Once more, it would seem, that the pirouettes history is performing are to the drums of war. Warships gurgle through the Persian Gulf, warplanes cloud the skies over it and the question on many a lip at the moment is: Will the US and Iran go to war?
A quick look at what has so far passed in the current orchestral performance of global geopolitics would return an ominous echo. A multilateral “deal” that was seen to be a landmark warrant of peace is falling apart. American and Iranian officials are thundering threats. The US President is tweeting them. The US is deploying hundreds of additional troops and military assets, including aircraft carriers, Patriot missile batteries, nuclear-capable B-52 strategic bombers and the hot-off-the-shelves F-22 Raptor fighter aircrafts, to the Persian Gulf. By the looks of it, the Pentagon has already prepped plans to deploy some 120,000 US forces to the Gulf region, should matters get out of hand.
On the other hand, attacks have occurred on commercial ships, including oil tankers, in the Gulf of Oman and the Bab el-Mandeb strait (the lesser known, but equally important, twin sister of Strait of Hormuz). Saudi oil pipelines have been attacked as well. As have been two American drones – one of which was very recently shot down and the event was reported as an extremely dangerous escalation. After the shoot down, the US President is reported to have ordered retaliatory strikes against Iran, which were called off just “ten minutes” before they would have gone effective. This was, then, followed with US Cyber Command hitting Iranian military computer networks tasked with managing its air defense systems.
The US forces also simulated airstrike missions against Iran, even as Trump administration officials sought to link Iran with Al Qaeda and made a failed attempt at tapping the infamous 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) law, which led to the Afghan war, to mandate military action against Iran. Later, President Trump, himself, added a corollary to his administration’s efforts by stating publicly that he did not need Congressional authorization to strike Iran.
By the looks of it, what remains to be performed now is the Shakespearean dialogue: “Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” So, will the US and Iran go to war? My answer to that would be: No. Yes, indeed, I would hasten to add ‘ceteris paribus’ to my ‘no’ – but, generally, no, the US and Iran will not go to war. Why do I say no? Let us begin.
The opening sonata to the present performance began to be played in 2016, when the now-President, Donald Trump, was campaigning across the breadth of the United States. A person who prides himself as an ace ‘deal-maker’ (he even wrote a book titled ‘The Art of the Deal’), Trump built a presidential campaign around the idea of ‘the deal’. He picked off on several ‘deals’ that, he said, were ripping off the United States and were bad for the average Joe. The Affordable Care Act (or Obamacare) was a bad deal. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was a bad deal. The Paris Climate Accords were bad. The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) were bad. Even the World Trade Organization (WTO) was a set of very bad deals that allowed the Chinese to game the system and exploit, at least to his mind, the Americans.
Interestingly, the one deal that he really picked on – and that he reserved his greatest contempt for – calling it the “worst deal ever negotiated” and one that would lead to a “nuclear holocaust” – was the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), more commonly known as the “Iran Nuclear Deal”. Negotiated by the administration of former President Barrack Obama and signed in 2015, the JCPOA opened Iranian nuclear facilities to rigorous inspection by international observers, including officials of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), capped its nuclear enrichment below levels that would enable development of a bomb and restricted Iran from growing its nuclear program beyond certain limits for a pre-defined period of time (some one and a half decades). In return, Iran was allowed to keep its nuclear program up and running – but for peaceful purposes – and the stifling economic sanctions imposed by the international community on Iran to prevent its nuclearization were lifted. This, Trump said, was a bad deal.
Candidate Trump went around casting the world in a simple binary: There were bad deals in place for the everyday Americans, generally poorly negotiated by preceding administrations because they simply did not know how to make a good deal. Why was this so? Naturally, because no one else knew ‘the art of the deal’ as good as the savior, Trump himself. So, then, what had to be done? The answer was just as simple: The bad dealshad to be undone. The bad dealshad to be re-negotiated, and the really bad ones had to be replacedwith good deals. And, what would all this achieve? It would make America great again! That was, precisely, candidate Trump’s election slogan. Candidate Trump was, basically, arguing that by putting ‘America First’ (another key election slogan) and, negotiating and re-negotiating deals that accorded primacy to American interests first and foremost, the United States could be made great again.
This – the idea of securing a good deal to put America First and Make America Great Again– is at the heart of the whole orchestral performance being staged by the Trump administration. This is what is behind American departure from the Paris Climate Accords and the TPP under President Trump. This is behind the ‘renegotiation’ of the NAFTA (by picking fights with old friends like Canada). This is behind President Trump’s ultimatums to his European partners to ‘pay more’ for the security American military power accords them. Indeed, this is what is behind the US-China trade war. President Trump wants to secure better terms, as per his worldview, for American industry and commerce. And surely, this is what is behind the whole Iran imbroglio.
So, naturally, one must ask, how does all this tie up? Let me try to answer that question. The above discussion brings us to two essential points, going forward, that tie everything together. The first is, that opening the so-called Iran Deal to re-negotiation began in an election cycle; is, thus, an election promise that President Trump is determined to deliver on; and, is, naturally, and by no, if at all very little, stretch of imagination, tied with the next election cycle. Now, this latter part is crucial. President Trump is going up for re-election next year and he would want to be seen as someone who delivered on his promises. This should mean two things in turn.
Firstly, that President Trump is upping the ante on Iran to drive Iran, and by extension, the bad JCPOA back into electoral debates, gimmicking and such. This explains the progressive escalation of tensions with Iran as we move closer to the 2020 presidential election. Secondly, that President Trump is readying to register progress in the Iran deal-making game. President Trump would want a new Iran deal to have been signed by the time American voters go out to vote. And, even if this seems unlikely given the current scenario, President Trump would want to have at least some progress to report to his current and potential supporters. Naturally, this would mean, at the very least, opening up of dialogue between American and Iranian negotiators and some sort of dealbeginning to take shape, even if only in the ideational realm.
Now, given that President Trump is seeking to strike a dealwith Iran, it means by default, then, that he is notgunning for a fight. Indeed, the entirety of Trump’s posturing on Iran has centered on there being a bad dealwhich, now, needs to be replacedwith a better deal. In this, there has been remarkable consistency. You are welcome to go and dig up any amount of Trump statements on Iran, the JCPOA and what needs to be done – through the 2016 presidential election campaign, before it and after it – and you will find that he has consistently criticized the 2015 agreement and spoken for a new deal. Conversely, when you are digging up old Trump statements, you will run into – and I can guarantee it – a parallel set of statements, which have often times been woven into Trump’s expression of opinions on Iran, and have, at times, been delivered in seeming isolation, that vehemently underscore a very important, if but generally missed, point. Trump has stated time and again that he does not want a new Middle Eastern conflict. He has stated Middle Eastern wars are costly and futile. He has emphasized that America does not need any more conflicts, especially not in the Middle East. He has argued for a broad disengagement from the Middle East. He has, in fact, made good on such views and has disengaged the United States from Syria. We have seen its results. The war in the country is dying down. In fact, Trump’s own Secretary of Defense, Gen (r) James Mattis, resigned just last December in protest against Trump’s disengagement from Syria! So, these two things taken together – consistent emphasis on securing a new dealwhile arguing against war – are not at all a sign of incoherence in Trump’s foreign policy and are, instead, a very, very clear indication that war is not, in fact, coming.
This leads us to the second major thing that we need to look at in our answer to whether or not a war between the US and Iran will happen. We must ask: If President Trump does not want a war but rather a deal, then what is up with such bellicose statements and aggressive posturing in the Persian Gulf? The answer to that is, also, twofold. The first aspect is that the Trump administration has adopted a policy of ‘maximum pressure’ to force a new deal. It has heightened tensions in the Gulf, redeployed military assets, issued warnings, undertaken hostile posturing and dramatically upped the economic sanctions game. In fact, as early as July 2017, the Trump administration had the eponymously titled ‘Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act’ pushed through the American Congress, which included Iran amongst the countries that were to be targeted through sanctioning. That was as clear an indication as any of the path the Trump administration was going to take to force a new Iran deal. It has, indeed, adopted that course. The sanctions on Iran are stifling and have led to a reduction of Iranian oil exports to a fifth of their former levels, have triggered a shrinkage in Iranian economy to the tune of 4-6 percent, have escalated inflation to between 40 and 60 percent, and have caused unemployment rate to surge to a massive 26 percent!
So, what is the end game here? It is to force a new deal. And what does forcinga new deallook like? It looks like getting the browbeaten Iranians onto a negotiating table across from bully-like American negotiators, to get them to talk directly to the US and come up with anew deal. Put simply, the endgame of this ‘maximum pressure’ campaign is to force the Iranians to start talking to the Americans again! Why is ‘maximum pressure’ necessary? Because the US walked away from the JCPOA that it itself negotiated for no better reason than it being perceived by the current President as a ‘bad deal’. Naturally, it caused a lot of international dismay and forced the Iranians to pledge not to talk to the Americans for a separate deal. In fact, the Iranian supremo, Ali Khamenei, the President, Hassan Rouhani, the Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, and a flurry of other Iranian officials, publicly pledged not to talk to the Americans after the US pulled out of the JCPOA. So, basically, all of this is to force the Iranians back to the negotiating table – and, notably, by arm-twisting them.
The second aspect of it is, that President Trump wants to be seen as a strong leader by his voter base, going forward. He wants to be seen as a leader who stood up to a hostile Iran, did not let the country hold America hostage, with threats of war and an accelerating nuclear program, and who utilized American power, soft and hard, to full effect and like it should be used, to forward American interests in that region of the globe. So, put another way, this is bullying Iran to appeal to his support base with twoelections in mind – the 2016 election that has passed, and with some promises made that need to be kept, and the upcoming 2020 election. Herein lies the next, and final, point that I will bring up before closing this discussion.
The support base of President Trump has two important planks that we should consider. The first is a conservative, Christian Right-leaning, segment of society that views Iran negatively, and that is also, economically backward, in general. At once, the browbeating of Iran through display of overwhelming American power humors this segment; and the ‘need for a better deal to bring the average Joe out of his situation and into a new era of American prosperity’ narrative rings true with the same. That explains actions that President Trump has taken that fit into those two categories. The second plank is a conservative, Right-leaning segment of American society that is isolationist, anti-Globalist and is tired of American engagement in long drawn out and costly foreign wars. This plank of President Trump’s support base was the reason the US walked away from the Paris Climate Accords and disengaged from Syria; and, is supporting protectionist trade policies and consequent trade wars. Naturally, this segment is quite influential with the American president. So to appeal to this segment, retain its support and to act in its interest (or, at least, in favor of its worldview), President Trump will continue to make good on his promises to not step into a fresh Middle Eastern conflict.
Thus, looking at all of the above together, I have argued that the US and Iran will not, in fact, go to war. This includes Candidate Trump 1.0 creating a good-deal-bad-deal binary for electoral purposes; President Trump working to make good on the promises he made to Make America Great Again; President Trump forcing a new deal in the run-up to the 2020 election and as replacement to fill in the vacuum his own departure from the JCPOA created; and, Candidate Trump 2.0 seeking to look tough and successful on Iran. It is true, however, that ‘accidents’, unwitting and inadvertent, as well as, ones purposefully staged or designedly caused, by other stakeholders in the Persian Gulf, and beyond, could trigger conflict. Indeed, history tells us that this is very much possible. For example, the so-called ‘Gulf of Tonkin Incident’ back in 1964, which saw an American naval vessel get into a tiff with three smaller North Vietnamese naval vessels, led to the infamous Vietnam War. Therefore, I qualified my statement by adding ‘ceteris paribus’ – all other things held equal. But then, history also tells us that such events do not necessarily lead to conflict. One may look to the 1980s, especially to the so-called ‘Tanker War’, which saw several confrontations between Iraqi, Iranian and American navies, and note that such incidents did not, actually, lead to all-out war. So, for now, and unless something far more dramatic happens, I will maintain that the US and Iran will not go to war. I will return with more perspectives on this in my next piece. So, let us wait for that.
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