By threatening a devastating war against Iran, President Donald Trump’s recent response to Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani’s benign statement about “the mother of all peace” and “the mother of all war” is another example of erratic and dangerous foreign policy pronouncements. Trump tweeted in capital letters that Iran “will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”
Even if the President’s tweet could be attributed to hyperbole and a bargaining gambit in his acclaimed art of deal-making, Trump’s escalating war of words against Iran and calls for regime change in that country pose a serious threat to regional stability and global commerce. The President’s messages ignore the realities of the Middle East, the domestic dynamics in Iran, the complexities and interconnectedness of the Persian Gulf littoral states, and the recent disastrous history of the Iraq War.
The President’s statement that he saw no problem in meeting with Iran’s president does not mitigate his oft-repeated war threats against Rouhani’s country.
Iran and Iraq
Iran is not Iraq. The initial stage of removing Saddam Hussein from power was a relatively easy task for the US military, whereas the clerical regime in Iran is much more entrenched in the Persian-majority Iranian state than Saddam’s Sunni minority rule was in Iraq. Although Iraq, since its inception in the early 1920s, has been a Shia majority state, it always had Sunni minority rulers, the first of whom, Faisal bin Hussein, imposed by British colonialism. The Sunni monarchy, which ruled Iraq for three decades and was toppled in a popular revolt in 1958, was followed by a string of strongmen that ended in 2003, when the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. The oppressed Shia majority welcomed the foreign invasion and the removal of the repressive 60-year Sunni rule.
Iran has always been ruled by a Shia regime, first under the Pahlavi dynasty and since the 1979 revolution, under a dual regime of clerics and a popularly elected president and legislature. Islamic rule in Iran is more complex and therefore more difficult to undo than was the Iraqi regime in 2003. Although some Iranians might be willing to sign a pact with the “foreign devil” to undo the ayatollahs’ rule in Iran, they would not welcome this “devil” into their own home even if it succeeds in toppling the clerical regime.
A foreign “liberation” of a country from its regime very quickly morphs into “occupation,” no matter how much a foreign “liberator” tries to sugar coat the “moral” imperatives of its action. When I briefed a very senior policymaker on the eve of the Iraq war about the possible reaction from the Iraqi people to the impending America-led war, he dismissively retorted, “You people [referring to my Agency] must understand that we are liberators not occupiers. We are saving the Iraqi people from that tyrant.” I told him that the so-called liberation would be short-lived and that the Islamic world would not support a U.S. war against Iraq, viewing it as yet another “Christian Crusader” war against a Muslim country.
Saddam was a tyrant and a thug, but so were many other Muslim rulers with whom Washington had established cozy relations. Saddam kept the lid on sectarian discontent in the country, which would soon explode with his removal. Other ill-informed policies after the invasion, including “de-Baathification” and the dissolution of the Iraqi military, helped stoke the enmity of Iraqis and other Muslims toward the United States. Regardless of Saddam’s hypocritical use of religion for his political goals—witness his emblazing a Muslim call to prayer on the Iraqi flag following the first Gulf War—millions of Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, denounced the American-led coalition war against him.
The Bush administration claimed that a lofty goal of the war in Iraq was to end tyranny and bring democracy to the country and the wider Arab and Islamic region. The claim was sadly farcical. Governance is worse now in the region than it was on the eve of the war, and democracy remains a pipedream for hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims.
So, why is President Trump threatening Iran and what’s his ultimate goal? If his goal is to force Iran to sign a new nuclear deal, he has made non-negotiable demands that Tehran is unlikely to consider.
Iran and North Korea
No matter how much Pompeo proclaims that North Korea is in the process of denuclearization, there is no evidence to support this fanciful claim. Although President Trump has not revealed what he and Kim Jong Un talked about in their one-on-one meeting in Singapore, there’s no indication that the North Korean dictator promised the American president any such deal. North Korea did not cave in to President Trump’s threats. He should expect no less from Iran, regardless of how many angry tweets he spews out.
In the end, President Trump and Secretary Pompeo will discover that whatever nuclear deal they offer North Korea, it will not be much different from the offers that previous administrations—Republican and Democrat—made to successive North Korean dictators since the 1990s. If President Trump decides to follow up on his comment at the press conference with the Italian prime minister and meet with Iranian President Rouhani, his nuclear offer to Iran will vary very little from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Most rational analysts agree that despite its faults, the JCPOA was the best deal the international community could have gotten under the circumstances.
If North Korea offers any lesson in the Trumpian style of international relations, it is that he manufactures a crisis, jerks the international community around, then embarks on dramatic photo-op encounters to resolve the crisis that he created in the first place. Once things calm down a bit, the world forgets about the crisis-solution drama, and things go back to where they were pre-crisis. A similar Trumpian drama is in the making regarding Iran. He withdrew from the “worst ever” nuclear deal with Iran despite strong entreaties from the other signatories. He offers to meet with the Iranian political leadership and promises to make a deal. Despite his self-proclaimed prowess at deal making, he will soon discover that he won’t be able to out-fox Iranian famed bazaaris.
Iran and the Persian Gulf
Iran is a credible military power with regional reach. Its geographic proximity to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and other pro-American Gulf Cooperation Council countries make these countries exceedingly vulnerable to Iranian military retaliation in case of an American attack. It’s very difficult for Saudi Arabia and its neighbors, despite the American-provided Patriot anti-missile batteries, to protect their oil and water infrastructure. Perhaps the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Quds Force are already drawing operational plans to bomb such facilities should war break out. They probably already have sleeper cells in Saudi Arabia and the UAE to sabotage the infrastructure from within if Iran is attacked. Not all GCC countries would support war against Iran. Oman and Kuwait most likely would declare their neutrality, withhold support for Washington’s military attacks, and call on the UN Security Council to stop the war. Most permanent members of the Security Council, who signed the Iran nuclear deal, would endorse a resolution to end the hostilities, which would leave the Trump administration more isolated than ever.
Iran and its proxy militant groups will halt oil shipping through the Strait of Hormuz and Bab al-Mandab. If Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi foolishly decides to join the war effort, Iran’s Shia and Sunni proxies will surely make the Suez Canal a hazardous trade route. If oil shipments were interrupted for even a week, the world economy would suffer heavily. If British and other major insurers decide to declare the Persian Gulf a war zone, as Lloyds of London did in the 1980s, the daily insurance rates on tankers would rise to hundreds of thousands of dollars, forcing tankers to “park” off the Arabia Sea coast.
If this happens, tankers would become vulnerable to attacks by terrorist groups and by Iranian speedboats. When I once flew over the tankers that were “parked” off the coast of Fujairah, an emirate member of the UAE, a US government official told me at the time that it was the high insurance rates of Lloyds of London, not the Iran-Iraq war, that threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz.
The Iraq War was not a regional war. Invading Iran, however, will definitely draw in the entire region. Which could beget a human disaster of epic proportions and create waves of refugees “the likes of which,” as President Trump loves to say, the world has never seen.
Invading Iran without considering the regional realities is the height of insanity. If Trump ventures further down this slippery slope of war against Iran, it behooves US military leaders, senior US senators, and major corporate executives to persuade him to change course and seek real negotiations with Iran, driven not by presidential bravado but by mutual interests and regional and global stability. Defense Secretary James Mattis should convince Trump that if war is an extension of diplomacy, he should try diplomacy first before indulging in more saber rattling.
Emile Nahkleh is a Cipher Brief expert. He also writes for Lobelog. This column was originally posted at lobelog.com and is shared with permission. It has been slightly edited from its original version.