Has the US blinked in its standoff with Iran, handing a major victory over to the country’s firebrand military hardliner Qasem Soleimani who had warned all of Tehran’s proxies to prepare themselves in the region for a conflict with US forces?
There certainly seems to be a distinct cooling off from the US side, following the attack on Saudi and Emirati tankers just off the UAE coast and a sublime display of chest beating, in particular from John Bolton who is paid money by Iranian opposition group, MEK (considered a cult by many) to give fiery speeches about regime change and bombing Iran.
But is Bolton becoming a problem for Trump? His briefing journalists about a plan for over a 100,000 US troops to be sent to the region along with his regime change speeches are intensifying the media attention on Trump – beyond what he can comfortably handle.
Clearly, there is a dichotomy of views on Iran given the events of the past few weeks since the announcement of the troop plan was trumped by the US president, downgraded to just 1,500 and it became apparent that the Iranians have done the very thing which no one in the White House believed possible: they called Trump’s bluff.
This leaves Trump in a quandary. Previously, the consensus was that Pompeo and Bolton were both planning for war while Trump was preparing for a climb down and to be, himself, the saviour of the situation.
Some pundits, including myself, went further and suggested that he actually wanted war, but on very specific terms, which made the US look like it was defending its armed forces in the region – hence the manufactured crisis and threatening talk from Trump which led to the Iranians moving equipment and people around to defend themselves.
Even in the event of a conflict going horribly wrong, by allowing the dogs of war – Pompeo and Bolton – to take the lead, Trump had always cleverly covered himself, which is why he repeatedly went on the record and made sure his “I don’t want war” comments were well documented. If it blows up in his face, he fires Bolton (which might be on the cards anyway) and attributes blame.
Yet in recent days, Trump has not only cooled off, but he has positively signalled that he hasn’t the guts for war with Iran – which is making Bolton’s sabre rattling even more of a problem.
If reports are accurate, it is said that several reports landed on Trump’s desks from military analysts who said the US couldn’t win an outright sea battle in the Straits of Hormuz in the event of Iran blocking it. This is devastating on two levels, which explains why Trump now is pulling back. It’s not just that US lives would be at risk, as Iran has some sophisticated ground to sea rockets on its shoreline, but even a blockade of the channel would have excremental damage on international trade as oil from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE would not be allowed to get through.
The panic on markets – and a spike in crude oil prices to somewhere around 200 dollars a barrel – would do immense damage to markets (in particular in the West), not to mention a potential collapse of the ruling elite’s power in Saudi Arabia.
The fact that Iran has not publically announced that it would do this, but discussed this internally ups the ante even more. It’s a bridge too far, and Trump cannot afford to be part of it as he has suddenly realised that Iran’s capabilities in the region are much stronger than he has imagined.
Of course, many will argue that he brought all this on himself. The tougher stance from Iran with the Saudi tanker attacks was as a direct consequence of Tehran gaining intelligence that it was about to be hit. Could this have been disinformation fed to them by the US to test them? Possibly. There’s a lot of a grey area in this standoff, with even the attacks on two Saudi ships and one UAE one, being attributed to Iran as questionable.
But what is clear is that Iran will hit the US at its weakest point. Someone in the White House made a miscalculation barely days before Pompeo told journalists he was worried about Iran starting a war, by “making a miscalculation.”
The quest for a saviour
Pompeo’s recent visit to Switzerland – a country not only notably the first-stop communications point for Iran to talk with the US but also, importantly, the host country of the secret Bilderberg Group – is interesting.
The importance of this stopover should not be overlooked as his attendance in the annual meeting made up of economists, academics, industrialists and even media figures, is believed to be part of Trump’s new thinking on Iran.
Trump has done another one of his infamous U-turns.
Now, the plan is to get Rouhani to the negotiating table on a “no preconditions” talk and has even enlisted the help of the Japanese who were Iran’s biggest buyer of crude oil before the secondary sanctions kicked in.
Trump’s recent visit, which included a game of golf, with Japan’s premier clearly concluded with an unwritten agreement to use Japan as a proxy negotiator to resolve the impasse which is making Trump look weaker.
It’s important to remember that in a matter of months US policy towards Iran went from “bomb Iran” to “regime change” to now what is essentially “all we want is a stupid conference somewhere in the world whereby Trump can be seen talking to the Iranian president."
In Syria, Trump is losing sight of the endgame. In Saudi Arabia, he is assisting King Salman and his unruly son “MBS” plough ahead with a campaign to up their ballistic weapons program as they admit that their geopolitical mother of all tantrums with Qatar backfired and the war in Yemen can never be won - despite swallowing up a staggering $100 billion.
Getting a new deal with Iran was supposed to magically re-jig all these blunders in one swoop but no amount of fake news stirred up by conferences organised by the Saudis or Israel losing its head in Syria will get the attention of Trump-like Swiss bankers fretting about an estimated 1 quadrillion dollar derivatives market which will be wobbled in the event of oil prices skyrocketing.
For the first time, Trump is now trying to engage third parties with the Iran problem, and it is not too late to use Pompeo in Europe as well. The recent visit to the lacklustre EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini is making more and more sense as more time passes.
In a region which is obsessed with ‘face-saving’ manoeuvres (the Middle East), it’s ironic how it was the Iranians and not Arabs who understood Trump first, who is now looking for a way out of getting into the ring with a prize boxer he’s been bad mouthing.
Like avoiding the Vietnam draft by using a fake medical report about his foot, Trump needs to fake his way out of this climbdown, and it is looking increasingly likely he will soon turn on Bolton who has presented himself as not only dispensable but appropriately irreverent to the president’s foibles and needs.
The EU could step up to the mark and save Trump, but perhaps more likely will be Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe, who has more to gain and has just landed in Tehran for high-level talks.
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