27.04.2020 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

How Threatening Iran Works for Trump


According to ‘System Survival Theory’, country leaders often postulate an external enemy to create powerful distractions to hide their incompetence and/or to stay in power and maintain their regime. Behind Trump’s recent, though not unusual, threat to Iran lies the same ‘system survival’ logic. Facing extreme pressure at home due to his administration’s extreme mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, and the first ever negative price of oil, crushing the US oil market, Trump’s strategy to give rise to tensions with Iran appears only a botched-up effort—a hollow distraction for his voters at a time when Trump’s chances of re-election are facing an unprecedented crisis. Creating tensions makes sense for the president; for, as it stands, ‘war parties’ quite often win US elections.

Politically, creating tensions worked for Trump as his tweet immediately led oil process to rebound. A Wall Street Journal report, Oil Rebounds After Trump Signals Fresh Iran Tensions, said that Trump’s Iran threat “paused a week long crash” of oil prices in the US, leading the “U.S. crude-oil futures for delivery in June” to rise by 19%. On last Monday, before Trump tweeted the threat, the US future contracts had turned negative for the first time ever, “effectively meaning sellers were paying buyers to take away oil due to a lack of storage.” How issuing a threat can alter the dynamic of oil market is evident from the fact that any chance of ‘war in the Gulf’ between the US and Iran signals a potential disruption to oil supplies and shipments around the world, possibly indicating a ‘shortage of oil’; hence, the logic of threat to boost oil prices and thus evade potential political risks at home, especially near elections.

In another tweet that Trump wrote a day before his Iran tweet, he had already claimed that he will “never let the great U.S. Oil & Gas Industry down.” While part of his plan was/is to provide federal stimulus funds to oil and gas producers in exchange for government ownership stakes in the companies or their crude reserves, part of the plan was to stir geo-political tensions to give an invisible & money-less stimulus to the market and thus generate a ‘crisis of shortage’ based upon the fear of war in the Gulf. How powerful this geo-political stimulus can be is evident from the fact that it still led to oil prices rebounding even though the demand for oil remains extremely low globally due to the COVID-19 crisis.

On other hand, it is also interesting to note that the US president decided to issue a direct threat to Iran in response to an incident in the Gulf that was neither too dangerous, nor an unusual one. As a matter of fact, Trump completely eschewed mentioning any incident in the Gulf that led him to issue a threat. The Navy’s report came only afterwards. However, even if we accept that the incident really occurred, it remains that such incidents where the US and Iranian ships and boats have ‘come close’ have repeatedly occurred in the past as well, though not always producing a reaction of the kind Trump gave. Trump did so because of the prevailing political and economic situation and, in fact, seems to have seen in the US Navy’s report an opportunity to create an effective distraction that could allow him to continue his politics both at home and in the Gulf.

On the geo-political level, Trump’s threat is most likely to allow him to shun the voices, increasingly demanding a return of the US naval ships to the US to help them escape catching COVID-19. Former Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who held the post from 2009 to 2017, has said, “What I think they need to do is bring every ship in. Offload most of the crew … leave a very skeletal force on board, sanitise the ship, quarantine people for two weeks, make sure nobody’s got COVID.”

He said this in response to the fact that the famous US aircraft carrier, Theodore Roosevelt, is detained in Guam, its crew quarantined following hundreds of its sailors testing positive. Three other aircraft carriers, the Nimitz, the Ronald Reagan and the Carl Vinson are also being held in port because of sailors testing positive, while a fourth, the Truman, is being kept at sea for fear that its crew will become infected if it comes into port.

By thus creating ‘fresh tensions’ with Iran, Trump has, as he might calculate, find a way to keep his Naval forces in the seas. Whereas the pressure was mounting to call all the ships in, the strategy seems to be the opposite one—steps that might directly contribute to his mishandling of the whole crisis. Trump seems to be giving the message that calling Naval vessels in is not “safe” at the moment because of the imminent hostilities with Iran, and thereby with China and Russia as well. According to Ray Mabus, however, calling them in is “not only safe, it’s the only thing you can call it.”

As it stands, tensions with Iran directly work for Trump at a time when he is facing challenges that he seems unable to understand, let alone respond effectively. However, his tendency to manufacture crisis with Iran is, in the long run, not going to work, as it has not worked so far.

Despite the tensions and the killing of Soleimani, Iran continues to boost its military capability as well as regional standing. If, on the one hand, it has already joined the elite club of countries having the ability to launch military satellite and watch the enemy moves, on the other, its regional diplomacy is aiming at not allowing the US to dominate Iraq and become the sole navigator of Afghan settlement.

Iran’s top diplomats were recently in Afghanistan in response to the widening gulf between Kabul and Washington over the latter’s decision to cut Kabul’s aid after the Afghan president refused to abide by the terms of the US-Taliban deal that he was not a direct party to.

In nutshell, whereas threatening Iran and manufacturing a crisis may work for Trump politically at home, ‘containing’ Iran in the Gulf, a dream that both Saudia an Israel share with the US, is becoming increasingly impossible and, in fact, unsustainable.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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