More than a month after election results were known, President Donald Trump continues to deny that he has lost to Joe Biden. He is backed by over 70 per cent of his supporters who believe that the elections were “rigged”, remarkably successful dissemination of misinformation among his delusional followers.
As the US’ political order struggles to handle this unprecedented crisis in the presidential transition, the outreach of Trump’s frenzy is being experienced 10,000 kilometres away, in Tehran. Here, with a combination of new sanctions and overt military initiatives, the outgoing president has signalled his intention to provoke a war with his bete noire in West Asia.
On 9 November, there were reports from Washington that Trump, in these last days of his presidency, had fired his defence secretary, Mark Esper, who left the office with several senior colleagues. Esper had publicly disagreed with Trump on Iran several times earlier: in January 2020, he had said the US favoured a diplomatic solution to problems with Iran.
He had denied Trump’s contention that the assassinated Iranian general, Qassem Soleimani, had been planning attacks on four US embassies. He had also contradicted Trump when the latter had threatened to destroy Iran’s cultural monuments, saying the Pentagon had no such bombing plans.
Preparations for war
Esper’s departure and the appointment of the lightweight Chris Miller as acting defence secretary have given Trump a free hand to pursue his plans against Iran. On 12 November, news emerged from Washington that Trump had sought options from his security officials for a sharp strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, but was dissuaded by his officials. But the irrepressible president has not let up on sanctions.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in manic frenzy, said the US would enforce a fresh sanction every week on Iran, until Inauguration Day – 20 January. By end-November, as he got increasingly enmeshed with legal challenges to the election results in different states, Trump told Pompeo to “go wild” on Iran and to “squeeze and punish” Iran; just don’t risk World War III, the president cautioned. Pompeo has now sanctioned all of Iran’s banks and financial institutions and imposed secondary sanctions on any global entity that deals with them.
The US air force then flew a B-52 bomber task force to the Gulf “to deter aggression” and also moved an aircraft carrier task force to the Gulf. Simultaneously, the US has announced significant reductions to its troops’ strength in Afghanistan and Iraq, along with a thinning out of staff in the US embassy in Baghdad, suggesting that it is decreasing US targets in the event of a regional conflict.
Pompeo visited Israel, Bahrain, the UAE and Sudan in late November, and then wound up in Saudi Arabia, in the desert city of Neom. Here, on 23 November, he and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman were secretly joined by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
While publicly the Pompeo odyssey was linked to “normalisation” of Arab diplomatic ties with Israel, this was a mere sideshow: Netanyahu is believed to have sought Saudi backing for a military confrontation with Iran, which Saudi sources say the prince was reluctant to support.
The scientist’s assassination
It is now clear that the Neom conclave discussed a serious provocation for war – the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. The killing took place in Iran on 27 November. This was obviously an Israeli operation, with Trump’s blessings. Iran’s response has been measured: President Hassan Rouhani highlighted the twilight of the Trump presidency by saying that “our enemies are passing through anxious weeks” when their “pressure era” is coming to an end.
The reason given by Israeli and US sources for this serious provocation is that, in calculated violation of its commitments under the nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran now has twelve times the enriched uranium it is allowed and the breakout time to obtaining a weapon is now three and a half months, instead of the 12 months under the JCPOA. Most observers point out that there has been no credible evidence that Iran has been pursuing a weapons programme for nearly two decades.
This enrichment is largely a political ploy and is easily reversible. It is being used by Iran to encourage the European partners in the nuclear agreement to take some initiatives to dilute the sanctions to which Iran is subject.
The sanctions serve no political purpose; they are only intended to inflict more pain on Iran. Over the last four years, Iran’s GDP has reduced by ten per cent, the prices of foodstuffs have doubled, while household incomes have collapsed, leading to a serious decline in the food consumption of average Iranians. The national currency, the rial, has depreciated by 450 per cent against the dollar. The combination of the pandemic and the sanctions will cause an economic contraction of 5.3 per cent this year.
The killing of Fakhrizadeh, coming a year after the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, indicates that the war-parties in Israel and the US are in full-throttle, desperately making one last effort at war. David Hearst, writing in Middle East Eye, reports that, at the Neom meeting, Netanyahu was “advocating hitting Iran”, though the crown prince, aware that his country was first in the line of return fire, did not agree.
However, even if the killing and other provocations do not result in war, they have the advantage of diminishing the status of Iran’s ruling regime by highlighting its inability to protect its valuable assets, while aggravating social tensions in the country. They also ensure that Netanyahu, going through a trial for corruption and looking at fresh general elections, continues to burnish his credentials as the most effective guardian of his country’s interests.
For Israel and the American rightwing, represented most prominently by the Foundation for Defence of Democracies (FDD), a robust champion of Israel’s interests, war remains the most attractive option: an assault on Iran will permanently bury the nuclear agreement and will ensure that Iran never offers any check on Israel’s maximalist military and political interests in West Asia.
They could also retard Biden’s efforts at a diplomatic re-opening with Iran: many of the sanctions are linked with Iran’s affiliation with terrorism or human rights abuses and not with the nuclear agreement, making it very difficult for the new administration to get rid of them. There is no going back to the JCPOA, Netanyahu warned recently, with Pompeo by his side.
Donald Trump would certainly love a war. He needs a win: a military assault on Iran would ensure he goes out of the White House in a blaze of glory – by frontally attacking the Islamic Republic, he would have done what no US president has done since Jimmy Carter. It would compensate for the electoral “fraud” that has ousted him from the White House – the latest example of what observers are viewing as the “Trump Derangement Syndrome”.
Trump’s blaze of glory will see West Asia in conflagration. That will be his lasting legacy.
(The author, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.)