Donald Trump’s recent moves on Iran signals the start of a more aggressive phase of US power.
US President Donald Trump’s refusal to recertify the Iran nuclear agreement – despite the findings of International Atomic Energy Authority inspection teams – and his demand that the US Congress prepare legislation to further sanction Iran, at the cost of immediate decertification of the agreement by unilateral presidential action, suggests his administration is moving to destabilise Iran and preparing the ground for ‘regime change’.
This places in jeopardy future Iranian compliance with the agreement, infuriates the US’s European allies like Britain, France and Germany, not to mention Russia, China and the UN Security Council, and sends a loud and clear message to North Korea – there is no diplomatic solution envisaged by the US with regard to Kim Jong-un’s regime and that the latter should, effectively, develop his nuclear programmes with all due speed.
Yet, interestingly, US allies also see an opportunity to support greater sanctions on Iran to thwart its ballistic missile programmes, which former US president Barrack Obama sanctioned in his second term of office.
To the international community, Trump has effectively declared that agreements and treaties signed by the US are mere ‘scraps of paper’ to be torn up when they no longer serve US interests. The Trump regime has declared that ‘America First’ – the so-called strategy of ‘principled realism’ – is characterised by militaristic muscle-flexing and hyper-nationalist unilateralism, further undermining a system in crisis – the US-led post-1945 liberal international order. Or rather, it is a heightened version of unilateral, militarist tendencies present since the very founding of that order under the leadership of former US president Harry Truman and British premier Clement Attlee. North Korean leaders have not forgotten the four million of their people killed by relentless aerial bombing and napalm attacks in the post-war order’s first hot war on that tragic country.
But coming at the time of major global power shifts towards non-western powers, the political populism resulting from racial-demographic changes in the US and Europe, exacerbated by refugee crises brought on by disastrous military interventions in the Middle East, and increased mass dissatisfaction with political establishments, American hyper-nationalism may well signal a major drive to war as the preferred strategy of the world’s lone superpower.
The confrontation between the US and Iran has a long history. In 1953, the US and Britain destabilised and overthrew the democratically-elected government of Mohammad Mossadegh, installing and reinforcing Shah Pahlavi firmly in power. The “modernisning” Shah allowed Iranian oil to flow freely and cheaply to the West and received unconditional backing for a repressive apparatus that tried to crush all domestic dissent. He was overthrown in 1979 in the broadly democratic and anti-imperial revolution led by, among others, Ayatollah Khomeini, drawing a furious response from the US.
Ever since, the US has opposed Iran’s independent nationalism and viewed the country as a major threat to its alliances and allies in that region – Egypt and Saudi Arabia, but particularly Israel. Throughout the 1980s, the US and its European allies backed Iraqi aggression against Iran, a war that led to over a million deaths and featured liberal use of chemical warfare by Saddam Hussein’s regime, which remained unacknowledged and unsanctioned at the time by his western allies. Indeed, the US supplied arms to both sides in the conflict.
The 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), therefore, was a major, if begrudging and conditional, step towards accepting Iran into the international fold, though motivated largely for the US as a way of constraining Iran’s regional influence. Trump, in refusing to recertify the agreement despite having twice previously certified Iranian compliance, has renewed other Obama-era hostilities against Iranian independence, to assert American power, and to boost its militaristic allies, particularly Israel, which, as is well-known, actually has nuclear weapons. Israel, far from being sanctioned for its nuclear arsenal, let alone its many other violations of international law and human rights, receives generous military aid from its superpower protector.
The underlying message? Trump made it plain to all with his address to the UN General Assembly in September, that unfettered American selfish-nationalism is the basis of world politics and economy, the survival of the fittest philosophy of national Darwinism. America first, last and everything. The US proclaims, under Trump but also previously under unilateral presidents – Richard Nixon in the 1970s, George W. Bush earlier this century – that Republican conservative nationalism does not respect international agreements and institutions, and is willing at this time to declare that national strength and national greatness is the key ‘progressive’ global force. The US, under Trump, is flexing its muscles and wants to loosen, if not break and remake, the international system that it and Britain established after 1945.
In this aim, Trump is receiving conditional support from his arch-establishment appointees from the Pentagon – defence secretary James Mattis, chief of staff John Kelly and national security adviser H.R. McMaster.
Trump’s blatant attempt at breaking the Iran nuclear agreement has less to do with the agreement per se than with attempting to constrain Iran as a powerful regional actor – fighting ISIS in Syria, opposing US-backed Saudi aggression in Yemen, developing ballistic missile capabilities. It will be recalled that Iran’s regional influence increased largely as a result of America’s illegal war on Iraq which, ironically, knocked out one of the key states balancing against Iran after the 1979 revolution – Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
What effect will this have on Tehran? It largely removes the incentives for Iran, and other powers, to stick by the rules and agreements, as it begins to worry that it is now becoming a target for US-inspired regime change. The larger lesson is unlikely to be missed by forces opposed to the nuclear agreement within Iran, not to mention the leaders of North Korea: they are only too well aware of what they call the lessons of the Iraq war of 2003 and the2011 overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.
The former had no weapons of mass destruction and was destroyed by Anglo-American military aggression. The other – Libya – gave up its planned weapons of mass destruction by agreement with former British prime minister Tony Blair and Bush – and was later overthrown by Islamists backed by the US, the UK and France. Neither North Korea nor Iran have any real incentives not to develop weapons of mass destruction in order to defend themselves from probable destabilisation and attempted regime change. Indeed, the US just began another tranche of war games off the coast of North Korea, which includes special forces whose aim is to rehearse a decapitation strategy to wipe out North Korea’s leadership.
In the end, Trump played as much to his domestic political base as he did to the international community; he can now claim to have (almost) carried out an election pledge to scupper or renegotiate the nuclear agreement. But he lacked the political courage to fully abrogate the nuclear agreement and passed on the matter to the US Congress and to US allies who will likely increase sanctions against Iran while retaining the agreement. This was a concession to the generals in the White House and their US foreign policy establishment allies. But it also provides cover to Trump with his loyal supporters.
Trump represents a heightened version of American hyper-nationalism but he is unlikely to fully abandon the US foreign policy establishment, nor they him, as he accomplishes the opposite of what he promised his voters last year – to stop meddling in the Middle East and creating the conditions for groups like ISIS. To the establishment, the main worry is that Trump’s brutal rhetorical style undermines the international credibility of US power, brings it into disrepute.
In replacing the alleged policy of ‘restraint’ under Obama, it is clear that Trump’s strategy is increasing the likelihood of major wars across the world.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and a columnist for The Wire. His twitter handle is @USEmpire