Will Next Steps on Iran Point towards a New ‘Big Three’ or World War III?
On July 22 US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a bizarre speech on Iran. Delivered from the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, and ostensibly addressed to the Iranian-American community, the speech’s staging clearly sought to evoke the fall of communism, casting the Ayatollahs in the role of Leonid Brezhnev and company.
Iranian “regime change” is not the publicly stated goal of the Trump Administration’s policy. But it is hard to see how US demands on Tehran don’t amount to exactly that, with Pompeo comparing the Iranian “regime” (a term used dozens of times to imply illegitimacy) to a “mafia.” He asserted that Iran’s behavior is “at root in the revolutionary nature of the regime itself.” What can change its “root” or “nature” without ceasing to be itself?
Pompeo demanded not just a total change in policy from Tehran but a different mode of governance amounting to Iran’s ceasing to be an independent regional power. The Reagan venue’s analogy to the collapse of communism in the USSR and Eastern Europe echoed in the Secretary’s heavy emphasis on “a new 24/7 Farsi-language TV channel” spanning “not only television, but radio, digital, and social media format, so that the ordinary Iranians inside of Iran and around the globe can know that America stands with them.”
The US position on Iran is that it is solely a question of removing a layer of malign governance, after which democracy, tolerance, peace, and general niceness will spontaneously break forth, and justice will roll down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream. Just like happened in Iraq after 2003. Just like in Libya.
Never mind that Iran isn’t North America or Europe. Never mind that American and European ideas of social and personal liberty would be anathema to an unknown but significant percentage of Iran’s population. Never mind that the replacement for the Ayatollahs envisioned by many Administration big shots, the cultish People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (Mojahedin-e Khalq, MEK), may not be particularly democratic or popular with Iranians. Don’t bother us with details – the neo-Bolshevik myth of a spontaneous uprising by the oppressed masses (with a little help from outside, like the Kaiser’s generals were kind enough to provide Lenin) is alive and well in Washington.
One is reminded of “true believer” Condoleezza Rice in 2006 denouncing as – you guessed it! – racist any objections to militant democracy promotion in the Middle East, specifically in Iraq:
‘“Well, growing up in the South and having people underestimate you because one of the reasons for segregation, one of the reasons for the separation of the races was supposedly, the inferiority of one race to the other,” she explains. “And so when I look around the world and I hear people say, ‘Well, you know, they're just not ready for democracy,’ it really does resonate. I hear echoes of, well, you know, blacks are kind of childlike. They really can't handle the vote. Or they really can't take care of themselves. It really does roil me. It makes me so angry because I think there are those echoes of what people once thought about black Americans.”’
Pompeo heavily emphasized Iran’s internal problems, such as political repression, corruption, economic distress, many of which are no doubt are quite real. Still, it was hard to listen to the Secretary without mentally comparing how the identical litany of abuses would apply to Washington’s perennial darling of the Islamic world, Saudi Arabia, which in every particular is far, far worse than Iran. But nobody is talking about what amounts to regime change in Riyadh or even any sanctions against them. Accusations of Iranian state support for terrorism would be risible if arming myriad Sunni jihadist groups by the US and our various partners, the Saudis chief among them, were a laughing matter.
Pompeo’s speech triggered a rebuke by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that “peace with Iran is the mother of all peace, and war with Iran is the mother of all wars” – an unfortunate choice of words given how Saddam Hussein’s “mother of all battles” turned out. Trump immediately shot back with a tweet threatening that Iran could “SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE.” Predictably, Trump’s ubiquitous critics focused as much on the all capital letters as on the substance of the exchange.
No one knows where any of this is leading. The memory immediately triggered was that of harsh verbal exchanges between North Korea’s “Little Rocket man” Kim Jong-un and the “mentally deranged US dotard” Trump prior to their love fest in Singapore. Justin Raimondo of Antiwar.com was succinct in his optimism: “This means he’ll be scheduling a Rouhani summit in a few months.”
On the other hand, instead of Singapore 2018 we could be seeing a repeat of the lead-up to Iraq 2003. So many of the same people who were beating the drums for the war with Iraq under President George W. Bush are playing the same tune now with respect to Iran. It is significant that whereas with respect to North Korea our foremost regional partner, South Korea, is pushing hardest for a peaceful outcome, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the two foreign states that exercise almost total control over the political class in Washington, are itching for the US to take care of their Iran problem for them. The hare-brained “Arab NATO” idea has been revived.
Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis has denied a report that the US was identifying targets in Iran to be struck as early as next month and disowned regime change. For what it is worth (probably not much) a recent poll shows that Americans are against war with Iran by a better than two-to-one margin. But, as Raimondo observes, “there are plenty of warmongers in Washington who just can’t wait for the shooting to start in the Middle East again, and they have targeted Iran as their next victim. … [S]uch a war would destroy Trump’s presidency precisely because his base would oppose it. And yet, … despite the fact that the President’s advisors are pushing war with Iran, Trump routinely ignores them and does exactly as he pleases: that’s why we had the Singapore summit and the Helsinki meeting with Putin.”
We can hope that Trump will decide on his next steps with regard to Iran based on much broader international considerations that impact his domestic goals. Taken most optimistically, that could mean a concept that some of us have been suggesting for almost two years: a new “Big Three” understanding among Trump, Putin, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Indeed, Professor Michael T. Klare, writing in TomDispatch.com, claims this is Trump’s conscious intention:
‘An examination of his campaign speeches and his actions since entering the Oval Office -- including his appearance with Putin -- reflect his adherence to a core strategic concept: the urge to establish a tripolar world order, one that was, curiously enough, first envisioned by Russian and Chinese leaders in 1997 and one that they have relentlessly pursued ever since.
‘Such a tripolar order -- in which Russia, China, and the U.S. would each assume responsibility for maintaining stability within their own respective spheres of influence while cooperating to resolve disputes wherever those spheres overlap -- breaks radically with the end-of-the-Cold-War paradigm. During those heady years, the United States was the dominant world power and lorded it over most of the rest of the planet with the aid of its loyal NATO allies.
‘For Russian and Chinese leaders, such a “unipolar” system was considered anathema. After all, it granted the United States a hegemonic role in world affairs while denying them what they considered their rightful place as America’s equals. Not surprisingly, destroying such a system and replacing it with a tripolar one has been their strategic objective since the late 1990s -- and now an American president has zealously embraced that disruptive project as his own. [ . . . ]
‘The big question in all this, of course, is: Why? Why would an American president seek to demolish a global order in which the United States was the dominant player and enjoyed the support of so many loyal and wealthy allies? Why would he want to replace it with one in which it would be but one of three regional heavyweights? [ . . . ]
‘In the Trumpian mindset, this country had become weak and overextended because of its uncritical adherence to the governing precepts of the liberal international order, which called for the U.S. to assume the task of policing the world while granting its allies economic and trade advantages in return for their loyalty. Such an assessment, whether accurate or not, certainly jibes well with the narrative of victimization that so transfixed his core constituency in rustbelt areas of Middle America. It also suggests that an inherited burden could now be discarded, allowing for the emergence of a less-encumbered, stronger America -- much as a stronger Russia has emerged in this century from the wreckage of the Soviet Union and a stronger China from the wreckage of Maoism. This reinvigorated country would still, of course, have to compete with those other two powers, but from a far stronger position, being able to devote all its resources to economic growth and self-protection without the obligation of defending half of the rest of the world.
‘Listen to Trump’s speeches, read through his interviews, and you’ll find just this proposition lurking behind virtually everything he has to say on foreign policy and national security. “You know... there is going to be a point at which we just can’t do this anymore,” he told Haberman and Sanger in 2016, speaking of America’s commitments to allies. “You know, when we did those deals, we were a rich country... We were a rich country with a very strong military and tremendous capability in so many ways. We’re not anymore.”
‘The only acceptable response, he made clear, was to jettison such overseas commitments and focus instead on “restoring” the country’s self-defense capabilities through a massive buildup of its combat forces. (The fact that the United States already possesses far more capable weaponry than any of its rivals and outspends them by a significant margin when it comes to the acquisition of additional munitions doesn’t seem to have any impact on Trump’s calculations.)’
If such is indeed Trump’s calculation, his likelihood of attacking Iran is very low.
Conversely, the forces benefitting from the status quo Trump would dismantle cannot be expected to accept such a future with equanimity: the Pentagon and NATO military establishments, the intelligence community, the hordes of contractors and think tank denizens, and others. Perhaps even worse, Trump’s domestic critics face the terrifying prospect that he could emerge as the greatest peacemaker in modern history, as well as restorer of America’s economic might.
We can thus expect an added zeal born of desperation from former “CIA director John Brennan, FBI director James Comey, Robert Mueller, James Clapper, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and the Democratic National Committee,” who, Paul Craig Roberts aptly says, are “engaged in high treason against the American people and the President of the United States and are actively engaged in a plot to overthrow the President of the United States.” Just in recent weeks the intensity of this campaign prevented Trump from agreeing to anything of substance with Putin in Helsinki, forced him to tap-dance around what he did or didn’t say at the post-summit press conference, and postpone according to Grand Inquisitor Mueller’s convenience a follow-up US-Russia summit (no doubt to the delight of his own appointees no less than to his enemies’).
We can expect that between now the November 2018 Congressional elections Mueller will come out with several indictments against Trump associates with the hope of tipping the House of Representatives to the Democrats. If that happens, despite an anticipated GOP retention of the Senate, Trump will be removed or forced to resign in 2019, with a substantial percentage of Republicans ready to jump at the prospect of putting Mike Pence into the Oval Office, with current UN Ambassador Nikki Haley a virtual shoo-in as Vice President.
Such a development would prompt an anguished but futile outburst from Trump’s base. But with l’ancien régime back in power, the guardians of the neoliberal, unipolar order the interloper had imperiled will move quickly to repudiate any understandings he might have had with Moscow and Beijing. The slide toward a catastrophe of literally unimaginable proportions, which Trump had sought to arrest, will become for all intents and purposes irreversible.
At that point Iran will be the least of our worries.