What Next?

Will Trump move to the military option in his quest for regime-change in Tehran?

By Abdel Bari Atwan

The current state of calm on the Syrian front following Thursday’s exchange of missile fire between Iran and Israel may prove to be temporary. It is part of a bigger and more complex picture, and the product of a deal concluded by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu with Russian President Vladimir Putin when he visited Moscow last Wednesday. But it is unlikely to persist, because Moscow will not be able to sit on the fence for long.

The questions preoccupying Western capitals most these days are about what steps Donald Trump will take next after withdrawing from the nuclear agreement with Iran, and what will Israel’s anticipated be in the coming stage.

The US president faces two interlinked options, one of which leads to the other.

First, to dismantle the agreement and renegotiate it, with a new text that mandates a total and permanent cessation of uranium enrichment with no time limit. This could only happen with Iranian agreement and surrender.

Secondly – should the first option fail and Iran make good on its threat to resume enrichment — to start taking practical steps aimed at changing the regime in Tehran, beginning with crippling economic sanctions that cause the collapse of the economy and prompt the Iranian people to revolt.

Trump thinks that inflicting a painful embargo could force Iran’s leaders to submit to his demands and come to the negotiating table, just as his aides claim he managed to do with North Korea.

There can be no disputing that the embargo to which North Korea was subjected was painful. But if that pain is indeed what prompted the country’s leader to seek negotiations, it took more than two decades to produce results. And it did not prevent the country from developing and producing nuclear warheads and ballistic missiles that could strike wherever they wanted.

It may be also worth recalling that Cuba withstood a US embargo for more than five decades and did not surrender.

Accordingly, there is no guarantee that banking on an embargo to bring the Iranian leadership to its knees will produce results, and certainly not during Trump’s term in office. That is why it cannot be ruled out that he will move to the military option and seek to bring down the regime by force. Israel has been pushing hard in that direction, and it is possible that a decision has already been taken in this regard.

That was strongly suggested by Trump’s new national security advisor, John Bolton, in his address to a conference of the Iranian opposition Mojahedin-e-Khalq group in Paris, in which he predicted that what he termed the regime of the Mullahs would not survive to see the 40thanniversary of its foundation (11 February, 2019), and promised his hosts to see them in Tehran.

The process of accumulating pretexts for any American attack on Iran began before Trump cancelled the deal, by means of media campaigns orchestrated by Israel and Arab governments accusing Iran of violating the accord, establishing secret nuclear sites, and threatening the security and stability of the region and indeed the entire world by supporting terrorist organisations including al-Qaeda. It was no coincidence that Netanyahu presented his display of supposed Iranian nuclear documents just days before Trump’s decision.

Having begun a war against Iran on Syrian territory, Israel can be expected to spearhead the forthcoming American war on Iran. We well recall how former vice-president Dick Cheney remarked, shortly before he left office in 2008, that the US’ next war would be against Iran. America would not start it, he said, but if Israel attacked Iran, it would stand by its side.

Trump has warned Iran of dire consequences if it resumes uranium enrichment, and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is to start rallying support for war in Europe, the Gulf and the Middle East – just as his predecessor Colin Powell did before the invasion of Iraq. We should no be surprised if he starts appearing on TV Netanyahu-style to produce documents and photographs proving the existence of a secret Iranian enrichment programme.

And despite Europe’s opposition to Trump’s move, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Mohamed Ali Jafari, was probably right when he predicted on Saturday that the Europeans would ultimately end up taking the American president’s side.

It is still not known how the Iranians will respond to all these threatening scenarios. All we know is that Trump and his aides, from Pompeo to Bolton, have embarrassed the moderates and undermined their support-base in favour of the hard-line camp in Tehran which never supported the nuclear deal.

An Iranian military spokesman reiterated at the weekend that if Israel attacked Iran it would retaliate with devastating effect against Israeli cities.

If war were to break out, we are firmly convinced that it will be different to previous wars —and that Bolton will not celebrate the defeat of the Iranian revolution in Tehran next year.