One of the many damages Donald Trump inflicts on the country is the inability to focus on events elsewhere in the world. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo uses Trump’s distractions to move closer to war with Iran.
Pompeo’s diplomacy begins by presenting a list of impossible demands to establish leverage for his next moves. In the case of arms control, the next move has been to pick up his marbles and go home. The US believes that Russia has been violating treaties. Instead of using the treaties’ mechanisms to bring Russia back into compliance, the US representative insisted that Russia publicly admit to its violations. When it didn’t, the US withdrew from the intermediate-range missile treaty and shot off a missile that would have violated the treaty. They are using the same strategy now to allow the New START Treaty, the last of the big arms control treaties, to lapse.
In May 2018, Pompeo presented a list of twelve demands to Iran. Iran has ignored those demands, which amount to Iran’s giving up its sovereignty. Pompeo and a number of allies, including Republican legislators, have long wanted a war with Iran. In addition to the twelve demands, they pressed Trump to withdraw from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the carefully negotiated agreement that contains Iran’s nuclear program. Explicitly in response to that withdrawal, Iran has taken a number of steps in violation of the JCPOA which can be reversed if the United States returns to compliance.
Pompeo has used those Iranian violations an excuse to argue to the United Nations that “snapback sanctions,” a part of the JCPOA, should be imposed on Iran. The other members of the agreement correctly rejected this proposal by a non-party to the agreement.
Earlier this year in Iraq, the United States assassinated Qasim Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force. In response, Iranian militias in Iraq have targeted Americans. I have not kept up fully with the back and forth except to note the absurdity of the phrase “restoring deterrence,” which is what Pompeo says he would like to do. Deterrence is a state in which action is not taken because of fear of retribution. Clearly the Iranian militias lack that fear. A reciprocal attack is probably within their calculations; “restoring deterrence” would require more and is a recipe for escalation.
But now Pompeo has found another path the could lead to war. He is pressuring the Iraqi government to get the Iranian militias under control. Yes, that is Iraq with a “q”. He says that the US will withdraw its embassy from Baghdad, possibly to Erbil in northern Iraq. Some American troops were recently withdrawn. A complete American withdrawal from Iraq would be a major victory for Iran.
After the 2003 US war against Iraq, the government crumbled, and it’s been difficult to build it back. Saddam Hussein was an enemy of Iran – Iraq and Iran fought a war through most of the 1980s. Removing the government of Iraq disrupted that power balance and allowed Iran to infiltrate its sympathizers into the new Iraq government.
Withdrawing the American embassy from Baghdad would not be a total withdrawal from Iraq, but it would make interactions with the Iraqi government more difficult. It would be a vote of no confidence in that government, weakening it among the Iraqi people. The Trump government has declared it will nearly halve its troops in Iraq to 3000 by the end of October.
Iran would flow into this vacuum. It’s possible that Pompeo’s threat is empty and he will not carry through, but empty threats indicate weakness and invite intervention. Iran has declared its desire to remove the United States from the region, and Pompeo may do that for them.
Today additional sanctions go into effect on Iran, in defiance of European allies protests. These sanctions are likely to limit Iran’s access to medical supplies, and other necessities to deal with the pandemic. Previous US sanctions on Iran have devastated its, but Iran has not budged on American demands.
Also today, Trump threatened Iran with nuclear war once again.
Iran responded to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA in measured and reversible fashion, giving little basis for war. Now that it looks like the Trump administration will be voted out of office in November, Pompeo is stepping up the actions he hopes will provoke Iran into a move that can be responded to with war.
A cause for Pompeo’s longed-for war is unlikely to show up in the next month. If Trump wins, Pompeo can continue his destruction and perhaps get that war in another year or two. If Joe Biden wins, he will attempt to mend the damage and bring the United States back into the JCPOA.