Published: June 10, 2019
In recent days, the US had taken steps aimed at Iran's alleged 'danger' to peace in the Gulf region, accompanied by bluster that set alarm bells ringing lest all this led to an actual war. Attacks on Saudi and other Gulf shipping had been ascribed directly or indirectly to Tehran's 'hand'. An alarmist scenario devoid of facts or rationale was constructed to show that Washington and its regional allies had to take Iran's 'activities' with the seriousness they deserved. Now suddenly, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the known hawks in the Trump administration, has switched to a more reasonable, even conciliatory tone vis-à-vis Iran. Pompeo now says his country is prepared to hold talks with Iran "with no preconditions", but also adds that Iran must abandon its "malign activity" in the Middle East. Tehran has rejected the Pompeo about-turn as mere "word play". Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says talks can only be held with the US if it shows "respect" and does not attempt to apply any 'pressure' on his country. It may be recalled that even before the attacks on shipping in and around the Gulf, which carries some 20 percent of the world's oil supplies, the strident rhetoric emanating from Washington was a portent of the subsequent beefing up of the US air, sea and land forces that monitor and patrol this vital oil supply line. The build-up reminded of the wars in Iraq, Libya and Syria launched by or with the help of Washington. Ordinarily, the received wisdom is that the infamous military-industrial complex is by its very nature the driver of wars to sell its deadly products and ensure the US's global hegemony. But reports say the hawkish lobby inside the Trump administration led by Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton is in fact at odds with more pragmatic, level headed, strategically clear elements within the administration and, even more significantly, the US military. This latter group has warned of the dangers of provoking a conflict with Iran with its devastating consequences for the region and the world's stability and security. Stoking the flames of war is the Israeli lobby in particular. The US military, which after all would be running the frontline risks of any new conflagration, is reportedly in touch with the Iranian Pasdaran through a back channel, and has sent it the message that it is not looking for war.If Pompeo's remarks truly reflect a more sober assessment of the ground realities in the region and beyond, it is something to be welcomed. The issue of tense Tehran-Washington relations has its roots in the Iranian revolution of 1979 that overthrew the US' strong ally, the Shah and declared his 'mentor' the 'Great Satan'. What has further aroused the ire of the hawks lobby in Washington in recent years is the role Iran has played, in tandem with Russia and the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, in defending Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria after the outbreak of the Arab Spring in the late 2010. The Syrian-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah coalition drew a line in the sand to deny any further regime change adventures a la Iraq and Libya, whose devastating consequences are still playing out in destruction, bloodshed and tragedy. This unforgivable act on the coalition's part, but especially Iran's, upset the best laid plans of the mice and men of the hawks brigade vis-a-vis Syria. The unforgiven therefore naturally found themselves in the hawks' gun sights. If better sense now appears to be winning if not setting in even in the blinkered horizons of the pro-Israeli hawkish lobby in Washington, this is a welcome relief and a good start. It could, and should, be followed by engagement with Tehran that takes in also the unilateral withdrawal of Washington from the meticulously drawn up nuclear restraint agreement with Iran, to which it adhered to the letter until Trump tore it up. Whatever the US' nostalgia for a time when it strode the world stage like a Colossus, it now needs to recognize that its military might rests on feebler feet of (economic) clay and that the world is no longer so easily browbeaten as in the past.