War with Iran has long been a possibility for the US, but only as a last resort. Previous administrations have recognized that this is not a war the US can win, but will Trump do the same?
The Trump administration’s aggressive rhetoric and actions have alarmed the world. The protests in response to his visa ban that have targeted mostly Muslims from seven nations the United States has targeted in its wars of aggression have overshadowed and distracted from an even darker threat: a looming U.S. war with Iran.
Is the fear of the threat greater than the threat itself? The answer is not clear.
Certainly, there must be a moment of hesitation among Americans and non-Americans who believed that we would be living in a more peaceful world because “Trump would not start a nuclear war with Russia.” The sad and stark reality is that U.S. foreign policy is continuous. An important part of this continuity is a war that has been waged against Iran for the past 38 years unabated.
The character of this war has changed over time. From the failed Nojeh Coup, which attempted to destroy the Islamic Republic in its early days, to aiding Saddam Hussein with intelligence and weapons of mass destruction to kill Iranians during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s, to helping and promoting the MEK terrorist group, to training and recruiting the Jundallah terrorist group to launch attacks in Iran, to putting special forces on the ground in Iran, to imposing sanctioned terrorism, to perpetrating the Stuxnet cyberattack – the list goes on and on, as does the continuity of these policies.
President Jimmy Carter initiated the Rapid Deployment Force and put boots on the ground in the Persian Gulf, and virtually every U.S. president since has threatened Iran with military action. It is hard to remember when the option was not on the table. However, thus far, every U.S. administration has wisely avoided a head on military confrontation with Iran.
To his credit, although George W. Bush was egged on to engage militarily with Iran, the 2002 Millennium Challenge, exercises which simulated war, demonstrated America’s inability to win a war with Iran. The challenge was too daunting. It is not just Iran’s formidable defense forces that have to be reckoned with, but the fact that one of Iran’s strengths and deterrents has been its ability to retaliate to any attack by closing down the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow passageway off the coast of Iran. Given that 17 million barrels of oil a day, or 35 percent of the world’s seaborne oil exports, go through the Strait of Hormuz, incidents in the Strait would be fatal for the world economy.
Faced with this reality, the United States has taken a multi-prong approach to prepare for an eventual/potential military confrontation with Iran over the years. These plans have included promoting the false narrative of a threat from a nonexistent nuclear weapon and the falsehood of Iran being engaged in terrorism (when, in fact, Iran has been subjected to terrorism for decades). These “alternative facts” have enabled the United States to rally friend and foe against Iran, and buy itself time to seek alternative routes to the Strait of Hormuz.
Plan B: The war for oil in West Africa and Yemen
In the early 2000s, the renowned British think tank Chatham House issued one of the first publications that determined African oil would be a viable alternative to Persian Gulf oil in the event of a disruption in Persian oil transportation and distribution.
In 2002, the Israeli-based think tank Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies suggested America push toward African oil. That same year, the African Oil Policy Initiative Group formed for a symposium and subsequent white paper which made the rounds in Washington. In an interesting coincidence, 2002 was the same year in which the Nigerian terror group Boko Haram was “founded.”
In 2007, the United States African Command, or AFRICOM, helped consolidate this push into the region. In 2011, Chatham House published “Globalizing West African Oil: US ‘energy security’ and the global economy,” a paper outlining the “US positioning itself to use military force to ensure African oil continued to flow to the United States.” This was but one strategy to supply oil in addition to or as an alternative to the passage of oil through the Strait of Hormuz.
Nigeria and Yemen took on new importance.
In 2012, several alternate routes to Strait of Hormuz were identified which would have been considered limited in capacity and more expensive at the time the Chatham House report was published. However, West African oil and control of Bab Al-Mandeb would diminish the strategic importance of the Strait of Hormuz in the event of war.
In a 2015 article for the Strategic Culture Foundation, “The Geopolitics Behind the War in Yemen: The Start of a New Front against Iran,” geopolitical researcher Mahdi Darius Nazemroaya correctly states:
“[T]he US wants to make sure that it could control the Bab Al-Mandeb, the Gulf of Aden, and the Socotra Islands (Yemen). Bab Al-Mandeb it is an important strategic chokepoint for international maritime trade and energy shipments that connect the Persian Gulf via the Indian Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea via the Red Sea. It is just as important as the Suez Canal for the maritime shipping lanes and trade between Africa, Asia, and Europe.”
War on Iran has never been “Plan A.” The neoconservative think tank The Washington Institute for Near East Policy argued in its 2004 policy paper “The Challenges of U.S. Preventive Military Action” that the ideal situation was (and continues to be) to have a compliant regime in Tehran. Instead of direct conflict, the policy paper called for the assassination of scientists, the introduction of malware, covert maneuverings to provide Iran plans with design flaws, sabotage, viruses, etc.
These suggestions have been fully and faithfully executed against Iran.
Obama set the stage to undermine Iran, not create peace
With the policy enacted, much of the world sighed with relief when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, also known as the “Iran nuclear deal,” which restricts Iran’s domestic nuclear power in exchange for the lifting of sanctions on Iran, was signed in the naive belief that a war with Iran had been alleviated. Obama’s genius was in his execution of U.S. policies which disarmed and disbanded the antiwar movements by negotiating this deal with Iran. But the JCPOA was not about improved relations with Iran, it was about undermining it.
In April of 2015, as the signing of the JCPOA was drawing near, then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work delivered a speech at the Army War College Strategy Conference and elaborated on how the Pentagon plans to counter the three types of wars purportedly being waged by Iran, Russia, and China.
As previously planned, the purpose of the JCPOA was to pave the way for a compliant regime in Tehran faithful to Washington. Failing that, Washington would be better prepared for war because under the JCPOA, Iran would open itself up to inspections. In other words, the plan would act as a Trojan horse to provide America with targets and soft spots. Apparently the plan was not moving forward fast enough to please President Barack Obama. In direct violation of international law and concepts of state sovereignty, the Obama administration slammed sanctions on Iran for testing missiles. Iran’s missile program was and is totally separate from the JCPOA. In fact, Iran is within its sovereign rights and within the framework of international law to build conventional missiles.
President Donald Trump followed suit. He ran on a campaign of “draining the swamp” in Washington with his speeches full of contempt for Obama. Ironically, like Obama, candidate Trump continued the tactic of disarming many by calling himself a deal maker and a businessman who would create jobs, and spouting rhetoric of non-interference.
But few intellectuals paid attention to his fighting words. Fewer still heeded the advisors he surrounded himself with, or they would have noted that Trump considers Islam the number one enemy, followed by Iran, China, and Russia.
The ideology of those he has picked to serve in his administration reflect the contrarian character of Trump and indicate their support of this continuity in U.S. foreign policy, including Bush-era neoconservatives. Michael Flynn, a former intelligence chief and Trump’s current national security advisor, stated that the Obama administration willfully allowed the rise of Daesh (an Arabic acronym for the terrorist group known in the West as ISIS or ISIL), yet the newly appointed head of the Pentagon, James “Mad Dog” Mattis, has stated: “I consider ISIS nothing more than an excuse for Iran to continue its mischief.”
So, the head of the National Security Council believes that Obama helped Daesh rise, and the head of the Pentagon believes that Daesh helps Iran continue its “mischief.” Is it any wonder that Trump is both confused and confusing?
And is it any wonder that on Jan. 28, when Trump signed an executive order calling for a plan to defeat Daesh in 30 days, the United States, United Kingdom, France and Australia ran war games drill in the Persian Gulf that simulated a confrontation with Iran – the country that has, itself, been fighting Daesh in Syria and Iraq?
Why a US war with Iran would fail
When Iran exercised its right, by international law, to test a missile, the United States lied and accused Iran of violating the JCPOA.
Threats and fresh sanctions ensued.
Trump, the self-proclaimed dealmaker who took office on the promise of making new jobs, slammed more sanctions on Iran within his first two weeks in office. Sanctions take jobs away from Americans by prohibiting business with Iran, and they also compel Iranians to become fully self-sufficient, breaking the chains of neo-colonialism. What a deal!
Coupled with Trump’s “Muslim ban,” the sanctions were a clear attack against Iran and an attempt to isolate the Islamic Republic as previous administrations have.
Even though the president has lashed out at friend and foe alike, Team Trump has realized that when it comes to attacking a formidable enemy, it cannot go it alone. Although in his book, “Time to Get Tough,” and on the campaign trail he lashed out at Saudi Arabia, in an about face, he has not included the Saudis and other Gulf Arab state sponsors of terror on his travel ban list. It would appear that someone whispered in Mr. Trump’s ear that Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar are fighting America’s dirty war in Yemen (and in Syria) and killing Yemenis.
In fact, Erik Prince, the infamous founder of the notorious private military company Blackwater, is said to be advising Trump “from the shadows.” Prince also received a $120 million contract from the Obama administration, and for the past several years has been working with Arab countries, the UAE in particular, in the “security” and “training” of militias in the Gulf of Aden, Yemen.
So, is military confrontation with Iran on the horizon?
Not if sanity prevails. And with Trump and his generals, that is a big if. While for many years the foundation has been laid and preparations made for a potential military confrontation with Iran, it has always been a last resort. It wasn’t a last resort because the American political elite did not want war, but because they cannot win this war.
Iran fought not just Iraq when the United States was arming Saddam Hussein throughout the 1980s, but virtually the whole world.
The United States and its allies funded Saddam’s war against Iran, gave it intelligence and weaponry, including weapons of mass destruction. In a period when Iran was reeling from a revolution, its army was in disarray, its population virtually one third of the current population, and its supply of U.S.-provided weapons halted.
Yet Iran prevailed.
Various American administrations have come to the realization that while it may take a village to fight Iran, attacking Iran would destroy the global village.
It is time for us to remind Trump that we don’t want to lose our village.
Soraya Sepahpour-Ulrich is an independent researcher and writer with a focus on U.S. foreign policy and the role of lobbying groups in influencing U.S. foreign policy. She is a peace activist, essayist and public speaker. Soraya has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations from the University of Southern California, and has a master’s degree in Public Diplomacy – a joint program offered by USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and USC School of International Relations. Her writing has been published by various national and international websites.