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The General of Economic Sanctions

The General of Economic Sanctions

Monday, 24 June, 2019 - 07:15
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
The world held its breath when President Donald Trump met with senior officials from his administration to respond to Iran’s downing of an American drone. The world was right to worry as the development was preceded by direct or indirect provocations that took aim at oil tankers and civilian targets. It was clear that Iran has steered away from its “strategic patience” policy and opted to push the crisis towards the edge of the abyss.

Observers were also right to worry when the decision lies in the hands of two unpredictable men. The first is Trump, the captain whose response to storms is unpredictable and who has an exceptional talent in surprising his advisers and, with them, the world. The second is supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who is finding it difficult, especially during this phase, to be lenient about his and his country’s image.

What took place during that intriguing meeting is no longer a mystery. It was clear that the secretary of state, national security adviser and CIA chief supported sending a military message that reminds Iran of the red lines it should not cross in its challenge to the United States. The senior general, however, wondered what the US would do if Iran replied to the message by expanding its scope of provocations in the region. Trading blows could hold the threat of eventually spiraling into all-out war. The president chose to resort to the weapon of patience and give Tehran a “last chance”.

This is not strange. Trump is not a general dreaming of victory in war. He is not a civilian hiding in general’s clothing. He comes from a different ilk that believes in deals and settlements. Moreover, he was very eager to return American troops from conflict zones in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. His decision to withdraw from eastern Syria after ISIS’ defeat raised the concern of his advisers and European allies, who exerted major pressure on him to postpone the pullout and he was forced to comply. Trump believes that his country possesses other weapons besides warplanes and destroyers. It has the weapon of economic sanctions and he does not hesitate to resort to them.

Trump’s decision was in line with his previous stances. He had declared early on that he was not seeking war with Tehran and he has relayed messages to it in this regard. He had also informed it that the US was not seeking the overthrow of the Iranian regime, but its pressure is aimed at forcing it to change its behavior over the nuclear and ballistic files and its regional policy. Furthermore, Trump believes that Iran’s resorting to “edge of war” practices is clear evidence that the oil sanctions against it were really having a painful impact.

In return, Iran, through its practices and those of its proxies, sent a message that war against it will spark conflict on several fronts against the interests of the US and its allies. It also sent a message that depriving it of exporting oil will deprive other countries in Europe and Asia from obtaining oil through the Hormuz Strait. It also delivered a message that it will eventually abandon its nuclear deal commitments, meaning it will return to enriching uranium at an alarming rate.

Before making a move that could lead to war, Trump should have looked at the relations between his country and each of Russia and China and taken into consideration the European stance that wants to save the nuclear pact and avoid going back to square-one and heading to a war that would impact the global economy. Trump gave the Europeans the chance to seek de-escalation and find ways to return to the dialogue table, especially since Iran flooded Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Tehran with escalatory practices. Perhaps Trump wanted to test Europe’s ability to convince Iran that ending painful sanctions demands flexibility on its end over its pending issues that go beyond the nuclear file to its ballistic missile program and destabilizing behavior through its proxies. This is why he moved the conflict with Iran to the UN Security Council and announced new sanctions against Tehran.

A lot has been written in recent years that the Middle East was no longer a priority for world powers. Officials and analysts have confirmed that this resource- and conflict-rich region was no longer topping their strategies. It was said that the US, which was sensing the growing Asian might, will focus its attention on China’s neighbors to counter its rapid rise. Some went to say that the US was resigning from its role as the Middle East’s policeman because the flow of oil was not under threat and because Israel remained militarily superior. Barack Obama’s policy was keen on keeping the US away from the simmering Middle Eastern conflicts. This led to the American troop pullout from Iraq and Washington’s participation in the nuclear deal with Iran. Some believed that the era of dispatching fleets to the region had ended after they had become preoccupied with Russian behavior in other seas and Chinese shows of force in others.

Suddenly, it turned out that the Middle East was greatly attractive and had enough cracks and dangers to once again lure in world powers to its shores and territories. It all began when ISIS reared its ugly head and was followed by renewed Iranian-fueled tensions in the region. And here we are, with the deployment of American forces in the Gulf and its waters. We also see the Russian army in Syria where it has struck deals that will see it remain there for the long-term.

Despite all that has been written, the Trump administration has found itself embroiled in a major test in the terrible Middle East. Iran is banking on threatening the global economy and blowing Trump’s chances for a second term in office by raising oil prices. Trump is banking on the impact of economic sanctions to force Iran to yield to him what it refused to yield to Obama.

The discussions on Iran that will take place on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Osaka this week are very important. We are in the middle of the crisis and its outcome is difficult to predict. The generals of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards may conclude that it would be a challenge to keep escalating the situation against Trump, the general of economic sanctions. Destabilizing the foundations of Iran’s economy are more dangerous to the land of the supreme leader than the strikes against missile platforms, radars and bridges. The Soviet Union was armed to the teeth, but it collapsed without a bullet being fired against it.

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