“Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”.
The above quote – often misattributed to Euripides – came to me irresistibly as I listened to Donald Trump’s speech on Iran, the complete text of which can be found here.
Suffice to say that in many years of following US Presidential addresses (some of them very weird) I have never heard or read any other speech from a US President on an important foreign policy issue which was so completely detached from reality or so frankly bizarre (the only one which comes close is George W. Bush’s address given on the eve of his invasion of Iraq).
I do not propose to analyse the speech in any detail since this has already been done thoroughly and excellently by my colleague Adam Garrie.
I would however draw attention to three particular statements in Donald Trump’s speech which seemed to me especially surreaI
“Iran is under the control of a fanatical regime that seized power in 1979 and forced a proud people to submit to its extremist rule.”
(bold italics added)
Opinions on the Iranian Revolution of 1979 differ but I do not know a single person well-informed about recent Iranian history who would recognise this description of it.
The reality – as I remember very well, having observed the Iranian Revolution closely when it was actually happening – is that in 1979 support for the Shah of Iran – a dictator of doubtful legitimacy, whose father was a Persian Cossack officer who became Iran’s Shah as a result of a coup, and who was himself installed by the US as Iran’s ruler following a CIA organised coup which overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government – had completely collapsed, so that Iranian society was almost completely united against him.
Far from Iran’s Islamic republic having been “forced on a proud people” by a faction that “seized power” – Trump presumably means illegally – it was what the overwhelming majority of people in Iran in 1979 wanted, and what they had gone onto the streets in their millions – risking death in confrontations with the Shah’s soldiers – to demand.
The idea that Iran’s current system of government lacks legitimacy is a fundamental error – shared by many people in the US and the West, not just by Donald Trump – which completely misunderstands its origins as well as recent Iranian history and contemporary Iranian society.
Unfortunately, it is an error which leads directly to the second of Donald Trump’s statements which I found surreal
…….the previous administration lifted these sanctions, just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime, through the deeply controversial 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. This deal is known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA……The nuclear deal threw Iran’s dictatorship a political and economic lifeline, providing urgently needed relief from the intense domestic pressure the sanctions had created.
(bold italics added)
I do not know a single credible analyst who believes that in 2015 – on the eve of the JCPOA being signed – the ‘Iranian regime’ was on the brink of total collapse. On the contrary the situation in Iran was then – as it is now – politically stable, with the country holding in an orderly and peaceful way a contested Presidential election just two years before.
As for the sanctions, though they were undoubtedly the cause of real hardship, the evidence suggests that it was the US who the Iranian people blamed for them rather than their own government.
The idea that in 2015 Iran’s Islamic republic – which had by then endured years of US hostility and a terrible war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – was on the brink of collapse is a fantasy.
I would add that it is not merely a fantasy. It is actually the reverse of the truth. Far from “throwing a collapsing regime a lifeline” the reason the Obama administration very grudgingly agreed to the JCPOA was because international support for the sanctions regime against Iran was collapsing, with the US intelligence community continuing to report since 2007 that Iran was not working towards a nuclear weapons capability, with the Russians on the brink of agreeing a massive ‘goods-for-oil’ barter deal with Iran, and – most importantly – with the US’s own European allies becoming increasingly disenchanted with the sanctions policy, and hinting that they might pull out of it.
All of this was made crystal clear in August 2015 by Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry in a highly revealing interview he gave to Reuters where he said this about why the US agreed to the JCPOA,
But if everybody thinks, “Oh, no, we’re just tough; the United States of America, we have our secondary sanctions; we can force people to do what we want.” I actually heard that argument on television this morning. I’ve heard it from a number of the organisations that are working that are opposed to this agreement. They’re spreading the word, “America is strong enough, our banks are tough enough; we can just bring the hammer down and force our friends to do what we want them to.”
Well, look – a lot of business people in this room. Are you kidding me? The United States is going to start sanctioning our allies and their banks and their businesses because we walked away from a deal and we’re going to force them to do what we want them to do even though they agreed to the deal we came to? Are you kidding?
That is a recipe quickly, my friends, for them to walk away from Ukraine, where they are already very dicey and ready to say, “Well, we’ve done our bit.” They were ready in many cases to say, “Well, we’re the ones paying the price for your sanctions.” We – it was Obama who went out and actually put together a sanctions regime that had an impact. By – I went to China. We persuaded China, “Don’t buy more oil.” We persuaded India and other countries to step back.
Can you imagine trying to sanction them after persuading them to put in phased sanctions to bring Iran to the negotiating table, and when they have not only come to the table but they made a deal, we turn around and nix the deal and then tell them you’re going to have to obey our rules on the sanctions anyway?
That is a recipe very quickly, my friends, businesspeople here, for the American dollar to cease to be the reserve currency of the world – which is already bubbling out there…..
(bold italics added)
In other words the US was pushed into the JCPOA somewhat against its will at the insistence of its European allies, who were considering lifting sanctions on Iran unilaterally if the US rejected the deal which was on offer. The US submitted to their demands because it feared that the alternative – threatening economic war on its European allies by imposing sanctions on them – would have hastened the ending of the reserve currency status of the US dollar.
It is rare to say the least for US officials to contemplate in public the possibility of the US dollar losing its reserve currency status. The fact that in August 2015 Secretary of State Kerry actually did so shows the pressure that the US was under.
In other words far from the Iranian ‘regime’ being on the brink of collapse, in 2015 it was the sanctions regime imposed on Iran which was about to collapse, which was why the US grudgingly agreed to the deal.
Many people including my colleague Adam Garrie have pointed to the absurdity of the third of the statements Donald Trump made in his speech – the one about Iran’s alleged support for terrorism – which seemed bizarre to me. I need therefore say little about it.
The regime remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism, and provides assistance to al Qaeda, the Taliban, Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist networks.
(bold italics added)
Suffice to say that Al-Qaeda is a militant sectarian Sunni Salafi terrorist organisation deeply antithetical to Shia Iran. From time to time Al-Qaeda’s central leadership (“Al-Qaeda Central”) has for tactical reasons attempted to rein in the pathological anti-Shia sectarianism of its followers. Whenever it has done so it has however failed. In Iraq its fighters – grouped in the organisation originally called “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” and originally led by the psychotic anti-Shia sectarian Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi – eventually morphed into ISIS, whose attitude to Iran and the Shia can be described as frankly genocidal. In Syria Al-Qaeda’s fighters under the various names they have used (Jabhat Al-Nusra being the most famous) have also been pathologically murderous anti-Shia sectarians.
The idea that Iran could in any way support or patronise such an organisation is simply preposterous, and the fact that a number of Al-Qaeda operatives may – as Donald Trump claims – have following 9/11 passed through Iran does not (if it is even true) change that fact.
As for the Taliban, in 1998 – following the murder by the Taliban of 11 Iranian diplomats and journalists in the northern Afghan town of Mazar-i-Sharif – Iran and the Taliban almost went to war, with Iran mobilising 70,000 troops on its border with Afghanistan in preparation for an attack on the Taliban until concessions to Iran by the Taliban and UN mediation caused the crisis to be defused.
Subsequently, during the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, Iran cooperated with the US to defeat the Taliban, with US and Iranian Special Forces even working together to liberate the important Afghan city of Herat from them.
To suggest therefore that Iran and the Taliban – also incidentally a sectarian Sunni organisation, though not an international terrorist organisation like Al-Qaeda – are in alliance with each other is quite simply preposterous.
These three absurd statements in Donald Trump’s speech are in fact only the most absurd in a speech filled with absurdity. What for example is one to make of this comment about the notional connections between Iran and North Korea?
There are also many people who believe that Iran is dealing with North Korea. I am going to instruct our intelligence agencies to do a thorough analysis and report back their findings beyond what they have already reviewed.
(bold italics added)
What is this if not an admission that the US does not actually possess any knowledge that Iran is in fact dealing with North Korea? If the US does not have any knowledge that Iran is dealing with North Korea why is this comment even in Donald Trump’s speech?
What makes this statement especially bizarre is that though the US has no knowledge that Iran is dealing with North Korea, it does have knowledge – or at least information – that its ally Ukraine is.
I discussed all this at length in an article I wrote for The Duran on 20th August 2017. Subsequently, I noticed this comment on this same subject in an article on the North Korean nuclear weapon and ballistic missile programme published by the Guardian on 11th September 2017
There is a growing consensus that former Soviet missile engines acquired on the black market in Ukraine have enabled Kim’s scientists to take the strides seen this year.
(bold italics added)
Why does Donald Trump not order US intelligence to investigate the dealings between North Korea and Ukraine about which a “growing consensus” exists, instead of wasting their time by ordering them to investigate dealings between North Korea and Iran about which the US has no knowledge?
The central absurdity of the whole speech is however that Donald Trump is unable to point to any single major breach by Iran of the JCPOA such as would justify his decision to decertify it. The various breaches he does refer to – all denied by Iran – are minor.
In other words Trump is decertifying Iran and encouraging Congress to punish it notwithstanding that Iran is in compliance with the deal it made with the US, and is doing nothing wrong other than conduct in the Middle East a foreign policy the US doesn’t like.
As to that, the fact that the US and Iran are at the present time adversaries in the Middle East is a fact of life, a reality which any responsible statesman would accept and work around.
Many states at many times in history have found themselves in adversarial relationships with each other. Acting to tear up a critical international agreement which is being successfully implemented and is working simply because two states don’t get on with each other is not an act of statesmanship or a master-stroke of policy. It is an act of childish petulance, a teenage tantrum, unworthy of a country which still likes to think of itself as the world’s foremost Great Power.
Unfortunately this pattern of behaviour goes far beyond Donald Trump. Thus over the course of the last year the whole foreign policy of the US has been held hostage to a concocted scandal based on a farfetched conspiracy theory which any reasonable person can see is preposterous. Matters have reached the point where it is now being suggested – apparently in all seriousness – that this conspiracy involved ‘weaponising’ Pokemon Go.
Moreover in December the US imposed sanctions on Russia purportedly because of this scandal. Then – despite Russia having done nothing more that would justify more sanctions – in August the US imposed more sanctions on Russia for the same reason, all over again.
In relation to the crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme the US has reneged on agreements it previously made with North Korea, cannot decide whether it wants to talk with North Korea or not, and piles on sanctions against North Korea, despite two decades of evidence that this only makes the North Koreans more determined to press ahead with their nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programme, as the Chinese and the Russians repeatedly point out to them.
In relation to the so-called “War on Terror”, the US purports to fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but has been de facto in alliance with Al-Qaeda in Libya, Syria and Yemen.
In Iraq, Egypt, Libya and Syria the US has worked to undermine and overthrow secular governments which were the region’s major bulwark against the very Jihadi terrorism which the US says it opposes.
This increasingly erratic behaviour has now reached a new level with this latest speech of Donald Trump’s.
Like most people I believe that the immediate damage done by this speech is limited. Though I am sure that the US Congress will impose further sanctions on Iran – I cannot think of a single case where Congress has been invited to impose sanctions on another country and has failed to do so – I believe that international support for the JCPOA is too strong, and Iran is too sensible, to cause it to unravel.
Like most people I also believe that the very same US Deep State which has made Donald Trump’s life miserable in relation to Russia, will now act as a restraint on him. Apparently it was the cabal of generals who now all but run the US government – Mattis, McMaster and Kelly, along with General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – who along with Secretary of State Tillerson managed to talk Trump out of pulling out of the JCPOA completely as he apparently wanted to do.
This was not because they have any love of Iran or of the JCPOA. Rather it was because they were acting in the classic tradition of the US military: always willing to attack without hesitation a state which is unable to resist or hit back; but balking at attacking states like Russia, North Korea or Iran, which not only can hit back, but which are able to put up a determined resistance if they are attacked.
The damage done by Trump’s speech is not to Iran or (probably) to the JCPOA. It is to the international perception of the US, which is conducting itself ever more irrationally, so that one administration sets out to undermine an agreement reached by a previous administration, even when doing so is contrary to US interests, so that no one can put any trust in the US’s word any more.
After the huge damage done to the US’s international reputation by George W. Bush’s incompetence and belligerence and by Barack Obama’s arrogance and narrow-mindedness, many governments around the world welcomed the new Trump administration which came with – apparently – fresh ideas, and – seemingly – a willingness to turn a new leaf in international relations.
At a blistering pace they are all becoming increasingly disillusioned as they face the reality of another disastrous US Presidency, functioning against a backdrop of a US political system which has been exposed as hopelessly dysfunctional and increasingly irrational, offering no promise of things ever getting better at any time in the future.
Truly in the lunatic asylum, which is what the once great American Republic has become, the inmates have taken over.