doing business with Iran.
There was reason to expect this might happen. The Republican Party made its position on the agreement quite clear when it invited a foreign leader, Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu, to list a litany of complaints before the U.S. Congress (where the Democrats were too afraid of the Israeli lobby to register disapproval and the Obama White House typically too meek to respond).
The hardline faction in Iran — whatever that means — does not seem to have an alternative to talks with the U.S. Recent interviews with Zarif in the U.S. were intended to articulate a new policy of Iran, in which the government expresses willingness to talk to the administration.
Zarif counters skeptics in Iran by distinguishing between Trump and what he calls “Team B” (Bolton and company). And if Iran wants to preserve the deal and has no alternative plan, talks with the Trump administration may become inevitable.
Trump is not a stickler for issues or policy details but he prefers to have his name and personal imprint on any international agreement. The administration added to its list of demands for denuclearization an insistence that talks with Iran would cover No. 1) ballistic missiles; No. 2) regional issues; No. 3) Iran’s support for groups classified as terrorist groups (which now includes the Revolutionary Guards — i.e. the U.S. would like Iran to stop supporting its own armed forces).
The Obama administration already tried to put all those on the agenda in the last negotiations and Tehran adamantly refused. The Supreme Leader just last week indicated his government’s refusal to discuss those issues as well, which may be a signal that the Supreme Leader could be open to a new round of negotiations with the Trump administration but strictly over nuclear issues.
What happened last week may indicate the Iranian course of action in the event of military assault on its forces. It could easily strike at targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE before striking at targets in Israel because their responses will be less severe and they are far more easily intimidated.
Just a few years ago, when an official UAE envoy met with a Hizbullah leader and sent messages about Hizbullah behavior in the region, he received a stern message about possible war scenarios that would include targets in the UAE, which left that envoy ashen-faced (I learned this from a well-placed source).
Saudi and UAE media seemed less eager for war than they were two weeks ago (with the exception of the English-language Arab News, which is directed to a Western audience). The attacks on the ships and the oil installation may have been sufficient to scare the two regimes. The prospects for war are not high, but if Israel and Saudi Arabia get their way with an American war, its ramifications would destabilize the entire regional order, an order which is highly beneficial to U.S. interests. For that—and given his own proclivities, Trump may think twice.
As’ad AbuKhalil is a Lebanese-American professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus. He is the author of the “Historical Dictionary of Lebanon” (1998), “Bin Laden, Islam and America’s New War on Terrorism (2002), and “The Battle for Saudi Arabia” (2004). He tweets as @asadabukhalil