Trump’s grand strategy and the coming war with Iran

trump-iran-flagIn his 2009 book “The Next 100 Years”, George Friedman, of intelligence analysts STRATFOR pointed out, at the risk of stating the obvious, that “the United States is, historically, a warlike country”. But the number crunching that followed was particularly revealing. “The United States has been at war for about 10% of its existence” he wrote, adding that this only included major wars, not “minor conflicts like the Spanish-American war or Desert Storm” (the latter ‘minor conflict’ killing over 80,000 Iraqis). He continued: “during the twentieth century, the United States was at war 15% of the time. In the second half of the twentieth century, it was 22% of the time. And since the beginning of the twenty first century, in 2001, the United States has been constantly at war. War is central to the American experience, and its frequency is constantly increasing. It is built into American culture and deeply rooted in American geopolitics.”

The truth of this statement was revealed in a now notorious interview with former Supreme Allied Commander of NATO, General Wesley Clark, by Democracy Now in March 2007. In this interview, Clark revealed, for the first time, the existence of a top-secret memo circulating in the Pentagon, issued by the US Defence Department in the weeks following the 9/11 attacks. This memo, he said, “describes how we’re going to take out seven countries in five years, starting with Iraq, and then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan and, finishing off, Iran.” The 9/11 attack was being used as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to destroy every regional power with the potential to challenge US-British-Israeli hegemony in the entire Middle East/ North African/ Red Sea region.

The West’s war juggernaut has been rolling through this list ever since, though never without resistance. The US suffered over 35,000 casualties in Iraq, according to official figures, including over 4000 fatalities, with the true fallout (including, for example, trauma-related mental problems and suicides) likely to be far, far higher. The military and financial costs of this war, and the backlash it provoked, meant that different methods were adopted for the other targeted nations. The attack on Lebanon, when it came in 2006, was launched by Israel rather than the US – but it, too, did not go as planned. Rather than the hoped-for destruction of Hezbollah, it resulted in a victory for the group and a skyrocketing of its popularity across the entire region. Others on the list, however, have indeed been ‘taken out’. The same year as the Lebanon invasion, Somalia – then on the verge of coming under one single central authority for the first time since 1991 – was destabilised by a US-sponsored Ethiopian invasion, followed five years later by another invasion by British client state Kenya, ensuring the civil war has continued to rage to this day. Then in 2011, after years spent arming the country’s various armed factions, the US oversaw the breakup of Sudan. The new breakaway republic of South Sudan almost immediately collapsed into civil war, and is now undergoing what has been officially declared the world’s first famine in six years. And in 2011, too, the NATO bombardment of Libya, in coordination with Al Qaeda splinter group the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and the Qatari armed forces, led to the collapse of the Libyan state. Libya, too, remains at war, with the various pro-NATO rebel groups now fighting one another for control.

Indeed, Libya provided the blueprint for what was supposed to take place in Syria – a violent, sectarian insurgency, armed, trained and sponsored by the West and its Gulf allies, overthrowing state authority with NATO air support if necessary. It didn’t turn out this way, of course, and the victory of Syrian government forces in Aleppo last December marks what many now see as the decisive defeat of this latest attempt at ‘regime change’. And this defeat is in no small part down to the final country on that list – Iran.

It was, after all, Iran that provided the experienced, battle-hardened troops which – alongside their proteges, Hezbollah, and the Syrian Arab Army itself – acted as the ground forces against the West’s proxies. As a result, Iran’s influence in Syria has been cemented, as it had already been in Iraq following 2003, and is likely to be even further following the defeat of ISIS in Mosul. As Iranian-Canadian analyst Shahir Shahidsaless has written, “Iran challenges US hegemony in every corner of the region. The fall of Aleppo was a clear manifestation of the decline of American influence in the region and the emergence of a new order in which Iran will play a major role as a regional power.”

For US war planners, this growing influence only pushes Iran even further up the target list. George Friedman, discussing the US invasion of Iraq, wrote that whilst “there is no question” it was “clumsy, graceless and in many ways unsophisticated”, nevertheless “on a broader, more strategic level, that does not matter. So long as the Muslims are fighting each other, the United States has won its war”. However, he adds a warning: the instability engendered by the war “does raise the possibility of a Muslim nation-state taking advantage of the instability, and therefore the weaknesses within other states, to assert itself as a regional power”. In the eyes of many US strategists, this is precisely what Iran has done. Regardless of the fact that Iran’s only Arab ally Syria was, until the NATO-backed insurgency began in 2011, a beacon of stability in the region, and that Iran has been attempting to restore its stability since then, an influential faction within the US is intent on blaming Iran for all the region’s woes. And it is precisely this faction that has just come to power under Trump.

If there is one thing that unites ‘Team Trump’, it is their hostility to Iran, their hatred of the Iran nuclear deal, and their willingness – or even eagerness – to go to war with Iran. Secretary of Defence General Mattis told his Senate confirmation hearing that“Iranian malign influence in the region is growing. Iran is the biggest destabilizing force in the Middle East and its policies are contrary to our interests.” Last April, at a speech in Washington DC, Mattis clearly stated that he would prioritise ‘dealing with’ Iran ahead of tackling Al Qaeda and ISIS:  “The Iranian regime, in my mind, is the single most enduring threat to stability and peace in the Middle East,” he said. “For all the talk of ISIS and Al Qaida everywhere right now… they’re a very serious threat. But nothing is as serious in the long term enduring ramifications, in terms of stability and prosperity and some hope for a better future for the young people out there, than Iran.” Indeed, his speech went on to attempt to actually pin the rise of ISIS on Iran. “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief. Iran is not an enemy of ISIS; they have a lot to gain from the turmoil that ISIS creates.” “What,” he asked, “is the one country in the Middle East that has not been attacked by ISIS? One. And it’s Iran. That is just more than happenstance, I’m sure.” This is a little conspiratorial, even by Trump’s standards. But Mattis’ approach is not untypical of the new administration.

Michael Flynn, Trump’s original National Security Advisor, recently forced to resign over his contacts with Russia, has been a vocal and consistent advocate of ‘regime change’ in Iran. His 2016 book, The Field of Fight, described Iran as the head of “an international alliance of evil countries” which “extends from North Korea and China to Russia, Iran, Syria, Cuba, Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua”, with Iran itself “the linchpin of this alliance, its centerpiece.” At the time of the 2012 attack on the CIA compound in Benghazi, Flynn was head of the Defence Intelligence Agency. But, according to the New York Times, Flynn’s  focus at the time was not on tracking the culprits but instead on obsessively ordering his staff to find a nonexistent ‘Iran connection’ to the attacks. The NYT noted that they found “no evidence of any links” but “the general’s stubborn insistence reminded some officials at the agency of how the Bush administration had once relentlessly sought to connect Saddam Hussein and Iraq to the September 11th 2001, attacks”.

Mike Pompeo, the new CIA director shares Flynn’s views. He has called for “trashing the nuclear agreement”, arguing that it “strengthens Muslim extremists”.

This list goes on. Vice President Mike Pence has called Iran the “leading state sponsor of terrorism” and promised to “rip up the Iran deal” on the campaign trail, going further than even Trump himself had at the time.  John Bolton, who advised Trump on foreign policy during the campaign has repeatedlycalled for Iran to be bombed.  Other Iran hawks in Trump’s team include Jeff Sessions (Attorney General), Rick Perry (Secretary of Energy), Ben Carson (Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development), Nikki Haley (U.S. Ambassador the United Nations), Tom Price (Health & Human Services Secretary), and Ryan Zinke (Secretary of the Interior).

And their rhetoric is increasingly warlike. Already, following a missile test fully in line with Iran’s commitments under the nuclear deal, Trump’s administration has stepped up sanctions against Iran (a move it called an “initial step”), declaring that the country is now “on notice” and “playing with fire”. As Rasool Nafisi, an Iran expert at Washington DC’s Strayer University, has said, the new US government appear to be “itching for some kind of conflict in the Middle East, and especially against Iran, given all the rhetoric they used during the election campaign.” If the nuclear deal unravels, such a war is far from unlikely – and according to Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Evseev, a defence analyst at the Commonwealth of Independent States, Trump is pushing for exactly this: “The US can’t block this agreement because it is supported by the corresponding resolution of the UN Security Council and is a multipartite deal. However it will try to create conditions so that the deal cannot be implemented”, he told Sputnik.. And, as Shahir Shahidsaless has convincingly argued, “The collapse of the nuclear deal will inevitably push the Trump administration into conflict with Iran” . This is because whatever act of US belligerence (such as restored sanctions) actually buries the deal will force Iran to take a defiant stand in response, such as, for example, renewing its uranium enrichment programme. To such a move, the US would ultimately respond with force.

This, then, is the direction in which the US is moving: towards an all out confrontation with Iran, the last country on Wesley Clark’s list. But they face a major problem. Russia.

In August 2013, when the US and Britain were declaring that airstrikes against Syrian government targets were imminent, Russia immediately sent three warships to the Mediterranean, stepped up their shipments of powerful anti-aircraft missiles to Syria, and made it very clear that they were standing by the Syrian government. This would not be a repeat of 2011 Libya: NATO planes would be shot down, and body bags would flow back home. In the end, Britain and the US backed down. Just over two years later, in September 2015, Russia launched its own military intervention in Syria, at the request of the Syrian government, giving renewed momentum to the push-back against Western-backed insurgents. The US-British war plan for Syria was in tatters, and the lesson was clear: taking out governments supported by Russia is extremely difficult.

Herein lies the purpose of the much-touted ‘Trump-Putin deal’ that is supposedly in the pipeline. Trump and co know very well that Russian acquiescence will be key to the success of any future attack on Iran. Even without Russian support, a war on Iran will not be easy; with Russian support, Iran, like Syria, may well emerge triumphant. At the very least, the cost, in blood and treasure, of attacking an Iran backed by Russia would make it political suicide. Breaking the alliance between Iran and Russia is therefore crucial to the next phase of the US war. And time is of the essence, as Iran is learning from Russia all the time. As the Institute for the Study of War have noted, “Iranian military cooperation with Russia in Syria is dramatically increasing Tehran’s ability to plan and conduct complex conventional operations. Iranians are learning by seeing and by doing, and are consciously trying to capture lessons-learned in Syria for use throughout their military and para-military forces. Iran is fielding a conventional force capability to complement and in some cases supplant its reliance on asymmetric means of combat. Russia is assisting Iran’s military leadership conduct this effort. It is introducing Iran and its proxies to signature Russian campaign-design concepts such as cauldron battles, multiple simultaneous and successive operations, and frontal aviation in Syria. These concepts are the fruit of almost a century of advanced Soviet and Russian thought and hard-won experience in conventional military operations. This knowledge-transfer can help the Iranian military advance its understanding of conventional war far more rapidly than it might otherwise be able to do. It can help Iran become a formidable conventional military power in the Middle East in relatively short order, permanently changing the balance of power and the security environment in the region…Iranian conventional military capabilities will continue to increase rapidly as long as Russian and Iranian forces continue to operate alongside each other in Syria simply by learning the best practices for developing, deploying, and using such forces in combat. Russia is poised to teach Iran additional methods of warfare as it prepares for the next phase of the pro-regime campaign in Syria.” The report concludes that “The U.S. and its regional partners must recognize that the deep Russo-Iranian military cooperation in Syria is in itself a major threat to the balance of power within the Middle East.”

 

This, then, is the grand strategy that so many commentators have failed to discern in the Trump administration: to break the Russian-Iranian alliance and effectively buy Russian acquiescence for the forthcoming US/ Israeli/ British attack on Iran.

Of course, such a strategy does, at first, sound absurd. Iran and Russia – as Flynn himself noted in  despair – are allies. They have just emerged as triumphant partners in the battle to thwart regime change in Syria, and Russia has already provided Iran with the powerful S-300 anti-aircraft missile system that so put the jitters up NATO when it arrived in Syria in 2013. Moreover, last August, Russia moved the airbases used for its Syria operations from southern Russia to Iran, in what the National Interest called “an expression of Russian solidarity with Iran”.

Yet Trump has a lot to offer Russia in return for its ending this ‘solidarity’. Most obviously, he could lift sanctions. Russia’s economy was plunged into recession in 2015 following the onset of US-EU sanctions the previous year, which coincided with a collapse in the global price of oil, Russia’s major export. Russia has been keen to downplay the impact of sanctions, but even Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has admitted that they have cost the country tens of billions of dollars. Trump is particularly well placed to offer Russia lucrative deals, especially in the oil sector, should these sanctions be lifted. Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, former CEO of Exxon Mobil, already signed a deal with Russian state-owned oil firm Rosneft estimated to be worth up to $500 billion back in 2012. The comprehensive agreement covered Arctic and Black Sea oil exploration and development, as well as providing Rosneft with a 30% share in Exxon projects in Texas and the Gulf of Mexico; it also promised to transfer technology developed in hard-to-access parts of America to western Siberia, to allow Russia to tap into an estimated 1.7billion barrels of light oil currently trapped in non-porous rock. “In terms of its ambitions”, said Russia’s deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin at the time, the project, “exceeds sending man into outer space or flying to the moon”. But US sanctions imposed following the Russian annexation of Crimea put the deal on ice. Lifting them would allow the Exxon-Rosneft project to finally go ahead, potentially reversing Russia’s dwindling economic woes. Tillerson, unsurprisingly, is on record as being opposed to the sanctions. His $218million personal stake in Exxon Mobil would immediately ramp up in value were the 2012 deal to be unfrozen.

Trump has, indeed, already stated that he would be willing to reconsider sanctions if Moscow “was really helping us” to achieve US policy goals.

However, lifting sanctions requires some kind of, at least nominal, resolution of the Ukraine conflict, as this was ostensibly the reason for imposing them in the first place. Interestingly, itemerged this February that two of Trump’s close colleagues – his personal lawyer Michael Cohen and business associate Felix Sater – had discussed a proposal to lift Russian sanctions and recognise Russian sovereignty over Crimea , in exchange for a withdrawal of Russian forces from eastern Ukraine, with an opposition politician in Ukraine last year.

Lifting sanctions and easing tension in Ukraine might well be tempting enough for Putin to consider ditching his Iranian allies. But Trump has much more than this to offer: ending NATO expansion (for example, by persuading Senate Republicans to vote against Montenegrin membership later this year), pulling back NATO forces from Eastern Europe (easily justified following any deal over Ukraine), ending calls for regime change in Syria and even military cooperation there against Al Qaeda and ISIS.

And Trump not only has carrots aplenty – he also has sticks. From this point of view, the supposed split in the administration, between supposedly ‘pro-’ and ‘anti-’ Russian figures actually works to Trump’s advantage, providing him with not only ‘good cops’ like Tillerson, willing to cooperate and negotiate with Russia, but also bad cops (like Russia ‘hawk’ HR McMaster) who illustrate Trump’s willingness to continue with NATO expansion, ramp up sanctions, and push Russia into a crippling arms race should they refuse to play ball.

Ultimately, of course, any Russian decision to sell out its Iranian ally would be utterly self-defeating. China would be next, and ultimately Russia would find itself totally isolated once the US finally set its sights on them. Ultimately, there are no shared interests between the US and Russia – whatever goodies might be dangled beneath their eyes.

This piece was originally published in Counterpunch 

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