Myself and Emerson Forde, curator of the African Odyssey season at the BFI, discuss John Pilger’s new film The Coming War on China
Discussing the UK election and 21st century fascism.
Trump’s speech to the assembled Gulf leaders in Saudi Arabia on May 21st is worth reading in full. It is deeply disturbing.
Having praised himself for his $110billion arms deal with the Saudis, he goes on to talk about the threat posed by terrorism, and what a wonderful job the US and the Gulfis – that is, the leading state sponsor of the region’s supremacist death squads, and its assembled proxies – are doing in combating it. He then goes on to claim that at the root of the region’s terrorism lurks – guess who? The power leading the regional pushback against ISIS and Al Qaeda – Iran.
“Starving terrorists of their territory, their funding, and the false allure of their craven ideology, will be the basis for defeating them” he says, “But no discussion of stamping out this threat would be complete without mentioning the government that gives terrorists all three—safe harbor, financial backing, and the social standing needed for recruitment”. This is pretty much exactly how Joe Biden – in his own attempt to whitewash US involvement – described Trump’s Saudi hosts three years earlier. But Trump is not talking about IS’s Saudi backers; he is talking about Iran – the same Iran responsible, with its Syrian and Russian allies, for that fact that the IS flag is NOT today flying over Damascus.
It gets worse. Look at the following passage, just after he calls on “all nations of conscience to work together to isolate Iran”:
“Will we be indifferent in the presence of evil? Will we protect our citizens from its violent ideology? Will we let its venom spread through our societies? Will we let it destroy the most holy sites on earth? If we do not confront this deadly terror, we know what the future will bring—more suffering and despair. But if we act—if we leave this magnificent room unified and determined to do what it takes to destroy the terror that threatens the world—then there is no limit to the great future our citizens will have.
The birthplace of civilization is waiting to begin a new renaissance. Just imagine what tomorrow could bring. Glorious wonders of science, art, medicine and commerce to inspire humankind. Great cities built on the ruins of shattered towns. New jobs and industries that will lift up millions of people.”
This is the language of genocide. Heroism and genocide have always gone hand-in-hand in the settler-colonial ideology internalised by the likes of Trump, for which ‘building great cities on the ruins of shattered towns’, be they native American, Palestinian, or, it seems, Iranian, has always been the highest accolade. Some have accused Trump of making novice blunders during his first lumbering foray into the Middle Eastern maelstrom. But I think he knows exactly what he’s doing. He knows very well that the loosely-defined ‘ideology’ he speaks of as ‘spreading venom’ will be much more readily interpreted by his hosts as Shi’ism – the creed to which Iran actually subscribes – than as Wahhabi’ism, the sectarian ideology behind ISIS, Al Qaeda and the Saudi state. And just to make clear what he is demanding be done to this ill-defined – but, nudge-wink, understood – enemy, he spells it out: “The nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children.
It is a choice between two futures — and it is a choice America CANNOT make for you.
A better future is only possible if your nations drive out the terrorists and extremists. Drive. Them. Out.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your places of worship.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your communities.
DRIVE THEM OUT of your holy land, and
DRIVE THEM OUT OF THIS EARTH.”
Doesn’t this sound horribly like Trump giving the green light to an all-out war of eradication against the region’s Shia – that is, a war very similar to the one actually being waged, in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, by Trump’s government, his hosts, and their proxies?
At the same time, having found it harder than expected to rip up the Iran deal, Trump is instead hoping to render it null and void by simply blackmailing individual nations into not dealing with Iran, ensuring the formal lifting of sanctions is replaced by an informal blockade.
This is where Qatar comes in. Qatar has clearly not been playing ball with the US-approved, Saudi-led ‘isolate Iran’ programme. This is partly because, ever since the current Emir toppled his pro-Saudi father in 1995, the country has made independence from Saudi Arabia a hallmark of its foreign policy. But it is mostly because Qatar and Iran share the world’s largest natural gas field – known in Qatar as North Field and in Iran as South Pars.
In fact, the two countries have had decent relations for some time: in May 2010, for example, in stark contrast to the hardline attitude of his Gulf neighbours, the Qatari Emir Al-Thani joined forces with President Assad of Syria, no less, to support Turkey’s diplomatic proposals over Iran’s nuclear programme. Then, in 2014, in a ‘dry run’ of today’s crisis, the Saudis, UAE and Bahrain withdrew their ambassadors from Doha following a Qatari proposal to help Iran develop its side of the North Field/ South Pars gas field. But what’s taking place now is much more serious. And that is largely because of the likely earth-shattering impact of the decisions surely now being considered by the two powers over where their gas will go, how it will get there – and in what currency it will be sold.
In April of this year, a self-imposed 12-year moratorium on the development of Qatar’s share of North Field came to an end, potentially opening up a flood of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) onto the market in the years to come. But where will it go? Qatar had originally been hoping to build an LNG pipeline to the Mediterranean via Saudi Arabia, Syria and Turkey; indeed, many have speculated that Assad’s blocking of this proposal in favour of an Iran-Iraq-Syria route was a major reason for Qatar’s support of the anti-government insurgency there. The failure of this insurgency, however, has spelled the death of this proposal, leaving Qatar bound to look East to Asia – already their biggest customers – for their LNG markets. But most of the existing Eastbound LNG pipeline infrastructure is controlled by Iran. For Qatar, then, cutting its Iran links would be cutting off its nose to spite its face. This is why the Saudis aim to demonstrate that the alternative is having their entire face cut off.
For the US, the stakes couldn’t be higher. In 2012, Iran began to accept yuan for its oil and gas payments, followed by Russia in 2015. If this takes off, this could literally spell the beginning of the end of US global power. The dollar is the world’s leading reserve currency, in the main, only because oil is currently traded in dollars. Countries seeking foreign exchange reserves as insurance against crises within their own currencies tend to look to the dollar precisely because it is effectively ‘convertible’ into oil, the world’s number one commodity. This global thirst for dollars is what allows the US to print endless amounts of them, virtually for free, which it can then exchange for real goods and services with other countries. This is what is known as ‘seignorage privileges’; that is, the ability to absorb ever-increasing amounts of goods and services from other countries without having to provide anything of equivalent value in return. In turn, it is this privilege which helps to finance the staggering costs of the US military machine, now running at over $600 billion per year.
Yet, this whole system falls apart once other countries stop using the dollar as their prime reserve currency. And they stop doing this once oil stops being traded in dollars. This is one reason why the US were do keen for Saddam Hussein to go after he began trading Iraqi oil in Euros.
And, slowly but surely, this change is already occurring. In 2012, the People’s Bank of China announced it would no longer be increasing its holdings of US dollars, and two years later, Nigeria increased its holdings of yuan from 2% to 7% of its total foreign exchange reserves. Many other countries are moving in the same direction.
At the same time, China has been on a gold-buying spree, setting up its own twice-daily pricing of gold in yuan in 2012 as part of what the chair of the Shanghai Gold Exchange called the “internationalisation of renminbi”, ultimately aiming towards making yuan fully convertible to gold. Once this happens, the choice for oil-producing countries between trading oil for ever-more-worthless paper dollars, or trading it for convertible-to-gold renminbi will be a no-brainer. For Qatar, the pull may already be irresistible.
Hence the urgency to pre-emptively punish Qatar for its likely move towards a joint venture with Iran to supply Asia with LNG priced in yuan. The aim is to demonstrate that, however economically suicidal it may be in the long term to snub Iran and continue trading in the dollar, it will be politically suicidal in the immediate term to do anything else. Just how far Trump and his Arab friends are prepared to take this remains to be seen. But Trump has repeatedly suggested that the whole point of having a military is to use it.
This article originally appeared on RT.
Western think tanks and ‘strategic institutes’ have been getting themselves in a cold sweat about Iranian influence for some time. In 2012, Frederick Kagan (former Bush advisor and Project for a New American Century neo-con) co-authored a report for the Institute for the Study of War warning “the US and its allies and partners in the region and beyond must not only understand Iran’s regional strategy and influence but also develop a coherent strategy of their own with which to confront them. Considering the religious, economic, political and diplomatic power of the two sides, it is simply unacceptable for the US and its allies to allow even such progress as it has [already] made in these realms.” Since Kagan made those comments four years ago, Iran’s “unacceptable…progress” has continued apace.
Its military cooperation with Russia, Syria, Iraq and Hezbollah has developed into an increasingly formalized alliance (the so-called “4+1”), in which it played a leading role in the liberation of the Syrian city of Aleppo earlier this year. In Iraq, the Shi’ite militias it sponsors have been the indispensable vanguard of many of the battles against Islamic State, and it wields considerable influence over the rebel forces in both Bahrain and (supposedly) Yemen. The fall of Mosul will only consolidate this power.
Indeed, according to the Guardian, the territory west of Mosul that is currently being secured by the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization forces is one of the final pieces of a jigsaw completing an arc of influence stretching all the way from Tehran to the Mediterranean. Such a ‘land bridge’ to the Mediterranean would significantly strengthen Iran’s independence and ability to withstand, for example, any future blockades or sieges. This is making Western planners particularly nervous, as it significantly weakens the West’s ability to control and corral the Iranians; with a long time Centcom advisor Ali Khedery, for example, claiming that such a development “should trouble every Western leader and our regional allies because this will further embolden Iran.”
Forbes, meanwhile, wrote that “Iranian influence in Iraq has the potential to destabilize global oil policy and the global oil market” given that the two countries combined oil reserves almost equal those of Saudi Arabia.
For here, as ever, lies the empire’s real fear – that the people of the Middle East might actually gain control over their own resources, and start using them strategically for their own development. Genuine independence has always been the fear of the region’s British, US and Israeli overlords. And Iran’s potential makes this independence a greater threat than most.
The Foreign Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons spelled this out in a report in 2014: “Iran has the potential to be a major international power… it could be the “engine room” of the Middle East. It lies in a very significant strategic position, with Iraq to the west, former Soviet states to the north which have only relatively recently gained independence, Afghanistan, and Pakistan to the east and the Persian Gulf—a prime route for oil exports—to the south. It has a large and youthful population—75 million or more, of whom 55 percent are aged under 30. Iran ranks 76th out of the 187 countries classified under the UNDP Human Development Index, based upon assessments of life expectancy, access to knowledge and standard of living, placing it higher than any of its land neighbors. Youth literacy is near-universal. The country’s economy is relatively diverse, with supplies of essential commodities and an engineering, research and manufacturing base. Iran has substantial resources of natural gas (second only to the Russian Federation) and enough oil to enable it to be a leading exporter.”
“Unacceptable progress” indeed!
Clearly, the US has been rattled by Iran for some time. Contrary to Trump’s assertions, for example, the Iranian ‘nuclear deal’ was less a ‘gift’ to Iran than a changing of tack to a longer game allowing the West to cultivate a fifth column in the country in preparation for a future attack.
Yet, US belligerence has apparently been stepped up under Trump, with new sanctions, an enormous ramping up of hostile rhetoric and the dispatch of another warship to Iran’s borders in January following an entirely legal Iranian missile test.
But most worryingly, the US has been sending large numbers of US troops to Iran’s neighbors in recent weeks. The initial deployment of 500 US troops in Syria was followed on March 9 by a further 400, with the Washington Post announcing on March 15 that another 1,000 are on the way.
These are just part of a massive flotilla of almost 5,000 US soldiers currently en route to the region, with troops from Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the UAE also being considered. This was revealed just one day after Trump met Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the White House, following meetings earlier in the week between Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the foreign ministers of both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. These troops are ostensibly going to aid the fight to oust ISIS from their stronghold in Raqqa. The real reason is to cement US influence and confront the Iranians. This is the US ground invasion which the ‘Gulfis’ have been calling for for years. Its aim is to keep the civil war alive by keeping the Syrian Arab Army out of Raqqa.
In Iraq, Secretary of Defense James Mattis (an avowed anti-Iran hawk who has claimed the country is a bigger problem than ISIS) announced he plans to keep US troops in Mosul long after the city is recaptured from ISIS. Again, this is nothing to do with ‘stability’ but all about countering Iranian influence. Indeed, according to Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi, Trump promised that he would “double US support, not just continue it” following Mosul’s capture; support here meaning the deployment of occupation troops.
But deploying troops to Iraq and Syria to contain Iranian influence is just the start of it. Ultimately, Trump’s Cabinet of anti-Iran warmongers seek to destroy the Islamic Republic itself. Their difficulty is how to convince Russia to go along with this: Syria has taught them that without Russian acquiescence, regime change can be very difficult indeed.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article on Trump’s plans to “drive a wedge” between Iran and Russia, quoting a European official that there was “daylight” between the two countries. Indeed, differences do seem to have emerged over, for example, Assad’s future in Syria and, as political analyst Eric Draitser has pointed out, the two countries have a certain rivalry over supplying Europe’s energy markets.
Nevertheless, it would be utter suicide for Russia to go along with any US attempts to undermine its number one Middle Eastern ally.
As the deputy director of the Institute of the CIS, Lieutenant-Colonel Vladimir Yevseyev told Sputnik, “the logic of the White House is simple: any deterioration of relations, whether Russian-Iranian or Russian-Turkish is strengthening the US position in the region.” Neither side has an interest in that.
Indeed, Obama’s so-called ‘reset’ of US-Russian relations did not end well for Russia: then Prime Minister Medvedev supported tough UN sanctions on Iran and delayed the delivery of anti-missile batteries to Iran, not to mention acquiescing to NATO aggression against Libya, only to find the US going back on its commitments to roll back its missile defenses in Eastern Europe, organizing an anti-Russian coup in Ukraine, initiating a major sanctions regime, and sponsoring a proxy war against Russia’s ally Syria. So much for gratitude!
Thankfully, Iranian and Russian interests are deeply converged and a split highly unlikely. As the Institute for the Study of War has pointed out, the list of shared interests is long, ranging from support for the Syrian government, the desire to limit US influence in the Middle East and support for Armenia against Azerbaijan and Turkey, forming a relationship that “rests on a deep foundation of common strategic objectives and interests”. The key, however, is to approach matters with eyes wide open. Trump’s rushing of troops to Syria is nothing to do with any ‘common front’ against ISIS and everything to do with weakening Iran. And in the end, this means weakening Russia too.
This article originally appeared on RT.
Amid demonstrations against his choice, Trump named Lieutenant General Herbert McMaster – whose book claiming the US was too soft on Vietnam is now required reading for US officers – as his new national security adviser this week.
McMaster’s appointment came after Michael Flynn, Trump’s original choice, was forced to resign earlier this month after it emerged that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his phone calls with the Russian ambassador back in December.
The Washington Post revealed that these conversations, which occurred before Flynn had taken up his government role, had involved discussions of discussed US sanctions on Russia. Such a discussion not only broke the ‘one president at a time’ protocol – that members of an incoming administration should not discuss policy with foreign powers – but also flatly contradicted his own earlier denials, made to both Pence and to the FBI.
As Flynn had supposedly been one of the key ‘pro-Putin’ figures in Trump’s administration, his removal has been interpreted by some as a victory for the anti-Russia ‘hawks’ in the US foreign policy establishment. This is a misreading of the situation on two levels.
First, characterising members of Trump’s team as ‘pro-Russia’ is incorrect; rather, they have, as Tom Hardy’s character in Taboo might put it, a “use” for Russia. Secondly, this plan for Russia is likely to remain intact regardless of Flynn’s removal – or McMaster’s well-publicised anti-Russia stance.
XX subheading XX
Improving relations with Russia was only one of Flynn’s two major foreign policy obsessions: the other was and is “regime change” in Iran. In his 2016 book The Field of Fight, he wrote that “Iran has been a major threat to the US for decades due to its sponsorship of international terrorism – but the US has prioritised diplomatic relations over national security”. Instead, he argued, “the US must change course. These countries must be prepared to face military action”.
In fact, it is highly likely that the so-called ‘pro-Russia’ position of Flynn, and indeed Trump, is part of a broader foreign policy initiative aimed ultimately at destroying Iran. The broad outlines of this position could already be discerned in the testimony Flynn gave to the Joint Foreign Affairs and House Armed Services Committee back in June 2015. Like so many now in Trump’s team, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the nuclear deal negotiated the year before.
“Iran represents a clear and present danger to the region, and eventually to the world,” he told the committee. When asked what he believed should be done about the prospect of Iranian nuclear development, he was unequivocal, replying that regime change in Tehran “is the best way to stop the Iranian nuclear weapons programme”.
Since then, of course, Syria has taught the West a painful lesson about ‘regime change’, namely that Russia can make it extremely difficult.
Later in his testimony, Flynn argued that there was an ‘anti-US’ alliance being developed between China, Iran and Russia: “Just look at the [Iranian] cooperation with North Korea, China and Russia. Connect those dots and you get the outline of a global alliance aimed at the US, our friends and our allies”. He continued: “Russian assistance is part of a broader pattern. After all, the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr is Russian-built, the two countries work very closely together in Syria, and Russia is providing Iran with an effective anti-aircraft system that could be deployed against any aircraft seeking to destroy the nuclear programme”.
The message is clear: if you want to attack Iran, you’d better break their alliance with Russia first. Michael Ledeen, who co-authored Flynn’s book, put it simply: “The issue is whether Putin is prepared to abandon Khamenei”. This is what those phone calls, and all Trump’s flattery of Putin, are really about: attempting to draw Russia away from its alliance with Iran (and China) – and ultimately to buy Russian acquiescence for the next war.
The restoration of governmental authority in Syria currently underway, however, is not the first time that the US has suffered a military defeat at the hands of a foreign government supported by Russia. Nor is it the first time the US have responded to such a failure with a renewed attempt to split Russia from her allies.
In 1969, Richard Milhous Nixon became 37th President of the United States, and the 5th to lead US attempts to crush Vietnamese independence, inheriting what had by then become a full-scale, and disastrous, military commitment. The Tet offensive the previous year had decisively blown apart the lie that the US was winning the war, and Nixon was elected on a promise to bring about “peace with honour”.
He would achieve neither, and in fact embarked on a massive escalation of the war, including a secret carpet bombing campaign in Cambodia which led to famine and ultimately the rise of the Khmer Rouge. Yet the US’s ongoing defeat could not be abated. This led Nixon and his advisors towards a radical rethink of US strategy.
“By the time Nixon came into office,” wrote his own National Security advisor, Henry Kissinger, “East-West relations were themselves in obvious need of reassessment”. Indeed, he said, the USA’s entire Cold War strategy “needed to be reconsidered in light of the trauma of Vietnam”.
The Vietnamese victory over the US was aided significantly by support, at different times, from both Russia and China, and Kissinger’s greatest fear was the restoration of “dreaded Sino-Soviet bloc…which had inspired so much fear in the 1950s”. He added that while it was “far from clear” that the USSR was “capable of realising so vast a project…what was obvious…was that the risk could not be run”.
“If the balance of power is taken seriously,” he continued, “then the very prospect of
geopolitical upheaval must be resisted; by the time the change has occurred, it may well be too late to oppose it.”
The missing linkage
In today’s terms, this formula translates into two specific policy requirements for the US: 1) Russian-Chinese unity must be resisted and 2) Iran’s increasing influence in the Middle East must be reversed (ideally, one presumes, before the recapture of Mosul by largely Iranian-allied militias solidifies such influence).
Like Trump and Flynn today, Nixon and Kissinger sought nothing less than the breakup of the non-Western alliance spearheaded by Russia and China that had stymied US attempts to destroy governments challenging their hegemony. And, as today, they believed US cooperation with Russia to be both possible and desirable for both parties.
Said Kissinger, “America needed breathing room in order to extricate itself from Vietnam and to construct a new policy for the post-Vietnam era, while the Soviet Union had perhaps even stronger reasons for seeking a respite”. In particular, “the idea was to emphasise those areas in which cooperation was possible, and to use that cooperation as leverage to modify Soviet behaviour in areas where the two countries were at loggerheads”, a policy that became known as ‘linkage’.
The linkage being sought today – the deal Trump wishes to make with Russia – is precisely to use potential “cooperation” over Syria, Ukraine and sanctions as “leverage” to secure Russian acquiescence for renewed hostilities towards Iran and China.
With this in mind, it is particularly interesting to note Kissinger’s role in shaping Trump’s foreign policy today. Germany’s Bild newspaper reported in December 2016 that Kissinger was a key architect of Trump’s ‘rapprochement’ policy with Russia, advising him to lift sanctions and recognise Russian ownership of Crimea. These will not be free gifts – reciprocity will be expected and demanded, and Trump is making it abundantly clear that he wants a free hand in confronting Iran and China.
Furthermore, as journalist Nafeez Ahmed has noted, “Kissinger’s ‘unofficial’ advisory role in the Trump regime is solidified through the direct influence of one of his longtime acolytes: K.T. McFarland, an aide to Henry Kissinger during the Nixon administration on the National Security Council from 1970 to 1976.”
KT McFarland, it may be recalled, was appointed by Trump as Michael Flynn’s deputy. Robert Harward, a former Navy seal, reportedly turned down the national security adviser post because Trump insisted that she stay on rather than allowing Harward to bring his own team.
In his book Diplomacy, Kissinger wrote that “Nixon had managed, despite the tragedy of Indochina, to maneuver his country into a dominant international position”, snatching a victory of sorts from the jaws of defeat, by playing Russia and China off against one another.
In this light, McMaster’s apparently conflicting views on Russia make sense. According to
Frants Klintsevich, deputy head of the defense and security affairs committee of Russia’s Federation Council, . This appears to contrast with Flynn’s approach, putting him closer to other so-called ‘Russophobes’ in the Trump team, such as the ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who told the Security Council last month that “Russian actions” in the Ukraine “demand clear and strong condemnation”, and Vice President Mike Pense, who condemned Russia at the recent Munich Security Conference. Yet these figures, and their veiled and less veiled threats, are as much a part of the strategy as dangling the prospect of lifting sanctions. As Kissinger put it, “The statesman’s role is….to create a network of incentives and penalties to produce the most favourable outcome”. To pull off his ‘deal’ Trump needs his ‘bad cops’ just as much as he needs to flatter and offer inducements – to warn Russia of what they will be up against should they choose to ignore his overtures and maintain their existing alliances. The question today is: will Russia snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in Syria by allowing itself to be played off against Iran and China?
The stakes could not be higher.
This article originally appeared in Middle East Eye.
In 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