John Bolton is gone from the White House, yet war with Iran is suddenly imminent. I had begun to believe irony was dead.
“[Bolton] calls for the preemptive bombing of Iran with dreary regularity during his many Fox News appearances,” I wrote after he became Donald Trump’s national security adviser in March of 2018, “and has labored for years to arrange the proper set of circumstances that would allow Tehran to be rendered into a pile of rubble.”
I was actually foolish enough to indulge in a brief moment of optimism after Bolton was unceremoniously shown the door last week. There was talk of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo taking on Bolton’s role like some dual use neo-Kissinger, but that idea guttered out quickly. Trump could replace Bolton with Ghidorah the Three-Headed Monster, I told myself, and war with Iran — the issue over which Bolton reportedly lost his gig — would still be less likely. It felt like a tiny reprieve in a chaotic age.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels claimed responsibility on Saturday for drone attacks on the crown jewel of Saudi Arabia’s petroleum empire: the Abqaiq oil facility, the centerpiece of Saudi Arabia’s petroleum infrastructure, which sits astride the massive Hijra Khurais oil field. Secretary of State Pompeo immediately accused Iran of direct involvement in the attack. On Monday afternoon, Saudi Arabia claimed that Iranian weapons were used in the attack. Iran has vehemently denied the accusation.
Oil markets reeled as news of the attack spread. In a world that runs on fossil fuels, the attack was the equivalent of a punch in the heart.
Approximately 100 million barrels of oil are burned globally each day. With a stroke, the drones wiped out nearly six percent of the oil that is globally consumed, and a price hike is almost certain to follow. How high and for how long will depend upon the speed with which Saudi Arabia can repair the facility. After the attack, smoke from the fires at Abqaiq could be seen from space, and the rebels have warned of further attacks to come against Saudi Arabia’s petroleum centers.
Think of it as Saudi Arabia’s 9/11, but without the enormous death toll. The U.S. was hit in the money when the Twin Towers were attacked, causing enormous financial disruption. By hitting Abqaiq, the attackers hit Saudi Arabia in its petroleum breadbasket.
The Abqaiq attack and 9/11 are both examples of a far less powerful group striking back at an aggressor at a vulnerable, sensitive point of weakness. The Houthi rebels have been at the receiving end of a brutal war Saudi Arabia has been waging in Yemen since 2015. Some 90,000 Yemeni civilians have been killed by weapons sold to Saudi Arabia by the U.S., and the U.S. has stood solidly by its staunch regional ally amid howls of international outrage over the ongoing carnage.
Saudi Arabia has been accused of deliberate atrocities during the Yemen war, such as targeting civilians at hospitals, weddings and marketplaces, and in one notable instance, a bus filled with children. The U.S., for its own part, spent years before 9/11 raining bombs and fire on various portions of the Middle East.
Pompeo was immediately out of the gate on Saturday with statements about possessing “intelligence” that confirms Iran’s role in the attack, but failed to provide it to the press. Trump, ever the balanced internationalist, tweeted that the U.S. military is “locked and loaded depending on verification.”
This is particularly worrisome because relations with Iran are already disastrously bad. During the period when Bolton enjoyed actual influence as Trump’s Shiny New Thing, the U.S.’s poor relationship with Iran deteriorated noticeably. Over the course of Bolton’s time in the White House, the Trump administration bailed on a nuclear treaty with Iran that was working, and tried to turn an incident in which oil tankers were attacked into casus belli for a war. Bolton wanted to cry havoc after a U.S. drone was shot down in the region back in June, but Trump did not let that dog off the leash.
That drone incident was the moment Trump and Bolton’s relationship began to deteriorate. That relationship went into a death spiral after Trump suggested opening talks with Iran about its nuclear program and other issues. Bolton, of course, hated the idea because peace with Iran would put a final end to his lifelong dream of wiping that nation off the map.
With such talks now in serious doubt, the idea of an Iran summit has transformed into a bitter point of contention between the president and the media. In the aftermath of the Abqaiq attack, news outlets pointed out that Trump has twice said he would meet with Iranian leaders with “no conditions,” an assertion later confirmed by Pompeo.
“The Fake News is saying that I am willing to meet with Iran, ‘No Conditions,’” Trump rage-tweeted on Saturday. “That is an incorrect statement (as usual!).” On Monday, when asked in the Oval Office about the potential for war with Iran, Trump unspooled yet another one of his verbal blue-plate specials for the assembled media.
“Because we were in a position where with a certain country, I won’t say which one, we may have had conflict,” Trump said, for reasons no one can quite explain. “And he said to me, sir, if you could delay it because we’re very low on ammunition. And I said, you know what, general, I never want to hear that again from another general. So we are very high on ammunition now. That is a story I’ve never told before. Breaking news. But we were very low. I could even say it stronger. I don’t want to say no ammunition but that gets a lot closer.”
Nothing like steady, focused leadership in a crisis, right? Please let me know when you see some, c/o Truthout’s general mailbox.
“In short: it’s all super unclear,” writes Jack Crosbie for Splinter News, “but the president’s public vow to bomb whoever Saudi Arabia tells us to is not reassuring. The Saudis are perfectly capable of fighting their own battles — we’ve sold them more than enough weaponry — but Trump’s stance throughout the crisis has been that, essentially, the U.S. military stands by to defend our favorite brutal authoritarian theocracy at any cost.”
If Trump does commit the U.S. to a war in Iran on behalf of Saudi Arabia, it would unsurprisingly be one of the worst calamities of an administration made of calamities. The only surprise here is the fact that John Bolton will have to watch it all on his flat-screen at home, or from the office of his now-anti-Trump super PAC. Maybe irony has a pulse after all.
In Iran, authorities say they’ve arrested 17 Iranian citizens and charged them with being CIA-trained spies for the United States. Iranian media reports that some have already been executed. This comes as tensions in the Persian Gulf continued to mount over the weekend following Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker and its 23 crew members Friday in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said it seized the tanker in retaliation for the British impounding of an Iranian tanker earlier this month off the coast of Gibraltar. The Iranian National Guard released video Sunday showing the vessel flying an Iranian flag. Britain says Iran forced the Stena Impero out of international waters and rerouted the tanker into Iranian territory. We speak with Narges Bajoghli, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University and author of the forthcoming book, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic.
AMYGOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Iran, where authorities say they’ve arrested 17 Iranian citizens and charged them with being CIA-trained spies for the United States. Iranian media reports some have already been executed.
This comes as tensions in the Persian Gulf continued to mount over the weekend following Iran’s seizure of a British oil tanker and its 23 crew members Friday in the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said it seized the tanker in retaliation for the British impounding an Iranian tanker earlier this month off the coast of Gibraltar. The Iranian National Guard released video Sunday showing the vessel flying now an Iranian flag. Britain says Iran forced the Stena Impero out of international waters and rerouted the tanker into Iranian territory. Audio released Sunday appears to show an Iranian official directing the vessel to change course.
HMSMONTROSESPEAKER: Sepah Navy patrol boat, this is British warship foxtrot…
SEPAHNAVYPATROLBOATSPEAKER: Foxtrot 236, this is a Sepah Navy patrol boat. No challenge is intended. No challenge is intended. I want to inspect the ship for security reasons. Over.
AMYGOODMAN: Britain classified Iran’s capture of the tanker as a “hostile act.” Today, Prime Minister Theresa May, who is expected to leave office Wednesday, is scheduled to hold a series of emergency Cabinet meetings. Iran said it seized the tanker in retaliation for the British impounding of an Iranian tanker earlier this month off the coast of Gibraltar.
MOHAMMADJOAVADZARIF: This is economic terrorism, pure and simple. We need to repeat it again and again. And we do not negotiate with terrorists. They do not negotiate with terrorists. We do not negotiate with terrorists, because this is economic terrorism, what they’re doing.
AMYGOODMAN: Amidst heightened tensions with Iran over the safety of shipping lanes in the Gulf, the Pentagon has said U.S. troops are being deployed to Saudi Arabia to defend American interests from so-called emergent credible threats. Saudi Arabia confirmed King Salman had approved the move. The kingdom has not hosted U.S. combat forces since 2003, when then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced their withdrawal. Meanwhile, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton is in Tokyo, reportedly to meet with Japanese officials about a U.S.-led military coalition to safeguard shipping in the Strait of Hormuz.
For more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Narges Bajoghli, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, author of the forthcoming book, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic. She’s also the director of The Skin That Burns, a documentary film about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.
Professor Bajoghli, welcome to Democracy Now! Can you talk about this latest series of actions in the Strait of Hormuz, the latest news we’re getting just today that an unnamed Iranian official held a news conference saying they had arrested 17 people, somehow linked to the CIA, and that some of them were executed? He would not identify himself. And then we have this seizing of the British tanker following the seizing of the Iranian tanker. Can you respond to all that’s developing right now?
NARGESBAJOGHLI: Sure. Well, you know, President Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign against Iran is really a multipronged campaign. So, there is the issue of sanctions, which you had spoken about earlier in your segment, the economic sanctions that the Trump administration has put on Iran, especially on oil exports. That has been something that’s gained a lot of media attention. Iran, for the first year after President Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, sort of practiced a lot of restraint. In that first year, it tried not to retaliate in any way. However, as the oil sanctions increased in pressure and have resulted in the Iranian currency initially crashing quite a bit, what that’s entailed has been that Iran has promised that it will retaliate in order to show that it’s not going to stand by idly while maximum pressure is imposed on them.
And so, as things have heated up between the United States and Iran, Iran has attempted to react in different ways in order to sort of stand in front of different forms of American pressure, one being economic sanctions, the other being sort of ways that the Trump administration seems to be trying to corner Iran militarily. And so, Iran is trying to raise the stakes not only for the United States, but for EU countries, as well as other Persian Gulf countries, and saying that if there is further military confrontation in the region, it will be something that various countries will have to pay the cost of, not just the United States. So, really, Iran is trying to sort of show that U.S. pressures are going to have repercussions for not just the Americans, but also for other countries involved.
AMYGOODMAN: What do you know of what’s happened today with this arrest of Iranians that this unnamed official said were somehow linked to the CIA? Who knows if some were executed at this point?
NARGESBAJOGHLI: Right. Well, you know, I’m reading the news as you all are, as well. There has been a lot of — in different instances in this past year, there have been points at which the Iranian government has said that they are accusing certain individuals or groups of individuals of working either with the Americans, the CIA, or with other intelligence agencies. You know, this is one of those instances.
And this is why so many activists in Iran, civil rights — activists who are involved in civil society in Iran, have been so much against the sanctions and against this sort of pressure from the United States, because what this means is it further securitizes all of civic society within Iran. So, this is sort of — whether or not these individuals that they are claiming have ties to the CIA, the fact is, in this sort of environment, when there is this sort of maximum pressure from the United States, what ends up happening is that it becomes easy for the government within Iran to securitize the atmosphere and say that, you know, different people are involved in activities with the United States. Some may be — we don’t know — but it’s also a net that they can sort of cast widely. And that’s why a lot of lawyers, activists and rights workers in Iran have been very much against this sort of pressure from the United States, because it actually ends up working against those within Iran.
AMYGOODMAN: There’s an interesting piece in The Guardian that’s headlined “How Trump’s arch-hawk lured Britain into a dangerous trap to punish Iran.” And it says, “When” — he’s talking about the national security adviser — ”[John] Bolton heard British Royal Marines had seized an Iranian oil tanker off Gibraltar on America’s Independence Day, his joy was unconfined.” He tweeted, “Excellent news: UK has detained the supertanker Grace I laden with Iranian oil bound for Syria in violation of EU sanctions.”
It goes on to say, “Bolton’s delighted reaction suggested the seizure was a surprise. But accumulating evidence suggests the opposite is true, and that Bolton’s national security team was directly involved in manufacturing the Gibraltar incident. The suspicion is that Conservative politicians, distracted by picking a new prime minister [in Britain], jockeying for power, and preoccupied with Brexit, stumbled into an American trap.”
Talk about this, very significant. What? I guess Boris Johnson is expected to be the new prime minister of Britain, perhaps tomorrow, Theresa May leaving on Wednesday. But what this means bringing Britain in? I mean, what’s very interesting in all of this, which is probably not lost on many Iranians, is you go back to 1953, not a significant year for many Americans, but all Iranians, whether they were born then or not, know that that was the year that the U.S. CIA was involved with overthrowing the democratically elected president of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddegh, on behalf of what is now British Petroleum, right? Anglo-American Oil. What about this U.S.-U.K. alliance here?
NARGESBAJOGHLI: Right. So, in 1953, as you mentioned, it was the U.K., actually, who was trying to bring the United States into what ended up becoming a U.S.- and U.K.-led coup against the prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, because he had nationalized Iranian oil and kicked out the British, who were controlling the Iranian oilfields. So, that incident ended up having large consequences in Iranian political history. Many historians point to the fact that that might have been even one of the reasons that, later on, the 1979 revolution came about, because the shah was reinstated after that coup, and he was extremely unpopular in Iran in the years after the 1953 coup.
In this instance, that The Guardian article that you’re referring to, it’s very interesting — well, part — another, you know, one of the reasons that this is very significant is that John Bolton was involved in the lead-up to the war with Iraq in 2002. In that war, the United States really relied heavily on the U.K., on Tony Blair, in coming behind it and in helping to lead that war into Iraq, and also the United States really needed its coalition in Europe in order to do so. In this instance, the Trump administration doesn’t have the support of the Europeans, including the United Kingdom, once it pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal in May of 2018. That was a deal that all of these — the United States, Europe, Russia and China had worked for years to build that deal and to come to terms with the Iranians on the nuclear issue. When the Trump administration decided to unilaterally pull out, the Europeans have tried, at least in word, to say that they continue to be committed to this deal, and have tried to figure out ways to work around the sanctions that the United States has unilaterally imposed on Iran.
And so, as this maximum-pressure campaign has ramped up, the Trump administration has tried to bring in allies in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel, in confronting Iran. For various reasons, some of those, including the Emirates specifically, have begun to, it seems at least, pull away from the U.S. in trying to support some sort of military or some sort of campaign against Iran.
Now, in this instance, with the reporting that The Guardian has put out today, what it’s showing is that John Bolton is trying to get the U.K. involved in confronting Iran. And if the United States can build some sort of coalition at least — and it seems like John Bolton, out of the Trump administration, really is at least the one strand that we can point to that wants some sort of military confrontation with Iran — that at the end of the day he wants some sort of regime change. And so, if he can — you know, if this reporting is true from The Guardian, and he’s really been able to set out this trap to bring the United Kingdom into this confrontation, that’s very significant. And none of this should be lost on — you know, we need to be able to connect these dots to who John Bolton was during the George W. Bush administration and his role in the Iraq War.
AMYGOODMAN: So, the significance right now — I mean, you have the two oil tankers, one held by Britain, one held by Iran, right now. You have the U.S., Trump, announcing they had shot down an Iranian drone, and Iran saying they haven’t. You have the U.S. sending troops to Saudi Arabia. How serious is this right now? And, Professor Bajoghli, you have done a lot of research over many years around the Revolutionary Guard. There are also divisions within Iran right now. And the question is: Who is being empowered by this conflict, that started with Trump pulling out of the Iran nuclear agreement, that led to these intense sanctions that’s putting intense pressure on the population?
NARGESBAJOGHLI: Yeah. So, you know, for many years, voters in Iran kept voting for reformists and moderates, in the hopes that they would engage with the West, and with the United States in particular, in order to bring Iran out of this isolation that it’s been in since the 1979 revolution, in which — you know, Iran is a country that’s been sanctioned by the United States for about 40 years now. And so, the idea with the Iran deal was to begin these sorts of conversations and to at least allow certain avenues of trade between Iran and Western powers.
The point that is happening today is that the moderates and the reformists kept pushing for: Let’s engage with the United States, let’s engage with the West. With Trump pulling out and imposing all of this pressure on Iran, right now what has happened is that it’s the hard-liners within the Islamic Republic, and especially within the Revolutionary Guard, who are gaining the upper hand here. And in the face of — again, as I mentioned, maximum pressure from the Trump administration is multipronged, so there are covert actions happening. There are the economic sanctions. There are very large media and social media campaigns being targeted at Iranians within the country. So, in this sort of atmosphere, what’s happening is that the hard-liners in Iran have been vindicated by saying, “See, we told you you could never trust the United States. We shouldn’t have gone down this path anyways.”
And so, in this instance, right now, for the moment at least, we’ve seen a united front on the Iranian leadership in standing up to what it sees as a war by the United States in multiple ways. It just hasn’t gotten to a hot war quite yet. But there is the sanctions, the media wars. All of these things are happening in tandem. And so, this is a situation in which the Iranian leadership is rallying around the flag, and they’re trying to get the Iranian public to rally around it, as well. And that has only — that will only benefit the hard-liners within Iran.
AMYGOODMAN: Can you talk, Professor Bajoghli, about the social media campaign that the U.S. has launched as part of its, quote, “maximum-pressure strategy”?
NARGESBAJOGHLI: Yes. Well, part — this is multipronged, as well. So, one of the things that we know, that journalists have been reporting on within the past month and a half, is the U.S. State Department has been funding social media campaigns that have been targeting American journalists, scholars, for those who are against the Trump administration’s Iran policies. Those have been smear campaigns, trolling campaigns. There have been letters sent to employers of these journalists and editors and scholars.
And then, on the Iran — within Iran, there has been a lot of money given by the U.S. State Department, as well as other entities, to promote either troll farms, to promote specifically satellite Iranian — so, Persian-language Iranian satellite stations that are broadcast to Iran. If you begin to trace the differences in the guests that they’ve been inviting within the past year, the kind of analysis that is being provided by some of these different stations, like Voice of America — there’s a Saudi-funded Iran International — all of these different satellite stations are embroiled in this wider maximum-pressure campaign, which is geared towards creating as much economic pressure on Iran through the sanctions and then really sowing feelings of discord and despair within the population, that it’s one of the hopes of John Bolton — and he’s mentioned this publicly many times — that maximum pressure will help — will lead to a situation in which Iranians within Iran will rise up and ask for regime change themselves.
And so, the economic sanctions are one part of it, and that’s sort of the more visible part that we’re seeing. But there’s an entire media campaign that’s going on around this, as well, that’s meant to both suppress dissent in the United States against what the Trump administration is doing, as well as create discord within Iran through these different media campaigns.
AMYGOODMAN: Professor Bajoghli, in the last 30 seconds we have, what do you think needs to happen right now to avoid a war?
NARGESBAJOGHLI: Well, you know, Iran has said, and it stands by, and its actions show, that whatever actions the United States or European powers take militarily within Iran, Iran will retaliate. And so, what needs to happen at this stage is — there are talks between Iran and the United States going on now, as Zarif’s — Foreign Minister Zarif’s trip here last week in New York indicated. And so, those conversations really need to continue, and all sides need to begin to de-escalate, because whatever actions either the United States or any other powers take in the Persian Gulf region, Iran will retaliate, and eventually these tits-for-tats will lead to, I think, very devastating military confrontation in the Middle East, that it seems that no one really wants at this time.
AMYGOODMAN: Narges Bajoghli, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University.
NARGESBAJOGHLI: Thank you.
AMYGOODMAN: Her book, Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic, is due out in September. She’s also director of The Skin That Burns, a documentary film about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran.
When we come back, we go to Hawaii to look at the growing resistance against the construction of a massive telescope on top of Mauna Kea, a sacred Native site in Hawaii. We’ll go to that site. Stay with us.
Twenty-one years ago, on my recommendation, the UN general assembly named 2001 the year of “dialogue among civilisations”, and signalled its commitment to peace and its rejection of war and violence. The Iranian people, despite their own historic grievances and troubled history, opened a hopeful new chapter of engagement and dialogue with the Great Powers (US, UK and Russia). These hopes, however, were dashed by the terrorist atrocities of 11 September, 2001 and their tragic aftermath in devastating wars in west Asia. The catastrophic wars of Iraq and Afghanistan and other interventions in the region exacerbated already extant problems, and paved the way for the growth of international terrorism, civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and the depredations and war crimes still unfolding in Yemen. These conflicts have made the region unsafe and have impinged on security around the world.
In the same period, the development of Iran’s peaceful nuclear programme became a test of the dialogue on peace. In order to build trust with the international community my administration sought dialogue, and after years of difficult and tumultuous negotiations, President Rouhani’s government succeeded in concluding the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – known as the Iran nuclear deal – with six other world powers.
Iran has repeatedly declared that it is not seeking to build a nuclear weapon. In addition to observing its obligations under the non-proliferation treaty (NPT), as a gesture of goodwill Iran accepted the JCPOA’s measures to ensure transparent verifiability of the peaceful nature of its civilian nuclear programme. The successful conclusion of the JCPOA was a major achievement which showed that reciprocity and mutual trust between Iran and the E3+3 were not only possible, but desirable. Furthermore, it acted as an important basis on which to build, containing within it the prospect of more fruitful and positive relations between our respective nations in the future. Sadly, Iran was the only country to abide by all the provisions of the JCPOA, while the other signatories have either breached or shirked their responsibilities under its terms.
While Iran was playing a decisive role in defeating the Islamic State’s reign of terror, the Trump administration decided to initiate a new round of hostilities against my country by illegally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, violating UN security council resolution 2231 that the US had itself jointly sponsored, and waging a campaign of economic sanctions against the Iranian people. President Trump is thus punishing Iran and indeed the world community not for violating the JCPOA, but for complying with this UN-sanctioned international legal agreement. By exiting the JCPOA, the Trump administration has moved against the very principles of dialogue, engagement and coalition-building. It has spurned the cause of peace. Unrelenting sanctions and what is effectively a blockade on Iran impose collective punishment on a nation that has done absolutely nothing wrong. The present US administration is ratcheting up tensions in the Persian Gulf, making a conflagration or even a full-scale war between our two countries increasingly likely.
But the reimposition of brutal sanctions and renewed military threats will not force the Iranian government or my people into submission. Sanctions, like terrorism, are indiscriminate in their targets and ruinous in their consequences.
Today, the Middle East once again faces a crisis not of its own making; a crisis which was both unnecessary and avoidable. It doesn’t have to be this way, and escalating tensions can still be defused. Cool heads must prevail if the region is not going to find itself dragged into yet another violent maelstrom. This cycle of imperious unilateralism and the substitution of military solutions for political ones must stop, and the US administration must respect its international obligations by choosing dialogue over coercive diplomacy and threats of war.
As someone who has made it his life’s mission to defend the dialogue of cultures and civilisations, world peace, democracy, tolerance and human rights, I express my deep concern for the future of the Iranian nation and other nations of our region. It is in this spirit that I call on people of conscience in the US and across the world to promote peace and “dialogue among civilisations” instead of promoting the idea of a “clash of civilisations”. We must form a #CoalitionForPeace that says #NoWarWithIran to prevent disaster. With a view to the acute level of tensions in the Persian Gulf region, the situation is both fragile and explosive.
Despite the pressure coming from some of his advisers, President Trump still has the choice to reverse his administration’s unnecessary escalation. He should be aware that Iranians are steadfast. For well over a century since our 1905 constitutional revolution, Iranians have fought to preserve our dignity and independence. The JCPOA negotiating process was proof of Iran’s good faith and commitment to a respectful international peace. The question is whether the current US administration is willing to respond in kind, instead of continuing to issue insults and threats and using the kind of colonial language more befitting of 19th-century imperial administrators than a 21st-century world power.
It is easy to destroy, but far harder to build. Obstacles to a lasting peace are real. But they are not insurmountable. We must be proactive in our advocacy for peace and dialogue for our own sake and that of future generations. Dialogue, empathy and a willingness to listen to one another is the only way towards hopeful horizons of a bright future.
• Mohammad Khatami was president of the Islamic Republic of Iran from 1997 to 2005
“Any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction could be alleviated by the single means of heeding Iran’s call to establish a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East,” says legendary public intellectual Noam Chomsky, but that isn’t stopping the Trump administration from concocting stories about Iran threatening to “conquer the world” in order to escalate tensions and thereby strengthen Trump’s hand going into the 2020 election.
In this exclusive transcript of a conversation aired on Alternative Radio, Noam Chomsky — the brilliant MIT professor and linguist who in one index is ranked as the eighth most cited person in history, right up there with Shakespeare and Marx — discusses Iran’s military deterrence strategy and the actions taken by U.S. leaders who cannot countenance what the State Department describes as Iran’s “successful defiance.”
David Barsamian: Let’s talk about Iran, in particular, locating it in post-1945 U.S. foreign policy. Washington laid out its Grand Area Strategy and Iran takes on enormous significance because of its oil wealth.
The basic idea of the early stage of the Grand Strategy and the early stages of the war were that the U.S. would take over what they called the Grand Area, of course, the Western Hemisphere, the former British Empire and the Far East. They assumed at that time that Germany would probably win the war, so there would be two major powers, one German-based with a lot of Eurasia and the U.S. with this Grand Area. By the time it was clear that the Russians would defeat Germany, after Stalingrad and then the great tank battle in Kursk, the planning was modified, and the idea was that the Grand Area would include as much of Eurasia as possible, of course, maintaining control of Middle East oil resources.
There was a conflict over Iran right at the end of the Second World War. The Russians supported a separatist movement in the north. The British wanted to maintain control. The Russians were essentially expelled. Iran was a client state under British control. There was, however, a nationalist movement, and the Iranian leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, led a movement to try to nationalize Iranian oil.
The British, obviously, didn’t want that. They tried to stop this development, but they were in their post-war straits and were unable to do it. They called in the U.S., which basically took the prime role in implementing a military coup which deposed the parliamentary regime and installed the Shah, who was a loyal client. Iran remained one of the pillars of control of the Middle East as long as the Shah remained in power. The Shah had very close relations with Israel, the second pillar of control. They were not formal because theoretically, the Islamic states were supposed to be opposed to Israeli occupation, but the relations were extremely close. They were revealed in detail after the Shah fell. The third pillar of U.S. control was Saudi Arabia, so there was kind of a tacit alliance between Iran and Israel and, even more tacit, Israel and Saudi Arabia, under U.S. aegis.
In 1979, the Shah was overthrown. The U.S. at first considered trying to implement a military coup that would restore the Shah’s regime. That didn’t work. Then came the hostage crisis. Iraq, shortly after — under Saddam Hussein — invaded Iran. The U.S. strongly supported the Iraqi invasion, finally even pretty much intervening directly to protect Iraqi shipping in the Gulf. A U.S. missile cruiser shot down a civilian Iranian airliner, killing 290 people in commercial air space. Finally, the U.S. intervention pretty much convinced the Iranians, if not to capitulate, then to accept an arrangement far less than they hoped after the Iraqi aggression. It was a murderous war. Saddam used chemical weapons. The U.S. pretended not to know about it — in fact, tried to blame Iran for it. But there was finally a peace agreement.
The U.S. at once turned to sanctions against Iran and severe threats. This was now the first Bush. His administration also invited Iraqi nuclear engineers to the U.S. for advanced training in nuclear weapons production, which, of course, was a serious threat to Iran.
It’s kind of ironic that when Iran was a loyal client state under the Shah in the 1970s, the Shah and other high officials made it very clear that they were working to develop nuclear weapons. At that time, Kissinger and Rumsfeld and Cheney were pressuring American universities, primarily MIT — there was a big flap on campus about this — to bring Iranian nuclear engineers to the U.S. for training, though, of course, they knew they were developing nuclear weapons. Actually, Kissinger was asked later why he changed his attitude toward Iranian nuclear weapons development in later years when, of course, it became a big issue, and he said, very simply, they were an ally then.
The sanctions against Iran got harsher, more intense. There were negotiations about dealing with the Iranian nuclear programs. According to U.S. intelligence, after 2003, there was no evidence that Iran had nuclear weapons programs, but probably they were developing what’s called a nuclear capability, which many countries have; that is, the capacity to produce nuclear weapons if the occasion arises. As Iran was rapidly increasing its capacities, more centrifuges and so on, Obama finally agreed to the joint agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015.
Since then, according to U.S. intelligence, Iran has completely lived up to it. There is no indication of any Iranian violation. The Trump administration pulled out of it and has now sharply escalated the sanctions against Iran. Now there is a new pretext: It’s not nuclear weapons; it’s that Iran is meddling in the region.
Unlike the U.S.
Or every other country. In fact, what they’re saying is Iran is attempting to extend its influence in the region. It has to become what Secretary of State Pompeo called a “normal country,” like us, Israel and others, and never try to expand its influence. Essentially, it’s saying, just capitulate. Pompeo particularly has said that U.S. sanctions are designed to try to reduce Iranian oil exports to zero. The U.S. has extraterritorial influence: It forces other countries to accept U.S. sanctions under threat that they will be excluded from the U.S. market and, in particular, from financial markets, which are dominated by the U.S. So the U.S., as the world’s leading rogue state, enforces its own unilateral decisions on others, thanks to its power. Bolton, of course, as he has said, just wants to bomb them.
My speculation is that a lot of the fist-waving at the moment is probably for two reasons: one, to try to keep Iran off balance and intimidated, and also to intimidate others so that they don’t try to interfere with U.S. sanctions; but I think it’s largely domestic. If the Trump strategists are thinking clearly — and I assume they are — the best way to approach the 2020 election is to concoct major threats all over: immigrants from Central America coming here to commit genocide against white Americans, Iran about to conquer the world, China doing this and that. But we will be saved by our bold leader with the orange hair, the one person who is capable of defending us from all of these terrible threats, not like these women who “won’t know how to do anything,” or “sleepy” Joe or “crazy” Bernie. That’s the best way to move into an election. That means maintaining tensions, but not intending to actually go to war.
Unfortunately, it’s bad enough in itself. We have absolutely zero right to impose any sanctions on Iran. None. It’s taken for granted in all discussion that somehow this is legitimate. There is absolutely no basis for that. But also, tensions can easily blow up. Anything could happen. An American ship in the Gulf could hit a mine, let’s say, and some commander would say, “OK, let’s retaliate against an Iranian installation,” and then an Iranian ship could shoot a missile. Pretty soon, you’re off and running. So, it could blow up.
Meanwhile, there are horrible effects all over the place, the worst in Yemen, where our client, Saudi Arabia, with strong U.S. support — arms, intelligence — along with its brutal UAE ally, is in fact creating what the UN has described as “the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.” It’s pretty clear; it’s not really controversial what’s happening. If there is a confrontation with Iran, the first victim will be Lebanon. As soon as there’s any threat of war, Israel will certainly be unwilling to face the danger of Hezbollah missiles, which are probably scattered all around Lebanon by now. So it’s very likely that the first step prior to direct conflict with Iran would be essentially to wipe out Lebanon or something like it.
And those missiles in Lebanon are from Iran.
They come from Iran, yes.
So, what is Iran’s strategy in the region? You hear this term, the “Shi’a arc,” the Shi’a population in Iraq, Bahrain, Lebanon and Syria.
The Shi’a arc is a Jordanian concoction. Of course, Iran, like every other power, is trying to extend its influence. It’s doing it, typically, in the Shi’a areas, naturally. It’s a Shi’ite state. In Lebanon, we don’t have detailed records because they can’t take a census — it would break down the fragile relationship that exists there in the sectarian system — but it’s pretty clear that the Shi’ite population is the largest of the sectarian groups.
They have a political representative, Hezbollah, which is in the parliament. Hezbollah developed as a guerilla force. Israel was occupying southern Lebanon after its 1982 invasion. This was in violation of U.N. orders, but they pretty much stayed there, in part through a proxy army. Hezbollah finally drove Israel out. That turned them into a “terrorist force.” You’re not allowed to drive out the invading army of a client state, obviously.
Since then, Hezbollah serves Iranian interests. It sent fighters to Syria, who are a large part of the support for the Assad government. Technically, that’s quite legal. That was the recognized government. It’s a rotten government, so you can, on moral grounds, say you shouldn’t do it, but you can’t say on legal grounds you shouldn’t. The U.S. was openly trying to overthrow the government. It’s not secret. Finally, it became clear that the Assad government would control Syria. There are a few pockets still left unresolved, the Kurdish areas and others, but it’s pretty much won the war, which means that Russia and Iran have the dominant role in Syria.
In Iraq, there is a Shi’ite majority, and the U.S. invasion of Iraq pretty much handed the country over to Iran. It had been a Sunni dictatorship, but, of course, with the Sunni dictatorship destroyed, the Shi’a population gained a substantial role. So, for example, when ISIS [also known as Daesh] came pretty close to conquering Iraq, it was the Shi’ite militias that drove them back, with Iranian support. The U.S. participated, but secondarily. Now they have a strong role in the government. In the U.S., this is considered more Iranian meddling. But I think Iran’s strategy is pretty straightforward: It’s to expand their influence as they can in the region.
As far as their military posture is concerned, I don’t see any reason to question the analysis of U.S. intelligence. It seems pretty accurate. In their presentations to Congress, they point out that Iran has very low military expenditures by the standards of the region, much less than the other countries — dwarfed by the UAE and Saudi Arabia, of course Israel — and that its military doctrine is essentially defensive, designed to deter an invasion long enough for diplomatic efforts to be initiated. According to U.S. intelligence, if they have a nuclear weapons program — which we have no reason to believe they do, but if they do — it would be part of their deterrent strategy.
That’s the real Iranian threat: It has a deterrent strategy. For the states that want to be free to rampage in the region, deterrence is an existential threat. You don’t want to be deterred; you want to be able to do what you would like. That’s primarily the U.S. and Israel, who want to be free to act forcefully in the region without any deterrent. To be accurate, that’s the real Iranian threat. That’s what the State Department calls “successful defiance.” That’s the term the State Department used to explain back in the early 1960s why we cannot tolerate the Castro regime, because of its “successful defiance” of the U.S. That’s absolutely intolerable if you intend to be able to rule the world, by force, if necessary.
And it seems a component of that is the threat of a good example.
There’s also that, but I don’t think that’s true in the case of Iran. It’s a miserable government. The Iran government is a threat to its own people. I think that’s fair enough to say. And it’s not a real model for anyone. Cuba was quite different. In fact, if you look back in the early 1960s at the internal documents that have been declassified, there was great concern that — as Arthur Schlesinger, Kennedy’s close adviser, particularly on Latin American affairs, said — the problem with Cuba is “the spread of the Castro idea of taking matters into one’s own hands,” which has great appeal to others in the region who are suffering from the same circumstances as Cuba was under the U.S.-backed Batista regime.
That’s dangerous. The idea that people have the right to take things into their own hands and separate themselves from U.S. domination is not going to be acceptable. That’s successful defiance.
Another theme that plays out post-1945 is Washington’s resistance to independent nationalism.
Yes. But that’s automatic for a hegemonic power. The same with Britain, when it was running most of the world; the same with France and its domains. You don’t want independent nationalism. In fact, it’s often made quite explicit. Right after the Second World War, when the U.S. was beginning to try to organize the post-war world, the first concern was to make sure that the Western Hemisphere was totally under control.
In February 1945, the U.S. called a hemispheric conference in Chapultepec, Mexico. The main theme of the conference was precisely what you described: It was to end any kind of “economic nationalism.” That was the phrase that was used. The State Department internally warned that Latin American countries are infected — I’m virtually quoting now — “by the idea of a new nationalism,” which meant that the people of the country should be the first beneficiaries of the country’s resources. Obviously, that’s totally intolerable. The first beneficiaries have to be U.S. investors. That’s the philosophy of the new nationalism, and that has to be crushed. And the Chapultepec conference, in fact, made it explicit that economic nationalism would not be tolerated.
So, for example, to take a case that was discussed, Brazil, a major country, could produce steel, but not the high-quality steel of the kind that the U.S. would specialize in. Incidentally, there is, as always, one unmentioned exception to the rules. The U.S. is permitted to follow policies of economic nationalism. In fact, the U.S. was pouring government resources massively into development of what became the high-tech economy of the future: computers, the internet, and so on. That’s the usual exception. But for the others, they can’t succumb to this idea that the first beneficiaries of a country’s resources should be the people of that country. That’s intolerable. This is framed in all sorts of nice rhetoric about free markets and so on and so forth, but the meaning is quite explicit.
You’ve often quoted George Kennan, the venerated State Department official, in his famous 1948 memo: “We have 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population…. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity.” That was 1948. I was interested to discover that two years later, he made a statement about Latin America to the effect of, “The protection of our raw materials” in the rest of the world, particularly in Latin America, would trump concern over what he called “police repression.”
He said police repression may be necessary to maintain control over “our resources.” Remember that he was at the dovish extreme of the policy spectrum, in fact, so much so that he was kicked out about that time and replaced by a hardliner, Paul Nitze. He was considered “too soft” for this tough world. His estimate of the U.S. having 50 percent of the world’s resources is probably exaggerated now that more careful work has been done. The statistics aren’t great for that period, but there are studies. It was probably less than that. However, it may be true today in a different sense. In the contemporary period of globalization, global supply chains, national accounts, meaning the country’s share of global GDP, is much less relevant than it used to be.
A much more relevant measure of a country’s power is the wealth controlled by domestically based multinational corporations. There, what you find is that U.S. corporations own about 50 percent of world wealth. Now, there are good statistics. There are studies of this by a very good political economist, Sean Kenji Starrs, who has several articles and a new book coming out on it with extensive details. As he points out, this is a degree of control of the international economy that has absolutely no parallel or counterpart in history, in fact. It will be interesting to see what the impact is of Trump’s wrecking ball on all of this, which is breaking the system of global supply chains that have been carefully developed over the years. It may have some impact. We really don’t know. So far, it’s just harming the global economy.
Getting back to Iran, you mentioned in our book Global Discontents that, “Any concern about Iranian weapons of mass destruction could be alleviated by the single means of heeding Iran’s call to establish a weapons-of-mass-destruction-free zone in the Middle East.” This is almost on the level of samizdat. It’s barely known or reported on.
It’s not a secret. And it’s not just Iran’s call. This proposal for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East and extended to WMD-free zone, that actually comes from the Arab states. Egypt and others initiated that back in the early 1990s. They called for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. There are such zones that have been established in several parts of the world. It’s kind of interesting to look at them. They aren’t fully operative because the U.S. has not accepted them, but they’re theoretically there. The one for the Middle East would be extremely important.
The Arab states pushed for this for a long time. The nonaligned countries, the G-77 — that’s by now about 130 countries — have called for it strongly. Iran strongly called for it while serving as spokesperson for the G-77. Europe pretty much supports it. Probably not England, but others. In fact, there is almost total global support for it, adding to it an inspection regime of a kind which already exists in Iran. That would essentially eliminate any concern over not only nuclear weapons, but weapons of mass destruction.
There’s only one problem: The U.S. won’t allow it. This comes up regularly at the regular review sessions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the most recent in 2015. Obama blocked it. And everybody knows exactly why. Nobody will say, of course. But if you look at the arms-control journals or professional journals, they’re quite open about it, because it’s obvious. If there were such an agreement, Israel’s nuclear weapons would come under international inspection. The U.S. would be compelled to formally acknowledge that Israel has nuclear weapons. Of course, it knows that it does, everybody does, but you’re not allowed to formally acknowledge it. For a good reason. If you formally acknowledge it, U.S. aid to Israel has to terminate under U.S. law. Of course, you can find ways around it; you can always violate your own laws. But that does become a problem. It would mean that Israel’s weapons would have to be inspected — not just nuclear, but also biological and chemical. That’s intolerable, so we can’t allow that. Therefore, we can’t move toward a WMD-free zone, which would end the problem.
There is another thing that you can only read in samizdat. The U.S. has a special commitment to this, a unique commitment, along with Britain. The reason is that when the U.S. and Britain were planning the invasion of Iraq, they sought desperately to find some legal cover for it so it wouldn’t look like just direct aggression. They appealed to a U.N. Security Council resolution in 1991 which called on Saddam Hussein to end his nuclear weapons programs, which in fact he had done. But the pretext was he hadn’t done it, so he had violated that resolution; therefore, that was supposed to give some legitimacy to the invasion.
If you bother reading that U.N. resolution, when you get down to Article 14, it commits the signers, including the U.S. and Britain, to work for a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the Middle East. So the U.S. and Britain have a unique responsibility to do this. Try to find any discussion of this. And, of course, it could resolve whatever problem one thinks there is. In fact, according to U.S. intelligence, there is essentially none.
The real problem is pretty much what U.S. intelligence describes, the Iranian posture of deterrence. That is a real danger and is constantly regarded as an existential threat to Israel and the U.S., which cannot tolerate deterrence.
There are big paydays for a militaristic foreign policy such as the U.S. has. For example, Lee Fang, writing in The Intercept, reports, “Large weapons manufacturers,” like Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, “have told their investors that escalating conflict with Iran could be good for business.”
Of course, it is. That’s a factor. I don’t think it’s the major factor, but it certainly is a factor. It’s what’s called “good for the economy” if you can produce material goods that you can sell to other countries. The U.S. is preeminent in military force. That’s its real comparative advantage — military force. Other countries can produce computers and TVs, but the U.S. is the largest arms exporter. Its military budget overwhelms anything in the rest of the world. In fact, it’s almost as large as the rest of the world combined, much larger than other countries’. The U.S. increase in the military budget under Trump — the increase — is greater than the entire Russian military budget. China is way behind. And, of course, the U.S. is way more technologically advanced in military hardware. So that’s the U.S. comparative advantage. You would naturally want to pursue it. But I think the major thing is just ensuring that the world remains pretty much under control.
An Iranian security official in protective clothing walks through a uranium conversion facility in 2005. Iran says it is now enriching uranium above the limit set in the 2015 nuclear deal.
Updated on Monday at 12:40 p.m. ET
Iran has crossed another line set in the 2015 nuclear deal between it and major world powers.
According to state media, Iran has begun enriching uranium above levels enshrined in the agreement. The move sends a signal that Iran is losing patience with a deal that has not provided the economic relief promised, more than a year after the United States withdrew from the agreement.
By Monday, Iran had reached levels of around 4.5% enrichment, Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, told the semiofficial Fars news agency. He warned that Iran could go as high as 20% in the future, though that level is “not needed now.”
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran has crossed the line.
On Sunday, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, said Iran would go over some other unspecified limit again in 60 days, raising pressure on diplomatic negotiations.
“This is to protect the nuclear deal, not to nullify it. … This is an opportunity for talks. And if our partners fail to use this opportunity, they should not doubt our determination to leave the deal,” Araghchi said.
Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to keep its enrichment of uranium below 3.67% purity. It was one of several limits set in an effort to keep Iran at least a year away from accumulating enough material with which to build a nuclearbomb.
In exchange for holding down enrichment levels, Iran was supposed to see economic sanctions lifted and more opportunities for trade. But the U.S. reimposed the sanctions it had promised to lift and is demanding that other countries cut off most business with Iran. The Trump administration says it’s trying to force Iran to renegotiate a tougher deal and change its behavior in the Middle East.
Now, Iran is hurting for cash as oil and other exports dwindle.
Iran says it will stop meeting its commitments under the nuclear deal unless European countries and other trade partners find a way to provide the economic benefits it was originally promised.
Before the nuclear deal, Iran had begun enriching large quantities of uranium to nearly 20%. For technical reasons, the gap from 20% to 90% is relatively small, and most experts agreed that the country was within weeks or a few months of getting material for a bomb, if it decided to “sprint” toward such a goal.
But Iran never did.Instead, it opted to surrender a large quantity of its 20% enriched uranium in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. The uranium was diluted and then exported to Russia, according to Corey Hinderstein, vice president for international fuel cycle strategies at the Nuclear Threat Initiative and a former Obama administration official who helped oversee the deal.
Iran also shut down some of the equipment used to enrich uranium — devices known as centrifuges.
Under the deal, Iran continued to enrich, but it stopped at the limit set in the agreement. “That limit, 3.67%, is in the Iran nuclear deal, and it’s there for a reason,” Hinderstein says. It was one of the numbers that kept Iran from producing a bomb quickly.
After Trump was elected, Iran kept to the deal in the hopes that the other parties, including Europe, China and Russia, would continue to provide economic benefits. But the Trump administration has threatened secondary sanctions on any entity that does business with Iran.
Now Iran says it is enriching past the levels set by the agreement.
Technically, it can be done with no modifications to Iran’s enrichment setup, says Houston Wood, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Virginia. “It’s a really simple thing for them to do.”
Didn’t Iran cross another line recently?
In addition to being required to keep its enrichment levels low, Iran was also restricted in how much uranium it could have. Under the agreement, it could have no more than 300 kilograms (661 pounds)of 3.67% enriched uranium.
On July 1, Iran said that it had exceeded the 300-kilogram cap. The International Atomic Energy Agency later confirmed that Iran had crossed that line.
So is Iran within “weeks” of getting enough material for a nuclear weapon again?
No. It will take Iran time to enrich uranium back to higher levels and to accumulate enough enriched uranium for a weapon.
Because of the way the nuclear deal was structured, Iran is still about a year away from getting the material together again, according to Hinderstein. But that time will likely shrink in coming months, unless the deal can be salvaged.
Iran continues to officially maintain that its program is peaceful and that it does not want a nuclear weapon. The International Atomic Energy Agency has found evidence of a nuclear weapons program in Iran that was active until the mid-2000s.
Is there any way to stop Iran from going down this road?
Iran has said it is willing to go back to the deal if it is given the economic benefits it was promised. That will be difficult as long as the U.S. continues to enforce strict sanctions on the nation.
But there is not another obvious way to stop Iran from accumulating dangerous levels of nuclear material. Sabotage efforts and assassinations have slowed the country’s program in the past, but such methods have been unable to stop Iran outright.
Similarly, military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities would probably set the program back, but only temporarily. “You just can’t bomb their program out of existence,” says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security. “I think what you’re left with is negotiations.”
Trump slams Iran on Twitter for issuing a “very ignorant and insulting statement” after the U.S. slapped fresh sanctions on Tehran.
Trump says any Iranian attack on Americans would be met with “great and overwhelming force” and “obliteration.”
The latest confrontation comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran since the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks before signing an executive order aimed at requiring hospitals to be more transparent about prices before charging patients for healthcare services, at the White House in Washington, U.S. June 24, 2019.
Erin Scott | Reuters
WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump slammed Iran on Tuesday, saying any Iranian attack on Americans would be met with “great and overwhelming force” and “obliteration.”
Trump’s comments on Twitter came a day after he announced fresh sanctions on the Islamic Republic in the wake of its downing of an unmanned U.S. drone last week.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani responded to the new sanctions by calling them “outrageous and idiotic” and saying the White House was suffering from a “mental illness.”
Trump called that response a “very ignorant and insulting statement.”
Donald J. Trump
Iran leadership doesn’t understand the words “nice” or “compassion,” they never have. Sadly, the thing they do understand is Strength and Power, and the USA is by far the most powerful Military Force in the world, with 1.5 Trillion Dollars invested over the last two years alone..
“Iran leadership doesn’t understand the words “nice” or “compassion,” they never have,” Trump wrote. “Sadly, the thing they do understand is Strength and Power, and the USA is by far the most powerful Military Force in the world, with 1.5 Trillion Dollars invested over the last two years alone.”
In another tweet, Trump said that any Iranian attack on Americans would be met with “great and overwhelming force” and “obliteration.”
….The wonderful Iranian people are suffering, and for no reason at all. Their leadership spends all of its money on Terror, and little on anything else. The U.S. has not forgotten Iran’s use of IED’s & EFP’s (bombs), which killed 2000 Americans, and wounded many more…
Donald J. Trump
….Iran’s very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality. Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration. No more John Kerry & Obama!
The latest confrontation comes amid rising tensions between Washington and Tehran since the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement in May 2018.
Last week, U.S. officials said an Iranian surface-to-air missile shot down an American military surveillance drone over the Strait of Hormuz. Iran said the aircraft was over its territory. Hours later, Trump said Iran made a “very big mistake ” by shooting down the spy drone.
On Thursday, he approved military strikes on Iran before calling them off, saying the attack would have been disproportionate to Iran’s downing of an unmanned American surveillance drone.
“We were cocked & loaded to retaliate last night on 3 different sights when I asked, how many will die,” Trump wrote. “150 people, sir, was the answer from a General. 10 minutes before the strike I stopped it, not […] proportionate to shooting down an unmanned drone. I am in no hurry, our Military is rebuilt, new, and ready to go, by far the best in the world.”
The downing of the drone came a week after the U.S. blamed Iran for attacks on two oil tankers in the Persian Gulf region. Four tankers were attacked in May. Iran denies involvement.
Fire and smoke billow from the Norwegian owned Front Altair tanker, which was said to have been attacked in the Gulf of Oman.
ISNA | AFP | Getty Images
“Iran is lashing out because the regime wants our successful maximum pressure campaign lifted,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said earlier this month without citing specific evidence as to why Tehran was responsible. “No economic sanctions entitle the Islamic Republic to attack innocent civilians, disrupt global oil markets and engage in nuclear blackmail.”
Uranium stockpile limits could be breached as soon as June 27
Trump prepares new U.S. sanctions, says Iran can’t go nuclear
Iran is set to breach a cap on its enriched-uranium stockpile within days, potentially pushing its conflict with the U.S. into a dangerous new phase.
Limiting the volume and purity of its accumulated uranium was a central part of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers in 2015. The U.S. abandoned the deal in May 2018 and reimposed sanctions. President Donald Trump said Saturday he’ll impose “major” additional U.S. penalties on Monday.
While Trump announced the sanctions, days after Iran shot down a U.S. Navy drone, he didn’t provide details. In his Twitter post Trump specified the need to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, echoing comments made to reporters at the White House on Saturday.
“All I want is no nuclear weapons,” Trump said. “Let me just tell you, they’re not going to have a nuclear weapon.”
In a move foreshadowed by Iranian leaders for weeks, the cap set on the country’s stockpile of enriched uranium could be broken by Thursday, a day before negotiators from the countries, mostly European, still committed to the accord meet in Vienna.
“If Iran’s leadership comes to the conclusion that it has no choice other than talking to Washington, it will do so only after it has resuscitated its leverage,” said Ali Vaez, a director at the International Crisis Group. “This means that the path to new negotiations passes through another perilous nuclear standoff.”
Iran eliminated some 97% of its enriched uranium to comply with the nuclear agreement with China, France, Germany, Russia, the U.K. and U.S. The country previously had enough material to build more than a dozen bombs. While Iran has always said its program is civilian, world powers pursued the deal because they doubted that claim.
Pressure on Europe
Iran’s president signaled on May 8 that the country would soon violate terms of the agreement unless European governments, which haven’t pulled out of the deal, guarantee the trade it envisages.
Five weeks later, Iran said it would increase the rate of enrichment. Barring policy change or mechanical breakdown, Iran could accumulate the volume of material needed to build a weapon by the end of the year.
“While Iran’s frustration with Trump’s reckless pressure campaign is understandable, we strongly urge Iran to remain in compliance with the nuclear deal,” Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington nonprofit, said by email.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran has “increased the risk of a new nuclear crisis,” he said.
The association estimates Iran would need about 1,050 kilograms (2,315 pounds) of uranium enriched to 3.67% to build one bomb. The material would then need to undergo further enrichment. The nuclear deal was designed to prevent Iran from breaking out and constructing a weapon within a year.
International Atomic Energy Agency monitors said last month that Iran has met its obligations. Diplomats from the countries remaining in the accord will meet June 28 to discuss “Iran’s announcement regarding the implementation of its nuclear commitments.”
A US naval reconnaissance drone was downed by Iranian missiles. President Donald Trump says he ordered – and then aborted – a retaliatory attack, changing his mind 10 minutes before the planned strikes. The sequence of events provided a glimpse of how a conflict might start.
Just suppose the president had not changed his mind. What might have happened? The first US strikes would have been limited in scope, targeting Iranian missile sites or radars, either associated with or similar to the ones that shot down the US drone. They would have been accompanied by a clear diplomatic warning to Iran (as appears to have been delivered over-night on Thursday) that this was indeed a limited attack, solely in retaliation for the loss of the US aircraft.
Mr Trump also reportedly offered an olive branch; according to reports the message to Tehran – which was relayed through Oman – included a further request for talks.
Say the strikes had gone ahead. What would happen then? The next move would be Iran’s. According to one report, it responded last night that it was not interested in talks, and gave a warning of its own: “Any attack against Iran will have regional and international consequences,” one un-named official told the Reuters news agency.
So where might such a conflict go and what would it look like? There are many variables to consider, and it is easier to say what will not happen. The Trump administration may be an implacable foe of the Iranian regime but there is not going to be a full-scale ground invasion of Iran to topple the regime. This is not Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Iran is an altogether more complex challenge both militarily and politically. Some in the White House clearly want regime change. They are likely to be disappointed. So rule out a major land war.
Any follow-up Iranian attack on US ships or aircraft would almost certainly be met by an escalation from the Americans. Iranian naval installations, air bases and so on would be hit by aircraft and cruise missiles with the focus, in part, on the Revolutionary Guard Corps whose naval arm appears to have played a prominent role in recent events.
Of course the United States can deliver punishing strikes against Iran’s military infrastructure. But Iran has the means to strike back too. It can use a variety of measures from mines, swarming small boat attacks or submarines to disrupt operations in the confined waters of the Gulf. Oil tankers could be attacked forcing the Americans to take steps to protect them too.
Where the US clearly has an extraordinary advantage is in intelligence gathering and situational awareness. But as the downing of the very sophisticated and hugely expensive drone illustrates, there are significant US vulnerabilities too. All Iran may think it needs to do is to damage or sink a few US warships to make the price of this conflict one that Mr Trump will not want to pay.
Any war would be characterised by this “asymmetric” aspect. This term suggests a war of the weak against the strong – two sides with very different goals and very different metrics for success. If a war does break out the US will seek to pummel Iran’s armed forces. It would probably go about it in its time-honoured fashion; initially taking down Iranian air defences and so on. But the Iranians simply need to do enough damage to turn US public opinion against the conflict – to make it appear open-ended and uncertain.
Iran, if under sufficient pressure, might also seek to spread the conflict more broadly, urging its proxies in Iraq, Syria or elsewhere to attack US targets. In extremis it might even try to prevail upon Hezbollah (in concert with its own forces in Syria) to launch rocket attacks on Israel. The goal would be to demonstrate to Washington that what Mr Trump might see as a short-punitive campaign actually risks setting the region on fire.
But why would either country allow themselves to drift into a war? After all, modern conflicts are not “won” in any conventional sense. The Americans should have learnt this lesson all too well from Afghanistan and Iraq. And Iran surely cannot think it can “beat” the United States in any meaningful sense? But the reality is that somewhere between punitive attacks on the one hand and a full-scale conflict on the other, both countries may believe that they can make strategic gains.
The US wants to contain Iran. Severely damaging its military capabilities – especially those of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – would serve this purpose. A serious reversal for Tehran might ultimately impact domestic politics in the country, though a war could equally have the unwanted result of consolidating support for the current regime.
Iran may be pursuing its own high-stakes version of a “regime change” policy too. It may see the current US administration as aggressive, but equally as indecisive and lacking support from its key western allies. By drawing the Americans into a costly and open-ended conflict, the Iranian leadership may believe that they can absorb the pain while damaging President Trump’s chances in the next Presidential race. An Iranian reading of the US political scene may see the Democrats as more likely to return to some kind of nuclear deal and as more willing therefore to relax economic sanctions.
The problem for Tehran is that time is not on its side. The economic pressure of sanctions is hitting hard. Iran has relatively few cards to play beyond threatening chaos. Thus it may see escalation as a route out of this crisis. President Trump on the other hand, according to his own tweets, says he is “in no hurry”.
Let’s hope all this discussion is academic. President Trump appeared ready to strike back at Iran after the downing of the drone and then had second thoughts. Many will hope that it is these second thoughts that prevail in the president’s mind over the coming days.
A war with Iran would indeed be costly and unpredictable. It would neither resolve the problem of Iran’s nuclear programme nor of Iran’s growing prominence in the region. That was the indirect outcome of Washington’s last major war in the Middle East – the destruction of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Conflicts, it should be remembered, have unintended consequences.
If you’re worried about the U.S. initiating a shooting war with Iran, you should be, though not really, but definitely maybe, or not. As with everything else involving Donald Trump and the intentions of his administration, attempting to figure out exactly what they are up to is a lot like trying to stare into the bottom of a mud puddle.
When the tankers were attacked, the Trump administration leaped to blame Iran, using murky video footage as proof along with other “intelligence” that officials refused to share. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in Tehran trying to mediate between Iran and the U.S. amid deteriorating relations when the attacks took place. It makes little sense for Iran to attack Japanese vessels while that nation’s prime minister is in the country.
People directly involved with the attacked tankers have cast deep doubt on the Trump administration’s “evidence” of Iranian complicity in the attack. The U.S. has claimed the ships were attacked with torpedoes or limpet mines, but the captain of one of the ships claims his crew saw his ship attacked by “flying objects.” Yutaka Katada, president of the company that owns one of the tankers, said, “I do not think there was a time bomb or an object attached to the side of the ship.”
The Trump administration and its domestic political allies are laying the groundwork for a possible confrontation with Iran without the explicit consent of Congress — a public relations campaign that was already well under way before top officials accused the Islamic Republic of attacking a pair of oil tankers last week in the Gulf of Oman.
Over the past few months, senior Trump aides have made the case in public and private that the administration already has the legal authority to take military action against Iran, citing a law nearly two decades old that was originally intended to authorize the war in Afghanistan.
In the latest sign of escalating tensions, National Security Adviser John Bolton warned Iran in an interview conducted last week and published Monday, “They would be making a big mistake if they doubted the president’s resolve on this.” Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan announced on Monday evening that the U.S. was deploying an additional 1,000 troops to the region for “defensive purposes.” And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo jetted to Tampa, home of Central Command, on Monday evening to huddle with military officials to discuss “regional security concerns and ongoing operations,” according to a State Department spokeswoman.
The developments came as Iran announced it was on course to violate a core element of its nuclear deal with major world powers, exceeding the amount of enriched uranium allowed under the agreement in 10 days unless European nations intervened to blunt the economic pain of American sanctions. And they came as U.S. officials promoted video footage and images showing what they say were Iranian forces planting explosive devices on commercial oil tankers.
hawkish advisers have highlighted Iran’s alleged bad behavior, administration officials privately stressed that direct military action remained highly unlikely absent an Iranian attack on an American ship or an American citizen. The president, who campaigned against getting the U.S. bogged down in unnecessary foreign wars, is considered the primary internal obstacle to a counterattack, officials said, noting that Trump continues to press for an improved nuclear deal.
Trump on Monday de-emphasized the international significance of the recent tanker explosions in an interview with Time magazine — downplaying the Gulf of Oman’s value to U.S. oil supplies and describing alleged Iranian acts of aggression as “very minor.”
“If you look at the rhetoric now compared to the days when they were signing [the 2015 nuclear deal], where it was always ‘death to America, death to America, we will destroy America, we will kill America,’ I’m not hearing that too much anymore,” Trump told Time. “And I don’t expect to.”
Still, to the alarm of Democrats and some Republicans, Pompeo has suggested that if the administration does take military action, it might rely on the 2001 congressional bill that greenlighted America’s military response to the 9/11 attacks to strike Iran. Asked Sunday by CBS host Margaret Brennan whether the administration believed it had the authority to initiate military action, Pompeo would say only, “Every option we look at will be fully lawful.”
And Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a close ally of the administration, urged the president to attack Iran outright — adding that he didn’t need permission from Congress. “Unprovoked attacks on commercial shipping warrant a retaliatory military strike,” Cotton told Brennan. “The president has the authorization to act to defend American interests,” he said.
But in a sign of some unease among other Republicans, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) told POLITICO that she expected to discuss the legitimacy of that justification — and of military retaliation itself — with her Senate colleagues this week.
Trump has sent conflicting messages about his own intentions — one day signaling his desire to negotiate with the clerical regime in Tehran, the next dismissing Iran as unready for serious talks. “While I very much appreciate P.M. Abe going to Iran to meet with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,” Trump tweeted last Thursday, “I personally feel that it is too soon to even think about making a deal. They are not ready, and neither are we!”
“The regime in Tehran is testing American patience with violence in the Gulf,” said Jonathan Schanzer, senior vice president at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “The administration now has to weigh its options.”
In some of Pompeo’s recent pronouncements, many on the left, and a few on the right, see the Trump team paving a path to war.
In April, the State Department named the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a foreign terrorist organization, a legal designation that some fear could be used to link the elite paramilitary force with al Qaeda. Later, Pompeo also said Iran had “instigated” a May 31 suicide attack on a U.S. convoy in Afghanistan, even though the Taliban claimed credit for the incident.
Pressed by CBS’s Brennan on Sunday, Pompeo reiterated the claim. “[W]e have confidence that Iran instigated this attack,” he said. “I can’t share any more of the intelligence. But I wouldn’t have said it if the intelligence community hadn’t become convinced that this was the case.”
The secretary of state’s efforts to link Iran and al Qaeda and to terrorism more broadly have become a flashpoint in multiple congressional hearings this spring — and they have taken on renewed significance given the growing possibility of a military confrontation between the two countries.
“It’s not surprising that you have a kind of revisitation of the AUMF because here you have what looks like the potential for a kind of real escalation,” said Dennis Ross, the veteran Middle East negotiator, referring to the 2001 bill that authorized military action against any national or individual involved in the 9/11 attacks.
“In the 2001 AUMF, there’s actually no real relationship to this,” Ross added. “It certainly didn’t name Iran and there comes a point where many in Congress want to have oversight over getting into a shooting war with Iran.”
As the president’s senior national security advisers huddled on Monday to consider how to respond to Iran, it was unclear how close the U.S. was inching to military action. Schanzer, for one, cast skepticism on an unattributed report in the Jerusalem Post on Monday that the U.S. had drawn up plans for a limited bombing campaign against an Iranian nuclear facility.
A senior administration official said Monday that the goal of the administration’s maximum pressure policy remains forcing the regime back to the table to negotiate a new and improved nuclear deal.
Iran has thus far been careful to avoid attacks on American vessels — an internal administration red line that would force a military response, this official said. Administration allies including FDD’s chief executive, Mark Dubowitz, said that while he expects U.S. sanctions against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to increase, it is less clear whether military action will result absent a direct attack against an American ship or an American citizen.
The president himself is caught between competing impulses: his disdain for the 2015 deal the Obama administration struck with Iran and his desire to strike a contrast, on the one hand, and his reluctance to get into another war in the Middle East on the other. He has long been more skittish than his hawkish advisers about ratcheting up tensions, but he sent a blunt warning to Iran’s leaders last month that “If they do anything it would be a very bad mistake.”
Last week, two lawmakers — Trump ally Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Democrat Elissa Slotkin (Mich.) — said that Pompeo had invoked the 2001 AUMF in a closed-door briefing with lawmakers about Iran, suggesting the administration could use it as a legal justification for war.
“We were absolutely presented with a full formal presentation on how the 2001 AUMF might authorize war on Iran,” Slotkin said. “Secretary Pompeo said it with his own words.”
Exiting an earlier closed-door briefing on May 21 by acting defense secretary Shanahan, Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.) told reporters, “What I heard in there makes it clear that this administration feels that they do not have to come back and talk to Congress in regards to any action they do in Iran.”
The Trump administration’s case against Iran has rested in part on the argument that it has supported al Qaeda. Announcing the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal in 2017, for example, Trump said that the country “supports terrorist proxies and militias,” including al Qaeda.
“Iran’s connection to al Qaeda is very real,” Pompeo told lawmakers in April. “They have hosted al Qaeda, they have permitted al Qaeda to transit their country. There is no doubt there is a connection between the Islamic Republican of Iran and al Qaeda. Period. Full stop.”
When Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) pushed Pompeo in that hearing to pledge that the administration would not rely on the 18-year old war authorization to attack Iran, the secretary demurred, saying that he would “prefer to leave that to the lawyers.”
“I can tell you explicitly you have not been given power or authority by Congress to have a war with Iran and in any kind of semblance of a sane world you would have to come back and ask us before you go into Iran,” Paul retorted.
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who was the only member of Congress to vote against the AUMF back in 2001, included an amendment repealing the provision in the defense appropriations bill currently being debated on the House floor. Her legislation would repeal the AUMF eight months after the appropriations bill becomes law, providing time, she has argued, for Congress to properly debate and vote on a replacement bill.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said last month that the administration could not rely on the 2001 law to take military action in Iran, and more than 100 House Democrats followed up on her remarks by penning a letter to the president making a similar case.
“They cannot call the authorization, AUMF, the authorization for the use of military force that was passed in 2001, as any authorization to go forward in the Middle East now,” Pelosi said at a press conference in May.
Several Democratic presidential candidates have made similar comments. “If the administration wants to go to war against Iran, then the Constitution requires them to come to Congress to ask for an authorization for the use of military force,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), told The Intercept on Friday, calling it “Constitutional Law 101.”
In his campaign’s maiden foreign policy speech, Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg argued for repealing and replacing the 2001 law in order to narrow its scope — an idea that has gained traction among some Democrats.
Some Republicans, however, say the administration could respond without getting a stamp of approval from Congress, drawing comparisons to the Reagan administration’s decision in 1987 to protect Kuwaiti oil tankers from Iranian attacks in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. Because U.S. law prohibits the use of Navy ships to escort foreign vessels, the Kuwaiti ships flew American naval flags.
“Reagan ended up sinking about half the Iranian Navy,” said Eric Edelman, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the George W. Bush administration. “Admittedly, it was a small navy, but they noticed.”