How does the U.S. fit in? In the Washington echo chamber, no one has even attempted to explain how exactly Iran represents an existential threat to the U.S., except maybe as a nuclear power, and that is exactly what the JCPOA sought to address.


The origins of the escalation of tensions between Iran and the United States that could result in a catastrophic war was Donald Trump’s decision last year to withdraw from the groundbreaking deal that had blocked Iran’s nuclear ambitions, provided relief from sanctions to the Iranian economy and created a platform for potential further dialogue on other critical issues.

At the time that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was signed in 2015, as the signature foreign policy achievement of Barack Obama’s administration, it was understood that war was the only alternative in the long run to a deal. Those who virulently opposed the deal included Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, the Saudis and American neoconservatives, such as Senator Tom Cotton and John Bolton.

Trump withdrew from the JCPOA not through any thoughtful concern about national security or peace in the Middle East but because he wanted to obliterate the legacy of Obama.

It is obvious that he had no understanding of or respect for the diplomatic achievement of the JCPOA, which was underwritten by China, Russia, France, Germany and the U.K.

Nor did he comprehend Obama’s crucial philosophical insight that Iran and the Saudis had to find a way to share the Middle East and that the U.S. should extricate itself from fighting other people’s wars.

Having derided the JCPOA as the worst agreement ever, having withdrawn from the treaty despite the Iranians having kept their end of the bargain, Trump now deludes himself that the Iranians will return to the table to negotiate a new deal with him. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei closed the door on that possibility last week, telling the Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe that Trump was “a person not worth exchanging any message with”.

The Iranians would by now be wise to the fact that Trump’s much-vaunted deal making skills are decidedly threadbare. From North Korea to China, the New York real estate king’s strategy of strong-arming, bluffing and fake marketing hasn’t worked in the real world of international diplomacy, except against those countries too weak to resist a bully.

Trump clearly thinks he is engaging in some tough and artful deal-making. He says that he is just waiting for the Iranians to call him. The message has gone out that National Security Advisor Bolton, who was one of the architects of the Iraq war and has never made a secret of his support for regime change and the desire to rain bombs down on Tehran, might be getting ahead of himself with his rush to war.

But this good cop/bad cop routine is dangerous in itself because it means no one knows who is in charge of U.S. policy – those who are using pressure to extort a better deal out of Iran or those who see the pressure as a way to provoke a war with Iran?
After tearing up the deal, Trump moved onto an economic war footing with Iran through a policy of “maximum pressure” aimed at bringing the Iranian economy to its knees. This includes shutting down all the country’s exports of oil, as well as steel, copper and other products, and decimating its banking system. The administration also ratcheted up the possibility of conflict and constructed another barrier to talks by designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organisation.

The U.S. is being egged on from the sidelines by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia; Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel; and Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, described by the New York Times as the most powerful Arab ruler. These were all opponents of the JCPOA from the word go.


Brett McGurk, the former U.S. special presidential envoy for the global coalition to counter ISIS, wrote in Foreign Affairs, that there is no plausible on-ramp for Iran to enter negotiations “since no-one, including the Iranians, knows what Iran is supposed to be negotiating about.”

McGurk noted that without the prospect for talks, “pressure becomes an end in itself, which begets counter-pressure – and an increasing risk of conflict”.

With the Iranians unwilling to bend the knee to Trump, Trump unlikely to get back into the JCPOA, and no-one pushing Iran and the Saudi coalition into a meaningful peace, the only end game in the Middle East is war.

The U.S. is being egged on from the sidelines by Mohammed bin Salman, crown prince of Saudi Arabia; Binyamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Israel; and Mohammed bin Zayed, crown prince of Abu Dhabi, described by the New York Times as the most powerful Arab ruler. These were all opponents of the JCPOA from the word go.

In the absence of the U.S.’ traditional allies – not a single other Nato power supports the U.S. on Iran – MBZ, MBS and Bibi are important people in Trump-world.

They will be critical to attempts by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, to cook up a “solution” for Israel/Palestine that has been billed as the “Deal of the Century”. The centerpiece is the creation of a Palestinian homeland, not unlike the Bantustans of apartheid South Africa.

Kushner wants to secure legitimacy for the deal, which no credible Palestinians will support, through the buy-in of the Sunni Arab powers.

This same coalition, along with Egypt, crops up in various permutations across the Middle East, in Libya, Sudan, Yemen and the Horn of Africa, confronting Iran and its proxies, Qatar, Turkey, and the Muslim Brotherhood, in a struggle for control of the Middle East that at least, in part, originated in the 7th Century.

How does the U.S. fit in? In the Washington echo chamber, no one has even attempted to explain how exactly Iran represents an existential threat to the U.S., except maybe as a nuclear power, and that is exactly what the JCPOA sought to address.

The reality, as a number of analyses have shown, is that war with Iran would dwarf the Iraq war in ferocity, destruction and body count. It would blow up the entire region and even if it results in regime change, would draw the U.S. into an indefinite guerilla conflict that would result in defeat, long after Trump is dead and gone.


American politicians routinely go on television to decry Iran as “bad actors” (and no one is saying they are angels) even as the U.S.’ Arab allies pursue a bloody war in Yemen and not so long ago Saudi agents dismembered a journalist, a resident of the U.S., with a bone-saw in their embassy in Istanbul.

One gets it that the Saudis and Israel view Iran as a threat, but Obama recognised that the U.S. is under no obligation to wage war on behalf of other nations: brokering peace and lowering tensions rather than partisan intervention is a far better use of American military might and diplomatic influence.

In his first foreign foray, Trump rushed into the embrace of the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), taking sides in a way that pleased the neocons, but led him into the strategic trap that Obama had sought to avoid.

One remaining hope is that those career members of the State Department, the military, the intelligence services and Congress, sometimes derided as the deep state, can steer clear of the approaching storm.

Whether or not Trump has the stomach for war, what we learnt from the attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz last week – whoever was responsible – is that it does not take much for things to escalate and get out of hand.

Some of Trump’s allies appear heedless of the consequences. In an echo of the flawed thinking on the way to war in Iraq, Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton boasted recently that the U.S. could win a war against Iran in two strikes. Let us hope that is not the dominant view in the administration.

The reality, as a number of analyses have shown, is that war with Iran would dwarf the Iraq war in ferocity, destruction and body count. It would blow up the entire region and even if it results in regime change, would draw the U.S. into an indefinite guerilla conflict that would result in defeat, long after Trump is dead and gone. But don’t expect Trump to have read up on the history of Persia.

Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, says Trump has been lucky to avoid a major conflict so far because “the Russians, Chinese, Iranians and others have not yet forced us into a crisis, remaining content instead to see the United States floundering about on its own. There is no need, after all, to destroy American power and prestige if the White House is willing to do all the same damage by itself. But the United States and the international system it helped create cannot continue indefinitely along this path of incoherence and ignorance.”

Maybe Donald Trump’s luck is about to run out.

Phillip van Niekerk is managing director of Calabar Consulting and former editor of South Africa’s Mail & Guardian newspaper.