Donald Trump’s torpedoing of the Iran nuclear deal on highly specious and misleading grounds is an act of wanton diplomatic vandalism fraught with dangers. While the 2015 agreement may not yet be wholly sunk, it is holed below the waterline. Many in Tehran will see the sweeping reimposition of US sanctions as a declaration of war. As for Trump, he has once again proved himself the master of chaos.
This aggressive bid to further isolate Iran appears designed to ultimately enforce regime change. In the short-term it will destroy remaining mutual goodwill, undermine pro-western Iranian opinion, empower hardliners, trigger an oil price crisis, and increase the risk of conflict centred on Syria and Israel. It raises the spectre of a regional nuclear arms race, and damages the western alliance to the advantage, among others, of Russia. It is a Crimea-sized blow to the primacy of international law.
Yet Trump’s short-sighted folly, far from being unprecedented, is entirely consistent with a long history of similarly disastrous Middle East policy missteps by previous US presidents. The region is littered with the corpses of momentously misconceived and wrong-headed US policies, spawned by the same noxious mix of ignorance and arrogance now permeating the White House. In this respect, Trump is no different from many of his modern predecessors.
Iran, as ever, is a case in point. The 1979-81 Tehran hostage crisis is usually referenced by those seeking to explain enduring, official US enmity. It’s true America’s national humiliation was considerable, and Jimmy Carter paid the political price. But the Iranian people’s real offence was not the embassy siege. It was their presumptuous overthrow of the shah’s autocratic, pro-American regime in the 1979 revolution.
The US and the UK, after all, had gone to considerable trouble in 1953 to keep Iran in line, covertly ousting its democratically elected government of prime minister Mohammad Mosaddegh. Their loss of influence, consequent on Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s assertion of absolutist clerical rule, was the product of their own machinations. Here was the genesis of lethal US backing for Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.
The fight to repel Saddam’s invasion took 300,000 Iranian lives. Its cost, and causes, are not forgotten. Close by the Khomeini mausoleum south of Tehran, I once walked among the well-tended, shaded graves of hundreds of “martyrs” interred in Behesht-e Zahra cemetery. The war was a national trauma. Yet there has been no US apology, nor any thought of one. Although the US finally turned on Saddam in 1990, although Iran helped track al-Qaida following the 2001 attacks, and even though the nuclear deal elicited significant concessions, venomously irrational, unmitigated US hostility persists.
Among the many US-fomented catastrophes in the Middle East, George W Bush’s 2003 decision to invade Iraq without a plan was a standout moment, unrivalled in its strategic incoherence and staggering incompetence. It destabilised Iraq territorially and economically. Bush’s “axis of evil” rhetoric and “global war on terror” fuelled sectarian violence and jihadism, playing midwife to Islamic State. And the ensuing, lengthy occupation failed to entrench inclusive democratic governance, as this weekend’s Iraq elections may again demonstrate.
Ronald Reagan used covert Middle East arms sales to fund an illegal war in Nicaragua in the 1980s. Likewise, the US armed the Afghan mujahideen, then blanched as they morphed into the Taliban. George HW Bush liberated Kuwait in 1991 only to betray Iraq’s Kurds and Shias when they demanded liberation, too.
Bill Clinton tried to end the Palestine-Israeli conflict, inspiring great optimism. I recall standing on the White House’s south lawn in 1993 as Clinton physically pulled Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin together for a reluctant handshake that had taken decades in coming. “Enough of blood and tears, enough … The time for peace has come,” Rabin solemnly declared.
But the time had not come. Blood continued to flow. Clinton’s efforts to play honest broker failed, like those of other American presidents, because, ultimately, the just claims of the Palestinians always proved unequal to Israel’s political, emotional, and financial clout in Washington. Far from endowing peace in Palestine, US policy has underwritten a deepening divide, the expansion of illegal settlements, and now the provocative recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital city. Arafat and Rabin are both dead. So too, almost, is the two-state solution.
In the decades after the Suez Crisis in 1956, when Britain and France were shoved aside, successive US administrations war-gamed the Middle East as part of a bigger strategic contest with the Soviet Union. If that meant propping up pro-western dictators such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and the Saudi and Gulf monarchs, then so be it. Yet as Condoleezza Rice, the former secretary of state, conceded in Cairo in 2005, it was a self-defeating policy. “For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither,” she said.
In another famous Cairo speech, in 2009, Barack Obama promised a “new beginning”. The US had treated Middle East countries as either proxies or enemies, he said. Instead, Obama promised, it would tackle religious extremism, Palestine, nuclear proliferation, democratic deficits and women’s rights. Yet for all that, not much changed in the Obama years. Only the Iran deal marked a clear shift – until Trump wrecked it.
In many respects, the region’s problems have grown steadily worse under American tutelage. Witness Somalia, a failed state-turned-shooting range for US special forces. Witness Yemen, a humanitarian disaster wrought by the US-armed Saudi regime. Witness Libya, anarchic product of made-in-America regime change. Witness Turkey where, in the age of Guantánamo, human rights increasingly count for naught.
Unsurprisingly, terrorism, in many forms, is proliferating, as is displacement, poverty and youth unemployment. And all this without mentioning the post-2011 Syrian holocaust of half a million dead. Syria’s fate symbolises perhaps the biggest US failure of all: its hard-nosed refusal to support the Arab spring uprisings and stand up, despite Obama’s promises, for democratic self-determination.
Know-nothing Trump is the direct heir to this grim litany of catastrophic presidential blundering. But that is not to say Britain and Europe should tolerate yet another avoidable Middle East disaster wrought in Washington. Just as Russia has been told certain actions are unacceptable and incur painful consequences if not reversed, so too should the US.
The European allies must, by all available means, undercut, circumvent and subvert Trump’s attempt to wreck the Iran deal. Closer ties should be pursued with Tehran, while escalating, punitive diplomatic and economic sanctions are levelled at Washington. Joint action should also be taken to censure the US at the UN. A price must be paid for perfidy.
Theresa May can make a start by withdrawing her ill-judged invitation to Trump to visit Britain. With his Middle East warmongering, as with his climate change denial and his other dangerous and divisive policies, Trump threatens British interests and international peace and security. It is no longer enough simply to complain and condemn. The moment for active resistance has arrived.