Is Trump Bluffing on Iran?

The proclamation by Iraqi prime minister Haidar al-Abadi to be allies with both the US and Iran is nothing more than a political stunt. Washington and Tehran have been at cross purposes in Iraq since the US invasion brought the Shia to power in 2003. Nothing has changed. Iran controls the Shia Iraq government; until just a few days ago, ISIS controlled Mosul, while the Kurds were in charge of the far north. This situation is now being severely tested as militias with close ties to Tehran are attempting to wrestle an all-important border crossing with Syria away from the pro-American forces of the Kurdish peshmerga.

Meanwhile, in both Syria and Iraq, ISIS is being destroyed and Assad, Iran, and the Russians are in alliance with plans to fill the vacuum. However, the key to Iranian strategy to cement an important land-bridge across the Levant to Lebanon rests with depriving the US-led coalition access to northern and eastern Syria. If the US government sits on its hands and allows pro-Iranian militias to control this vital border crossing, the American position will be put in extreme jeopardy. The key question is: How far will Iraq go to serve its Iranian masters without some kind of warning from Trump’s military generals? Specifically, those ex-generals now in charge of the Pentagon, the White House staff and the National Security Council.

Could the idea — that Trump administration policy on Iraq and Syria be nothing more than hollow bravado — possibly stand? And how would Congress respond if nothing was done to stop the pro-Iranian militias from driving Kurdish forces out of all-important border crossings and other disputed territory? All of this pro-Iranian militia action would be with the blessing of the Baghdad government and the use of US-made military equipment. So much for al-Abadi’s spurious claim to become allies with both the US and Iran. Within one short day of al-Abadi’s preposterous declaration, the possibility of such a shallow contention has proven itself to be utterly false.

Besides tough talk, does Trump really have a diplomatic strategy to confront Iran? On the JCPOA, Trump has punted to Congress. And if Congress can’t agree on a plan (60 votes are needed in the Senate), Trump has threatened to unilaterally abrogate the seven-nation nuclear agreement. This would place Israel back where it was five years ago, with Iran proceeding toward a short break-out stage for nuclear weapons production.

Is Trump’s strategy on the JCPOA therefore strictly military? And how can this be if his present regional strategy is so hesitant that Iran appears to be calling his bluff? If Trump were to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, the great likelihood would be an Iranian regional war with the US isolated from all the other members of the UN Security Council. Are the American people really ready to fight a regional war against Iran, Iraq, Syria, Hezbollah-Lebanon and Russia also, while our NATO allies sit on the sidelines? Anyone answering in the affirmative has never lived in the US for longer than a minute.

However, Trump must act against Iranian advancement in the greater Levant. He simply can’t allow Iran to continue to move forward. He can’t risk being called on a bluff. Iraq must be warned that pro-Iranian militias will not be allowed anywhere near any international border with Syria. Trump needs allies, and he needs a global coalition against Iranian behavior within the region. The US and NATO must firmly support the undisputed borders of the autonomous Kurdistan region of Iraq from pro-Iranian militia incursion. In other words, the fall of ISIS must not be allowed to create a vacuum across Syria and Iraq to be filled by Russia, Assad and Iran. The US must not be bluffing when it comes to Iranian imperialism. Trump needs his allies to be on board in order to stand up to Tehran. On this issue, Washington and NATO must be in accord.

However, without such Western cooperation — and if Trump’s tough words would turn hollow — Israel would eventually have to fight a very hard war against Iranian proxies in both Syria and Lebanon. This might even involve Russia, i.e. if Moscow doesn’t alter its own policy with regard to the region of the Middle East. But it would be much better if Iran was the isolated party against a NATO bloc working in cooperation with Russia. But this could only be possible if (and when) both NATO and Russia possessed a similar projection as to the direction of European and Middle East politics. In that scenario, a new regimen of sanctions and international isolation would bite Tehran, with its revolutionary foreign policy inclinations, very hard.

However, for a serious NATO-US regional Middle East strategy to work, Trump and Netanyahu (or any new Israeli leader) first must work out a dramatic alternative to the current policy abyss on what shall replace the JCPOA. Trump, Netanyahu and Macron of France are all correct — the JCPOA is a deeply flawed document. If followed to its logical conclusion, Iran will possess a missile-based nuclear arsenal within the time that the deal’s sunset provisions activate, the next eight to ten years. But to abrogate the treaty soon, and without a replacement document, would be strategic folly.

At the very least, Trump must show Iran and Russia that the West and NATO will not allow its Israeli and Sunni partners to become victims of Tehran’s regional aggression. Today, Russia appears to be in lock-step with Syria and Iran. Moscow’s approach toward the Middle East is now very similar to its actions during the Cold War. But European and the US policy toward Russia has been worse than any action taken during the Cold War. NATO broke an all-important promise to the Kremlin not to advance eastward toward Russia and into the territories of the old Warsaw Pact. This eastward movement has created grave geopolitical instability throughout Europe and the Near East.

The current (and potentially lethal) game of US-Russia one-upmanship and proxy war has now turned in a dangerous Middle East direction. If Moscow, Washington, Paris and Berlin do not want to deal over the future of a balanced European security architecture, and instead continue to use the Middle East as a proxy fight, the status quo might escalate. This could cause a new World War.

Vladimir Putin needs to rethink his current Middle East policy. But so too do all the the nations of the NATO alliance. Donald Trump is not going to allow himself to be labeled as another appeaser of Iran. Unlike his predecessor, Barack H. Obama, Trump will not be caught in a bluff. Trump has great power at his disposal and he will use it — even if diplomatically isolated and as an unwise reflex. Without new thinking from Europe, Russia, Israel, the Sunni Arab states, and even Iran — all hell might break out, and perhaps very soon. Please read last week’s column “How Israel Can Win Over The World” (Times of Israel, October 20, 2017). The world needs peace, not another world war.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).