Iran or North Korea?

If Trump is truly intent on war, he can be expected go for the ‘easier’ option first

TRUMP-ROHANE.jpg555

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Everyone in the Middle East is busy buying weapons. Barely a week goes by without some big new arms deal being announced. Last week, Saudi Arabia agreed to buy ultra-sophisticated S-400 air defence missiles from Russia, a fortnight after Turkey purchased the same systems. The US responded by offering to supply Riyadh with its own Thad missiles.

What is happening exactly? What are the US and its allies cooking up in the region? Why this rush to arm? And why now, when the jihadi groups that are supposed to be the targets of everyone’s wars in the region, such as Islamic State and the Nusra Front in Iraq and Syria, are on the verge of being defeated? Are the people of this part of the world to be denied in perpetuity any chance to breathe for a few weeks or months, and be spared the tribulations of war and bloodshed and of being financially, economically and psychologically drained?

It is war.  We have no other answer. US President Donald Trump gave us the glad tidings at the weekend when hosting a dinner for senior military officers and their spouses at the White House. This was the ‘calm before the storm’, he proclaimed. He said he had discussed military options against both Iran and North Korea with his commanders, and we would all soon find out what he was planning to do.

It is, of course, impossible to know what Trump truly means. But one cannot help wondering. If he is intent on war as he has been threatening, where will he begin? With Iran, which he accuses of sponsoring and exporting terrorism and destabilizing the region? Or with North Korea, which he threatened in his speech at the UN General Assembly to totally destroy in order to defend the US and its allies?

The answer is known by Trump alone, and perhaps his senior advisors. We can only guess. But it is reasonable to speculate that he would not want to wage two wars against two powerful countries, one of which has a nuclear capacity, simultaneously. He might opt to start with the ‘easier’ option – Iran – by way of intimidating the tougher one.

Trump has been setting the stage for this by preparing to de-certify the P5+1/Iran nuclear deal later this month, on the grounds that it is detrimental to US national security, as he has often stated. His administration has begun consultations with legislators about the planned move, and his aides have been touting a ‘new strategy’ against Iran aimed at curtailing its nuclear ambitions and ‘constant aggression’.

Some analysts and observers believe Trump is merely blustering and posturing to appeal to his domestic base. But others think his threats should be taken very seriously indeed: reckless and egotistical by nature, he is intent on launching a war to silence critics who accuse him of being a loud-mouth who makes verbal threats without following up on them.

The Iranians sense the threat and have been preparing for it. Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif warned — after holding talks at the UN during which the extent of the US administration’s hostility to his country was made clear – that cancelling the nuclear agreement would ‘open the gates of hell’. He affirmed that Iran had many options at its disposal and would never agree to anything that constrains its ability to defend itself. A blunter warning came from Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah. He has often sounded the alarm about Israeli plans to wage a devastating new war on his country. But during his televised Ashoura speech last week, he spoke as though he believed an assault was imminent.  He addressed Israeli Jews directly, warning them that such a war would invite retaliation on a massive scale and they would be the victims, and advising them to return to their countries of origin in order to avoid the consequences. A war might be triggered by a local issue such as the Iraqi Kurdish referendum on independence, but nobody can predict when, how and where it would end.

The Arab regimes, of course, are for the most part mere bystanders in all of this. They have no say in unfolding developments, and their role is merely to heed and comply with the decisions taken and orders given by others. Yet they, or at least some of them, will be among the victims of this war should it break out. At the very least, they will pay the price for it and cover its costs. What else is new?