It takes some doing for Donald Trump to come off as the voice of reason and restraint in any room. To be fair, the bar is low when it's set by "Benghazi Mike" Pompeo, "Bonkers" Bolton, and "the old woman from South Carolina," Lindsey Graham (credit to the colonel at Sic Semper Tyrannis for the colorful appellations). No doubt the president's impulse to inch back from the brink of an air strike against Iran triggered consternation within the ranks of these statesmen who want Iran to "feel pain" on the presumption that this will render the Iranians docile, a tactic that has worked so well for Israel with the Palestinians.
The two adversaries are playing a perilous game. The abandoned US strike would have been in retaliation to Iran's downing of a US drone in retaliation for US military threats and stepped-up sanctions. Shooting down the drone was a serious escalation whether it happened in international airspace or over Iranian territory (Juan Cole). It did not, however, happen in a vacuum. The Trumpian art of international relations is to precipitate a crisis, walk it back, or walk away, in a fog of bluster-and-bluff ultimatums, and declare victory, which is to say, the imposition of his will on the adversary.
Withdrawal from the JCPOA, the 2015 nuclear deal with which Iran was in compliance, was the move of a blockhead. By sabotaging diplomacy, it was a gift to hardliners and hotheads in both regimes. Sanctions initiated by the US since its withdrawal are designed to wreak havoc on an already miserable Iranian economy. The end game is to either provoke a popular uprising or push Iran into a corner where the government or a lone knucklehead does something stupid, like shoot down a $123 million drone, that will give the US a rationale to rain down fire and fury on them.
Did the extremely stable genius, Benghazi Mike, Bonkers, and the rest really think Iran would not respond as it has? Or did some of them hope that it would? A delusional faith in the efficacy of regime change persists even after the American adventure in Iraq and the Arab Spring. The more idealistic among the faithful may actually believe that destabilization of the Islamic Republic will inevitably lead to freedom and democracy. For others what matters is only that the new regime be reconciled to American-Israeli-Saudi dominance in the region. The possibility that the outcome would be chaos or a new regime every bit as antagonistic toward the US as the present one seems not to occur to any of them.
Iran for its part needs a "narrative of success" before negotiating. Events of last week, the downing of the drone, Trump's backing off from a military response, gave them a justification for entering talks (Ray Takeyh). To this Trump responded predictably with a cyber attack and more sanctions. Much of this convoluted dance is about saving face, with each side trying to create a narrative that it has brought the other to the negotiating table by making it feel pain. The result is a dismal sequence of moves, countermoves, and a spiral of escalation.
As critics of the Trump regime tirelessly point out, there is no policy on Iran and no strategy for the Middle East. At the outset of the present crisis the line on the JCPOA was that it did nothing to constrain Iran's malign activities in the region and its alleged role as "the leading state sponsor of terrorism" (see Jefferson Morley for good background and context in this regard). Of late Trump has turned his laser, genius focus to nuclear weapons: "I'm not looking for war, and if there is, it'll be obliteration like you’ve never seen before. But I’m not looking to do that. But you can’t have a nuclear weapon" (quoted by Martin Matishak).
As has been noted, Iran was in compliance with the JCPOA. Furthermore, Iranian leaders have declared publicly that Iran does not want nuclear weapons. There is a reason why Iran did not use chemical weapons in response to Iraq's use of chemical weapons against civilians and troops that killed 20,000 Iranians & severely injured 100,000 more (1983–84). The Islamic Republic's first supreme leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, issued a fatwa (legal judgment by a qualified Islamic scholar) prohibiting the use of chemical and nuclear weapons because use of weapons of mass destruction is contrary to Islamic law.
Ayatollah Khamenei, the present supreme leader, continued Khomeini's ruling with his own fatwa against nuclear weapons. These fatwas, issued by the "guardian jurists" of the Islamic state, "are binding on the state as a whole in Iran’s Shiite Islam-based political system, holding a legal status above mere legislation" (Gareth Porter). This is the dreaded Sharia law that gets neoconservative knickers wadded up uncomfortably when it is convenient to their aims but is blithely disregarded here, or maybe they are just ignorant.
So what purpose did the JCPOA serve if Iran did not seek nuclear weapons in the first place? US officials were then as now skeptical of the Iranians and "relied instead on murky intelligence that has never been confirmed about an alleged covert Iranian nuclear weapons program" (Porter). The 2015 deal provided for inspections and confirmation that the Iranians were not just blowing smoke with the fatwas. For Iran, the agreement brought sanctions relief.
Iran may well bear responsibility for recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman and against American interests in Iraq. It is also possible that these attacks were the work of militant groups supported but not controlled by Tehran, just as it is possible that shooting down the drone was, as Trump himself surmised, the work of some knucklehead and not an order that came down from the top.
Juan Cole at Informed Comment writes that, "If Iran is right that the drone flew into Iranian territory, the incident is still an unfortunate raising of tensions. But if it was over international waters, as the US maintains, Iran was in the wrong."
Cole goes on to point out that just where the drone was in regard to Iranian territory is not as clear-cut as either side might have it:
"One problem for these definitions is that the US, in accordance with the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, recognizes only 12 nautical miles off the coast as belonging to the country, whereas many nations claim a much larger portion of the sea along their coasts than that. The US Air Force says that the drone was never closer to the Iranian coast than 21 nautical miles. One of the unfortunate consequences of the hostility of Trump and his capos like John Bolton to the UN and international law is that it makes it harder for the US to insist with a straight face that other countries take these things seriously. Bolton once denied that the UN even exists."
Yes, Bonkers Bolton really did say this in a 1994 speech: "There’s no such thing as the United Nations" (quoted by Matthew Haag). This is the guy who controls the intelligence information that reaches the president...well, except for what he gets from Fox News.
The Human Rights Watch World Report 2019 paints a dreary picture of human rights violations in Iran, Israel/Palestine (covering actions by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas as well as those of Israel), Saudi Arabia, and the United States. I have no interest in disputation about moral equivalence or ranking according to who is worst and who is maybe not as bad. Suffice it to say that not one of them can hold itself up as a role model.
These observations and opinions hardly begin to touch on the complexities of a crisis that joins the crisis at the southern border of the US, the tariff crisis with China, the climate crisis, and others cultivated and nourished by the Trump regime. While I read a lot and try to be informed, I am far from an expert on any of it. Like many I may know just enough to get myself into trouble. The alternative to defer to those with expertise is also problematic, for one is still condemned to judge the authenticity of conflicting claims to expertise. On what basis are such judgments to be made? "Under every deep a lower deep opens" (Ralph Waldo Emerson). Yet to remain silent seems a greater offense than to risk error.
Memo from the Editorial Desk
Titles are not my strong suit. I had second thoughts and made a minor revision on this one after the post was published.
David Brennan, Ayatollah Says America Can't Stop Iran Getting Nuclear Weapons, Newsweek, June 13, 2019
Juan Cole, Back from Iran War Brink: Trump wants to Walk back Iran Crisis that He created with Severe US Sanctions, Informed Comment, June 21, 2019
Matthew Haag, 3 Examples of John Bolton’s Longtime Hard-Line Views, The New York Times, March 22, 2018
Gina Harkins and Oriana Pawlyk, US Denounces 'Unprovoked Attack' After Iran Shoots Down High-Value Navy Drone, Military.com, June 20, 2019
Martin Matishak, Trump warns Iran of 'obliteration like you’ve never seen before,' Politico, June 23, 2019
Jefferson Morely, The Growing Obsession With Linking Iran to Terrorism, The New Republic, April 10, 2019
Gareth Porter, When the Ayatollah Said No to Nukes, Foreign Policy, October 16, 2014
Ray Takeyh, The Real Reason Iran Has Been Provoking Trump, Politico, June 22, 2019
The World Staff, Ayatollah Khamenei says nuclear weapons are 'forbidden under Islamic law,' PRI Public Radio International, May 30, 2019