Is there anyone who really believes that Donald Trump gives a damn about Syria or its people? In a scathing essay for the Atlantic, headlined “Neither precise nor proportionate”, neoconservative scholar Eliot Cohen dismissed the president’s decision to launch air strikes against the Assad regime on 13 April as “unserious… a kind of martial onanism masquerading as strategy”. Even Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former US state department official in the Obama administration who claimed Trump “did the right thing by striking Syria”, conceded that it would “not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors”.
The reality is that Trump and his coterie of far-right advisers aren’t too bothered about halting the conflict or protecting civilians. They are, however, very keen on picking a fight with the Syrian government’s partner in crime, the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Listen to Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House spinner-in-chief. One of the “other things we have to do” in Syria, she said two days after the air strikes, is that “we have to contain Iran”. That same Sunday morning, Trump’s hawkish ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, told CBS that the administration wants to “make sure that the influence of Iran doesn’t take over the area. They continue to cause problems throughout the region and we want to make sure that there is a hold.”
None of this anti-Iran rhetoric is new. In only the second week of the Trump presidency, in February 2017, the then national security adviser General Michael Flynn appeared in the press briefing room of the White House to declare that “we are officially putting Iran on notice” for its “destabilising behaviour across the Middle East”. Now, in the second year of his presidency, Trump has appointed, as his (third) national security adviser and his (second) secretary of state, two men who make Flynn look like Gandhi.
As long ago as 2012 super-hawk John Bolton, Trump’s new national security adviser, made explicit the connection between US policy in Syria and Iran. “[Syria] is increasingly an Iranian satellite under Tehran’s growing regional influence,” Bolton wrote. “Accordingly, regime change in Syria is prima facie in America’s interest.”
Two years later in 2014, as I previously noted in this column, anti-Muslim ideologue Mike Pompeo (Trump’s pick for secretary of state) called for “2,000 sorties to destroy the Iranian nuclear capacity” and later claimed that the Islamic Republic “is intent on the destruction of our country”.
The truth is that the most senior members of this administration – perhaps with the exception of the defence secretary, James Mattis, who has morphed from anti-Iran hawk to anti-escalation dove over the past year – are most obsessed with Iran. Not Syria, not Russia, not even North Korea. They are bent on a confrontation with Tehran and seem to have a two-pronged strategy for making it happen. The first prong is Syria, which, in the words of Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, is a “pretext”, a “pathway” to “get them to their end goal of a larger war with Iran. The pathway is largely unimportant. The end destination is everything.”
To think that the killing of Iranians in Syria by the United States, or by Israel, for example, can happen without any Iranian response “defies logic”, Parsi tells me. The hawks in the Trump administration want the response, which “will enable them to escalate the war even further. Even if the Iranians respond by having militias in Iraq or elsewhere target Americans, it will nevertheless provide [Trump and Co] with every reason to take the fight directly to Iran.” (The day after the air strikes in Syria, reported the New York Times, “United States personnel in Erbil… in northern Iraq, were readying for a potential Iranian attack on their forces there”.)
The second prong is the Iran nuclear deal. Trump has warned that he may not renew sanction waivers on Tehran next month, which would effectively withdraw the US from that agreement. The president told reporters that he chose Pompeo to succeed Rex Tillerson as secretary of state specifically in order to take a more aggressive stance against what he has called “the worst deal ever”. (In 2016, Pompeo tweeted that he was looking forward “to rolling back this disastrous deal with the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism”.)
“I am very concerned that the president will pull out of [the deal],” says Thomas Countryman, who served as assistant secretary of state for international security and nonproliferation under Obama, “despite the fact that the agreement is working, the Iranians are honouring it [and] it is having the desired effect of preventing any additional progress towards nuclear weapons.”
Countryman thinks a full-fledged war between the two countries is unlikely but admits that he cannot rule out the possibility Trump “may seek to do more to provoke Iran” in the hope that the Iranians respond in a way “to justify military action” against them. Yet Parsi is convinced that a new war is on the cards. He warns that “Trump killing the nuclear deal and Iran restarting sensitive parts of the programme or reducing the International Atomic Energy Agency inspections will provide the hawks with another pretext to go to war”. Without Obama’s nuclear deal, he tells me, “the possibilities for escalation will increase ten-fold”.
Trump and his team are not sleepwalking into a war with Iran. They are sprinting towards it, eyes wide open – despite the fact that a confrontation with the Islamic Republic, to quote Ali Vaez, an Iran expert at the International Crisis Group in Washington, “would make the Afghan and Iraqi conflicts look like a walk in the park”.
Mehdi Hasan is a broadcaster and New Statesman contributing editor
This article appears in the 18 Apr 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge