The foreign policy strategies of the previous two US administrations were very straight forward. George W. Bush favored “spreading democracy” through regime change. Barack Obama had come to office amid frustration with these hawkish neoconservative policies, and instead favored soft-power and manufactured revolutions coordinated with NATO allies.
But what is the foreign policy of the Trump administration? No straight forward answer can be given, even after a sloppy attempt to define the “Trump Doctrine” regarding Iran in an essay from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. In the publication Foreign Affairs, printed by the Council on Foreign Relations, Pompeo attempted to explain the actions and objectives of the United States in regards to the Islamic Republic. The article was confused, inaccurate, and much like the Trump administration itself, seemed to be trying to please many different people at the same time.
Hypocrites or Fanatics? – They Cannot Be Both
In attempting to explain the “Iranian Threat,” Pompeo proclaims: “And today, no regime has more of an outlaw character than that of Iran. That has been the case since 1979, when a relatively small cadre of Islamic revolutionaries seized power…” Those who are familiar with the history of the Islamic Republic know very well that the outpourings of people who brought down the brutal, US backed Pahlavi regime and created the Islamic Republic, were anything but small. The millions of people who took to the streets, some of them actually wearing burial shrouds as they marched because they expected to be gunned down, were quite massive. The crowds that greeted Imam Khomeni at the airport when he returned from exile were equally large.
For almost four decades the Islamic Republic has effectively withstood a lengthy war with Iraq, as well as continued efforts by Sunni, Arab, and Kurdish separatists, among other hostile elements, to break it apart. The Islamic Republic draws its support from local Basij organizations, which enforce the goals of the revolution on a local level. Iran is organized, block by block, neighborhood by neighborhood, city by city, and region by region. To characterize the mass movement that gives strength to the Islamic Republic as a “small cadre” is either intentionally deceptive propaganda, or simply ignorance.
Following his initial mischaracterizations, Pompeo’s attempts to demonize Iranian leaders becomes contradictory. He writes “Two years ago Iranians rightfully erupted in anger when leaked pay stubs showed massive amounts of money inexplicably flowing into the bank accounts of senior government officials. For years, clerics and officials have wrapped themselves in the cloak of religion while robbing the Iranian people blind.”
Indeed, the issue of corruption and misuse of resources is a big one in Iran. However, the people who raise this issue the most, and have done the most to combat it, are the individuals that Pompeo probably cares for the least. It is the “hardliners” and “principalists” who constantly seek to reassert the religious anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist goals of the revolution, who express the greatest frustration with the market liberalization, the gap between rich and poor, and what they perceive as a revision of the Islamic Republic’s revolutionary ideology. Pompeo seems to agree that the most conservative clerics are correct in their criticism of the Rouhani government and the reformist movement.
But yet, while Pompeo accuses Iran’s leaders of being phonies who simply mouth an ideology they don’t believe in, he seems to believe that they are simultaneously a group of fanatics hell bent on destroying the world. He writes earlier in the piece that Iran created the Quds force, an “elite special forces unit, and tasked it with exporting revolution abroad.” He writes “regime officials have subordinated all other domestic and international responsibilities… to fulfilling the revolution.”
He accuses Iran of aiding the Palestinians, the Iraqi Shia community that faces attacks from Saudi backed Sunni extremists, the Syrian Arab Republic that faces an onslaught of terrorism, as well as the people of Yemen in the face of Saudi Arabia’s criminal bombardment. Not all of these accusations are accepted by independent observers, but if they are indeed true, they are hardly the act of cynical phonies and hucksters. So, is the Iranian government made up deceptive con-men who do not believe in the radical principals they espouse? Or is it made up of bloodthirsty fanatics, constantly taking great risks and sacrificing the country’s wealth and resources in order to fulfill their revolutionary agenda?
Pompeo argues that somehow the Iranian leaders are both of these things. This should reveal to any careful reader how disingenuous his statements actually are.
Escalate Confrontations, But No War?
Pompeo’s statements seem just as contradictory when he describes the leadership of his own country. He writes “Trump does not want another long term U.S. military engagement in the middle east or any other region… Pundits may gin up the fear over the idea that this administration will get the United States into a war…”
Yet, he goes on to describe how “President Trump has made clear the pressure will only increase if Iran does not live up to standards…” He goes on to say “This widespread agreement about the Iranian threat leaves no room for countries to remain ambivalent about whether to join the global effort to change Iran’s behavior, an effort that is big and getting bigger.”
Yes, the USA will threaten Iran and continue to impose sanctions, i.e. economic warfare, on Iran. The Trump administration has already pulled out of the Nuclear Deal and is working hard to punish allies who have tried to have cordial relations with Iran. However, the USA doesn’t want a new war and in fact wants to get along better with the country?
Pompeo argues that Trump doesn’t want a war, but will continue to push Iran around with threats and economic warfare. The obvious contradiction of such words shouldn’t be lost on anyone. Threats are meaningless if there is no intention of ever carrying them out.
Furthermore, isolating any country from the world economy is hardly a way to win them to be friendly. Does Trump really believe that sanctions that make it harder for cancer stricken Iranians to get treatment is going to somehow result in improving relations? Does Pompeo believe that Trump’s threats with Iran do not contain the danger of escalating into a large conflagration that could endanger millions of lives? If Pompeo believes Trump’s threats against Iran are completely idle, why would he announce this to the world, publicly? How would revealing that Trump’s threats are not genuine help the United States gain leverage in negotiations?
America Faces Iran in Utter Confusion
Pompeo’s article contains a large number of comparisons of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the Soviet Union. The article also quotes and makes reference to US President Ronald Reagan on several occasions. The reason for this is that Reagan has practically been canonized by the right-wing of US mainstream media. Pompeo’s narrative presents Iran as the new USSR and Trump as the new Ronald Reagan, an analogy that is so obviously inaccurate it is almost laughable. Despite the inaccuracy, it is an analogy that the will cause well trained FOX news viewers and the Rush Limbaugh ‘ditto-head’ audience to weep.
The article feeds into a fantasy which many of those who were attracted to the “Make America Great Again” slogan would love to be drawn in by. With Reagan-esque bombast against Iran, Trump is bringing back the “good ol’ days” when the USA was “number one” in the world, and the “evil empire” of the Soviet Union was in decline. Rather than stating actual intentions of policy, Pompeo words are intended to win the hearts and minds, and probably the votes of elderly rustbelt residents.
Other contradictory points in the article serve a similar propaganda purpose, pleasing specific constituencies that hate the Islamic Republic. Calling Iran a group of hateful fanatics fits the message of Netanyahu, the Likud Party, and its staunch ally and Trump-backer Sheldon Adelson. Iran’s crazed fanaticism and supposed “threat” is routinely presented as a justification for Israel’s behavior. While many Israelis, including top Generals, opposed Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to the US Congress opposing the Nuclear Deal, the Likud Party is fixated on building up the Israeli military under the pretext of “the Iranian threat.” Statements about Iran “spreading chaos” will win the Trump team more donations from Adelson and more support for the Likud Party faction of pro-Israeli lobbyists.
Meanwhile, Iran’s supposed wasting of resources abroad is a favored talking point of Pahlavists in southern California and wealthy Persians within Iran’s borders who dislike the Islamic Revolution. Racism and the belief that Persians are Hitler’s “Master Race” of Aryans was a central tenant of the Shah’s ideology. Pahlavists consider themselves to be white and detest the fact that the Iranian government has worked to improve the living conditions of Arabs and Kurds as well as others it deems to be inferior, both within its own borders, as well as abroad. Pompeo hopes to appear to be championing the quiet bitterness found in the wealthy districts of Northern Tehran, as well as Sunset Park, among those who feel the 1979 revolution deprived of them of their rightful positions of wealth and power. He hopes that more Persian nationalists can be duped into risking their lives for his regime change agenda, which in reality aims to beat down and destroy, not simply the Islamic Republic, but the entire Iranian nation.
It is not hard to understand that Iran’s foreign policy is hardly needless charity or mere fanaticism. If the Syrian Arab Republic were to be toppled and made into a hotbed of sectarian fanaticism, Iran would be in even greater danger. Iran helps Shia in Iraq for the same reason, knowing that the presence of violent, fanatical Wahhabis on its border is a security concern, as are the Sunni separatists operating on the Afghan border. Furthermore, no matter how supremacist and bitter a Pahlavist may be, it is hard to imagine that any self-respecting nationalist would want to see their homeland go the way of Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq. US “regime change” is not “nation building” but generally results in the destruction of nations.
Pompeo’s contradictory characterization of Iran’s leaders as phonies who do not actually believe in or act out the ideals of the 1979 revolution, feeds into the narrative of the crazed terrorist cult known as Mujahadeen E-Khalq. Unlike the Pahlavists and Israelis who hate the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Mujahadeen E-Khalq (MEK) believes it did not go far enough. The MEK cult believes that its founder Massoud Rajavi is a prophet sent to earth to lead some kind of apocalyptic Islamo-Marxists Gotterdammerung. The MEK cult of torturing, suicide bombing, fanatics began its campaign of terrorism against the Islamic Republic after it was removed from several leadership positions in 1980. After a long period of collaboration with Saddam Hussein, the MEK now works with Israel and the United States in efforts to destabilize Iran. Pompeo’s attempted dog-whistling of the MEK’s rhetoric against Iranian leaders is blatantly obvious.
Pompeo’s murky attempted explanation of the Trump administration’s policy toward Iran is display of contradictory virtue signaling. The piece reflects how deeply confused and divided the US ruling elite truly is. Even among those loyal to Trump, there is no clear agreement on what should be done regarding Iran, or even what the perceived flaws of the Iranian government, or of the Nuclear Deal, actually are.
Some may point to the article as a “brilliant” way of being “unpredictable” at a future negotiating table by giving so many mixed messages. However, those within the United States can see that this is hardly a brilliant maneuver to confuse an opponent. In reality, the American deep state and the American ruling elite are being pulled in many different directions, unsure of how to proceed, as the waters of a domestic and international crisis rise around them.
The persona of Trump, long known for his arrogance and refusal to admit errors amid a history of blunders and contradictions, seems to fit the overall situation perfectly. Despite pounding the podium, the leaders of the United States have no idea what to do regarding Iran, but pressure for them to do something is rising, and coming from many different sources, with many different goals.
Caleb Maupin is a political analyst and activist based in New York. He studied political science at Baldwin-Wallace College and was inspired and involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.