Washington DC, May 14—In the 13 months since he became Pres. Trump’s national security adviser, the extreme hawk John Bolton has successfully ramped up Washington’s tensions with Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and to some extent also Syria. But in the case of Iran, he may have met his match, since Iran’s government has a broad network of capable allies all across the Levant and plays a non-trivial role in 21st-century geopolitics, too.
Just one month after he appointed Bolton to his role, Trump withdrew the United States from the six-party Iran denuclearization deal (also known as the JCPOA) that Pres. Obama had signed back in 2015. Trump and his people started disentangling the United States from the deal almost immediately, reimposing on Iran several layers of the tough bilateral sanctions that the deal had earlier lifted.
Last month, the administration dug deeper, announcing tough new sanctions on Iran and other sanctions, for the first time, on third-party entities–including many in Europe–that do business with Iran. Last week, it announced that the aircraft carrier the USS Abraham Lincoln and its accompanying battle group would be redeployed from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf. All these moves have been enthusiastically welcomed by (or were even, reportedly, suggested by) Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu.
The scene seemed to be being set for a big—and potentially extremely damaging—military showdown between the United States and Iran. Then last Sunday (May 12), officials in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) reported that four oil tankers had been damaged (though not heavily) near the port of member emirate Fujairah…
Those incidents may well have been undertaken by the anti-Tehran provocateurs of the MEK group (with which Bolton and numerous other DC political figures have had lucrative and disquieting contractual relationships in the past.) But they did not, as many experts feared at the time, immediately jerk the hawkishly anti-Iran government of the UAE and its ally Saudi Arabia into the kind of anti-Iran “punishment” raid that many experts feared—and that would have upped the pressure on Trump and Bolton to also join those military activities.
There are many possible explanations for why that speedy escalation was avoided. Officials in Tehran were quick to distance themselves from the damage to the tankers. And all the commanders and planners of the anti-Iran military and naval forces in the Gulf—that is, the UAE, Saudi, and sizeable US forces deployed there– have a deep understanding of the high costs to all parties of any military confrontation with Iran, and of the high risk that any unplanned “small” encounter could rapidly balloon into a much more damaging war.
Those latter calculations may change a little once the Abraham Lincoln and its battle group arrive in the Gulf, but probably not by much.
For its part, the Israeli government may be eager to sound the trumpets of confrontation, hate, and militarism against Iran but it is probably very careful not to risk all-out regional war that might thereby be triggered. I have long maintained that Netanyahu and his cronies are usually eager to stir things up against Iran—but mainly as a way of distracting the world attention away from its persistent pursuit of colonization of Palestine while presenting itself as a stalwart “ally” for the west, rather than because they actually want to risk Israel getting into a battle to the death with that other significant (though distant) regional power.
But Bolton has his own priorities, and thus far he seems to have dragged Trump along with him. Right now, the strategy favored by Bolton in Iran– as in Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and Syria—seems to be one of imposing and maintaining the tightest possible sanctions on the country with the goal of fomenting a popular uprising against its government. (There is no evidence from anywhere that this tactic actually works. Rather, it inflicts massive amounts of pain on the most vulnerable citizens of the country targeted—think of the 500,000 babies and children killed by Washington’s 1990s-era sanctions against Iraq—while entrenching the people connected to the government ever more deeply in their power and relative wealth.)
But in the case of Iran, Bolton, Trump, and company are tangling with a country that, as noted above, has numerous regional allies and a specific role in the current world system (not least because of the active participation of the Europeans, Chinese, and Russians in negotiating and co-signing the JCPOA).
In the Levant—the Eastern Arab world—Iran has close ties with significant allies in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen:
- Inside Iraq, it deployed units of its “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” (IRGC) and some Iranian popular militias to help the government defeat the massive ISIS presence that erupted there in summer 2014; several of those units remain inside Iraq; and Iran has numerous ties with both the Baghdad government and with Iraqi militias and political forces, too.
- In Syria, it has a longstanding alliance with the government; it sent IRGC and other units to help the government defend itself against both ISIS and the numerous Al-Qaeda-linked militias that still remain in control of the northwestern Idlib region.
- In Lebanon, it has a longstanding alliance with Hizbullah, an authentically Lebanese movement represented in the country’s parliament and government, that originally grew up during the sturdy (and successful) resistance campaign that communities in South Lebanon waged against Israel’s 22-year occupation of their region, 1978-2000.
- In Yemen, it has ties with the “Houthi” movement that has controlled a large portion of the country (including its capital, Sanaa) for several years now and that has withstood four years of extremely deadly assaults from the super-well-armed (by the United States) Saudi and UAE militaries.
Two things to note here. First, Iran would not enjoy anything like the influence it currently does in Iraq if the United States had not sent its military massively into Iraq in 2003 to topple President Saddam Hussein. Second, Hizbullah most likely would not even exist if Israel had not sent its military massively into Lebanon in 1978 and again in 1982 to dispel the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s fairly ragtag guerrilla forces from the country… What goes around comes around.
The current, very worrying standoff between pro-Iran forces and anti-Iran forces in the Levant runs a high risk of jolting the whole region into a catastrophic military conflagration whose dimensions, duration, and costs on the region’s peoples cannot be tabulated or even, really, imagined. But the standoff has implications far beyond that long-troubled region, too.
One crucial fissure this standoff has revealed is that between the United States and the three key European powers that signed onto the JCPOA: Britain, France, and Germany. These powers, known collectively as the “E3”, and acting in consort with the broader European Union, played a key role negotiating the JCPOA and were all horrified (as were Russia and China) when Trump summarily exited from the deal. The E3, Russia, and China, are all eager to have the deal survive in some form. And now, they feel their freedom to trade as they choose with Iran (and as the JCPOA specifically allows them to) is under direct attack from the latest round of “secondary” sanctions announced by Trump.
One major way that Washington has for many years now enforced the many sanctions it’s imposed on other governments has been through its domination of the world financial system. For 15 years now, this control has been exercised primarily through a mechanism called the SWIFT system, which allows US surveillance and control of international financial transactions. After Trump/Bolton exited the JCPOA, the E3 said they would create a separate system that would allow them to exercise their own supervision and control of the permitted forms of trade between their European companies and Iran. This one is called INSTEX, but it has taken the E3 a long time to get it up and running and it is not operational yet. (The Chinese have also talked a lot recently about setting up their own international payments system, free from Washington’s control.)
The E3 governments all recognize that retaining some level of trade with Iran is in their interest, both because it will help their companies follow through on planned trade deals and because it might help keep Iran within the JCPOA system and prevent it from following through on threats to step up its enrichment activities. But meanwhile, two of these governments, Britain and France, have many problems of their own to deal with at home…
Early last year, before Bolton was named national security adviser, he gave a lavishly paid speech to an MEK gathering in Paris where he called for the Islamic Republic in Iran to be overthrown “before its 40th anniversary”. That anniversary came and went in February , without Bolton achieving that goal. But he still seems set on achieving regime change in Iran.
East of Eden
A little over 62 years ago, another powerful and somewhat deranged Westerner was set on achieving regime change in a sizable Middle Eastern country, and he went for broke to win it. No, I’m not thinking of the CIA’s 1953 coup against reformist Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. I’m thinking of Britain’s amphetamine-addled prime minister Anthony Eden, and his 1956 campaign against Egypt’s Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
That year, Eden conspired with France and Israel, and between them they cooked up a plan whereby in late October 1956 Israel would invade all of Sinai and the French and British would then speedily send in their forces to “secure” the Suez Canal, running north to south. Eden’s memoirs made quite clear that his goal was not only to regain British control of the Canal, which Nasser had nationalized two years before, but also that the humiliations of these defeats would lead the Egyptian army and people to rise up against Nasser and overthrow him completely.
It didn’t happen. Eden had believed that President Eisenhower would either support, or in any case not oppose, the invasion of Egypt. He was wrong. Once the tripartite invasion started, Eisenhower rushed to the United Nations and won a powerful resolution that condemned it outright and deployed UN peacekeepers immediately to the Suez Canal Zone. All the invading forces were summarily instructed to withdraw. (It took the Israelis a few months, but even they obeyed.)
Much more importantly, though, Eisenhower also immediately announced that the US Treasury would stop supporting the British pound. As the pound tumbled on world markets, it was Eden who was humiliated and whose party moved swiftly to unthrone him.
All historians of the British Empire agree that Eden’s fatal over-reach in 1956 marked the death-knell of the empire.
So here we are again, with the levers of financial power being revealed today, as they were back in 1956, as playing a key role in world affairs. We do not know yet, of course, how the current US-Iran confrontation will play out. We don’t know whether there will be big war or a smaller war or no war; or whether the JCPOA will survive in some form.
And we don’t know yet–if Bolton does succeed in bringing about the big war that he seems set on provoking—whether that reckless and lethal adventure might turn out to be the same kind of Eden-esque over-reach that marks a significant turning-point for a previously powerful empire…