Tensions between the United States and Iran have flared up since the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal with Iran last year and began ratcheting up sanctions on the Islamic Republic.
Earlier this month, tensions turned into threats, as Washington refused to extend sanctions waivers for buyers of Iranian oil, designated Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) a terrorist organisation, and began military preparations to deter Iran.
These measures are pushing the Iranian economy to the brink. Oil exports, which have already dwindled from 2.5 million to less than 1.3 million barrels a day since last year, could drop even further, crippling the state budget. Ordinary Iranians, who are already suffering from the raging inflation (currently at 40 percent) and skyrocketing prices of goods, will likely bear the brunt of Washington’s push to bring Iranian oil exports to zero. And this is only the beginning.
The Iranian leadership has been defiant. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said this “hostile measure” will not be left “without a response”, while President Hassan Rouhani has threatened to disrupt oil shipments from Gulf countries. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has cautioned that Iran could walk away from the nuclear deal and warned against a potential escalation to war.
If the past three Gulf wars of the 1980s (Iraq-Iran), 1991 (US/UN-Iraq) and 2003 (US/UK-Iraq) are anything to go by, a confrontation between the US and Iran would prove far more devastating. So why are Washington and Tehran ignoring the lessons of war, and marching eyes wide shut towards another armed conflict? And can anyone stop them?
Even before he was elected president, Donald Trump famously branded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by the Obama administration “the worst deal ever” and once he took office, he embarked on dismantling it.
The US wants Iran to end all its nuclear and missile programmes, withdraw its forces from Syria, stop its “destabilising” policies in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Gulf, and cease its support for armed groups like Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis in exchange for negotiating a new nuclear deal.
No one would have been more surprised than the US itself if Iran had said yes to any of it. These demands basically constitute total Iranian surrender, not only to the US but also to Israel and Saudi Arabia, Trump’s key regional partners and principle drivers behind the new Iran policy.
National Security Advisor of the United States John Bolton made this crystal clear on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly session last September, when he said: “If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.”
The message was certainly heard loud and clear in Tehran, which has accused the so-called B-team (Bolton, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed Bin Salman and the UAE’s Mohammed Bin Zayed) of pushing Trump to seek regime or war with Iran.
Perhaps it is true that the US president has been ensnared by various warmongers in a vicious campaign against Iran, but the Iranian leadership has been anything but innocent in all of this, with its own A-team (led by Ayatollah Khamenei) pursuing regional hegemony.
Instead of taking advantage of the windfall from the nuclear deal and the normalisation of relations with the West to rebuild its economy and country, Tehran has doubled down on its aggressive policies in the region.
Although it has accused the US, Israel, and Saudi Arabia of causing instability, it has itself chosen to advance its narrow interests with recklessness and indifference to the disastrous consequences.
Over the past few years, Iran has pursued a sectarian strategy that destabilised its neighbours and empowered the likes of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq. It has also waged proxy wars against Saudi Arabia, crippling countries like Yemen and Lebanon and used paramilitary groups like the IRGC and its al-Quds Force to undermine opponents across the Arab world.
Its aggressive policies have fuelled a now widely held suspicion that it seeks to “create a new Persian and Shi’ite ’empire’ on Arab land”. Some members of its political elite have even bragged that Iran already rules in four Arab capitals: Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sanaa.
The Iranian strategy of exploiting instability to pursue regional hegemony has backfired. In the hope of curtailing Iran’s Middle Eastern ambitions, many Arab states are now not only siding with the US but are also drawing closer to Iran’s archenemy, Israel.
In addition to economic, diplomatic and strategic tools, Washington and Tehran are also employing religion to justify their policies and rally their supporters at home and abroad.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, an evangelical Christian, has claimed that Trump may have been sent by God to protect Israel from Iran. He, along with Vice President Mike Pence and other evangelicals working with the Trump administration, supports Israel’s religious claims over Jerusalem and the rest of Palestine, and invokes biblical texts to explain US policy towards Iran and the region.
No less alarming is Iran’s use of religion and particularly the idea of protecting the oppressed and the downtrodden to pursue its hegemonic policies across the region. The Iranian leadership has also actively sought the sectarianisation of local tensions and conflicts in order to present itself as the “protector” of all Shia communities in the region. It has also employed Shia dogmas and calls to protect holy Shia shrines to recruit fighters for the various militias it supports in Iraq and Syria.
But it is not only the US and Iran who have engaged in religious fanaticism. Israel and Saudi Arabia have done so as well, and so have various non-state actors such as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). They have all assumed their own versions of “manifest destiny”, claiming they were divinely ordained to conquer and occupy and willing to use God’s name in vain in order to advance their narrow political interests.
Arrogance breeds contempt; religious arrogance breeds conflict.
So, could this “clash of fanaticism” escalate into a wider confrontation?
I am not convinced that either Trump or Rouhani wishes for a war. There doesn’t seem to be a decision or a plan to go to war, yet – not today, not tomorrow.
But what about next year? Trump’s 12 demands have left Tehran with no option for an honourable exit and set it on the path towards an economic disaster. Feeling anxious about an implosion from within, it will have to devise a plan to respond.
Meanwhile, the US will continue to strangle it economically, destabilise it politically and undermine it regionally. It will pursue various containment strategies like “offshore balancing“, but if those fail, military intervention will be a viable option.
Washington’s aggressive approach will likely weaken Iranian pragmatists like Rouhani, and empower hardliners. This will cause Iran to abandon diplomatic efforts to contain the crisis and seek to quit the nuclear deal and perhaps even the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty altogether, rile up its Gulf neighbours, and undermine the US presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. This would inevitably evoke a sharp reaction from Washington, which may lead to war or wars by proxy throughout much of the region.
Foreseeing such developments, the Trump administration is already preparing the public for possible escalation. Like the Bush administration, it is repeating the same false claims that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq – that there are weapons of mass destruction (WMD) threat and support for terrorism.
Clearly, some in Washington have forgotten the Iraq debacle, and continue to believe in limited wars and regime change.
All of this begs the bigger question: Where are the world powers who signed the Iran deal, enshrined it in a UN Security Council resolution, and vowed to defend it? Shouldn’t they stop the ongoing escalation?
Europe may still support the deal but it is clearly spooked by Washington’s aggressive posturing and has not yet activated INSTEX, the alternative trade mechanism to bypass US sanctions.
China, the biggest importer of Iranian oil, has reduced its oil imports by a quarter since last year. It still maintains business relations with Tehran, just enough to use it as a bargaining chip in the ongoing trade negotiations with Washington.
In short, the world powers have not been successful in saving the nuclear deal, or devising a viable plan to circumvent US sanctions. They are also failing to curb the US-Iranian escalation to war.
If there is any chance of stopping this madness, it may well have to come from the US itself.
The ball is in your court, America. But don’t wait until 2020 to make your voice heard against another mad, sick, stupid war.