Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, visited Delhi at an unusual time. In two weeks, India will have a new government, after which cabinet positions are likely to be shuffled even if the same parties retain power. We don’t know what offers and commitments were made in private, but India’s public response was, expectedly, that a decision on buying Iranian oil would be taken only once a new administration was sworn in.
The visit signalled urgency, even desperation, on Iran’s part, and with good reason. The clock for the next Gulf War has been reset in the past week, and now reads one minute to midnight. We are a single major accident or misunderstanding away from full-scale conflict. The fog of war is already gathering, with confusion surrounding an American military build-up in the Gulf, and the sabotage of oil tankers near the port of Fujaira. Houthi rebels from Yemen, supported by Iran in their four-year-old conflict with Saudi Arabia, launched a drone attack deep into Saudi territory on Tuesday, damaging a pipeline west of the capital Riyadh.
War will bring to an end the Iranian regime’s four decades in power. Aware of the certainty of defeat in any direct confrontation, the Ayatollahs are employing proxies like the Houthis to harry opponents, but will abstain from escalatory actions by their own forces. On the other side, four votaries of regime change, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammad bin Salman, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, the American National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, will aim to maximise friction in the region, hoping to spark a blaze that cannot be doused by the international community’s fire fighters.
However regressive and authoritarian Iran’s regime (it certainly is no more regressive and authoritarian than Saudi Arabia’s), its violent replacement is bound to deepen divisions and promote further instability in a region already devastated by wars.
Pompeo is on a tour to shore up support, and it hasn’t gone well. He was rebuffed in Iraq and again in Europe, and can hardly expect backing from Moscow, which has worked closely with Iran to keep Bashar al-Assad in power in Syria.
In a sense, though, those seeking to ward off bloodshed, India included, have failed already. They may not send troops to fight alongside Americans, or pass resolutions at the United Nations authorising force, but they have allowed the United States to paint Iran into a corner with barely a protest. Tehran’s only way forward now seems to be sanctions-busting through the grey market, which brings significant risks and is unlikely to forestall economic deterioration.
It is too late now
A year ago, the United States withdrew from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, widely known as the Iran Nuclear Deal, and sanctioned not just Iranian oil exports, but any nations or private firms doing business with Tehran. The stated aim of the Trump administration was to reduce Iran’s oil exports to zero by November 2018. The European Union, which remained committed to the deal and criticised the unilateral American withdrawal, set about creating an alternative payment system that would allow Iran’s oil to keep flowing.
The building of the new gateway received a generous time extension last July, when, spooked by spiking oil prices, the US allowed select nations like India and China to keep importing Iranian oil past the November deadline. Earlier this month, convinced they now had the means to replace Iranian oil, the Americans ended the waivers. Iran threatened, in response, to leave the nuclear deal itself, but that provided it little immediate leverage.
Despite the extra months they got, the Europeans did not manage to construct an effective shield for Iran’s exports. They stood by and watched as fearful private companies abandoned investments in the West Asian country. On Iran, as elsewhere, they have failed utterly to stand up to Trump’s bullying. The European Union’s unified foreign policy looks like a joke more than ever and, as the conflict with Iran becomes graver, Europe is likely to fracture just like it did in 2003, when George Bush embarked upon his disastrous preemptive war to rid Iraq of weapons that didn’t exist.
Multilateral bodies like the Non-Aligned Movement have proven even worse than the EU at countering American designs against Iran, a major NAM member state.
Only one individual now stands between us and catastrophe. Unfortunately, that individual is a sociopath named Donald Trump, the person most responsible for leading us to the precipice in the first place. On the surface, Trump is a classic chicken hawk. He has always talked tough, but sought exemption from deployment during the Vietnam war using a phony medical excuse. In this respect, he resembles Bush Junior, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz and other neoconservative draft dodgers who guided the US into the Iraq war.
Unlike them, however, Trump’s instincts are protectionist and isolationist. It took him nearly two years after being sworn in as president to make his first visit to troops in a combat zone. He drew the wrath of American conservatives for pulling American soldiers from Syria, claiming the fight against ISIS had been won.
His idea of toughness, like everything else about him, is theatrical and performative. He expressed it initially by surrounding himself with generals like Michael Flynn, John Kelly, James Mattis, and Herbert McMaster. The generals have all departed, and been replaced by notorious warmongers like Bolton, who has openly and consistently advocated military action against Iran.
It is too late, now, for the world at large to do anything about the Iran situation. We can only watch from the sidelines as the team of Netanyahu, bin Salman, Pompeo and Bolton nudges a reluctant Trump closer to crying havoc and letting slip the dogs of war. The prolonged American election season will offer the quartet many opportunities to convince the performer in Trump that war in the Persian Gulf offers him the best hope of a ratings boost.