• Ryan O'Connell

Time for War With Iran?

May 18, 2019

You know it’s time to worry when Donald Trump is the voice of reason in the Administration. When Trump was asked last week if the U.S. would go to war against Iran, he replied “I hope not”.

But that’s just Trump’s opinion—which could change abruptly--and hardly reassuring. The President is surrounded by advisers who seem to be hellbent on manufacturing a crisis with Iran.

John Bolton, the super-hawkish head of the National Security Council, has been obsessed with Iran for the last 20 years. Remarkably, Bolton still thinks that invading Iraq in 2003 was a wise move by the United States. He generally favors military action and regards diplomacy as a waste of time. Bolton also believes that he is always the smartest guy in the room. He does not tolerate independent thinkers who don’t agree with his views.

Bolton’s One-Man Show

That’s a dangerous combination. The National Security Council usually provides a forum where analysts and Administration officials analyze and discuss a wide variety of policy options, with in-depth briefings by experts on particular topics. The NSC staff then presents the President with a range of scenarios and possible alternatives. However, Bolton has drastically cut back the number of meetings, sidelined analysts and squelched debate. It’s his way or the highway.

The situation is especially troubling because Trump is so ignorant about the Middle East in general and Iran in particular. Instead of trying to educate the President, Bolton has been pushing his hard-line views on Iran, which reinforce Trump’s simplistic ideas about the country.

Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, is not as bellicose as Bolton. However, he supported abrogating the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, and Pompeo has advocated the current strategy of imposing harsh sanctions on Iran. Like Bolton, the Secretary talks about regime change and uses extremely harsh rhetoric about Iran.

Jim Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense, did not kowtow to Trump and he was not intimidated by Bolton. With Mattis and the other “adults in the room” gone, who can stand up to Bolton and Pompeo? Patrick Shanahan may not be able to play that role. As the “acting” Secretary of Defense, he is in a weak position. In any case, he does not have Mattis’ stature or, perhaps, his guts.

Pentagon officials are reportedly very worried because Bolton asked them to draw up contingency plans for sending 120,000 troops to the Persian Gulf in case hostilities broke out. After the debacles in Iraq and Afghanistan, the generals are not eager to fight a third war in the region.

It’s possible someone in the Pentagon or the White leaked that news to get Trump to focus on the dangerous course that Bolton was pursuing. Trump doesn’t read briefing memos, but he does watch TV news shows, which reported the leak. Thank you, CNN or Fox News. Iran—A Few Inconvenient Truths

Let’s consider some salient facts about Iran:

The country has a population of 81 million people—which is double that of Iraq (40 million) and Afghanistan (35 million).

Iran is the second largest country in the Middle East. The country is also highly mountainous, which pose challenges for any would-be invader. (See: Afghanistan.)

Iran is a cohesive country and a functioning state, unlike Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq is an artificial political construct, with ancient, deep divisions among its Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions. However, Iran is about 90% Shiite Muslim and only 10% Sunni; there is no doubt about which group is in charge. The regime has a firm grip on the country.

Persians have had a distinct civilization for thousands of years; they first fought the Greeks about 500 B.C. They don’t have an identity problem.

The country has a large army: 550,000 troops vs. 1.3 million for the U.S. Our military is undoubtedly better trained and equipped, with a much superior Air Force and Navy. But the Iranians have gained combat experience in Syria and elsewhere, and they would have a “home court” advantage.

The Iranians are experts in waging cyberwarfare. If we attacked their country, they might have various ways to hit back at us hard, both at home (utilities, banks) as well as abroad.

In short, Iran is not exactly an ideal candidate for regime change.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani

The Sorrow and the Pity

The latest war-mongering is scary. But what’s tragic is that the Obama Administration’s policy toward Iran was working. President Barack Obama and his team took a very pragmatic approach in dealing with the Islamic Republic. They knew that they could not stop Iran from intervening in other Middle Eastern countries such as Syria and Lebanon. Instead, they focused on stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. (Obama should have sent more U.S. troops to Syria, but that’s a different issue.)

Using diplomacy, the Obama administration created a broad coalition of nations, including Russia and China. The alliance imposed sanctions on Iran that forced the country to defer any development of nuclear weapons for 15 years. The Iranians have complied with their obligations under the agreement, as certified by external monitors.

If the U.S. had a deal like that with North Korea, we would be thrilled, right?

The Obama Administration was also trying to achieve incremental regime change, in addition to defusing the nuclear threat. Obama and his advisers knew that most young Iranians were pro-American and very tired of being told by rigid mullahs how to live their lives. They wanted more freedom, blue jeans and American music.

The Americans sought to shore up moderate politicians like President Hassan Rouhani and weaken the hardliners. (Rouhani is no softy, but he’s a vast improvement over his predecessor, the despicable Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.) Obama’s team offered some carrots, in the form of steps that could improve Iran’s economy. That was an additional rationale for easing sanctions and for releasing Iranian government funds in U.S. bank accounts, which had been seized after the hostage crisis, so the country could invest in modernizing its infrastructure.

Those initiatives were gaining some traction. Boeing was negotiating a large aircraft order with Tehran. Oil companies from several Western nations, and numerous European industrial firms, were planning investments in Iran. The hardliners remained in control, but the moderates’ position was bolstered.

Trump’s Wrecking Ball

Trump destroyed all that progress when he unilaterally pulled out of the nuclear agreement in May 2018 -- even though the Iranians were upholding their end of the bargain. As Trump has re-imposed sanctions, Iran’s economy has suffered. Trump’s moves have undermined the moderates in Iran and buttressed the hard-liners’ argument that the U.S. cannot be trusted. We can assume that Trump’s policies have damaged our reputation with average Iranians.

Trump’s policy has also baffled and angered the Europeans, Russians and Chinese, who argued, to no avail, that the Iranians were carrying out their obligations under the agreement. Trump’s capricious withdrawal from the accord has created deep divisions with NATO allies such as France, Germany and the U.K. A more thoughtful leader would have tried to avoid antagonizing them, so he could enlist them in a campaign to stop China’s unfair trade practices.

Once again, Trump has swung his wrecking ball. He’s ruined our relationship with Iran and alienated our allies. So far, he has nothing positive to show for his policy moves.

Let’s hope Trump doesn’t give John Bolton another shot at regime change. There’s no reason to think that third time’s the charm for Bolton.

The Wall Street Democrat

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