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Trump Defies the Hawks, Backs Off Attacking Iran – But for How Long?

“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” – Mark Twain


Patrick Henningsen
21st Century Wire

Last night we were told that President Donald Trump had approved US military strikes against Iran in retaliation for the downing of a surveillance drone.  Then he suddenly changed his mind and pulled back from the ledge. You could hear the collective sigh of relief the world over. It seems that the world has dodged a bullet. But how long until the next one?

Never one to shy away from promoting a new war, America’s glorious paper of record, the New York Times reported how Trump had green-lighted a ‘limited strike’ against a “handful of Iranian targets” which included Iranian radar and missile installations near the Straits of Hormuz. The American media were all preparing their chunky wartime graphics packages.

In the past, the US has been able to pull-off such symbolic ‘limited’ military operations against weaker adversaries, while risking very little in terms of maintaining its own strategic envelope and geopolitical balancing. Not so in this case, as Tehran would almost certainly interpret such a salvo by Washington as a move to take out Iranian air defenses – in preparation for another larger attack in the near term. This would mean Iran would be fully mobilized in a matter of hours, and automatically signal the threat that any other minor scrape, skirmish or misunderstanding – could very easily cascade into an all-out state of war between not only Iran and the US, but their respective allies as well. Adept students of geography and history will recognize that the Persian Gulf is much too small a space for any margin of error. As it goes, cooler (and wiser) heads prevailed… this time. But don’t think for a second that the imperial hounds of chaos and plunder will voluntarily drop the scent on what is a decades-old project to engage their long-time nemesis in the region.

Iran has denied US claims that its drone was flying ‘legally’ in international airspace.

If the US can take away one lesson from this latest air exchange, it’s that Iran is prepared and ready to defend its territorial integrity from any incursion. Moreover, the government of Iran must show it’s prepared to defend its borders against US aggression – a stance which will definitely bolster internal support and resolve against the current economic siege being waged by Washington. In this regard, the US may be making a mistake by trying to provoke Iran. One thing I will say from experience in Tehran, they are not afraid to engage with a militarily superior United States if necessary.

To compound matters, last week hawkish politicians and mainstream pundits were actively pushing the narrative that Iran was behind the recent attacks on oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman. In a ham-fisted PR offensive, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered no actual evidence to support his cocksure claims that Iran was responsible. But when has evidence ever mattered for Washington? Just like that, Washington has its gestalt of ‘bad behavior by the regime.’  Predictably, all this excitement triggered the Beltway’s unofficial Minister for War, Tom Cotton, as he quickly shifted into attack mode:

Over in the UK, there were no shortage of jumped-up Tory MP’s jockeying for position to stand shoulder to shoulder with US hawks should shots start firing across the Persian Gulf.

‘No War Today’

So we dodged a bullet. Understandably, many will want to believe that it was Trump finally finding his antiwar mojo which thwarted this military misadventure. There’s even talk that compassionate conservative talk show host, Tucker Carlson, talked him off the ledge. Perhaps that was part of it, but more likely it was the fear of failure which provided the strongest impetus for the President and some of his advisors to back pedal on this occasion. Not just military failure, but political failure. The one failure which may frighten this President more than anything is being panned by the media, or worse – by factions within his base. To date, Trump has been fortunate enough to have only inherited the current war portfolio from previous US Administrations. If it came to the political punch, then Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen et al, could be conveniently palmed-off on his predecessors. Unfortunately, there’s an even smaller political price to pay for the brutal economic warfare waged on Iran (and Venezuela, Cuba and others), as sanctions and embargoes do not normally register on America’s scale of moral outrage because they generally view such punitive measures of economic statecraft as a “non-violent” or even moral option in coercing its adversaries to “change their behavior”.  And, they have no concept of the damage and hardship which sanctions produce. Out of sight, out of mind.

So having predicated his entire political image on being the anti-establishment ‘outsider’, and the supposed antithesis of apparently crazed, power-hungry Neoliberal war hawks like Hillary Clinton, starting his own new war is uncharted waters for Trump. Besides placing him into the worn combat boots of George W. Bush, it may also require him to re-engineer his entire campaign schtick.

As far as being able to pull-off a war with Iran, one of the deciding factors is the management of American public opinion, which, in this case is shaped largely by two factors: the tone of mass media coverage, and what political leaders are saying about the issue. As for the American corporate mainstream media, their natural tendency is to lean towards war, every single time – because the ‘defense’ industry is wholly integrated into their business model, either through ownership, sponsorship or advertising. Add to this the fact that for most broadcast TV networks, any major crisis guarantees high ratings over the duration of the crisis, because people are dependent on large media outlets for information and official announcements. It’s a well-rehearsed roadshow, and the American media are world champions at it. Some will argue it’s the only thing they excel at.

The latter factor – what political leaders are saying – is arguably much more dynamic right now, as America moves into its 2020 election cycle. Already Democratic presidential candidates are adopting non-interventionist positions on Iran. Indeed, the antiwar lobby is bubbling once again on the political left, unapologetically led by Democratic Party candidate Tulsi Gabbard, and gradually being joined by normally waffling voices like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are looking to contrast their positions from those of a hawkish White House.

On our weekly live broadcasts of the SUNDAY WIRE radio show, I’ve often said that “Politics is the new Hollywood,” which means that whether through mainstream or social media, the public are now following politicians as they do celebrities, and may be influenced by which way leaders are leaning on any given issue. Likewise, the mainstream media will report on these same comments, which in turn amplifies what is perceived as a ‘popular’ viewpoint. If the likes of Sanders, Warren, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, feel safe enough to take on White House war hawks on an issue like Iran, the mainstream media are  forced to take note. Then the usual routines like “countdown to war with Wolf Blitzer” looses much of its momentum and zeal. Other former neoliberal hawks and fence-sitters on the left are finally recognizing what is an open invitation to differentiate themselves from what has become a Neoconservative-led White House which seems hell-bent on leading America and world down the road of geopolitical instability. Suddenly, it’s not cool for the US to be pointing its ‘beautiful weapons‘ at weaker countries halfway around the planet. Besides this, there are certain geopolitical realities now in the region which preclude business as usual for Washington in the Persian Gulf, namely the emergence of a strong “Axis of Resistance” which did not exist in 2003, and which joins Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Iran, and includes Ansarullah Movement in Yemen (also pro-Palestinian), commonly referred to as ‘the Houthis’ in western media. This axis also has a very strong Shia element in it, which naturally threatens many of the Wahhabi-oriented Gulf monarchy regimes. Most of these countries are also aligned with Russia and China now. So a war with Iran cannot be won with Shock and Awe, before hoisting the “Mission Accomplished” banner after a few months of carpet bombing as before. In this sense, the confluence of a presidential election cycle and a markedly different Middle East, may act as a deterrent to any serious US military confrontation with Iran.

Neocon war hawk John Bolton stands ready to launch a military strike on Iran.

While public opinion and geopolitical realities may help stem the tide of US aggression in the region, there still exist persistent conditions which continue to drag the United States towards conflict with Iran. Besides the natural inertia of the military industrial complex,  no longer just an American issue but a globalized interest now, there are external state actors which see the ongoing containment of Iran as their prime directive. Two such countries are Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This is not a theory which is up for debate. Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu even boasted as much last summer, crowing that he was personally responsible for Trump’s decision to quit the JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, which was followed by a relentless program of sanctions designed to strangle the Iranian economy. It is the very action which has led the US to the point it is at today. Israel views Iran as its number one existential enemy because it is Iran who supports Hezbollah in Lebanon, and also because Iran who has been a steadfast backer of a Palestinian liberation cause – which most regional players have since abandoned, with the exception of Qatar, Syria, and Turkey. It’s no surprise then that this latest Path to Persia is being paved by Trump’s national security advisor and anti-Iran hawk, John Bolton, backed for years by billionaire Israeli king-maker, Sheldon Adelson. Not coincidentally, Bolton is also a regular fixture at regime change jamborees hosted by Washington favored Iranian opposition-in-exile, the terrorist group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK). On the issue of Iran, both Israel and Saudi Arabia happen to be on the same page, albeit for different reasons. Saudi Arabia’s concerns range from the sectarian balance of power in the region, to controlling the supply of oil, to maintaining its status as economic hegemon in the Middle East. Iran threatens to upend all of these, which makes them an existential threat not only to the Saudi ruling clique, but all the other Gulf monarchies too. With economic power comes political and geopolitical influence, which could see Iran radically transform Middle East and Eurasian affairs if it were allowed to prosper economically. This would also help to alter the global balance of power, away from the current unipolar US-dominated order, in favor of a more pluralistic multipolar order. Any deviations from the currently status quo would empower previously suppressed nations in the region, and therefore will not be welcome by either the US, Israel, or Saudi Arabia. I believe this explains a lot of the present multinational containment effort against Iran which, despite what Israel and Fox News keep repeating ad nauseum, has absolutely nothing to do with Tehran building a nuclear bomb – and everything to do a geopolitical center of gravity which is gradually shifting eastward.

For this, as well as other reasons, the hawks will not give up in looking for a situation to either bait Iran into a war, or where a false flag event can be staged in order to provide a pretext for the US, and possibly Israel, to attack Iran militarily.

All this leaves Donald Trump with very little room to maneuver, or so it seems. Back in 2016, it was statements like this which actually helped to get him elected:

Finally, America no longer has a clear understanding of our foreign policy goals. Since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, we’ve lacked a coherent foreign policy. One day, we’re bombing Libya and getting rid of a dictator to foster democracy for civilians. The next day, we’re watching the same civilians suffer while that country falls and absolutely falls apart. Lives lost, massive moneys lost. The world is a different place.

We’re a humanitarian nation, but the legacy of the Obama-Clinton interventions will be weakness, confusion and disarray, a mess. We’ve made the Middle East more unstable and chaotic than ever before.

If you happen to be one of those antiwar Trump supporters who supported his campaign promises of ‘no more wasteful wars,’ then one of the most constructive things you can do right now is to apply pressure on the President – on social media, in comment threads, and at rallies… imploring him not to start a war with Iran. As the 2020 Election beckons, more than ever before, this is a President who is paying attention to what his base is saying and feeling. If the base doesn’t want war, then there’ll be no war today.

Still, this issue has the potential to reshape the current US-led world order, so do not expect the hawks to stop circling over the Persian Gulf.

There’s no shortage of reasons to remain vigilant.

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Author Patrick Henningsen is an American writer and global affairs analyst and founder of independent news and analysis site 21st Century Wire, and is host of the SUNDAY WIRE weekly radio show broadcast globally over the Alternate Current Radio Network (ACR). He has written for a number of international publications and has done extensive on-the-ground reporting in the Middle East including work in Syria and Iraq.

READ MORE IRAN NEWS AT: 21st Century Wire Iran Files

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