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Iran and Trump: “Uniquely Dysfunctional and Divided”

Iran has “begun its march…towards nuclear weaponry,” said Israel’s energy minister Yuval Steinitz, and that is technically correct. Only one year and sixty days after President Donald Trump ripped up the treaty that guaranteed Iran won’t make nuclear weapons and peed on the pieces*, Iran has taken a tiny step towards reviving its nuclear programme.

Just a baby step: on Monday Tehran announced that it would start enriching uranium fuel to more than 3.67%, the limit set by the treaty that it signed in 2015. Until last week it was fully obeying all the terms of the treaty, as France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Russia and China, the other signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), all confirmed.

The fuel Iran is making now will be used in its reactor at Bushehr, which requires fuel enriched to just below 5%, so this is not a very big breach of the treaty. Indeed, Iran says it is not a breach at all, quoting the part of the JCPOA that says a party can “cease performing its commitments… in whole or in part” in the event of “significant non-performance” by any of the other parties.

You could certainly argue that the United States ‘ceased performing its commitments… in whole or in part’ by abandoning the JCPOA , but there would be no point. This is about power, not legality or fairness, and the United States has the power.

The United States has blocked all trade with Iran and used its power to force most of the other countries that signed the treaty to stop trading with Iran too. Unfortunately, it’s not ‘Germany’ or ‘France’ that trades with Iran; it’s German and French companies, which will not be allowed to buy or sell in the United States if they trade with Iran.

The European governments have no legal power to force their companies to trade with Iran, and they have not offered to compensate companies that do so and as a result lose American contracts. They all acknowledge that Iran is in the right and Donald Trump is in the wrong, but they lack the courage to act accordingly.

So Iran has been hung out to dry. Its foreign trade has collapsed, including the oil sales that kept the economy afloat. Inflation has quadrupled, its currency has lost 60% of its value, household incomes have fallen sharply, and the economy is predicted to shrink by 6% this year. It’s what Trump calls “maximum pressure”, and ordinary Iranians are hurting.

Iran’s response, after more than a year of this, was to become just a little bit non-compliant with the JCPOA. Its clearly stated policy, however, is to ratchet up the scale of the breach a bit more every sixty days, applying pressure back in a quite different mode.

You can only sub-divide the move back to a full civil nuclear programme into so many steps, however, and even at 60 days per step Iran will probably be there by this time next year.

That doesn’t mean it will be making nuclear weapons next year. It had a full civil nuclear programme for several decades before the JCPOA was signed, and it didn’t get nuclear weapons then. But without the treaty the ‘break-out time’ to Iran’s first nuclear weapon, if Tehran decided to go for broke, would drop from one year to only a couple of months.

This is what the JCPOA was really about. Iran always swore that it would not make nuclear weapons – Ayatollah Khomeini even called them “un-Islamic” – but a lot of other governments hated or at least mistrusted the Iranian regime. Before the 2015 deal, there was much wild talk in the US and Israel about the need to make a ‘preemptive attack’ on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

The JCPOA kicked the can down the road for 15 years. Iran dismantled various nuclear facilities and agreed to intrusive inspections so that if it ever did decide to cheat, everybody else would have a year or more to respond. Nobody loved the deal, but everybody agreed that it was the best available, and made the future a lot safer.

So why did Donald Trump trash it? His obsession with destroying Barack Obama’s political legacy undoubtedly provided the initial impetus, but he also probably believed that putting ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran would make it crumble. Another triumph for the great statesman.

The hawks in the White House (John Bolton, Mike Pompeo et al.) probably do know that Iran is too proud to crumble, but they don’t care because they actually want a war.

Trump is trapped between them and his promise not to lead the United States into another Middle East war – which is why we have crazy episodes like the air strikes on Iran he allegedly cancelled on 20 June ten minutes before they hit.

No wonder Sir Kim Darroch, British ambassador to the US, said in a confidential dispatch leaked to the press on Sunday that Trump’s White House is “uniquely dysfunctional” and “divided”.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4. (“The fuel…power”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Al-Matrafi’s Tweet

Killing journalists is no big deal. “Get rid of them. Fake news is a great term, isn’t it? You don’t have this problem in Russia, but we do,” said Donald Trump to Vladimir Putin, the one international leader that he never criticises or condemns. They were joking together at the G20 summit meeting in Japan on Friday, and Putin replied: “We also have. It’s the same.”

No it isn’t. Twenty-six Russian journalists have been murdered since Putin became president, and the Russian media have become very cautious about what they say. No journalists have been killed for political reasons in the United States on Trump’s watch, and the American media can still do their jobs. Some of them do, and some don’t, but there’s nothing new about that.

What is relatively new is that it’s getting seriously unhealthy for journalists in the Middle East to criticise the United States or its local allies. The highest-profile case of recent date was the slaughter of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul by an Saudi government death squad. (‘Slaughter’ is the right word: they cut him up after they killed him.)

Khashoggi wrote for the Washington Post, so his murder attracted a lot of attention, but the group facing the biggest threat are the journalists who work for the Al Jazeera Media Network. It’s the best news network in the Arab world (with a full English-language service as well), and it’s worried that Saudi Arabia is going to bomb its headquarters in Qatar.

In fact, the Al Jazeera management have been taking out full-page paid ads in leading world newspapers (e.g. New York Times 23 June, The Guardian 29 June) pointing out that they now face a “credible death threat” from Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, they’re right.

It began with a tweet in mid-June from high-ranking Saudi journalist Khaled al-Matrafi claiming that Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar was “a legitimate and logical target” for the Saudi-led, US-backed coalition that has been bombing the living daylights out of Yemen for the past four years.

Al-Matrafi is not just some loose cannon. He is the former director of the Al Arabiya news channel, originally founded by relatives of the Saudi royal family to counter criticism coming from Al Jazeera. He is also known to be close to the kingdom’s decision-makers (including Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who probably gave the orders to murder and dismember Jamal Khashoggi).

Twitter took down al-Matrafi’s tweet after a day, but Al Arabiya is often used to convey official Saudi threats. When Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies imposed a blockade on the small Gulf sheikhdom of Qatar in 2017 (partly to force it to close down Al Jazeera), Al Arabiya’s general manager at the time, Abdulrahman al-Rashed, warned that if Qatar did not submit Al Jazeera staff (94 nationalities) would be massacred when the invasion came.

The invasion did not happen, probably due to American intervention, so Qatar is still independent and Al Jazeera is still in business. But Washington was trying to avoid embarrassment, not to save Al Jazeera. In fact, it generally sees the network as an enemy.

Back in 2001, when George Bush was planning the invasion of Afghanistan, Abu Dhabi, Saudi Arabia’s closest ally, urged him to bomb Al Jazeera’s office in Kabul and gave him its coordinates. By an amazing coincidence, the United States did bomb the Al Jazeera office in Kabul a couple of weeks later.

By an even more amazing coincidence, exactly the same sequence of events led to the destruction of Al Jazeera’s Baghdad office during the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US was given the office’s co-ordinates (by Al Jazeera itself this time), and US forces proceeded to destroy the office – killing three journalists on that occasion.

So it’s understandable that the network’s journalists take a Saudi threat to attack them seriously, especially when it looks like the United States and Saudi Arabia are both thinking about going to war with Iran. Or rather, Saudi Arabia is pushing for AMERICA to go to war with Iran, while the Saudis (and the Israelis) cheer from the sidelines.

Qatar, a small peninsula sticking out into the Gulf from the Arabian coast, is directly between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It might not get invaded by Saudi Arabia in that hypothetical war, but would either the US or Saudi Arabia take out Al Jazeera’s headquarters if a war gave them the excuse? Of course they would.

Would Saudi Arabia do it even before that war starts, using the Yemen war as a pretext, as Khaled al-Matrafi suggested this month? Less likely, but not unthinkable. There’s not a great deal left that’s unthinkable in today’s Middle East.
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To shorten to 725 words omit paragraphs 10 and 11. (“Back…occasion”)

Gwynne Dyer’s new book is ‘Growing Pains: The Future of Democracy (and Work)’.

Iran’s Game

The evidence is far from conclusive, but on balance Iran probably is behind the attacks on four oil tankers in the Gulf last month and two more last Thursday. Those attacks carefully avoided human casualties, so if they were Iranian, what was their goal?

If it was Iran, the answer is obvious. Iran would be reminding the United States that it may be utterly out-matched militarily, but it can do great damage to the tankers that carry one-third of the world’s internationally traded oil through the Strait of Hormuz.

After the US tightened its sanctions last month in an attempt to destroy all of Iran’s foreign trade, including the oil exports which are its economy’s lifeblood, Iran declared that if it could not export its oil, no other country (in the Gulf) would be allowed to export theirs. Other economies would be hurt too.

There’s history here. Back in the mid-1980s, when the United States tried to strangle Iran’s Islamic Revolution in its cradle by encouraging Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to invade Iran, 543 ships were sunk or damaged in three years as each side tried to stop the other side’s oil exports. Another tanker war would be no fun at all.

But maybe the current pinprick attacks on tankers are just a general warning not to push Iran too hard. They would still dangerous, because people could get killed and the situation could easily spin out of control. But the opposite hypothesis – that the attacks are a ‘false flag’ operation – is much more frightening, because it would mean somebody is really trying to start a war.

Who would be flying the ‘false flag’? The leading candidates are Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two Arab countries that are doing their best to push the United States into a war against Iran on their behalf. Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu would also love to see the US attack Iran, but one doubts that Israel’s de facto Arab allies would want Israeli special forces operating on their territory.

Which brings us to the weirder part of the story. All six tankers that have been attacked sailed from ports in Saudi Arabia or the UAE. The attacks have all reportedly been carried out using limpet mines, which cling to ships’ hulls by magnetic force but have to be placed by hand. That means they were probably placed while the ships were in port.

It’s almost impossible to place a limpet mine once a ship is underway. Other boats cannot come close enough without being spotted, and swimmers (including scuba divers) cannot keep up. So is security in Saudi and UAE ports so lax, even after the first attacks in May, that foreign agents can plant limpet mines on tankers before they sail?

It’s very puzzling, and even the aerial video ‘evidence’ of a small Iranian boat allegedly removing an unexploded limpet mine from one of the tankers makes little sense. Limpet mines are generally fitted with ‘anti-handling devices’ (i.e. they explode when you try to remove them), and yet everybody on that boat crowded onto the bow as if to get as close to the explosion as possible.

But of course, if it’s an Iranian mine, maybe they knew that it had no anti-handling device. You can get dizzy trying to figure this stuff out, and be no closer to the truth at the end. But let us hope that Iran is the culprit, because we know that it, at least, does not want a war. It wouldn’t actually lose, but it would suffer grievous harm.

The United States is even harder to read. Donald Trump certainly doesn’t want a war. He just wanted to destroy the treaty, signed in 2016 by Iran, the US, the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China, that put Iran’s nuclear programs under strict international controls for the next fifteen years.

That’s only natural, because the treaty was Barack Obama’s greatest diplomatic achievement and Trump is dedicated to destroying his legacy. But beyond that, what did Trump want? Probably just a Kim-style ‘summit’ with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Having created the crisis, Trump could then triumphantly ‘resolve’ it and bask in what he imagines to be the world’s admiration and gratitude. He is a man of simple desires.

Unfortunately, his two chief representatives in the ground, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton, probably do want a war with Iran. They would never say that, but they spin every bit of data in as anti-Iran a direction as possible. That includes, of course, their analysis of who is behind these attacks.

Nevertheless, we should hope that they are right and that Iran is behind the attacks, because that would be a stupid but quite genuine attempt to stave off a full-scale war. If it’s a Saudi and UAE false-flag operation, with or without the tacit collaboration of Bolton and Pompeo, then the region really is headed for war.
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To shorten to 700 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 10. (“There’s…all”; and “But of…harm”)

Iran: An Unwinnable War

“After a long debate, the highest levels of the military could not forecast a way in which things would end favourably for the United States,” said Richard Clarke, counter-terrorism adviser in the White House under three administrations. That was back in 2007, and he was talking about the Pentagon’s attempts to come up with a winning strategy for a US war with Iran. No matter how they gamed it, the US lost.

Two years later, in 2009, US Marine General Tony Zinni warned that any attack on Iran would lead inexorably to ‘boots on the ground’. “If you liked Iraq and Afghanistan,” he added drily, “ you’ll love Iran.” And in 2011 Meir Dagan, former head of Mossad, Israel’s national intelligence agency, said that an attack on Iran was “the stupidest idea” he had ever heard.

This was all back in the days when various people in the West were talking far too loosely about war with Iran, because the Iranian president at the time was a loud-mouthed extremist named Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Then he lost the 2013 election and was replaced by a moderate reformer, Hassan Rouhani.

Rouhani stopped all the aggressive talk, and in 2015 he cut a deal with most of the world’s major powers to put Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions, if any, on ice for at least fifteen years. Everything then went quiet until another loud-mouthed extremist, Donald Trump, tore up the 2015 agreement and began talking about war with Iran again.

He doesn’t necessarily mean it. What Trump says on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays he often recants on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. (To make matters even more inscrutable, his threat to bring about “the end of Iran” was made last Sunday, and there are no rules for Sundays.) But he is surrounded by people who sound like they really are looking for a fight with Iran.

To be fair, Vice-President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are probably telling themselves that plausibly terrifying US threats will suffice to make Iran crumble. Only National Security Adviser John Bolton understands that the threats will cause Iranian reactions that can then be used as an excuse for an actual attack (and he’s just fine with that).

So is the scenario of a US attack on Iran, with or without Saudi Arabian and Israeli help, still as hopeless a project as it was ten years ago?

It’s not hopeless at all if you just drop nuclear weapons on the twenty biggest Iranian cities. That’s not enough to cause a nuclear winter, but quite enough to kill between a quarter and a half of Iran’s 80 million people. If you do that (and either the United States or Israel could do it single-handed), the Iranians will never come back for a re-match.

But neither the United States or Israel is going to do that. It would make them literally the enemies of all mankind. And short of doing that, there are no good options for winning a war against Iran, because (as in all ‘asymmetric’ conflicts) the Iranians don’t need a winning strategy. All they have to do is not lose.

The United States could certainly bomb all of Iran’s military and industrial facilities to rubble. But this would not force the Iranians to surrender, nor would it prevent Iran’s sea-skimming missiles, fired from mobile launchers anywhere along 3,000 km of coastline, from stopping all the tankers going into and out of the Persian Gulf. (They carry about 20 percent of the world’s oil.)

So in the end it would have to be ‘boots on the ground’, just as Zinni said – but the ground war is unwinnable too. Iran’s army is about the same size as that of the United States, but it could quickly expand to ten times that size with volunteers, just as it did during the US-backed Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980-88.

The Iranian volunteers would be poorly armed and they would die in droves, but if only one American soldier died for every ten Iranians, the US public would quickly reach its maximum tolerance level for American casualties. It would be a high-speed replay of the Vietnam war, and the US would lose again.

On Tuesday they wheeled out Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan to say it’s OK. Don’t panic. The grown-ups are still in charge. Our timely threats have deterred the Iranians from doing the evil things they were planning to do (or rather that we said they were planning to do), and so there’s no danger of a war.

I’d really like to believe him. But actually, nobody’s in charge.
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In the course of revising this article, I seem to have shortened it to 775 words. If you still need it shorter, you could omit paragraphs 8 and 9. (“It’s not…lose”)