This post, I realize, is written as if Donald Trump still has some basic core of cognitive capacity and comprehension that enables at least rudimentary cost/benefit analysis and the ability to set and stick to a goal-oriented strategy. At this point, these may be false assumptions, if they weren’t always. If Donald really is the scattered, confused, manipulable, blithering idiot he seems to be, then the course of action I’m arguing for here, or indeed any course of action not force-fed to him by the likes of John Bolton, is vanishingly unlikely. In that case, I guess sooner or later Bolton will get his war.
Ooooooooh, they were so close. Having done everything they could to box Trump in and set the pre-conditions for war, Bolton and Pompeo nearly, ever so nearly, got the disaster they’ve been praying for. It was all teed up and ready to go! Dammit! One day we may learn why Trump got a last-minute case of the jitters and called the whole thing off (the latest theory has Saudi Arabia’s MbS counselling against the strike, which doesn’t jibe with what we know about Saudi attitudes towards the Persians), but for now it’s enough that he did.
The key words are “for now”. The problem is, the strategic situation at sea level hasn’t changed. Iran, the nuclear deal having been scrapped despite its compliance, now suffering under severe sanctions with more promised, and looking down the barrel of serious privation for its people if something doesn’t change, remains painted into a corner. To the mullahs, it must seem plain what America wants: regime change. The United States can’t, logically, be looking for a negotiated settlement, can it? They already had a negotiated settlement. In any case, the mullahs must be asking themselves why on earth Iran or anybody else would enter into a treaty with America now, when pacts with the U.S. clearly don’t mean anything. We can therefore expect the Iranians to keep pushing back with the only means at their disposal, sending messages via tanker attacks, or other such mischief, meant to demonstrate the extent to which they can make life very complicated indeed for America, and for that matter the whole Western World. At the same time, the logic of re-starting their nuclear weapons program may become overwhelming; then, they might think, they can finally get the sort of kid glove treatment accorded to Crazy-assed Kim over there in Asia. Nukes mean respect.
Iran going back to bomb-making is a nightmare for everybody. It leads to disaster, one way or another. Somehow, now, Trump has to bring them back to the table before things really jump the rails. To do that, he’s going to have to stifle Bolton and Pompeo, both of whom are undoubtedly still counselling war. He should shit-can the two of them, the monomaniacs, and signal a policy shift by appointing people more statesmanlike to the positions of Secretary of State and National Security Advisor. Just which properly credentialed persons would wander in off the street to work for Trump at this point is beyond me, but he’s got to try to find somebody with a reputation for cool-headedness and reason, somebody, please God, who is not Steve Bannon or Seb Gorka, or anybody like them. Maybe Nikki Haley, not ideal but close enough, could be enticed back? I don’t know, bury the hatchet with Rex Tillerson? I’d suggest some ambitious climber in the Senate, but the obvious candidates, like Lindsay Graham and worse, Tom Cotton, are as mental as Bolton. There must be somebody. Unless Bolton and Pompeo are shown the door, I don’t see how Trump can change course.
Then, supposing he can manage that, he’s got to send a message through back channels that he’s willing to re-instate the original Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to which the Europeans, Russia, and China signed on, provided both sides can cast it as a new and improved treaty that’s way better than that deeply flawed mess that Obama negotiated. Way better. There’ll need to be some tweaks, then, but they can be superficial – the point is to claim something momentous has happened in America’s favour, though obviously it will not have. Maybe a faux agreement like the one Trump entered into with North Korea would do the trick, you know, a mutual non-binding promise to possibly explore at some future point the potential benefits of further non-binding discussions. Layer that on top of the JCPOA and claim victory.
The hot topic with the hard-liners is how Obama’s treaty failed to curtail Iran’s non-nuclear misbehaviour all over the Gulf, which isn’t on the table, and will never be on the table, not so long as America keeps up with its own mischief (as they see it) and keeps backing the hated Saudis and Israelis, and maybe not ever so long as the mullahs pursue their messianic ideology, but it could be made to look like it’s on the table. Then, if that can be dressed up in a moderately convincing way, ta-daaaa, The Donald emerges triumphant, with a new and improved Iran deal the terms of which prove Trump is a better man than Obama, yay Donald, and we go back to the JCPOA regime and praise Jesus that we avoided the biggest foreign policy blunder of the past century.
Stop fixating on what’s real and embrace the power of bullshit. Bullshit conquers all, if we can just muster it.
So can we muster up this particular pile of bullshit? Probably not, sadly, especially since yet another treaty with the duplicitous Americans must seem futile at this point in Tehran – Donald can just tear it up again, and then what? – but maybe. Maybe somebody with smarts among the mullahs will realize that the only thing Trump really hated about the JCPOA was that it was Obama’s deal. Flatter the moron a little, give him a chance to brag about how much smarter and better he is than his predecessor, and you can get a deal that Trump just loves all to pieces, and it wouldn’t even have to be materially different. Look at what happened with NAFTA. Same deal, couple of tweaks, and Trump claims he’s a stable genius. Look at what happened with Mexico – a new deal that isn’t new, embracing stuff agreed to long ago, and Trump claims he’s a very stable genius. It could work. Make it Donald’s triumph, and he won’t tear it up again.
Otherwise, I don’t see what happens that doesn’t lead everybody back down the treacherous path to war. The mullahs aren’t going anywhere for now, and we probably wouldn’t much care for who replaced them anyway, if it’s a cabal from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, whose officers make Iran’s current leaders look a lot like John Kerry. It doesn’t have to be this way. Enough with this regime change nonsense. It’s costly, unpredictable, and even if possible may simply create a vacuum into which flows something even more unsavoury than the crew just ousted – look at Libya. Look at Iraq.
If Donald signals a change in attitude and makes the right sort of noises, maybe Tehran will see what’s obvious to everybody but Trump’s current inner circle, and decide to give peace another chance – what’s there to lose, really? A deal now could save face for Donald, salvage Iran’s economy, and maybe include a couple of sweeteners for the mullahs, economic aid or investment or the like. Win-win, right? Trump doesn’t believe in win-win, but surely somebody could persuade him that he won bigly while Iran won only a wee little bit, so he’s really the winner. Everybody could then go home happy, thus setting the table for real peace and even regime change down the road, when Iran’s general population, overwhelmingly youthful, frustrated under religious authoritarianism, and not instinctively anti-western, begins to hold sway.
We wouldn’t want to emphasize that aspect with the mullahs.
The best move, if we really want to see a change, is to stop alienating 85 million people with economic punishment and radicalizing hostility. My bet is that then, Iran becomes a problem that eventually takes care of itself, without any help from American smart bombs. In the meantime, yes, Iran continues to cause trouble all over the Middle East, but we’ve lived through that for 40 years, and can surely suck it up a while longer, just like we and those like us have sucked up similar aggravation all over the world, everywhere, since nation states began this game of geopolitics.