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Trump cannot rely on protests to solve Iran crisis

An Iranian woman holds a placard reading in Farsi 'Your mistake was unintentional, your lie was intentional' during a demonstration outside Tehran's Amir Kabir University. Picture: STR/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

The anti-government protests which have erupted in Iran have deflected attention from the US president’s missteps, says former diplomat PAUL KNOTT.

Foreign policy is a pragmatic, often rough, business. The question that matters most when analysing it is ‘did the action taken advance the national interest?’ In the case of Donald Trump’s Iran policy and decision to assassinate the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard ‘Al Quds’ force, Major General Qasem Soleimani, the long-term answer is likely to be a resounding ‘no’.

Soleimani was the key figure in arming, training and directing a series of Iranian-proxy militia forces around the Middle East, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq. He was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Americans. As such, it is difficult to argue that his killing cannot be justified.

The more important consideration is whether Trump’s actions were wise, in terms of enhancing international security and advancing American interests.

Clearly, bringing the world’s only superpower to the brink of war with a pivotal state such as Iran does not advance global stability. Previous US administrations could have eliminated Soleimani but chose not to do so because the risk of causing a bigger conflict far outweighed the benefits of killing him.

While Soleimani was a capable, charismatic and increasingly prominent leader, he stood atop a robust military infrastructure which survives his passing and contains other officers who may be able to adopt his mantle.

Nor is it likely that Iran’s response to Soleimani’s killing will end with the missile attack it carried out on the American’s Al-Assad military base in Iraq four days later. Remarkably, this incident was practically choreographed in an exchange of notes passed between Washington and Tehran via the Swiss ambassador in Iran (who represents US interests there in the absence of an American embassy).

It enabled Iran to provide a show of fire and fury for TV viewers back home whilst deliberately avoiding causing any casualties that would have compelled the US to respond in kind.

The Iranians were never likely to hurtle into a head-on military conflict with the much more powerful Americans. The Islamic Republic’s record suggests that they will be patient and less direct in seeking their real vengeance.

Significantly, the head of the Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, was killed alongside Soleimani in the American drone attack in Baghdad. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made disturbing reference to this in his speech after his country’s official rocket barrage when he said that it was now the Iraqi militias’ turn to tackle the Americans.

Iran’s associated militias have frequently carried out hostage-taking and acts of terrorism both in and beyond the Middle East.

The likelihood that they will attack an American target, or one of its allies, during the coming months is now high. This could take the form of an assassination attempt against a senior official or broader action against a US military facility or embassy. Less likely but also possible is an attack against a prominent commercial target, such as shipping in the Persian Gulf or even a Trump-branded building.

Tehran’s calculation in prompting such an attack will be that it will be perceived as their revenge while being deniable enough to avoid an automatic American military response and outright warfare. Relying on the impetuous US president seeing it that way is not a comforting thought for the rest of us.

As the tension in the Iran-US relationship continues to build, there are plenty of other potential flashpoints too.

Iran will use its extensive political and military influence in Iraq and Syria to redouble its efforts to push the remaining US forces out of those countries, where their primary recent role has been to help prevent ISIS from resurging. Ostensibly, this campaign coincides with Trump’s own promise to remove US forces from the Middle East. It does, though, clash with the reality of him currently sending more troops to the region and his obsession with playing the strongman.

The humiliation of the US being forced out at the barrel of an Iranian-supplied gun would not sit well with him in this re-election year.

President Trump’s erratic nature and incoherent Middle East strategy make it difficult to discern his wider objectives on Iran. But Trump has stated that these include preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and reducing Iranian meddling around the Middle East. Deposing Iran’s Islamic Republic regime or negotiating a deal with it that renders it subservient to American diktat also seem to be on the list.

Trump’s policy on the nuclear issue is already an ever-worsening failure. When taking office in January 2017, he inherited the JCPOA nuclear deal between Iran, the US and six other global powers.

The deal halted Iran’s nuclear weapons programme for at least ten years and included the most stringent international inspections regime ever implemented. The agreement was working and every signatory (plus the US intelligence agencies) endorsed the inspectors’ assessments that Iran was complying with it.

Trump’s decision in May 2018 to withdraw from the deal prompted Iran to take some modest steps to reduce its compliance with it. Now, the killing of Soleimani (who opposed the deal because he thought, correctly it turns out, that the US could not be trusted to stick to it) has led to Tehran abandoning the crucial restrictions on uranium enrichment imposed by the agreement.

It is difficult in these circumstances of deep mistrust to see how the deal could be renegotiated while Trump is in office and we are now rapidly returning to the terrifying pre-deal options. One of these is to allow Iran to become an atomic weapons state soon – at the time the JCPOA was signed, Iran had enough enriched material for eight to ten nuclear bombs and was just two to three months away from being able to build one.

This would probably trigger a nuclear arms race in the world’s most unstable region, as rivals such as Saudi Arabia scramble to match Iran.

The other option is to bomb Iran’s nuclear facilities. Apart from the obvious danger that this would start a full-blown war, the chances of such military action succeeding are low. Damaging nuclear installations might delay the progress of Iran’s programme. But scientific knowledge cannot be bombed out of existence and the programme would be quickly revived.

Some of Trump’s senior officials seem to be pinning their expectations of avoiding war on the Iranian people overthrowing their government.

American conservatives have been predicting a successful uprising against the Islamic Republic almost since it was founded after the 1979 Iranian revolution.

One day they might be right because the Iranian regime is, in many respects, an odious one under which to live and unpopular with many of its people.

Tough US sanctions and government mismanagement are causing great economic hardship for many Iranians. And the mistaken but reckless shooting down of the Ukrainian airliner last week, killing 176 people, mostly Iranians or of Iranian origin, has prompted further public fury at the authorities.

Much of the anger at officialdom for their initial lies about the downing of the Ukrainian plane has been targeted at the Revolutionary Guard, who were responsible. Conversely, this might actually prompt a more robust and rapid backlash by the Guards against the US, as they seek to restore their reputation as fearsome defenders of the republic.

In any case, the regime still enjoys strong support amongst some sectors of society. This backing tends to intensify whenever Western pressure revives Iranian perceptions of historical interference in their affairs – as was demonstrated recently by the massive turnout for Soleimani’s funeral procession.

The regime has also repeatedly proven ruthless in overcoming previous waves of protest. It would be unwise to bet too heavily on a different outcome this time. Even if the regime does collapse under public pressure, it is far from certain that its successor would be one that makes Iran any easier to handle.

As the man who successfully concluded the Iran nuclear deal, former US secretary of state John Kerry said, when Trump took office Iran was complying with an agreement which prevented it from having a nuclear weapon; America’s allies were united alongside it; no ships were being sabotaged in the Persian Gulf; there were no missile attacks on US facilities; no protestors were breaching the American embassy in Baghdad and US and Iraqi forces were successfully fighting ISIS together.

That is not to say that the relationship with Iran was great or that Iran was not engaging in deeply troubling activities, such as abusing human rights and developing ballistic missiles at home whilst fomenting conflict in Yemen, propping up the Assad regime in Syria and threatening Israel. But a diplomatic platform had been laid to begin tackling those issues too.

Since entering the White House, Trump’s every move on Iran has undermined this progress and made a difficult, tense situation worse, to the point where all out war is a grave possibility. That is a foreign policy failure on a potentially catastrophic scale.

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