The greatest dangers posed by Donald Trump’s presidency have always been to the Global South. The prospect of his retaining power carries multiple severe threats, including a potential war with Iran. Such a conflict, barely avoided in his first term, would be cataclysmic for the wider Middle East and devastating for the world economy.
Tensions between Washington and Tehran are deep-rooted. In 1953, the CIA and MI6 orchestrated a coup against Iran’s elected government, reversing the earlier nationalisation of the country’s oil industry, which was then carved up between British and American firms. The Shah was installed as dictator, and equipped with the means of violence necessary to maintain the status quo.
The subsequent revolution of 1979 was initially broad-based, but a mixture of domestic state terror and the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 allowed the regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to consolidate its grip. The war, involving chemical weapons, child soldiers and trench warfare, became the scene of the founding myth of the Islamic republic. A nation fighting alone for its survival, not only against Saddam Hussein’s forces, but also against the Arab Gulf monarchies and Western powers that were lending him crucial support.
From here on, regional fault lines were drawn that remain more or less in place to this day. On the one hand, the US and its local allies, above all Saudi Arabia and Israel. On the other, Iran and its proxies, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in the occupied Palestinian territories, plus the key ally, Syria. The balance of forces is heavily lopsided, but Iran’s challenge to the regional order is not something the US-led bloc has been prepared to accept.
Tehran’s 2003 offer of a grand bargain settling all outstanding issues with Washington was dismissed by a George W. Bush administration convinced of its own omnipotence. But Iran derived huge strategic benefit from the toppling of its rivals the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, though it remained surrounded by American military bases and forces.
Tensions began to focus around the question of Iran’s nuclear programme. That programme was likely designed both for civilian purposes and to have the potential to break-out to a military application very quickly, should the order be given. Saudi Arabia and Israel led the push from the local regimes for Washington to take military action.
By now, however, Barack Obama was in the White House, pursuing a different style of imperial management from that of Bush. The approach toward Iran was a form of old-school conservative ‘realism’, choosing grudging accommodation with a rival over futile confrontation and further military quagmires.
The 2015 nuclear deal, signed by the Western powers plus Russia and China, was Obama’s bid to tentatively reintegrate Iran into the regional and international systems. In return for additional limits on its nuclear programme, Tehran would see sanctions eased, and its ability to develop economic relations with Europe, in particular, greatly enhanced.
From an imperialist point of view, the strategy was sound. The Iranian regime could not be wished away, but could perhaps be better managed with the right incentives. This would also open up an economic market with real potential for Washington’s European allies. Israel and Saudi Arabia hated the idea, but the Western powers were united so the deal was signed, underwritten with the force of a UN Security Council resolution.
It is at this point that the bull enters the china shop. Trump’s disdain for the deal was driven both by racist resentment for Obama, and by the need to assert his own self-image as the ultimate deal-maker. Initially, his worst impulses were contained by a phalanx of more traditionally conservative military officials. But as restraining figures were gradually churned out of the Trump White House, and enablers churned in, the inevitable confrontation with Tehran began to approach.
In 2018, the US reneged on the nuclear deal and reimposed sanctions. The other signatories, including the despairing Europeans, attempted to keep the deal alive. But further sanctions were imposed in 2019, in what was now effectively a financial blockade, sending the Iranian economy into a nosedive.
These measures, together with the deployment of additional US military forces to the Iranian border, were a serious escalation of tensions. Trump had created a crisis out of thin air, bringing the countries to the brink of war. Iran now reduced its compliance with the nuclear deal, effecting limited violations of its terms, while also engaging in semi-deniable attacks on commercial shipping in the Gulf, so as to send a signal of deterrence.
Trump seems more focused on forcing Iran to the negotiating table to broker a “better deal” than on starting a war of regime change. But by now, the situation is on a knife edge. Analysts warn of the Middle East’s 1914 moment, where one wrong move could set off a region-wide conflagration. While the US fights Iran, both sides’ proxies and allies would clash in numerous locations. And a major global oil artery in the Persian Gulf could be severed.
This war has come close to being triggered on several occasions. In June 2019, Trump ordered airstrikes on Iran after a US drone was shot down, only to get cold feet and reverse his decision at the last minute. Three months later, Iran struck a major Saudi oil facility, again demonstrating its ability to impose real costs in any conflict. Trump restrained himself from retaliating on the Saudis’ behalf.
In January 2020, Trump ordered the assassination of Iran’s most senior military figure, Qasem Soleimani, in a drone strike. Iran attempted to calibrate a military response that would deter rather than escalate, but in doing so mistakenly shot down a Ukrainian passenger jet, killing 176 people.
Since then, Iran’s policy has been to tough out the sanctions and wait out the Trump presidency. But if Trump wins next month’s election then all bets are off. Tehran will not be able to endure another four years of economic strangulation. The pragmatists in the regime who pushed for the nuclear deal against severe internal opposition will be increasingly side-lined. More confrontational figures would likely take the lead after next year’s elections.
On the other side of the equation, it would be very unsafe to assume that having marched right up to the brink of war, Trump would not take the final step. The fear that a war might cost him votes would be sharply reduced. And few would bet on him absorbing further Iranian defiance with equanimity. Uber-hawks like secretary of state Mike Pompeo will continue whispering provocations in his ear.
If Joe Biden wins in November, an Obama-style policy of de-escalation will likely come swiftly into effect. If not, a war of unthinkable magnitude in the energy heartlands of the planet becomes not just possible, but probable.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.