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Israel main obstacle to reducing tensions between Washington, Tehran

Jul 03,2019 - Last updated at Jul 03,2019

US President Donald Trump's crossing of the demilitarised zone between South and North Korea on the weekend and his handshake with the latter's leader, Kim Jong-un, is not a template for calming tensions between the US and Iran. While Trump claims Kim as a friend and had met twice before with him, there has been no progress on the dispute between the sides over decommissioning of North Korean's nuclear arms and halt to its weapons and missile programmes. Last Sunday's media event was nothing more than positive public relations for both men without committing them to any course of action.

It is purely coincidental that the war between North Korea and the US and its allies, which began in 1950 and ended in July 1953, was followed during August of that year by a US-UK engineered coup against Iran's last democratically elected leader Mohammad Mossadegh, an event which has ever since turned the Iranian people against the US. Nationalist Mossadegh sought to assert Tehran's control over the country's oil production and reserves which, at that time, were dominated by Britain. A World War II-weakened Britain asked the US to use its intelligence assets to boost the position of the shah and rid Iran of Mossadegh. If there had been no coup then Iran might have evolved into a robust democracy by 1978-79 when a popular revolt overthrew the shah and installed Ayatollah Khomeini's "Islamic republic".

As the Iranians have never forgiven the US for ousting Mossadegh, the US has never forgiven Iranians for toppling the shah. The gulf between the two countries was partially bridged by the 2015 deal providing for the dismantling of 80 per cent of Iran's nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions that were crippling Iran's economy. This agreement, signed by the US, the UK, France,  Russia, China and Germany, was violated by the US, which threatened to fine entities entering into governmental and private economic, financial, energy and commercial agreements with Iran. However, Tehran was able to export its oil and export precious metals and other items and to exit from isolation by adhering to the deal. Despite Iran's compliance, in May last year, Trump withdrew from the deal, and in May this year imposed punitive sanctions on Iran and anyone who breached the sanctions, dramatically reducing Iran's oil exports and plunging the country into negative growth.

After beginning his reign in 2017 by insulting North Korea's Kim and threatening to "burn" his country, Trump has normalised relations with him and does not threaten doom if he does not denuclearlise: hence the photo-opportunity in the demilitarised zone.

Trump's relations are very different with Iran. First and foremost, there is no demilitarised zone to use as a backdrop for a public relations stunt and no Israel. The main obstacle to reducing tensions between Washington and Tehran is Israel, which has been pressing the US to mount an attack against Iran for several years. Trump's regional policies are designed to serve Israel and, in particular, the interests of his friend, a now faltering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner is devoted to Israel, while Trump's hardliners; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton are both subservient to Israel and deeply anti-Iran. While their predecessors, Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster, were not friends of Iran, they, along with defence secretary James Mattis, urged restraint.

No longer exercising either restraint or even good sense, Trump has called for talks with Iran while sanctioning its top leadership after Iranian missiles brought down a US spy drone in the Strait of Hormuz off the Iranian coast. Having already imposed 1,000 diverse sanctions on Iran, Trump targeted no less a personage than Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; Iran's ultimate decider, appointed because of his stature as a religious figure.

It is clear that Trump was being manipulated by one or more hawkish advisers when he did this because he called for sanctions on Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989. The instant response of the Twitter community was to ridicule Trump. One person quipped, "Trump just sanctioned the Ayatollah Khomeini. Saddam Hussein must be shaking in his boots about now." Another asked. "What's next? Sanctions on Qadhafi, Saddam and Mussolini?"

But Trump's declaration was not a joke. Khamenei, now 80, took over from the revered Khomeini as vilayet-e faqih, or guardian jurist, a post found only among Shiites. Having assumed Khomeini's mantle, Khamenei not only tops the clerical superstructure that rests on top of the elected government, but is also head of state, military commander-in-chief and chairman of charitable foundations worth $200 billion. He dominates the administration, judiciary and media. Neither Khamenei nor the foundations which he heads hold foreign bank accounts which could be seized.

On the practical level, sanctioning Khamenei was foolish. Iran has not developed nuclear weapons because he has issued a religious ruling, a fatwa, prohibiting Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. No friend or fan of the US, Khamenei supported the Iranian team that negotiated the nuclear deal although Iranian hawks, including in the Revolutionary Guard, opposed it. Without his backing, President Hassan Rouhani and the moderates who have upheld the deal in the face of US abandonment and violation would have had to give in to the hawks.

Arguing he does not seek "regime change" in Iran, Trump had refrained from sanctioning Khamenei, as this means targeting the vilayet-e faqih, which is the foundation of the faith-sanctioned Iranian system of governance. This action could be dangerous. Khamenei has millions of followers among Shiites in Iran, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. An angry loyalist or group could strike US interests or troops in the region without authorisation from Khamenei, risking a devastating war that could engulf the entire region.

Revolutionary Guard commanders were also sanctioned but they do not travel abroad or have financial interests outside Iran. Targeting US-educated Foreign Minister Mohamed Javad Zarif could be counterproductive; he could be prevented from carrying out his duties at the UN in New York or elsewhere. Prohibiting talks with Zarif could halt European, Omani and Japanese diplomatic efforts to defuse tension and get the sides to talk. International Crisis Group President Robert Malley called the Trump's latest sanctions, "Symbolic politics at its worst. At every level, it is illogical, counterproductive or useless."

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