PATRICK LAWRENCE: Brighter US-Iran Prospects

Despite the seemingly escalating risks of war, last week also produced an unexpected drift toward the mahogany table.

 By Patrick Lawrence
Special to Consortium News

There was no shortage of alarming incidents in and around the Persian Gulf last week. But the risks of open conflict between Iran and the U.S. are easily misread. The prospects for substantive diplomacy between the two sides are steadily brightening, recent events notwithstanding. This represents an advance for President Donald Trump in his intramural battles with the assertive hawks among his foreign policy advisers. Still more significantly, Washington now appears to be discovering the limits of hard power in the 21stcentury.

Trump announced last Thursday that a U.S. naval vessel patrolling the Persian Gulf had downed an Iranian drone over international waters — a claim Tehran has rebutted with persuasive evidence. On Friday the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s navy briefly detained one British-owned tanker and continues to hold another while investigating alleged infractions of lawful conduct at sea — this in apparent retaliation for Britain’s earlier seizure of an Iranian tanker off Gibraltar.  

Still from video released by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards showing helicoptered troops taking over a British tanker. (YouTube)

It was a week of escalating tensions, as numerous press reports noted. Top British military officers warned Boris Johnson, who is likely to succeed Theresa May as prime minister on Tuesday, that he faces “a major international crisis” that could easily tip over into war.

There is always the possibility that a miscalculation on the ground or a commanding officer’s bout of bravado could spark a military confrontation. But setting this aside, the week delivered strong new indications that Trump and the leadership in Tehran are both now given to negotiating differences. In the best of outcomes, any such talks will be extended and all-encompassing.

Iran Sends Diplomatic Signals

Hassan Rouhani and Mohammad Javad Zarif, respectively Iran’s president and foreign minister, both signaled last week that Tehran is open to new talks under certain conditions. On the U.S. side, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did roughly the same. “We are not looking for regime change. We are not looking for that at all,” Trump said Tuesday. “We’ll see what happens. But a lot of progress has been made.”

Two days after those remarks, Politico reported that Trump had accepted Sen. Rand Paul’s proposal, advanced during a round of golf the previous weekend, to represent the White House in talks with Iranian officials. The Kentucky senator is noted for his vigorous opposition to military adventures — a position in keeping with the president’s ostensible views. It is not clear who Paul might meet, or where and when any such encounter could take place. But Trump’s decision to accept Paul as his emissary is a savvy move to circumvent the hawks among his foreign policy advisers, chief among them National Security Advisor John Bolton, who has in the past called for regime change in Iran.

Bolton, often (but not always) with Pompeo’s support, has pressed for a highly confrontational Iran policy since he joined the administration last year. It now emerges that he played a leading role in conjuring the Gibraltar incident out of thin air, effectively using Britain as an unwitting tool to advance his hyper-hawkish Iran agenda.

The marked drift toward diplomacy last week represents an important, potentially decisive setback for Bolton and the White House’s hawkish factions. Washington’s hawks sustained another blow Saturday, when The New York Times published the astonishing remarks of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s former fire-breathing, often objectionable president who preceded Hassan Rouhani. “He is a businessman and therefore he is capable of calculating cost-benefits and making a decision,” the hardline Ahmadinejad said of Trump in an hour-long telephone interview with the Times. “We say to him, let’s calculate the long-term cost-benefit of our two nations and not be shortsighted.”

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center: “Let’s not be shortsighted.” (Tasnim News Agency, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Hardliner Split

There are two remarkable things to note in this unexpected turn in the direction of the mahogany table. It reveals a split among Iran’s conservative factions that was hitherto not apparent. If hard-liners are coming to favor negotiations with the U.S., it is plain which direction the wind blows in Tehran.

Second, it is notable that Ahmadinejad proposes a comprehensive settlement that advances bilateral relations beyond the 40 years of animosity that have followed the 1979 revolution deposing Iran’s last shah, who enjoyed extravagant American support over nearly three decades. The signal here is not to be missed: Military solutions to long-term crises are less and less effective in an era of emerging powers such as China, Russia and Iran.

There are two other prominent cases demonstrating this point. One is Afghanistan. After 18 years of pointless war, American diplomats have been in direct talks with the Taliban since last October. The latest round,  during which the two sides negotiated the withdrawal of U.S. troops, took place in Qatar last month.

The closer parallel is with North Korea. Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, articulated Ahmadinejad’s point long before Iran’s former president spoke to the Times: It is time to close the door on a protracted period of animosity. The thought suggests a long view of history rarely evident among American political figures.

Prior to his first summit with Kim, Trump was the fire-breather. As he repeatedly threatened the North with obliteration, “fire and fury,” and much else, naval task forces and nuclear-capable bomber squadrons operated perilously close to the North’s territorial waters and airspace. But the mid–2018 summit in Singapore radically shifted the administration’s position. While Bolton and Pompeo sabotaged the second Trump–Kim summit, held in Hanoi last February, Trump continues to press for the top-down diplomacy he plainly favors, as his informal encounter with Kim last month at the 38th parallel attests.

Trump’s desire to negotiate with Pyongyang has prompted extensive opposition in Washington from the first.

‘Widening Bipartisan Support’

But this, too, now changes. In a startling piece published earlier this month, the Times reported that Trump now has “widening bipartisan support to build diplomacy with North Korea.” It went on to note that Stephen Biegun, Trump’s special representative for North Korea, was recently in Brussels and Berlin to cultivate diplomatic channels to Pyongyang.

Stephen Biegun taking questions in Seoul, Oct. 8, 2018. (State Department)

This remarkable shift appears to be nearly across the board — with the exception, of course, of über-hawkish camps such as Bolton’s. To underscore this point, the Times then quoted none other than Michael Morell, once the CIA’s acting director and since a consistent advocate of an aggressive U.S. military posture. “A negotiated solution is the only solution to this problem,” Morell said. “There isn’t a military option. There’s not a covert action option. So getting back to talks with the North Koreans is important, and I think that’s a good thing.”

It is an inevitable thing, too. In truth, military interventions in either Iran or North Korea have never been a realistic prospect. Pyongyang could launch missiles into Seoul in less than an hour; estimates of the troop strength required to invade Iran run from 100,000 to nearly 2 million. These are nickel-plated deterrents. The bluster in both cases has been hollow, the expensive deployments to the Persian Gulf and the waters off North Korea pointless.

It is very unlikely Trump understands our moment for its historical import. But in his preference for deal-making over war-making, he stands on the right side of it by happenstance. Hard power has never been more plainly in eclipse. A long age draws slowly to a close, what violence there is to come notwithstanding.

Patrick Lawrence, a correspondent abroad for many years, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune, is a columnist, essayist, author and lecturer. His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale). Follow him on Twitter @thefloutist. His web site is Patrick Lawrence. Support his work via his Patreon site. 

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30 comments for “PATRICK LAWRENCE: Brighter US-Iran Prospects

  1. robert e williamson jr
    July 24, 2019 at 18:21

    Sorry Drew I disagree, Trump is not cool headed, you are giving him way too much credit.

    We will not go to war with Iran unless Israel makes it impossible for us not to, which could be a problem, I admit.

    The U.S. military has a people problem, it doesn’t have nearly enough. I’d warn the electronic generals at the Pentagon to be very careful about stirring the hornets nest that is the Veterans who have served several tours of duty and are mentally wasted and have separated from service. Go ahead and recall them and see what happens. Enough of this endless war bullshit , enough is enough.

    In order for the U.S. to field an army the size needed to fight Iran the country would have to reinstate the draft. I’d like to see them try it and see how that works for them.

    Currently the climate for war is cold among the peasants and the country is already as divided as it was during Vietnam, of course the help could be contracted I suppose. Hell, it’s just your money!

    Nope this is all a distracti0n by the two parties, “the threat of war blackmail ruse” to get Americans forget about just how screwed up our two party system is and how bad they have Washington screwed up.

    Dogdamn what a friggin’ mess!

  2. robert e williamson jr
    July 24, 2019 at 17:56

    Please excuse my omission of the right wing nut cases in this country who I should have included in the list of those who constantly babble insanity profusely .

  3. robert e williamson jr
    July 24, 2019 at 17:47

    Very nice to hear something besides the insane babble from Himself, the MSM, congress and candidates Mr. Lawrence seems very secure in his abilities to report his message in such an objective fashion and it shows. Good to know someone is watching the store.

    Thanks for the report.

  4. Bob Steel
    July 23, 2019 at 21:03

    Much of this is a clever distraction while KSA brutalizes and builds a pipeline through Eastern Yemen to bypass the Straits of Hormuz altogether.

    • Skip Scott
      July 24, 2019 at 06:50

      Wow! Fascinating aspect I did not know about.

  5. nels wight
    July 23, 2019 at 17:14

    Elegant kudos to Patrick Lawrence. He would assuredly have warmed Bob Parry’s world.

    thasnks to Pat and the wwebsite

  6. rosemerry
    July 23, 2019 at 13:23

    The USA seems to be able to get away with refusing to obey international laws, attacking anyone it wants, using economic pressure to destroy country after country, “sanctioning” others while never accepting any responsibility for its own actions, yet if it perhaps allows talks it is treated as if it is the “good guy”. Who would believe the words of the US administration in place so far?

  7. Michael McNulty
    July 23, 2019 at 13:18

    If the Trump administration is open to dialogue it’s because they’ve seen the strength of the opposition. Others who had the will to stand up to the US didn’t have the military means to do so but Iran is different. They haven’t turned away and they’ve not stepped back. They haven’t even paled. The US is not used to that and like all bullies such resolve leaves them rather cautious moving forward.

  8. Guy
    July 23, 2019 at 13:04

    A very good and positive article indeed and so good to hear for a change.

  9. John V. Walsh
    July 23, 2019 at 12:54

    Patrick Lawrence’s column is a standout because it takes into account ALL the signs we are seeing from the Trump administration – not simply the ones that lend themselves to the daily “two minutes” of Partisan and Establishment hatred.
    And Patrick’s only remark on Trump’s character is that he is cool under fire. That too reflects balance.
    And it is not hard to see, especially in the case of North Korea, that Trump has pumped out some ear-catching rhetoric which covered his derriere when he moved in a more peaceful direction. This is the Trump m.o. – but members of the Dems and the progressive Establishment dare not point this out for fear of ostracism.
    Time to look at reality rather than the pump out the ritual hate Trump stuff. Not only is it not true, but it has become boring.

  10. Pablo Diablo
    July 23, 2019 at 12:53

    Nixon opened the door to China. Reagan outspent Russia and inadvertently ended the Cold War. Trump’s bluff and bluster could lead to peace with Iran (and N/Korea). Trump starts out with pomposity, hoping to gain advantage in negotiations, but Iran is not a subcontractor in New York City. This is the BIG League. Trump’s problem is that he is trying to undo EVERYTHING Obama did, large and small. And, of course, the Republicans are going along as they never wanted a Negro in the Whit House (see Mitch McConnell).

    • KiwiAntz
      July 23, 2019 at 23:40

      Pablo, it’s a glaringly obvious fact that it doesn’t really matter who is the Occupant in the Whitehouse or whether that person is white or black, or as you put it, having a Negro in the Whitehouse with Obama or a old white guy like Trump, a orange headed version of Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi ? And Obama was a faithful servant & follower of the status quo of the America Empires dictates? The Fact is the POTUS is but a figurehead to give the illusion of Democratic rule, when in reality its a unelected Plutocracy & Obligarchy run by Elites or the so called Deepstate! The Narrative & the song always remains the same whoever is in the Whitehouse, outhouse! But Trump is totally upending this cosy arrangement due to his ignorance & incompetence, greatly accelerating the Empires decline & collapse. The Days are coming when all the World will give America the Treatment they so disgustingly inflict in every other Nation such as sanctions, violence & Warfare? The pieces are already moving in place, as we speak, to de-dollarise & completely destroy America’s lawless, Warmongering via this criminal Financial system which enables the US to finance endless warmongering via putting it on the Federal Reserve printing press to pay for as a enabler, to allow it to continue to violate all International laws & fund its murderous actions around the Globe? The Death of this depraved, sadistic US Empire can’t come soon enough for peace loving people around the World who have had a gutsful of this satanic Nation!

  11. July 23, 2019 at 12:20

    I always enjoy reading Patrick Lawrence’s articles. There is evidence President Trump is reticent about war with Iran. But that is the lonely decision of a leader, when those gloomy storm clouds appear over the mountains portending a maelstrom. What ultimately will avert war will be preventing the protagonists’ core interests clashing. History shows when these collide war is the consequence. In the last hundreds year it has resulted in two world wars. The Iran crisis has all the makings of a third.

  12. vinnieoh
    July 23, 2019 at 10:28

    I read this yesterday when it was posted and my immediate reaction was: Patrick Lawrence is an informed expert, I am not, I hope he is correct , but I remain skeptical. Decided not to comment even though this subject, this situation, always elicits a response from me; decided to sleep on it.

    If it was a matter of only the involvement of Trump, his cabinet and advisors, and of Iran’s various leaders I would have much more confidence in Patrick’s guarded optimism. However, we know that is not the case. Israel will not support any move to negotiations and lessening of threats against Iran so long as Iran remains a thorn in their side. The Sunni monarchies likewise will not co-operate in any meaningful way short of any serious threat by the US government establishment to curtail arms, money, and military husbanding. And we know that Trump is VERY unlikely to do that as he just loves racking up sales of our “beautiful” death arsenal.

    And the question remains: just what does Iran hope to be able to gain by returning to the negotiating table? The simple, most obvious answer to that is an end to their economic strangulation. But what do they realistically have to bargain away to get that relief? This completely manufactured crisis by Trump and his crew has had the desired effect of getting Iran to aggressively respond, but that response has proved that Iran is able, if they so choose, to strangle the world’s most important supply of oil. Oops. Perhaps I just answered that last question, but this leaves a gigantic custard pie all over Trump’s face.

    I don’t see how Trump is able to walk all this back without looking like the blatant loud-mouthed con-man that he is. Much attention, and a lot of word space has been devoted to Trump and the DPRK. Here again I think many miss a very significant point. Every Kim that has presided there at the installation of every new US POTUS has made noises and moves to try to discern the mettle and tenor of the incoming administration. It is like clockwork, and Trump and Kim Jong Un were made for each other, both manipulators of the media. We were not actively at war with the DPRK before, and we are not now, and only a fool would think that they would seriously attack the US. Had they, that piece of the globe would now be an irradiated wasteland, and there is not a damn thing China could or would have done about it.

    OK, so maybe all this is just choreographed dance moves to get us all to a better place, and we are supposed to focus on the dance and not the choreographers. That’s kind of difficult when the choreographers are a mixed bag of Barnum & Baily Clowns and neo-Nazi wanna-be’s.

    • Sam F
      July 23, 2019 at 16:43

      It is indeed a cryptic choreography with all sides making warlike moves with no realistic goal.
      It is staged for the US audience, apparently to arouse or mollify ignorant thugs for election purposes.
      The DemReps may get MIC/zionist bribes for the show, arousing fear only to growl and thunder.
      Or the war opponents may weary or despair of planning, allowing threats to move ever closer to war.
      But Trump is certainly not controlling the war faction, as any civilized politician would fire and arrest them.
      LBJ is said to have told the JCS “You can have your war if I can have the election,” and likely has Trump.
      The election goes to those who own the MSM and pay for wars, which is the MIC/zionists.
      So expect more military/economic/terror provocations of Iran, false flags, buildup on their borders.
      And then an amazing Fall 2020 coincidence of Iran making an “unprovoked” “attack” on US military assets.

  13. July 23, 2019 at 08:10

    “Despite the seemingly escalating risks of war, last week also produced an unexpected drift toward the mahogany table”

    I just do not agree.

    The starting point for any efforts at “mahogany tables” is the United States renouncing its insane destruction of the the nuclear agreement.

    Iran not only has said that, but logic leads us to that conclusion.

    So, what are the chances of Trump and Co. eating a large serving of crow in public?

    Please, how can there be any kind of “negotiations” with a country which doesn’t keep its word? Which is precisely what the United States has proven itself to be.

    A country which publicly rips up a legal contract that not only worked for four years but involved the interests of China, Russia, France, Britain, Germany, the EU , and Iran? All just ignored in a fit of infantile fury?

    Iran would be foolish to do anything else but demand that as a starting point, and Iran has proved it is anything but foolish.

  14. Tim Jones
    July 23, 2019 at 06:58

    Sam, I still hope, even though I confer on all your points.

  15. Tim Jones
    July 23, 2019 at 06:50

    ‘A long age draws to a close.’ Love that line and the implications. I hung on every hopeful word of this article. Care needs to be taken for the devilry of Bolton, Pompeo and those puppeteers in Israel.

  16. July 22, 2019 at 23:42

    “It is very unlikely Trump understands our moment for its historical import. But in his preference for deal-making over war-making, he stands on the right side of it by happenstance.”

    Trump is a piece of work but you could view the above as a cheap shot. He appointed a lot of foreign policy troglodytes starting with Haley, that is true. Jerusalem, outrageous. The Golan Heights, outrageous. Venezuela, the same. But there is movement and stated intent that didn’t exist before. We have movement in Afghanistan, Trump doesn’t call Putin Hitler and talks to China. Mr. Lawrence sees possibilities with Iran. Syria doesn’t have a no fly zone and hopefully we will get out altogether. Ahmadinejad appears and talks sense and pays our president a complement.

    I don’t know what goes on inside our president’s head but like a successful businessman he looks for opportunities most likely to embellish his place in history. I think he sees what is obvious to many but escapes Washington, that peace is possible and the only thing too often standing in the way is us. I think Pogo had something to say about that.

    There is so much not to like about the President he doesn’t seem caught in the rut that much of the rest of Washington and some of the capitals in Europe seem to be trapped in. To be charitable, I do believe his actions on behalf of Israel could be considered necessary cover for freedom of action elsewhere. Looking back at the early months of his presidency, regime change was not unthinkable. Certainly any foreign policy initiatives were unthinkable. I think his Jerusalem decision made them “thinkable”.

  17. Sam F
    July 22, 2019 at 22:17

    There has been endless administration economic war and war threatening, which failed to exact any concessions, so it must be largely aimed at those Repubs who love killing as much as the Dems but don’t want to pay for it. Much of that is plainly staged, and even explained to the alleged adversaries, so it is staged for a US audience. Could be intended to cover up US losses, could be directed by Repub fundraisers or election advisers.

    But the economic wars and tanker thefts are intended to incite physical war. If Trump opposed that he would root out and fire and prosecute all those responsible. So clearly he does not oppose war with those he threatens.

    No patriotic, humanitarian administration would do these things. And without such an administration in 2020, which neither the Reps nor Dems will offer, the post-election situation provides no restraint upon warmongers, MIC or zionist, who will have paid 2020 campaign bribes to both Reps and Dems to rent our military for pennies on the dollar. Once Trump is a lame duck and after the 2022 elections, we will see his own policy.

  18. July 22, 2019 at 21:48

    It’s call your destiny is tied to your friends (Saudis/UAE),but your friends destiny is also tied to your enemy (Iran). This shows,We are connected to each other comes what may. No world war,Instead world peace there is no other way. Unless one wants to spite is eyes because he hates his face. Which is better?gotta choose. Go blind or accept your face. This world is all we’ve got.

  19. Jeff Harrison
    July 22, 2019 at 20:04

    I suspect you of being overly optimistic, Patrick. The golden thread that runs through American international relations is global hegemony. I see no evidence that the US is letting that objective go by the wayside. I do see one reason for optimism tho’ and that’s Pompous’ statement that the UK had to look out for it’s own ships in the Persian Gulf. Basically what the US said there was “yeah, you got a t*t in the wringer doing our bidding but figure it out for yourself” Great diplomacy that. For how long will the obsequious vassal states of Europe continue to be vassals if vassalhood doesn’t really buy them diddlysquat?

    • Guy
      July 23, 2019 at 13:14

      Good point and very similar to what we did in Canada in arresting Ms.Meng Wanzhou for the US benefit . Trudeau or should I more appropriately say his Foreign Minister ,got her t*t in the wringer and now we have to deal with the fallout , i.e. bad relations with China.

  20. Gregory Herr
    July 22, 2019 at 19:01

    “Hard power has never been more plainly in eclipse. A long age draws slowly to a close, what violence there is to come notwithstanding.”

    Beautiful writing…I’m all for an Age of Aquarius

    There are threads of optimism to be taken from this report.

    And as to Rand Paul—he certainly needs to get out of town and do something useful after his despicable block of 9/11 first responder funds and his bogus and stupid comments with regard to Ilhan Omar.

  21. KiwiAntz
    July 22, 2019 at 18:56

    Unfortunately, I don’t agree with the positive overtones of this article regarding the simplistic “Brighter US – Iran prospects ahead” narrative, it’s a pipe dream? Why? Because for 40 yrs the depraved, duplicitous American Empire has been in a state of war with Iran since it was unceremoniously booted out of Iran, along with its disgusting puppet, the Shah & America has never been able to forgive or forget this abject humiliation by the Sovereign Nation of Iran! You’ve think America would learn its lesson from past humiliating disasters from Vietnam to Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria & other places but no this Nation never, ever learns from its incompetent mistakes? If Trump wants a fight with Iran, Iran will give him a asymmetric fight that would make the Vietnam defeat look like a cakewalk? Roll the dice America, Iran has nothing to lose & everything to gain from a US Military attack, while America knows this will utterly bring its shabby, chaotic Empire to a collapse it will never recover from if it dares to attack Iran!

  22. Bob Van Noy
    July 22, 2019 at 18:43

    Nice response Drew Hunkins, and great reporting Patrick Lawrence, especially in light of the previous report by Ray McGovern on Patrick’s early and accurate assessment of the Internal environment at the DNC and the Russiagate contrivance.

    It’s beginning to feel like we’re moving on from the clearly belligerent foreign policy of Empire
    toward a more diplomatic and accommodating attitude. It’s about time.

    I just read Oliver Stone’s interview with Vladimir Putin which seemed downright enlightening so possibly we have moved beyond The Neocons?

    The interview is here:

    • Gregory Herr
      July 22, 2019 at 19:10

      I read Stone’s interview last night via a link from Moon of Alabama. Glad you brought it up because it is, of course, quite worthwhile (though short).

    • Drew Hunkins
      July 22, 2019 at 20:21

      Thanks Mr. Van Noy.

      Yes, McGovern and Lawrence have been godsends over the last several years, no doubt.

      Thanks for the link to the recent Stone Putin interview! I thought you were referring to the series of interviews Stone conducted with Putin a few years ago, but no, you just brought me some from fresh reading material.

    • Skip Scott
      July 23, 2019 at 08:02

      Thanks for the link, Bob. I am always taken by how civil and rational Putin is in his interviews. It is a shame that most people in the USA get no exposure to his speeches and interviews, but only some cartoon version of the “evil Putin”. It really casts a light on the propaganda narrative when you contrast Putin’s actual words and deeds with his treatment by our MSM.

  23. Drew Hunkins
    July 22, 2019 at 14:33

    It’s obvious to the astute CN readership that an internecine battle is going on in the Trump administration and the wider militarist establishment.

    One wing is made up of Adelson, Bernie Marcus, Paul Singer, their lieutenants in Bolton and Pompeo, the Treasury Zionists and a few rabid generals and much of the militarist Iranophobic corporate media


    the other wing, which consists of the more cool headed Trump (yes, he’s actually cool headed in regard to attacking Iran, he’s apparently taken to mocking Bolton to his face about his instinct to bomb everything in sight), and various Trump team advisers with an eye towards his 2020 re-election prospects.

    What’s primarily keeping the Trump regime from bombing Tehran is the 2020 presidential election voter. The staffers and brain trust in the Trump camp well realize support for any Washington violence toward the Persian state is razor thin, and that any incursion in Iran could doom his chances to be re-elected.

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