It never ceases to amaze me how some of the most mediocre and uninspiring people somehow manage to reach the top of their profession. Among the most asinine, in my opinion, are the lacklustre US National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, men who are to international diplomacy what Boris Johnson is to honesty and fidelity.
Not only do they manage to blunder their way around the world insulting a variety of rulers and presidents on the way, but they also insult our intelligence with alarming regularity by assuming that our collective memory leaves much to be desired. Banging the drum for war in Iran, these diplomatic dingleberries seem to forget that exactly the same arguments were used to promote the now discredited 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Incredibly, Pompeo is now briefing the US Congress about what he believes are alarming ties between Iran and Al-Qaeda. Really? The folks on Capitol Hill must have a sense of déjà vu; the same argument was used against Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The fact that the terrorist organisation wouldn't be seen dead in the company of either Saddam or his counterparts in Tehran is neither here or there, though. Bolton and Pompeo don't let the facts get in the way of a good story. It is obvious that the White House is trying to build a case for Congress to authorise war using legislation originally passed in 2001 to take on terrorists. They are desperate to obtain a legal fig leaf for military action against Iran. Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump is trying to portray himself as a man of peace who does not really want a war. This is the same President who ordered 2,500 extra US troops to be deployed in the region to respond to what he saw as a "heightened threat".
Tensions between the United States and Iran are rising as Bolton and Pompeo try to convince anyone who will listen that Iran is in league with Al-Qaeda. We shall no doubt soon see images of 9/11 all over again as the disastrous duo dance themselves into a frenzy while they blur the lines and bury the truth. Contacts at the CIA in Virginia reckon that any talk of links between senior Iranian leaders and Al-Qaeda should be treated with "extreme caution". Despite this, Bolton and Pompeo are also briefing gullible journalists and politicians about alleged links between the Taliban and Tehran.
I remember going to the Iranian Embassy in London back in 1998, the day after the Taliban had slaughtered more than 20 Iranian diplomats. The mood was dark but Iran is a long game player; embassy staff said there would be no immediate retaliation. Payback came when the Taliban regime was routed from Kabul in November 2001… with assistance from Iran.
It is therefore ludicrous to suggest that there is an alliance forming between the two; almost as ludicrous, in fact, as claiming that Al-Qaeda, a fundamentalist Sunni organisation, is in league with the Shia Islamic State of Iran. The two are currently hitting each other at every opportunity in Syria, where Iran is backing the Bashar Al-Assad regime and Al-Qaeda has aligned itself with rebel fighters and militias.
Nevertheless, the unstoppable Bolton continues to up the rhetoric against the Iranian regime: "If you cross us, our allies, or our partners, if you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay… we will come after you."
This is hardly the language of international diplomacy, but this former US Ambassador to the United Nations — yes, really — has been a constant thorn in Tehran's side for more than ten years expanding on the same warnings and threats that Tehran is building a nuclear weapon. He has never offered any credible evidence or even in-depth analysis to prove this, while simultaneously and very conveniently forgetting about the eight-year war which was started by US-backed Iraq's invasion of its neighbour, costing more than a million casualties by the time it ended in 1988 when Iran accepted a UN-brokered ceasefire. That was when Saddam was Washington's man.
Standing alongside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Bolton has warned Iran not to test Trump, while Pompeo met with Saudi leaders in Jeddah pushing a similar message. They believe that Iran's leadership is under severe political and economic pressure at home and may look for relief by agreeing to renegotiate a nuclear deal. Trump, remember, pulled the US out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed by the Obama administration in 2015.
However, if that is the message being fed to the US President, he is being misled. The Iranians are measured political gamblers; they know that Trump will not want to get into a war just ahead of a re-election campaign. Tehran can also see that Europe has no stomach to join the US in such iron-fist diplomacy. My guess is that the Iranian regime is hoping that Trump will lose in 2020, paving the way for a Democrat President who will want to return to the original Obama deal.
Other factors that the hot heads in the Trump camp seem to have overlooked include the fact that, unlike Saddam's Iraq of 2003, Iran is armed and dangerous, and is more likely to retaliate if it is attacked. It is also quite close to Russia and China at the moment and is not quite the international pariah that the US would like it to be.
Sadly, Washington is very poor at reading diplomatic language on an international level. The Bush administration expected the Iraqis to rise up and overthrow Saddam as soon as "shock and awe" was unleashed. They thought that new Iraqi leaders would emerge and consolidate control, giving US troops the chance to leave after a year. That plan worked out well, didn't it?
The war in Iraq was a disaster, just as a war in Iran will be. The Americans have got to learn from their recent history to see that both Bolton and Pompeo are amateurs when it comes to understanding the Middle East and Asia.
Moreover, many of my journalist colleagues who got it so wrong about the war in Iraq are, sadly, also in danger of making the same mistakes all over again. I would urge them to be more critical and hold the likes of Bolton and Pompeo to account when their rhetoric is devoid of facts and detail.
One article definitely worth a read, though, is by Ilan Goldenberg, who paints a horrific picture of what conflict with Iran would look like. His focus is more on the global cost in terms of hundreds of billions of dollars, although some of us would want to reflect more on the human cost. A chill went up my spine when I read that, "The Islamic Republic can use proxy forces in Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen to attack the United States and its partners. It has an arsenal of ballistic missiles that can target US bases in Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.
"Its mines and land-based anti-ship missiles can wreak havoc in the Strait of Hormuz and drive up global oil prices. Iran has the capacity to shut down a significant portion of Saudi oil production with aggressive sabotage or cyberattacks, and with its paramilitary unit known as the Quds Force, Iran can attack US targets around the globe."
As around a million Iraqi widows and orphans have learned to their cost, starting a war is the easy part, but ending the large scale violence, poverty and hardship which continues long thereafter is much more difficult. What the reckless Bolton and Pompeo want us to forget is that Iraq didn't have weapons of mass destruction, but Iran does. We have to remind them of this and get them to pull back from the brink, or we will all pay a terrible price.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.