Memories of Middle East misadventures
‘Trump’s use of presidential powers to dictate to other countries with whom they can and can’t do business has entrenched resentment among U.S. allies that will come back to haunt him.’
In this season of remembrance, it’s worth recalling it was only 15 years ago that snorting ideologues in the White House, an incompetent president, and a Middle Eastern confidence trickster took the United States to war in Iraq.
About 400,000 people died as a direct result of that invasion by the U.S., which was justified by the totally fabricated claim that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein was producing weapons of mass destruction.
Now, the death stars are aligning again after Washington’s imposition of rigorous sanctions on Iran following the Donald Trump regime’s decision in May to pull the U.S. out of the United Nations’ agreement to halt Tehran’s nuclear development program.
What the White House wants to happen next is confused.
Trump has talked vaguely of forcing Iran to negotiate a new deal that would: curb Tehran’s power politics in the Middle East; halt its support for groups like Hezbollah; and squash its nuclear and missile development programs.
But Trump has not set out a road map for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, nor the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to follow. This is hardly surprising. Trump is a flim-flam artist for whom the performance is all that counts.
However, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the National Security Advisor John Bolton are clear about what they want. They want regime change in Tehran.
They are under the same delusion that drove the ideologues around President George W. Bush to press for the invasion of Iraq. Bolton and Pompeo think it will take only a little encouragement and pressure for the Iranian people to overthrow the Islamic state and move seamlessly to establish a democracy.
The Bush White House was captivated by a convicted confidence trickster named Ahmed Chalabi. He created an exile group called the Iraqi National Congress, and even managed to get the Bush administration to finance his faux resistance.
Chalabi fed the Bush menagerie false information about Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction that was used to justify the invasion.
The Central Intelligence Agency warned that Chalabi was unreliable, but the Bush leaguers were so besotted, they called him “The George Washington of Iraq.” Only after the invasion and Chalabi’s installation in government did his lying and fakery quickly become apparent, and he was dumped.
Bolton, Pompeo and others in the Trump regime seem to be going down the same quagmire path with a strange Iranian exiled dissident group called the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK.
MEK has a turbulent history. It was founded in the 1960s in opposition to the shah of Iran and was part of the Islamic Revolution that overthrew him in 1979. MEK quickly fell out with the new regime, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and the group went into exile in Iraq.
MEK members fought with Saddam Hussein’s forces in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. Most Iranians, even those who oppose the current regime, find that traitorous, and MEK has very little following in Iran.
When American forces came upon MEK after the Iraq invasion, their first move was to join other countries in labelling it a terrorist group. After all, MEK members had killed six Americans in terrorist attacks in Iran in the 1970s.
However, MEK members and surrogates mounted a well-financed lobby in Washington. In 2012, the terrorist designation was removed, largely because of lobbying by Bolton. This was a necessary legal preliminary for the U.S. to be able to move the group to sanctuary in Albania. This is one of the few countries willing to accept what has become a cult that treats its members, believed to number around 10,000, more like prisoners than followers.
The leaders of MEK are the married couple Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, though nothing has been heard of Massoud since the 2003 invasion of Iraq and he is presumed dead. Maryam Rajavi is the effective leader of MEK from her exile in France.
And it’s in France that some of the most lavish courting of Washington potentates takes place.
In 2016, a political extravaganza in Paris arranged by MEK drew Bolton, and the man who is now Trump’s personal lawyer on the Russian-collusion file, former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, among an array of Washington A-listers.
There are widespread reports that each was paid around US$25,000, and perhaps as high as US$50,000 for their presentations. These were arranged through a speakers’ bureau to give the money a light laundering. Bolton has disclosed he was paid US$40,000 to speak at a MEK rally in 2017.
Where MEK’s money comes from is unclear. But another Paris gala was held in July this year, after Bolton had been appointed Trump’s national security adviser.
Bolton told the crowd of 4,000, many bussed in from their Albanian sanctuary, “There is a viable alternative to the rule of the ayatollahs, and that opposition is centred in this room today. The behaviour and objectives of the regime are not going to change, and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself.”
Bolton’s support for regime change was echoed by Giuliani, who was also making a repeat appearance at the function.
Bolton was at it again on Tuesday at a conference in Singapore, when he said it is Washington’s intention to “squeeze” Iran “until the pips squeak.”
Yet despite the influence of the Bolton-Pompeo-Giuliani axis, it’s unlikely either Trump or Tehran will follow their script.
Trump is a bully, and, like all bullies, he is a coward at heart.
Iran presents little direct threat to the U.S. at the moment, and the ayatollahs show every intention of keeping it that way. UN inspections show Tehran continues to follow the requirements of the 2015 agreement limiting its nuclear program well short of any potential for making weapons.
But Iran is a threat to American allies Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, the recent behaviour of both those governments makes it difficult for even an amoral regime like Trump’s to pursue outrage against Tehran on their behalf.
The murder in Istanbul of journalist Jamal Khashoggi has the fingerprints of Saudi ruler Prince Mohammed bin Salman all over it. And the prince’s war in Yemen is a humanitarian disaster with millions of people facing starvation.
Meanwhile in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lives in an evil-smelling haze of corruption charges, and his top military and intelligence officials don’t believe Iran is a nuclear threat.
Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 agreement with Tehran is one of the many reasons for the growing division between the current Oval Office regime, and Europe and the democratic world in general, including Canada. This gulf was on display at the ceremonies in France marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, where Trump was ostracized both by the group and himself.
That chasm will grow if Trump attempts to go beyond sanctions in his attack on Iran.
Europe is attempting to protect its companies against revenge from Washington if they continue to do business with Iran. So are two other major signatories of the 2015 nuclear deal, Russia and China.
Trump’s use of presidential powers to dictate to other countries with whom they can and can’t do business has entrenched resentment among U.S. allies that will come back to haunt him.
Iran and Iranians, for their part, will suffer greatly from the Trump sanctions that are intended to batter them into submission. There is already some public disquiet about inflation and the shrinking value of the currency.
But they are a resourceful people, well used to living in a tough neighbourhood, and surviving and thriving in the face of adversity.
Tehran is concerned that Iranians’ resourcefulness will get out of control, and it has introduced draconian penalties for financial crimes, which it calls “spreading corruption on earth.” Two men were executed on Wednesday under the financial-crime laws, one for having a hoard of two tons of gold coins.
Yet the history of sanctions and embargoes is that they create wonderfully inventive economies. Iranians will find ways around Trump’s sanctions.
There is substantial opposition to Iran’s Islamic state, especially in the cities, but all that Trump’s cack-handed approach is likely to achieve is greater national unity against a common enemy.
Jonathan Manthorpe, i politics