By Alex Callinicos
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Why Donald Trump can’t win in Iran

This article is over 4 years, 4 months old
Issue 2687
US president Donald Trump is caught in a bind over the Middle East
US president Donald Trump is caught in a bind over US policy in the Middle East (Pic: Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

It’s clear who the losers were in the confrontation between the United States and Iran.

They include General Qassem Soleimani and the passengers and crew of the Ukranian plane shot down by jumpy Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

But who’s the winner?

Donald Trump thinks he is. His apologists see him following Richard Nixon, US president in 1969-74. Nixon encouraged hostile states to believe that he was irrational enough to use nuclear weapons as a way of pushing them to make concessions.

Trump may have scared the living daylights out of everyone by first having Soleimani assassinated and then threatening a “disproportionate” response if the Islamic Republican regime in Iran retaliated—but it worked.

Iran reacted cautiously, merely targeting some empty buildings on Iraqi airbases used by the US military.

There may be some limited truth to this in the short term. But time is not on the side of the US.

The Economist magazine put it nicely. It said, “Both Barack Obama and Trump realised that turmoil in the Middle East consumes American resources and attention that would be better focused on Asia.

“Obama tried to negotiate his way out of the region and failed. Trump is trying to bully his way out instead.”

So while Obama signed a nuclear deal with Iran, Trump has pursued a policy of “maximum pressure”, tightening economic sanctions.

The Iranian regime responded through a series of attacks designed to demonstrate its ability to damage the US and its allies in the Middle East. The most important of these was the bombardment by cruise missiles and drones of important Saudi oil facilities last September.

This scared the Saudi royal family into seeking to calm the growing confrontation they have been having with Iran these past few years. Soleimani was apparently on his way to Saudi Arabia when he was murdered.


One reason for this thaw was Trump’s failure to react to the September attacks. No longer able to rely on US backing, the Saudis must have felt they had no choice but to come to terms with Iran.

The current crisis doesn’t really change the underlying balance of forces. Trump had Soleimani murdered because a US mercenary was killed by a missile fired by a pro-Iranian militia in Iraq.

He seems obsessed by memories of the US embassy siege in Iran in 1980 and the killing of the US ambassador to Libya in 2012.

The cautious Iranian reaction reflects the regime’s determination to avoid an all-out war with the US. But they can play for time.

Far from abandoning their long-term objective of driving the US and other Western powers out of the Middle East, they are reaffirming it.

Soleimani is credited with pressuring Iraqi politicians to end the US occupation of Iraq in 2011. The 2014 Isis offensive in Iraq led to the return of US forces.

But now the Iraqi parliament has voted for them to go. The Iranians will push for this resolution to be implemented. Both Obama and Trump wanted to reduce US military commitments in the Middle East in order to concentrate on the challenge from China. That challenge hasn’t gone away.

On the contrary, China recently conducted a joint naval exercise with Russia and Iran in the straits of Hormuz, one of the most important oil and gas routes in the world.

But Trump, like Obama before him, is being dragged back into the Middle East quagmire. There are 14,000 more US troops in the region than there were last May, with another 3,500 paratroopers on the way to Kuwait.

The Economist predicts that, like Obama, Trump “is likely to fail, too—because his strategy towards the regime in Iran depends on the US being present in the Middle East to contain Iran and maintain deterrence”.

He is trying to get the Europeans to dump the nuclear deal and intensify sanctions against Iran, but even Boris Johnson isn’t keen. The US can’t get out of the Middle East, but it can’t win there either.

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