The Israeli press is awash with reports that US President Donald Trump is faithfully executing a containment strategy against Iran that was scripted in Tel Aviv by none other than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
This swagger is accompanied by the triumphalist forecast that Iran is wilting and the end is in sight for the four-decade-old Islamic regime in Tehran. Of course, Israel has a record of churning out baloney, but this must be the mother of all fabrications.
Perhaps, there could be some substance in the claim that Netanyahu influenced Trump. But even here, in the final analysis, Trump weighs in on any issue from one angle: how it may affect his re-election bid in the 2020 election. The developing situation indeed has some similarities with the run-up to the 1980 election in the US. Trump cannot be unaware of it. This is one thing.
Iran is denying Trump the privilege of a summit meeting. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif already forecast a month ahead that Tehran does not intend to have meetings with their US counterparts on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly Session in New York – not with Trump or his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Zarif’s explanation is simple: “The Americans lack honesty.” Now, how does Pompeo prove that his president is indeed an honest man when Americans themselves have divided opinions on this? As time passes, Trump will hate to realize that he looks a wimp in comparison with Barack Obama.
Obama and history
Obama had a sense of history. His outreach speech in Cairo University within months of becoming president was an extraordinary gesture of atonement for America’s past sins against the Muslim world, which persuaded Tehran that constructive engagement might be one of his core foreign-policy objectives.
Thus began the back-channel conversation, which culminated in the 2015 deal. Of course, Obama commanded respect – and, importantly, his policies enjoyed legitimacy under international law. But Trump hopes to make up for Obama’s erudition with crass bullying tactics.
North Korea was keen to break out of ‘isolation,’ especially with China and Russia cooperating with Trump. The Trump-Kim meet followed. But Iran does not face isolation.
A gentle reminder: Only two months through the brouhaha over Trump’s walkout from the 2015 nuclear deal, Iran and the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) signed a friendship agreement in Singapore on August 2, which is expected to lead to an expansion of economic relations between the two.
Simply put, the ‘Asian Tigers’ have gently signaled with characteristic Oriental modesty that they don’t give two hoots for Trump’s Iran sanctions.
Again, just this Sunday, Iran and Russia successfully navigated a historic pact on the Caspian Sea. Actually, the present international situation favors Iran – Trump’s collision course with China, the New Cold War conditions in US-Russia relations, the weakening of the transatlantic alliance and least of all, Trump’s abysmally poor record as a statesman in world perceptions.
However, as history shows, Iran will not depend on any friendly country to safeguard its core interests. Tehran seldom fails to take advantage of favorable factors, but they do not determine its core policies, either. In this case, Tehran’s missile development program is a non-negotiable deterrent and its regional policies provide the firewall in the prevailing regional environment.
A recap on the past
Besides, is Iran responsible for the destruction of Syria and Iraq, two unique secular states in the Muslim Middle East? Or, look at the horrific war crime in Yemen last weekend killing dozens of schoolchildren returning from a picnic. Did Iran perpetrate it?
Some recap of history is useful to anticipate Iran’s moves in the months ahead. For a start, US sanctions have been a geopolitical reality ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. The Western world largely complied with American wishes and refrained from having normal relations with Iran.
Russia was in a shambles and China far from the superpower it is today. Iran’s Sunni neighborhood was unfriendly because the authoritarian Arab regimes felt threatened by Iran’s ‘Islamic democracy’ or were kowtowing to American rules. Under the sanctions, Iran was even forced to fight a 7-year war with Iraq as Saddam Hussein enjoyed substantial American backing. Iran still won that war. Iran’s reconstruction through the 1990s was also almost entirely its own achievement.
Meanwhile, terrorism was a tool freely used to destabilize the Iranian regime. By the way, it was in one such terrorist attack in the afternoon of June 27, 1981, in Tehran that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s present Supreme Leader, barely survived – although his right arm wouldn’t move thereafter. The terrorist organization responsible for most of the terrorist activities is the MKO – with which Trump’s lawyer Rudi Guiliani is openly associated today.
To be sure, there are poignant memories deeply etched in the Iranian consciousness. The first big ‘break’ came for Iran with the foolish decision by George W. Bush to invade Iraq, which led to the empowerment of the majority Shi’ite community. In fact, this has been a recurring feature – Iran’s success in turning fortuitous circumstances to its advantage.
Unwavering core interests
Through this difficult 40-year period, Iran’s ‘friends’ often took advantage of its travails – Russia, China, India etc – but its self-confidence in its capability to secure its core interests was unwavering.
We should not expect any different behavior today. In fact, the Islamic Republic’s comprehensive national power is at its highest level today.
Of course, there is discontent in Iranian society. Isn’t there discontent in Israel and the United States? Surely, Netanyahu would know that the recent demonstrations in Iran were not a patch on the 2011 Israeli social justice protests involving hundreds of thousands of protesters from a variety of socio-economic and religious backgrounds opposing the continuing rise in the cost of living – particularly housing – and the deterioration of public services such as health and education.
A common rallying cry at the demonstrations was the chant “The people demand social justice!”
Yet Netanyahu survived. The good thing about Israel or Iran is that such protests are allowed to take place. That can only happen under an elected leadership which enjoys a democratic mandate. Make no mistake, state formation in Iran has been a rock-solid achievement of the 1979 Iranian revolution. There is no question of a meltdown.
The myth of Iran’s impending collapse is an ancient fairy tale laden with wishful thinking. The new kids on the block must read up on history. Obama did. He knew he was dealing with a country which was deeply nationalist and a nation-state which was more like a civilization.
When Netanyahu tossed the ball to Trump, the latter probably didn’t know he was being encouraged to score an own-goal. The Iran question will inexorably expose the impotence of the Trump presidency. And it will have grave consequences for Israel’s security too, whose larger-than-life regional role so far has been riveted on American power.
The great paradox still is that Iran is not demanding much. It can be summed up as a craving to be integrated with the international community, especially the Western world. Obama should not have left behind such unfinished business.
The next logical thing after the 2015 deal should have been the normalization of US-Iranian relations and the commencement of a comprehensive engagement without pride and prejudice. Such an opening again may now have to wait for the departure of Trump.