Monday, July 29, 2019

U.S. v Iran, Then and Now

My essays on the U.S. v Iran, then and now.

They used to call the Iranian coast of the Persian Gulf "Exocet Alley." These snapshots taken by a workboat crewman are from 1986/7 near Iran's Sirri Island. 

For a colorful, detailed account of those days, see my book Expats, first published in 1990 and still in print, but also partially available on Google Books.

In the wake of the Beirut fiasco in the early 1980s, then the scandal of Iran-Contra, the Reagan administration was determined to show it could be tough on the mullahs. To do that it sided with Saddam Hussein in the war he had launched against Iran almost seven years before. The transparent subterfuge: putting American flags on Kuwaiti tankers carrying oil for Iraq and protected by U.S. warships. Then one of Saddam's fighter planes raiding Iranian shipping along "Exocet Alley" sent two Exocet missiles into the frigate USS Stark, killing 37 American sailors in May 1987. That did not seem to phase the Reagan administration.

As I wrote in Expats:

"So it was—manipulated by the Kuwaitis, competing with the Soviets, attacked by Iraq—the U.S. Navy girded for war [with Iran].

"The enemy knew who he was. He was the same enemy as in Beirut, the same one who had humiliated the Reagan administration only a few months before by exposing its secret deals to trade arms for hostages. Whether Washington said so or not, every move it made was against the Ayatollah Khomeini. But Iran's leaders were careful plotters, well aware of limits on their actions, meticulously calculating the level of provocation, the dangers of retaliation. They knew the Great Satan well, and wanted to do nothing to provoke directly the massive American deployment in the Persian Gulf."

These are some of my recent columns reflecting on lessons learned, or not:


... In case anyone doubted it, the Trump administration is now making a conspicuous link between its choreographed support for regime change in Venezuela and its desire to topple the mullahs in Iran. On Friday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted a tweet with three photographs: one showed Venezuelan strongman Nicolás Maduro meeting with Iran’s “supreme leader” and its president, one with Maduro and Iran’s foreign minister, and then for good measure one from the archives of Maduro appearing alongside Raul Castro....


... The obvious response for hard-pressed regimes, none of which have economic weapons that can begin to match the dollar, is to use weapons of a more conventional variety. And as they realize that Trump has very little taste for any measures that deploy American troops for combat, they are tempted to push him toward military action he does not want to take—or a retreat he doesn’t want to make....


... The image of a little girl in a crude fiberboard coffin has haunted me for more than 30 years. She was one of the many bodies pulled out of the waters of the Persian Gulf after an American warship shot an Iranian civilian airliner out of the sky one morning in the summer of 1988. Everyone on board the regularly scheduled milk run from Iran to Dubai had died; 290 people in all, 66 of them children. The crew of the USS Vincennes, skirmishing with Iranian gunboats inside Iranian territorial waters, had somehow concluded that Iran Air 655, an Airbus A300, was really an old F-14 fighter plane. ...


... The problem for Donald Trump is that his "maximum pressure" campaign has left him, in fact, with little room to maneuver on the economic front. When your pedal's to the metal, you can't push it further down. And Trump's eccentric, insulting truculence has made it hard for Pompeo to pull together a strong diplomatic effort, even among traditional allies....


.... He was 41 years old, wearing a red tie (at normal length): “A Billion Dollar Empire and an Ego to Match,” read the cover, “Citizen Trump” headlined the article. And he was, even way back then, thinking about a run for the presidency. To launch his tentative undeclared campaign he’d just paid $94,801 to run full page ads in The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Boston Globe. In an “open letter,” Trump attacked the foreign policy of then-President Ronald Reagan: “The world is laughing at America’s politicians,” he wrote, for protecting “ships we don’t own, carrying oil we don’t need destined for allies who won’t help.” ...


... The critical moment will come if or when American personnel are killed, which would fit a classic pattern when an American administration wants to go to war. It starts with picking villains, then picking fights, piling on economic pressure and carrying out a series of provocative moves to push the bad guys into a corner, until someone at some level in the target regime kills an American. ...

ABC Australia radio called me to talk about this on July 29 this year:

      In the past month, war games in the Gulf of Hormuz have seen drones shot down, oil tankers on fire, and ships impounded by the British and Iranians. The last tanker war in the Gulf was in the 1980s.

     Ships were sunk, civilian airliners shot down, and the Americans supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the war against Iran.

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