Roundtable – Whatever’s Going On With Iran

The Roundtable is Torchlight staff’s discussion of news and events. The text has been lightly edited for clarity, and some links may have been added after the fact. This conversation happened on January 12, 2020.

Josh Kyu Saiewitz, Senior Managing Editor

Hello and welcome to a whole new decade of Torchlight Roundtables, the semi-regular feature where Torchlight’s staff discuss news and events. This week we’re talking about the Iran situation, which has been downgraded from “World War 3-starter” to something closer to “tragic kerfuffle” but is still a deeply troubling series of events. The basics: on President Trump’s orders, the US military assassinated Major General Soleimani, Iran’s second most powerful government figure, potentially triggering yet another American war in the Middle East. Tensions have calmed slightly but the situation remains fraught. To start with: what were your reactions to watching these events take place over the course of a few days?

Christopher Dahlin, Politics Editor (aka Christo)

The fact that the 2 largest decision factors for the president were not in fact an imminent attack (this seems to be a lie) on 4 embassies (the briefing for Congress didn’t include this info at all) but a) Obama (and also Dubya) had decided not to carry out the attack and b) trying to gain advantage on his impeachment is.. very Trump. I should be shocked and appalled, but honestly, I don’t know what I was expecting.

David Spitzley, Senior Contributor

I’ll be honest, I was not in “OMGWW3FML!” mode, because this is Iran, not Russia or China. But I was solidly in plummeting petunia mode: “Not Again…” If this progresses to actual military conflict we’re looking at another decade at war, another round of “pillory the treasonous peaceniks”, another hundred kilodeaths or two of civilians. Motives don’t matter anymore, I’m sick of the destruction and blood sacrifices to the overgrown psychopathic toddlers who make up our global elites.

Ann Anderson, Contributing Writer

My reaction was to note that once again Trump accused rivals of something (this time Obama in the past) not because Trump had any insight into those rivals, but rather because he lacked empathy and thus the ability to asses others and could only cite what Trump himself would do in a similar circumstance. This time it was when under pressure regarding reelection, Trump would be willing to start a war with Iran. Something borne out by recent reporting that he only ordered the strike at the urging of Republican senators that he do something to distract from the impeachment. I’ll add that I was struck by the utter hypocrisy of ordering troops into Iraq and starting a conflict with Iran after abandoning the Kurds a few months ago under the pretext of not getting the U.S. involved in endless wars in the Middle East.

I also noted that I did not think that this would amount to war if Trump had any way out of it. He clearly went with the bully’s approach with the strike on Soleimani, and did not think through the consequences. So that could have meant war. However, I also believe Trump has proven himself a coward again and again when push comes to shove. So as long as the Iranian response was measured enough, Trump would back down and try to claim victory at the same time. The problem with that though is that it relies on Iran to be the mature, rational nation in this. It also put us in a position of not having any control over our own destiny. We could only await Iran’s response and then deal with the fallout, whatever it may have been.

(Why yes, I have been engaging with folks online all week. Why do you ask?)

Josh

Let’s not forget that, even if no other consequences arise from this (and there will be other consequences, no doubt, from possible further violence to the difficulty of reforming diplomatic relationships in the area), the heightened tension created by Trump’s wild overreactions led Iranian forces to accidentally take down a civilian plane, killing 176 people. That blood, like so much other blood and loss and pain, is definitely on Trump’s hands.

Christo

Yeah, the shoot down of the plane is awful and tragic, and Trump absolutely bears some responsibility. Besides this massive screwup, Iran played this pretty well. They look like adults, they get to release some agression, and they now have a massive diplomatic advantage for negotiating why the fuck they should remain in the JCPOA. Trump just does not understand foreign policy on any level.

Ann

Let’s not forget that this isn’t over yet. With Iran’s admission to shooting down the Ukrainian passenger plane has unsurprisingly come unrest from within Iran. How the government there deals with it will remain to be seen. And already Trump is tweeting threats should Iran crackdown on the Iranian protests violently.
Also, you may not have caught it, but today there are reports of a missile strike at an Iraq base that houses U.S. military personnel as well. No responsibility has been claimed yet, but the bombing resulted in four injured Iraqis.

Christo

We should also remember we tried to get an Iranian in Yemen at the same time, and that mission failed.

Josh

It’s true that this situation is still in flux. Also not to be forgotten: Trump’s threat to take out 52 Iranian cultural sites, a recognized war crime and delusional super-villain speech rolled into one horrifying Tweet. I know it’s passe at this point to note the impeachable offenses as they fly by on a daily basis, but damn.

Ann

Agreed. I found that deeply disturbing, even as I have come to expect such rhetoric from this president.

Josh

Does any aspect of this situation redound to America’s benefit? Does it even help Trump himself, or the Republican party?

Christo

If it did, either Bush or Obama would have already done it.

David

It’s hard to deny that the General was a deserving target on a personal level, but it’s also hard to see how this really helps anyone.

Ann

It does not help America at all. Let’s not forget that in addition to further creating unrest, destabilizing the area, giving impetus to proxy actions and cyber-attacks, and generally being a recruitment tool for militants against the U.S., this action has further weakened our relationship with Iraq, which right now wants U.S. troops out of its country, in response to which the U.S. Secretary of State said he would not even set up a meeting to discuss it. That’s not including the incredible moment where the U.S. stood there like a schoolboy who forgot to zip his fly by sending Iraq a draft letter saying it would pull troops out and then having to reverse itself because the letter was sent by mistake. Diplomatically, we made ourselves a laughing stock as well as an out-of-control major power with this move.

It does help Trump with his base. He is being hailed as a hero there. That there is unrest right now in Iran because of the government shooting down the plane is being lauded as Trump doing more to destabilize and rein in a bad, terrorist regime than any Democrat has done or proposes to do, even though Trump could not have predicted the plane being shot down when he ordered the strike on Soleimani.

Josh

Is this situation the inevitable result of Obama administration’s Iran nuclear agreement (or JCPOA)? What brought us to the point of such instability and mistrust?

Christo

Absolutely not.

The problem is that Trump doesn’t want Obama to have a legacy, so ripped up the JCPOA, and then he has an entire base who thinks going to war in Iran won’t be a complete disaster.

David

Or even worse, want war in the Middle East to ring in the Rapture…

Ann

The JCPOA did not fail. It was torn up by the President of the United States. Other nations then tried to keep it together, and Iran kept complying with it. Admittedly, Iran wasn’t sure it wanted to stay in the deal either, even before Trump tore it up, because it did not find it had gotten the kind of economic relief for which it was hoping. Now, in the wake of Trump’s attack, Iran has said it will not honor the deal. That’s a losing proposition for the U.S. Iran, like North Korea, was inevitably going to become a nuclear power. The JCPOA controlled that process and allowed for a situation where when that time came, perhaps the U.S. need not be the “Great Satan” to Iran anymore. Trump and the Bolton war-mongering Republicans blew that out of the water. Bolton and people like him have wanted war in the Middle East and particularly Iran since before Obama was president. Bolton almost got what he wanted under Trump, and is probably kicking himself for not sticking around in the administration long enough to see the thing through.

Josh

Assuming that Trump doesn’t finally start that pivot we’ve all been waiting for, what can the next non-Trump president of the United States do to try and earn back Iran’s trust? Is that even possible at this point? Or are continued tensions with Iran and continued nuclear proliferation in the Middle East a foregone conclusion now that Trump has demonstrated that half of America can’t be trusted to uphold deals made by the other half?

David

Well, when you put it that way…

Ann

It’s yet another aspect of the Trump presidency that I am not sure there is any coming back from. If there is, I suspect it will take a long time. One problem with Trump’s tearing up agreements, operating without a clear foreign policy goal other than personal chest-beating and aiding Russia and Saudi interests, and the general incompetence in foreign affairs demonstrated by this administration is that it has signaled to the world that due to our political structure, no arrangement with the U.S. can be expected to last past a single presidency. That greatly jeopardizes our ability to navigate through foreign relations. I don’t see any way to get that back but time and a lot of careful, small steps. Those steps, whatever they may be, will require cohesive, strategic planning across several presidencies to bear fruit. Quite frankly, this is one more example of why the Trump presidency was an experiment this country could not afford to make, even for four years, much less eight.

Josh

Well said. Any final thoughts, everyone?

Ann

I would like someone to follow the money on this. How much do Russian or Saudi interests in interfering with Iran have a say in Trump’s decision making here, since Trump has very strong financial ties to both nations? That said, this whole nightmare is still unfolding, and one in which this nation has ceded almost all control as to the outcome. Instead it has to rely on Iran and Iraq to be the grown-ups, in the face of our toddler president. It has harmed our standing further internationally, put the nation at risk, and for no real benefit. Also, I have gotten flashbacks from George W. Bush’s push into Iraq, with his false claims about weapons of mass destruction. I confess Trump has hurt my feelings by not putting even a fraction of the effort that George W. Bush did into his lies to manufacture conflict in the region. America should not be treated like a cheap date (no one should for that matter).

David

My only glimmer of hope on the points Ann raised is one from history: Obama was quickly able to restore trust in the US, at one level just by not being Bush. The rest of the world will have doubts about us, but if we can come back to the table and work productively with our allies they will probably be so relieved that they’ll give us another shot. Or so I hope.

Christo

Unfortunately, Bush at least knew and acknowledged the framework of how a country acted on the international stage. President Trump doesn’t know, and doesn’t care. It is going to take a long, long time to recover from his actions, and not just because he has almost crippled the State Department and other significant foreign policy engines. I don’t know if we can ever recover the extent of the power we once had, and while there is something to be said for the destruction of hegemony, one of the reasons it lasted for so long is because despite our actions, America at least represented support for Democracy and Justice. We symbolized an ideal we would never reach, an aspiration for the betterment of ourselves and the world. No longer.

Josh

It’s frustrating to see Trump get into office in part on a promise to go against the kind of neoconservative policies that led to the Iraq War and the never-ending boondoggle in Afghanistan, and then turn around on a whim and stumble us into (and maybe even not out of) another extremely damaging Middle East conflict… Just another broken promise on the pile, I guess. I hope there’s a way out of this, for both nations, and that we will have a chance to repair things in the future. I guess we’ll see.

For now, we’ll have to leave it there. Thanks everyone for a lively (and sobering) discussion! And thank you all for reading.

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