In Washington, at times of stress, international crises play out in black and white. As in a flickering newsreel from a former age, complex events are reduced to symbolic emblems of right and wrong. Grainy video images of “evil-doers”, George W Bush’s favoured term, purport to show faceless Iranians acting suspiciously around a burning oil tanker in the Gulf last week. As new Middle East troop deployments are announced, US battleships are pictured bravely patrolling freedom’s frontline.
Monochromatic simplifications of this type suit multiple purposes. In the present US-Iran crisis, they supposedly provide official “proof” of nefarious intent. They can be seen to justify escalatory US actions that might previously have appeared unreasonable and provocative. They place pressure on reluctant allies to fall in behind the advancing American columns. Most of all, since democratic consent apparently still counts for something, they are intended to rally public support.
We have seen this badly made movie before. And today, as in 2003, it presents a shadowy, unconvincing picture that no amount of White House manipulation and rhetoric can clarify. The fact is, the current crisis was conceived, manufactured and magnified in Washington. It has been whipped up by a group of hawkish policymakers around Donald Trump whose loathing for the Tehran regime is exceeded only by their recklessness.
The crisis has been building inexorably since President Trump’s foolish renunciation last year of the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, his imposition of swingeing sanctions, and a campaign of “maximum pressure” to isolate and weaken Iran’s leadership. It looks and smells like a crude bid for regime change. And although Trump insists he does not want it, his actions could soon trigger another calamitous Middle East war.
That’s not a risk most people or states are ready to countenance. And so far, at least, Washington’s parallel, virtual battle for consent and support is not going the way American hawks hoped. Mike Pompeo, the bully-boy evangelist who doubles as US secretary of state, rarely loses an opportunity to demonise Iran. Aware of post-Iraq scepticism over US intelligence claims, he noisily insists, with a creeping tinge of panic, on the accuracy and veracity of his “evidence”.
Yet the problem for Pompeo, and fellow Iranophobe, national security adviser John Bolton, is that while most western governments probably believe that hardline elements within Iran, or Iranian-backed proxy forces, initiated last week’s tanker attacks and similar incidents last month, they also believe gratuitous US provocations may have forced Iran’s hand. They don’t believe Trump when he says he merely wants Iran to act “normal”. But they do suspect the ultimate Bolton-Pompeo aim is a putsch.
The foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, to Britain’s shame, has tamely applauded Washington’s dodgy video dossier. But the Europeans, rightly, don’t buy it. The EU backs diplomacy, not sabre-rattling, and is still pursuing alternative barter arrangements to circumvent US sanctions. Russia, naturally, opposes the US. But China, in an unusually outspoken rebuff, said Washington’s destabilising, unilateral behaviour “has no basis in international law”.
Iran’s neighbours have serious misgivings too. The impulsive and autocratic crown princes who run Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Mohammed bin Salman and Mohamed bin Zayed, are the local equivalent of Bolton and Pompeo. Like them, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is egging the Americans on. But next-door Iraq has zero interest in a renewed conflict, likewise Turkey and weaker Gulf states.
Nor is the US public, despite years of White House fearmongering, fully aboard the “Get Iran” bandwagon. A Reuters/Ipsos survey last month found that nearly half of Americans – 49% – disapprove of Trump’s handling of Iran. Just over half – 53% – saw Iran as a “serious” or “imminent” threat. But 60% said they wouldn’t support a pre-emptive US military strike on the Iranian military.
Resistance to the US hawks’ pell-mell rush to confrontation is coming most strongly from within Iran itself. Its foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, cuts a cool and thoughtful figure in contrast to Pompeo. He stresses how unilateral US sanctions, especially on oil exports, do unjustifiable harm to Iran’s people and the international economy. His is an effective pitch to global opinion.
Iran also points out that, unlike the US, it is in full compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal. This week’s warning from Tehran that it may soon breach enrichment limits is a calibrated response. It’s unfortunate. But it does not amount to “nuclear blackmail”, as the US claims, since Iran has no bomb and, according to the UN, is not seeking one. What it does amount to is diplomatic leverage with third-party states fearful of more Middle East chaos.
Iran is highlighting the unintended consequences of any conflagration, and the precedent-setting illegitimacy, both legal and moral, of threatened US actions. And then, more dangerously, there is its apparent, increasing willingness to employ a measure of physical resistance, be it through military proxies or, for example, hardliners in the Revolutionary Guards Corps. This is potentially explosive.
It would be a mistake to think Iran is totally in control of its responses to this unfolding crisis any more than the US. There are bellicose hawks in Iran’s national security council, clerical establishment and the supreme leader’s office, just as there are in the White House. Hassan Rouhani’s pragmatic presidency, the majlis (parliament), the merchant class and state-controlled media all represent rival power centres with differing views on what to do next.
Iran’s is a society under extreme duress. Sanctions are undoubtedly biting deep and patience with the west is waning. The risk is growing that, in extremis, some regime elements will hit out forcefully – and there is no doubt they have the ability to do so, in the Gulf, in Lebanon, in Gaza, and on the Israel-Syria and Saudi-Yemen borders. US hawks would say that’s exactly why Iran must be contained, and very possibly it should. But do they really believe, after serial past failures, they have the power, the will, the backing and the mandate to do so?
Reducing conflict to black and white images of good and evil is not only misleading. It is also delusional. Some now recall the Gulf “tanker war” during the Iran-Iraq conflict that culminated, in 1988, with brief US “surgical strikes” on Iranian oil rigs and ships. In US lore, those strikes taught Iran a swift lesson, obliging it to back off. In truth, Iran was already on its knees after eight years of war with Saddam Hussein. That is absolutely not the situation now.
Unnecessarily aggressive, ill-considered – and deceptively presented – US policies have once again brought the Middle East to the brink of an accidental war very few want. America’s European friends, including Britain, have an urgent responsibility to talk it down – and drag it back from the abyss.