Established by Fathi Ibrahim Bayoud 2005 - Homs

Pyongyang outmaneuvers Trump, as Tehran watches

Opinion | 2018-05-29 13:47:00
Pyongyang outmaneuvers Trump, as Tehran watches
“Should [Iranians] begin to enrich, we’re fully prepared to respond to that as well. I’m certainly not going to share with you today precisely what our response will be. But we watch them talk. We’ve heard them say -- I hope that they’ll make a different decision, that they’ll choose a different path.”

These were the words of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, after his speech at the Heritage Foundation last week, a speech that the State Department dubbed as America’s “Plan B” on Iran.

Plan B was put into effect after the failure of Plan A: To amend the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), also known as the Nuclear Deal with Iran. With European assistance, Washington hoped to change three articles in the deal: Scrap the sunset clauses that eventually allowed Iran to enrich uranium, tighten the inspections regime, and ban Iran’s ballistic missiles program.

America knew that Plan A was dead on arrival. Even the Europeans did not show enthusiasm in bringing up the amendments with the Iranians. Hence, Pompeo announced America’s Plan B.

But with Pompeo saying he was not going to share what the American response would be to Iran’s withdrawal from a deal that America has already pronounced dead, Washington’s Plan B sounded ambiguous, and suggested that the U.S. had in effect a Plan C, this one a more secretive plan that Pompeo refused to discuss.

Only few might have noticed it, but if America had a Plan C, it would most probably be drawn from Section 4 of the Memorandum that Trump signed on the day he announced America’s withdrawal from JCPOA, on May 8.

Under Regional Contingencies, Section 4 read: “The Secretary of Defense and heads of any other relevant agencies shall prepare to meet, swiftly and decisively, all possible modes of Iranian aggression against the United States, our allies, and our partners.” It added: “The Department of Defense shall ensure that the United States develops and retains the means to stop Iran from developing or acquiring a nuclear weapon and related delivery systems.”

Combining Pompeo’s thinly veiled threat to Iran with the text of Section 4 of the White House’s memorandum can offer us the contours of Trump’s strategy: America will use its military power to stop Iran from both enriching Uranium and conducting experiments on ballistic missiles.

Pompeo’s not sharing “precisely what [America’s] response will be” was not an attempt at hiding American intentions toward Tehran. On the contrary, Washington wanted it to be known that it was threatening Tehran militarily.

The threat to Iran was inspired by what the Trump administration had believed, until then, was a successful policy on North Korea. Trump’s earliest statements on Pyongyang’s nuclear experiments were about “fire and fury like which the world [had] not seen.” Shortly after Trump’s statements, Washington deployed three aircraft striker groups close to Korea and scheduled extensive war games with Seoul. Washington was beating the drums of war with Pyongyang.

Then came the reversal in North Korean leader Kim Jung Un’s tone and behavior. Un’s announcement of suspending his nuclear program, his historic meeting with his South Korean counterpart Moon Jae-in, and his reception of Pompeo and release of three Americans imprisoned in Pyongyang, all sent an unequivocal message that North Korea had caved under American military pressure.

So confident of his slam dunk victory on North Korea that Trump was started hyping up his scheduled summit with Un, and made it sound like an unprecedented success that was already in his pocket.

Yet anyone with minimal knowledge of world affairs and familiarity with recent history knew that Un was bluffing. He sweet-talked Trump out of “fire and fury,” and by the time the U.S. president had reversed his aggressive talk against North Korea, Un reneged on his past promises and left Trump dangling.

Now that American military escalation against North Korea was deflated, Un made it harder for Trump to re-escalate, knowing that if Trump tried to go back to “fire and fury,” this time Americans and the world would not take it as a mere threat, but as an inevitable march to war, a confrontation that Trump -- a president who campaigned on ending all of America’s wars overseas -- had no interest in pursuing.

By modelling the policy toward Iran on its policy toward North Korea, the Trump administration played on the edge without an exit strategy. Anyone familiar with the Iranian situation knew that Tehran will wait to see how effective America’s unilateral sanctions on Tehran will be. If the Europeans cave and break their contracts with Iran, then the Islamic Republic will almost certainly restart its uranium-enrichment program, alongside its experiments with ballistic missiles.

If Iran defies Trump’s “Section 4” and Pompeo’s threats, Washington’s only save-face exit will be to launch a military strike, which in turn needs and endgame. If America strikes hard enough to topple the regime, it will be forced to occupy Iran and manage it for a while, an all-too familiar nightmare that would doom Trump’s hopes for a second term. If America strikes Iran without toppling the regime, then Tehran will emerge stronger, along the lines of the saying that “what does not kill you only makes you stronger.”

So far, the Trump administration has painted itself into a corner. Without learning any lessons from past administrations and diplomacy, it used its military threats randomly, and thus opened the door for its adversaries to play Trump and fool him. Now that Trump found himself dangling on North Korea, it is almost certain that his Iran policy, modelled after his failing North Korean one, will not go far.

By Hussain Abdul-Hussain

Anadolu Agency
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