Although Trump declined not to cross a ‘red line’ when he decided not to order a strike against Iran, it was not based on humanitarian considerations, as the US president is dishonestly claiming. “I thought about it for a second and I said, you know what, they shot down an unmanned drone … and here we are sitting with 150 dead people that would have taken place probably within a half an hour,” said Trump, laying it on thick for the cameras.
There was nothing particularly noble about this decision, which was actually based on the cold calculations by the generals in the Pentagon regarding possible US casualties and losses to their Gulf allies and to Israel in case Iran struck back. There’s not a whit of nobility to be found among them: in 1980, the Gulf monarchies offered Saddam Hussein $55 billion in financing as he attacked the Islamic republic and started an eight-year war that left a million dead.
The French provided Super Etendard fighters to the Iraqis to bomb Iranian refineries, while Reagan’s envoy to Baghdad, Donald Rumsfeld, was seen giving the Iraqi rais a warm handshake. Then, Rumsfeld became Defense Secretary under Bush Jr. and had a decisive contribution in spreading the greatest fake news of the century: Saddam Hussein’s supposed weapons of mass destruction, used to justify the US’s invasion in 2003.
In fact, the Americans have a red line that they cross often: that of common decency, particularly when it comes to spreading false information and manipulated half-truths. From a historical perspective, the Iranians have more reason than others to be wary of Washington, ever since the 1953 Anglo-American coup against Mossadegh, the secular and nationalist leader who could have changed the whole trajectory of the country.
One should also recall what happened in 2011, when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton encouraged the sheikhs of the Gulf countries and Turkey to support the jihadists in Syria to overthrow Bashar Assad, the great historical ally of Tehran in the region. The jihadists were rebranded as freedom fighters at international summits, but they were actually the foot soldiers of a new and vicious proxy war.
Then, in 2014, the US allowed ISIS to take over half of Iraq and part of Syria, aiming to break the corridor of Shiite rule going from Iran to Iraq and from Syria to Lebanon with its Hezbollah movement. This is what the “Caliphate” was deemed useful for: keeping pressure on the Iranians from the Iraqi borders. Not only did these plans fail, but, since 2015, the Russians have gone in and established their bases, in Syria as well as Iran.
The central issue in the US-Iran relationship is the existence of a red line that has been truly insurmountable for every US administration so far: the official recognition of the Islamic Republic. This is ultimately why the United States has an impressive military presence in the oil-rich Gulf: the US Fifth Fleet in Bahrain, thousands of personnel in Qatar and Iraq (as well as in northern Syria) and bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Not to mention, of course, their close ally, Israel, the only nuclear power in the region.
A corollary to this is the fact that the US is not willing to abandon the idea of regime change in Tehran. In a nutshell, Iran as it is now cannot be allowed to exist on the map of “normal nations.” This is also one of the reasons why the United States never seriously contemplated resuming diplomatic relations between the two countries, which were interrupted in 1979, with the taking hostage of the US personnel in the embassy in Tehran.
This is what Gary Sick told me on one occasion. Sick was an adviser to presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter on Iranian affairs and the one who revealed the truth about how the CIA and the Iranians eventually agreed to postpone the release of the American hostages to help Reagan in his election campaign. Could Trump, with a view to his own election campaign, be planning to play an “Iran card” as well?
However, the 40 years of hostilities saw a major détente with the nuclear deal signed in 2015 by the Obama administration. It could have been a decisive turn, but it proved to be merely a time-out. Furthermore, the sanctions against Iran were only partially lifted: the Americans continued to punish banks and foreign companies that had commercial and financial relationships with the Iranians, slapping them with heavy fines. Under pressure from Israel and Saudi Arabia, Obama did things half-heartedly, leaving Trump in the position to simply tear up an agreement that was already being attacked and disparaged in Iran by the Pasdaran hardliners.
The US, Israel and the Sunni Gulf powers have a common plan: to oust the Iranian Shiite regime. Of course, much like in Iraq in 2003, they have no idea what might come in to replace it. Meanwhile, the Europeans are hesitant, and some are already sauntering over their own previous red lines. For instance, Salvini did so in his trip to Washington, putting Italy in lockstep behind the United States: the Iranians are quite angry about this, considering the historical ties between Tehran and Rome ever since the era of ENI under Mattei—but no one in the capital is willing to break the silence, from the head of the government to the Foreign Minister. The very notion of red lines seems more ghostly and insubstantial than ever.
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