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Iran trumps Trump

The Donald’s indulgence of gunboat diplomacy has made war more likely

June 14, 2019

4:52 PM

14 June 2019

4:52 PM

It’s not every day that global diplomat and ex-Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt makes a fool of himself on Twitter. On some days, Carl’s too busy to tweet. But on Friday, the Stockholm speculator went full wag-the-dog.

‘Are there state or non-state actors that have an interest in provoking a conflict between Tehran and the US? It is difficult to see any other motive behind the tanker attack.’

It’s difficult to see anything at all if, like Carl Bildt, you keep your head firmly wedged up your own backside. But let’s entertain the possibilities, because Carl Bildt is a global statesman. He’s the geopolitical expert who, as mediator in Yugoslavia’s civil war, opposed intervention to prevent the Serbs from massacring Bosnian Muslims, and who, as a member of the Advisory Council of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq, joined the push for George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

The ‘state actors’ capable of staging a show involving an Iranian missile boat attaching limpet mines to an oil tanker are, as coy Carl knows, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. I’ve listed them alphabetically, but Carl would probably prefer to limit his list to just Israel and the United States, because he is a prominent defender of arms sales from pacifist Sweden to liberal democratic Saudi Arabia. Anyway, given the Saudi military’s savagely inept performance in Yemen, it’s hard to see them pulling this one off, especially for a mission that means dressing up as Shia.

As for the Russians, they don’t want the US or anyone else to pulverize Iran. In fact, Putin wants to stabilize a region that now looks more favorable to Russian interests than at any point since 1973. On June 24, Israel’s Meir Ben-Shabbat is hosting Putin’s security adviser Nikolai Patrushev and Trump’s security adviser John Bolton in Jerusalem for a summit intended to settle spheres of influence after Syria’s civil war.

Some people are so deranged by the intelligence failings of the Iraq War and the general unreality of our digital lives that they’re willing to agree with the Iranian government that the film is a ‘false flag operation’. Curt Mills, our man in DC, has been sifting through the murky waters of the administration’s missile boat video release, and you can read Curt’s findings here. Meanwhile, there are no grounds to believe that either Benjamin Netanyahu or Donald Trump wants war with Iran.

Netanyahu has an election coming up in September. The last thing he needs now is war between the US and Iran. A shooting war in the Gulf means a storm of missiles on the Israeli home front from Iran’s proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, and another futile and costly incursion into Lebanon. The Carl Bildt chorus may claim that Netanyahu is a warmonger who hopes to surf to electoral victory on a wave of Arab blood, but this is nonsense on both counts. Netanyahu’s long record in office shows that he is averse to war. Full-scale mobilization is bad for the booming Israeli economy, and an unwinnable war that costs Jewish lives would be disastrous for his standing in the polls.

That leaves the United States. The word in Washington is that Donald Trump doesn’t want war with Iran, but that John Bolton and Mike Pompeo are willing to give it a shot; more precisely a barrage of cruise missiles, because no one seriously expects to see the US Marines take Tehran. Last week, after the Sixth Fleet had anchored at the entrance to the Gulf in response to the limpet mine attacks on tankers in UAE waters on May 12, tensions seemed to be calming a little. This repeat incident has brought the US and Iran to the edge of war.

Trump won office on the promise that the US would no longer be the global policeman. That isn’t the same as abandoning America’s international interests. Trump has sought to recalibrate and rebalance relations with both allies and enemies, and to correct the millenarian streak in American foreign policy with a dose of realism, including about Iran’s sponsorship of terrorism in the region and beyond.

Trump’s recognition of the failed Iran policies that he inherited does not leave war as the only alternative policy. But his failure to come up with new policies, his indulgence of gunboat diplomacy, and the regional aggressions of the Iranian regime have all made war more likely.

In May 2018, I suggested that Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal might open a path to the US, Russia and Israel cutting a deal on regional stabilization as the Syrian civil war ended. That deal seems to be the theme of the meeting in Jerusalem on June 24. In the same article, I identified Iran as the big loser in that deal, and noted the risk of ‘an American president who has yet to articulate a replacement Iran strategy’ getting drawn into a regional war.

Trump hasn’t articulated a replacement strategy. He doesn’t want war, but he’s allowed himself to be convinced of the need for gunboat diplomacy. There’s no point in sending out the fleet if you’re not willing to use it. The Iranians know all this, and that’s why they attacked oil tankers in May and again on Thursday. It’s their way of telling the Sunni Arab states who calls the shots in the Gulf, and of publicly belittling the global standing of the United States. They’re calling Trump’s bluff.

If Trump backs down, he weakens America’s standing. If he launches even limited strikes — a terrible idea — he risks a military chain-reaction that could draw in the whole region and will lead to American casualties. Either way, Iran wins again. And that, to paraphrase Carl Bildt, is why Iran’s regime, or at least certain factions within it, have every interest in ‘provoking a conflict’.

Dominic Green is Life & Arts Editor of Spectator USA.

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