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Iran and the Difficulty of Dancing with Trump

Iran and the Difficulty of Dancing with Trump

Monday, 13 May, 2019 - 08:45
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper

For four decades, the Iranian revolution danced with seven presidents who successively took over the decision-making in the land of the “Great Satan.” The trip was long, thorny and hectic. There have been exchanges of blows, punctuated by truces and negotiations: the sight of Americans being held hostage at their country’s embassy in Tehran, the bombing of the US Embassy in Beirut, and the rubble of the Marines headquarters in the Lebanese capital, not to forget the Iran-Contra scandal.

During this period, Tehran was able to employ major events in its favor. The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon constituted an opportunity for the birth of Hezbollah. The overthrow of Saddam Hussein facilitated the empowering of militias that grew up in Iran and were used in defeating the US invasion. The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in the wake of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was an opportunity for Iran to become the top player in the Lebanese arena and a necessity for the retreating Syrian regime. The Yemeni “spring” provided an occasion for Iran to foster the Houthi coup, their capture of the Yemeni capital and its military arsenal.

Iran found an unprecedented opportunity under Barack Obama. It signed a nuclear agreement with six countries, including the United States, having succeeded in keeping its broad regional offensive outside the circle of discussion and negotiation.

The entry into force of the agreement allowed it to use the proceeds of the incoming money in the service of its attack, which it said has facilitated the annexation of four Arab capitals to the Iranian orbit.

It is wrong to believe that Iran can pursue with President Donald Trump the same dance that it performed with his six predecessors. Trump has changed the language of communication in America and abroad. At home, he changed his rhetoric with the other party and the media; and abroad, he is now speaking a different language with hostile, rival or allied countries.

This is why the repetition of the previous scenes is difficult and very unlikely, if not impossible. Is it possible, for example, to repeat the hostage crisis, if even in another country? Can an Iranian agent blow up a US embassy in the world and risk leaving his fingerprints there? Is it possible, for example, to assign an Iraqi faction to target the Tanf US air base with an Iranian missile or repeat the bombing of the US embassy in Beirut? It is unlikely to see these kind of scenes again. The reason is the Trump method and the difficulty of predicting his reactions and the extent to which he can go.

Since Trump took over power, Iran has lost its ability to make initiatives in the thorny relations. The administration has moved to the offensive as if it were seeking to correct the mistakes made in the previous administration. Trump’s exit from the nuclear deal signed by Obama was a major development, especially after it turned out that Iran could not seek refuge in European promises.

The American president went on to adopt progressive sanctions with the aim to snuff out Iranian oil exports. At the same time, Washington launched an unprecedented diplomatic campaign to convince the world that the problem with Tehran is not limited to its nuclear ambitions, but also includes its destabilizing behavior in the region through its missile program and the actions of the militias loyal to it. It even labeled it as the “first sponsor of terrorism in the world.”

The US attack was not just a media campaign to tarnish the image. Washington threw its economic weight in the battle and countries had to choose between dealing with Iran and preserving their economic relations with the United States. Experience has shown that many countries and major corporations prefer maintaining their ties with the world’s leading economy. Thus, the US actions against Iran led to a degree of international and regional isolation.

Amid reports that the American actions were painful this time, the recent US military mobilization entered the crisis at a more critical stage. Washington announced it had moved its military forces based on intelligence that Iran was preparing to target US interests.

The US move was very severe and was much felt by Iraqi officials when they received US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The latter conveyed stern messages that Washington would respond firmly to any targeting of its interests by Iran or its proxies. He also said his country would closely monitor Iran’s attempts to circumvent the sanctions, including the sale of its oil, claiming it was Iraqi oil.

In its show of force against Iran, the Trump administration stressed that it was not seeking war. It also said that its policy was not aimed at overthrowing the regime, but at pushing Tehran to change its behavior.

Trump explained that he was ready to sit at the table with Iran if it was prepared to do so. He left the telephone number of the White House with Switzerland. The Swiss Embassy in Tehran has been sponsoring US interests in Iran since the breakup of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1979.

Tension between the US and Iran is nothing new. What is new is the recognition by Tehran that US sanctions are indeed painful. Let’s set aside the threats from Iranian officials that US naval vessels would be an easy target for Iranian missiles in the event of a conflict. What is also new is that Trump cannot back down if Iran harasses his troops. A move of this kind will harm his image and chances for a second term if it is not met by a strict disciplinary response.

Iran lost the keys to the initiative in the crisis. The sanctions are painful. Inciting a dispute to reshuffle the papers seems dangerous. Waiting for the end of Trump’s mandate is costly, especially if US economic figures continue to boost his ambition for a second term.

But can we always regulate boiling crises? And what if there is an error that causes the escalation? What if a third party infiltrates the picture to light the fuse? And what would happen, for example, if we woke up one day to find that Israeli fighter jets have bombed Iranian nuclear reactors?

The Middle East lives on the beat of the “mother of crises”. It is not surprising that Iran feels the difficulty of dancing with Trump. China feels it too, after it managed to dance with his predecessors. The Chinese president is annoyed by the US instructions through Twitter. Beijing, however, is considering showing more flexibility to avoid a trade war that may plant thorns on the Silk Road.

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