Just what is going on in Iran?

When Donald Trump swept into power, Obama had just set the unenviable record of the longest time at war of any American president. One of Trump’s campaign platforms was bringing an end to America’s endless spending of blood and treasure in the Middle East. Americans, worn by more than a decade of war for very little noticeable return, concurred.

Trump has gone some way to fulfilling that promise. So, what’s behind all the sabre-rattling in the Persian Gulf, now? Is Trump really foolish enough to pick another war with another Islamic regime in the Middle East? quote.

Whatever other assets and liabilities he brings to the table, Donald Trump certainly offers this: he is a master at sowing uncertainty, so neither friend nor foe really knows what he’s up to.

And so it is right now with Iran, where the US President and his aides have in the past two weeks alternately raised and lowered fears about armed conflict. end quote.

The US has advised commercial aviation operators to avoid the Persian Gulf. Bahrain has ordered its citizens to quit Iran and Iraq. There are rumours of some western governments cancelling defence force leave. What’s goin’ on? as Marvin Gaye might say. quote.

It’s confusing, which may be the goal. Yet the underlying question is simple: what is Trump really trying to accomplish? end quote.

Trump has used confusion to great effect in some of his biggest foreign policy fights. Making big threats that his opponents can never be quite sure he wont carry out has worked well, from NATO to North Korea. But Trump is not the hawk that Hillary was. He’s a president who seems genuinely committed to avoiding actual war.

His detractors might call it “isolationism”, but to war-weary American voters, especially the blue-collar voters whose sons and fathers are the ones most likely to be on the firing line, it’s a welcome change. Trump would be crazy to forget that. quote.

Trump almost certainly doesn’t seek armed conflict with Iran. He’s gone out of his way to avoid or end clashes involving American forces in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, and has done little to suggest a military move against Venezuela.

Meantime, the President and his adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner were on the diplomatic track in the region. end quote.

So, what’s with all the sabre-rattling? quote.

What Trump and his team are trying to do, however, is to use economic sanctions to generate unprecedented pressure on Iran, with two quite different purposes in mind.

The first is to create enough economic distress in Iran that the regime could buckle under the weight of popular discontent. This isn’t explicitly a regime-change strategy, but it’s close…Trump aides point to outbursts of protest in the streets of Iranian cities as a sign that, maybe, something is different now…

The second potential goal is quite different from regime change. It is to drive Iran’s top leaders back into a conversation with the US, perhaps with Trump himself.

This seems implausible amid the poisonous atmosphere that now prevails. Yet…the pattern of his engagement with Iran now — economic pressure, international isolation, harsh threats, military manoeuvring — matches precisely the track Trump followed before he opened negotiations with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. end quote.

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Brinkmanship is inherently risky, of course. Situations can easily spiral out of control, especially in a, shall we say, “volatile” region. But the plain fact is that war would suit neither side in the least. Even the firebrand Ayatollah Khomeini was clear on that. quote.

“There won’t be any war. … We don’t seek a war, and (the Americans) don’t either. They know it’s not in their interests.”

The ayatollah’s analysis — a war is in neither nation’s interest — is correct. end quote.

Iran would be pasted every bit as comprehensively as Saddam Hussein was. But as in Iraq, for America, winning the war would be one thing, winning the peace, quite another. Trump would almost certainly lose the 2020 election.

Still, as Pat Buchanan warns, there are actors who might profit off such a conflict: the hawkish neocons and Never-Trumpers in Washington, looking for sweet revenge in bringing down a president they hate almost as much as the Democrats do. Then there are the Sunni regimes, including American allies, who would be happy to nobble Shi’ite Iran’s ambitions to be the centre of a new Islamic civilisation.

Trump has shown himself to be a far shrewder diplomat and negotiator than his abrasive persona might suggest. Here’s hoping he confounds the naysayers once again.

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