The recent storming of the American embassy in Baghdad, Iraq has indicated that the U.S. is now trapped in an ever escalating conflict in the Middle East. Ironically, President Donald Trump, who was elected on a strong platform of opposition to “endless wars”—specifically criticizing Presidents George W. Bush and Barak Obama for them—appears to continue the same policies of his predecessors. In withdrawing from the Iranian nuclear deal and reimposing economic sanctions, he pleased some domestic constituencies, while yet further antagonizing Iran.
Now as leader of the “free world,” Trump finds himself in a new Cold War, in which the U.S. is forced to square off with dominant Eurasian powers, operating in unison: Iran, China, and Russia.
As per the headline in the December 28 headlines of the Financial Times: US rivals launch Mideast war games, “Russia, China, and Iran launched their first joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman yesterday, throwing down a direct challenge to U.S. influence in the Middle East.”
We might pause over those words, “a direct challenge to U.S. influence.” The article quoted Iranian admiral Gholamreza Tahani as saying, “The most important achievement of these drills . . . is the message that the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be isolated.” Tahani added, “These exercises show that relations between Iran, Russia, and China have a reached a new high level while this trend will continue in the coming years.”
The U.S. response to this development was muted; the FT quoted an unnamed State Department official saying that Iran should “think twice” about conducting joint naval exercises, warning that such actions “should concern all nations with an interest in safeguarding freedom of navigation in the region.” These words will not necessarily strike fear into the Iranians; especially since, as the article recalls, the Iranians shot down a U.S. drone in June and seized a British-flagged oil tanker allegedly in their territorial waters in July—and the U.S. did not do anything in response.
Yes the Iran-backed militias that stormed the U.S. Embassy withdrew from the area after their leadership ordered the suspension of a violent challenge to American troop presence in Iraq—the withdrawal was instigated by the Popular Mobilization Forces, an umbrella body for dozens of militia groups including factions aligned with Iran. Nevertheless, the Iranians seem undaunted, and now, of course, thanks to their improving relationship with China and Russia, they have far more strategic depth.
Perhaps that is why Trump has applied new pressure on U.S. forces currently in Iraq, which, of course, borders Iran. It has always been understood that the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 that ousted Saddam Hussein from power had the inadvertent effect of opening the door to Iranian influence in that country, and it could well have been the hand of Iran that fired the rocket that killed a U.S. contractor on December 27. That death led to a familiar American response—airstrikes.
The further irony in Trump’s course of action, is that for all his bluster, he does not appear to have any deep attachment to a permanently bellicose policy toward Iran; he has mused aloud, more than once, about sitting down and talking with the Iranians without any preconditions. It could be that the president views Iran though the prism of North Korea. As we can recall, all through his first year in office, Trump was in a war of words with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, whom Trump dubbed “Rocket Man.” The situation reached its hottest in August 2017, when Trump warned Kim of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Now, however, after two summit meetings, Trump and Kim seem to regard each other as friends—or at least they smile a lot in each other’s company in photo-ops. Yet already in May, North Korea had started testing short-range missiles again—though not the long-range missiles capable of reaching the U.S., which are more controversial—and more recently, the language between the two sides has grown increasingly hostile.Let us be clear, North Korea is no closer to denuclearizing than it ever was, especially after Kim said today that he is ending the suspension of nuclear and long-range missile tests put in place during talks with the U.S. Apparently, Trump does not seem to care about that presumed goal—it could very well be that reality finally sunk in and that in this election year most Americans also do not care about “Rocket Man.”
The disturbing thing in all this is that, whether with the newly formed Eurasian powers or North Korea, a cold war can always get hot. The very fact that Trump seems to have been outfoxed by the aforementioned enemies puts the U.S. between a rock and a hard place. And because Trump has managed to alienate our allies as well as personally losing their respect—during the latest NATO summit, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and European world leaders were caught making fun of Trump—taking on the Eurasian Powers does not look promising.