Iran is surrounded by US-fuelled antagonism, thanks to Trump - GulfToday

Iran is surrounded by US-fuelled antagonism, thanks to Trump

Michael Jansen

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Iran is surrounded by US-fuelled antagonism, thanks to Trump

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei greets the crowd during a meeting with eulogists in Tehran. Agence France-Presse

Iranians are set to vote on Friday in a parliamentary election which could empower the hardest of the hardliners and decide who will succeed supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, 80, and in frail health. This outcome can only heighten tensions between Iran and the US and increase hardships suffered by millions of Iranians due to the harsh sanctions regime reinstated by the Trump administration.

Donald Trump is 100 per cent responsible for this sorry state of affairs. The confrontation between Iran and the US was his withdrawal from the 2015 six-power agreement with Iran requiring Tehran to dismantle 90 per cent of its nuclear research facilities in exchange for sanctions relief.

If the US had remained in the agreement and eased sanctions, moderates and reformists would have been the likely winners in the coming election. Iran would have been exporting its oil and trading freely with the international community, the Iranian economy would have been growing and providing goods and jobs for Iranians.

President Hassan Rouhani might have been able to focus on the fight against corruption and initiate reforms needed to update and improve the country’s economic performance.

If Trump had not begun his “maximum pressure” campaign designed to bring Iran to its knees, Tehran might have reduced its activities in neighbouring countries as might have felt at ease in the region and the world. Thanks to Trump, Iran sees itself encircled by US bases and US-inspired antagonism and is defiant and determined to stand firm.   

More than half the 14,000 persons who applied to stand for seats were disqualified by the Guardian Council, the body that vets candidates. Those barred were largely moderates and reformists, including 90 lawmakers among the 247 who sought to stand for re-election, although a few hardliners were excluded for the sake of appearances. Consequently, the hardest of the hardliners are likely to secure a majority in the 290-member assembly.

Trump’s policies have also guaranteed the ascendancy of the hardest of the hardliners in the establishment comprising clerics, politicians and military men. They can be expected to choose a cleric they can trust as Khamenei’s successor and to strengthen their grip on both the appointed and elected branches of government.

They see this as a defensive strategy to preserve Iran’s Islamic Republic and theocrat-dominated regime. Members of the Trump administration have made no secret of their desire to end the regime and the 41-year-old Iranian Islamic Republic which overthrew Washington’s loyal ally, Shah Reza Pahlavi.

While digging in, preparing for the worst, and mounting carefully calculated “rear guard actions” to counter the US, Iran has also managed to preserve the nuclear deal while maintaining its independence and sustaining its regional role.

After violating and pulling out of the deal and ramping up punitive sanctions, Trump been rebuffed by Tehran which refuses to discuss a deal designed by his hawks. Iranians know this would be far worse and more comprehensive than the agreement he has tried to scupper. During the year after the US pullout, Iran honoured its commitments in spite of the buildup of the US sanctions regime.

Since mid-2019, Iran has changed tactics. With the aim of putting pressure on Europe to stick to its commitments and provide sanctions relief, Iran has increased uranium enrichment, raised the level of purification and stockpiled enriched uranium beyond the limits set by the deal. Iran has also designed and put into use an advanced generation of centrifuges. All of these measures can be reversed, if and when the US returns to the nuclear deal and/or sanctions are lifted.

On the regional level, Trump’s drive to rein in Iran has failed miserably. Iran regularly tests ballistic missiles and rockets. Pro-Iranian militias lob bombs at Iraqi military bases hosting US troops and fight alongside the Syrian army in the war against al-Qaeda and Daesh.

Ultimately, US forces in Syria will become targets. Militias and politicians loyal to Iran rule the roost in Baghdad. Iraqis protesting misrule, corruption and sectarianism in Baghdad and the south demand not only an end to Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs but also the withdrawal of US forces from Iraq.

Iran’s ally Hizbollah plays a major role in Lebanon’s conflicted politics and Iranian advisers are said to be operating with the Houthi rebels in Yemen.  Iran stands accused of launching a series of military strikes on oil tankers in the Gulf region and Saudi oil facilities and of escalating cyberattacks on the US.

Trump’s efforts to isolate Iran are faltering. The New York Times reported last Thursday that late in September 2019 Abu Dhabi held talks with an Iranian delegation on reducing tensions.

This was followed by the early January attempt by ex-Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi to mediate contacts between Tehran and Riyadh. He asked Iran’s influential Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, a frequent visitor to Baghdad, whether talks with Saudi Arabia could be arranged.

Soleimani had just arrived in Baghdad for a meeting with Abdel Mahdi with the Iranian reply when US drones slew him and his entourage. It is likely that US intelligence had gathered information on the effort and informed Trump who ordered the Pentagon to kill Soleimani. This may have postponed further talks with Abu Dhabi, cancelled tentative contacts between Iran and Saudi Arabia and put an end to any possibility of dialogue between Iran and the US.

Iran replied by firing missiles at al-Asad base in western Iraq which hosts US troops, injuring more than 100 and demonstrating that Washington does not have all the options.

On the international level, the Trump-dominated West has been denied the opportunity to forge normal relations with Iran. Frustrated by the imposition of US sanctions on governments, banks and companies dealing with Iran, the European Union is still trying to create ways and means to provide Iran with essential medicines and medical equipment and other humanitarian supplies. Meanwhile, Tehran has developed close ties with Russia due to their close cooperation in the Syrian war.

Iran has cultivated China, which has purchased Iranian oil in defiance of US sanctions, and expects to play a large part in and benefit from Beijing’s “Silk Road” project linking Asia to this region and the Eastern Mediterranean.

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