The new US strategy on Iran is designed to be rejected – here's why

In his speech, Mike Pompeo declared that Iran must withdraw all its forces from Syria, stop supporting its allies in Yemen, halt production of long-range missiles, stop uranium enrichment and agree to inspection of a range of facilities at anytime, anywhere in the country

Kim Sengupta
Tuesday 22 May 2018 16:08 BST
President Donald Trump states if Iran restarts their nuclear program there will be severe consequences

The Trump administration announced its policy towards Iran on Monday after reneging on the country’s nuclear deal with the international community. There are a dozen demands, amounting, in effect, to a declaration of economic warfare, a demand for Tehran to surrender its defence and foreign policy and the threat to force regime change.

The conditions put forward by the new secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, have no chance of being accepted by Iran. They have pleased Saudi Arabia, which has pledged to buy billions of dollars of weaponry from the US, and Israel, whose backers funded Donald Trump’s election campaign. They have been met with dismay by America’s Western allies who see just how far the transatlantic divide has grown under Trump.

In his first speech as secretary of state, Pompeo declared that Iran must withdraw all its forces from Syria, stop supporting its allies Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis in Yemen. It must halt production of long-range missiles, stop uranium enrichment allowed under the nuclear agreement, and agree to inspection of a range of facilities at any time, anywhere in the country.

These are the “very basic requirements” said Pompeo, implying other demands will follow. Failure by Tehran to comply, he threatened, will result in “the strongest sanctions in history” which wound “crush” Iran’s government if it does not change its ways. Iran’s people, he said, need to get rid of their leaders.

There is, of course, always the possibility with this US administration that the threats will not materialise. It has just pulled out, for the time being at least, from a trade war with China. Trump, after all the tweets of annihilating North Korea, is meeting Kim Jong-un without any pre-conditions.

It could be that Pompeo’s rhetoric could be seen as part of a contest between him and new national security adviser, John Bolton, on hawkishness. The White House could, theoretically, distance itself from Pompeo as it did from Bolton’s demand that Kim Jong-un accept the Libyan option for nuclear disarmament – the one under which Muammar Gaddafi gave up his nuclear programme only to be overthrown a few years later by Nato and US bombing, hunted down and lynched.

But on Iran, Pompeo is keen to pander to Trump’s destructive urges, unlike Rex Tillerson who was fired for trying to restrain them. There are real dangers in the bellicose American approach. The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), or Iran agreement, was viewed by its signatories – Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China and until Trump, the US – as Plan A to stop proliferation. No one thinks The US administration’s Plan B is going to work.

Trita Parsi, of the National American Iranian Council, said: “Plan B of the Trump administration is designed to fail and then pave the way for Plan C, which is most likely war… When you combine unrealistic demands with massive pressure then you are by design creating a pathway to confrontation.”

Ellie Geranmayeh, a fellow at European Council of Foreign Relations, described the US demands as “conditions of surrender” which are aimed at “imploding the Iranian state by undermining the Iranian leadership at home and abroad, as well as economically, through waging sanctions warfare, not only against Iran but every other country that engages in business with Iran.”

Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the Brooking Institution’s foreign policy programme, believes that “there is only one way to read it and that is that the Trump administration has wedded itself to a regime change strategy to Iran, one that is likely to alienate our allies, one with dubious prospects of success”. The administration’s approach “explicitly puts the onus on the Iranian people to change their leadership or face cataclysmic financial pressure”.

Pompeo has reiterated the US threat to punish companies that trade with Iran. On Iranian leadership, he mentioned President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Zarif as those who should go. They are both reformers who had made the nuclear agreement possible.

It is the hardliners in Iran who are vehemently against the deal, as they made abundantly clear to those of us who covered Iran’s parliamentary and presidential elections. Sabotaging the agreement, as the US is trying to do, will weaken the reformers and strengthen hardliners and conservative clerics in Iran.

The West has a history, especially during colonial times, of manipulation by undermining nationalists and reformers, and empowering extremists. The British government, for example, plotted with Islamists during the Suez crisis to assassinate Nasser, the then president of Egypt. The US has routinely overthrown elected progressive governments in Latin America with coups, replacing them with murderous military regimes.

At times this strategy has backfired spectacularly: let’s remember the Islamist international brigade, Osama Bin Laden among them, which America and its allies put together in Afghanistan and how it brought jihad to the West afterwards.

The European Union said in a statement: “Secretary Pompeo’s speech has not demonstrated how walking away from the JCPOA has made, or will make, the region safer from the threat of nuclear proliferation or how it puts us in a better position to influence Iran’s conduct in areas outside the JCPOA. There is no alternative to the JCPOA.”

Preserving the JCPOA is not going to be easy in the face of American sanctions. Some Western multinationals, such as Total and Maersk, have already pulled out of the Iran market.

It is likely that Tehran will look more and more towards Russia and China for trade. The Moscow led Eurasian Economic Union has signed a deal with Iran to lower tariffs on hundreds of good and is talking about creating a free trade zone. The Chinese state-owned CNPC wants to take over the gas project which Total may leave.

But this now goes beyond commerce. The importance of the nuclear agreement is something that unifies the remaining signatories. Even Britain and Russia, with their relations worse than during the Cold War, are on the same page on this.

The urgent need these states face is to ensure that the Trump administration does not succeed in fatally destabilising Iran and the region. A conflict may help Trump achieve his oft-stated aim of selling more arms, but the consequences would be dire for the international community.

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