Iran: Empty threat, or threat of war?
US rocks boat followed by unhelpful sequence of tweets from Trump
We’re “officially putting Iran on notice”, a sabre-rattling US national security adviser, Michael Flynn, announced in his first public statement since taking office. On notice of what? And, what if Iran decides to ignore the general’s threat? What then? We have no idea. Tehran has no idea. And, perhaps most worryingly, the Trump administration has none either.
Trump spokesman Sean Spicer explained just as confusingly: the president, he said, wanted to make sure the Iranians “understood we are not going to sit by and not act on their actions”. And at a White House briefing, senior administration officials repeatedly refused to rule out any options, including military intervention.
The trouble is that, these days, with Donald Trump in the White House as commander in chief, such bluster – Trumpian diplomacy – may have potentially devastating consequences. As Ali Vaez, of the International Crisis Group warns, “It’s either an empty threat, or a clear statement of intent to go to war with Iran. Both are reckless and dangerous ... In an attempt to look strong, the administration could stumble into a war that would make the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts look like a walk in the park”.
The casus belli this time, an Iranian ballistic missile test and an attack on a Saudi warship by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, that Flynn deemed “destabilising behaviour across the Middle East”. The test was followed by another, of a Cruise missile, in what are clearly provocations by Iranian hardliners largely aimed at testing how easily the hated US regime can be riled. The answer is “easily”.
Flynn insists the Iranianas are in breach of the UN resolution endorsing the deal brokered in 2015 with six powers, including the US, to curb the country’s nuclear weapons programme. The resolution calls upon Iran to refrain for up to eight years from work on ballistic missiles (no mention of Cruises) designed to deliver nuclear weapons. Calls upon, urges, not prohibits.
What may be slightly reassuring, however, is that in Trump’s follow-up tweet – it appears to be replacing diplomatic notes or démarches – the president argues that Iran “should have been thankful for the terrible deal the US [sic] made with them!” A second tweet read: “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the US came along and gave it a life-line ...” Is Trump to be understood here as implying an acceptance, albeit grudging, that the nuclear deal is a done deal? That he no longer intends, as he promised during the campaign, to tear up what he called a “weak and ineffective” agreement?
International sanctions on Tehran were lifted in January last year, and detente has followed, despite the loud complaints of the Saudis and Israelis. But, disturbingly, they now have the destabilising support of a sympathetic White House.