Last Friday, the United States granted India and seven other nations waivers that allow these countries to continue importing oil from Iran. The waivers shifted the US administration’s earlier plan to drive Iranian exports of crude down to zero immediately after sanctions came into effect on November 4. Each of the eight nations on the list is treating the waiver as a victory, a sign of special treatment granted by the US administration to its closest friends. However, the relaxation comes with strings attached, and has not been extended to a number of the US’s traditional allies, France, Germany and the UK among them. Both these facts are worrying.
Why did the US change its stance on Iran? When it first announced its intention of taking Iranian oil out of the market completely, traders realised that Saudi Arabia and other exporters could not ramp up production fast enough to replace lost Iranian petroleum. Worries about supply pushed up petroleum prices steadily as the November 4 deadline approached, to the consternation of countries like India. On September 20, Trump unleashed one of his periodic rants about oil prices and the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries. He tweeted, “We protect the countries of the Middle East, they would not be safe for very long without us, and yet they continue to push for higher and higher oil prices! We will remember. The OPEC monopoly must get prices down now!”
There was little that OPEC could have done, even had it been willing, to reassure the markets. It was the Trump administration that had caused the oil price headache, and in the end it was his administration that cooled prices by conceiving the waiver plan and letting traders get wind of it. Speaking to reporters on Monday, Trump was candid about the rationale behind the concessions, saying, “I could get the Iran oil down to zero immediately, but it would cause a shock to the market. I don’t want to lift oil prices.” His goal remains the same, to knock Iranian crude off the world market, but it is now to be achieved in phases rather than all at once.
Winter Is Coming
Just before penalties came into force, Trump tweeted a picture of himself standing heroically against a stormy sky, with the legend, “SANCTIONS ARE COMING NOVEMBER 5.” The tagline used a font associated with the television show Game of Thrones, and the words played on the show’s most famous line, “Winter Is Coming”. In a previous column that alluded to the Iran crisis, I quoted the same line from HBO’s hit serial about battling clans. Trump’s appropriation of the House of Stark’s ominous motto backs up my argument in the article, that sanctions are likely to trigger the next war in the Middle East.
The US is asking for behaviour change but what it really wants is regime change. Ideally, it would like the pressure created by sanctions to spur enough civil unrest within Iran to bring down the theocracy. Given the strength of Iran’s military and the determination of its rulers, this seems unlikely. The world witnessed both the strength and the determination when Iran’s rulers brutally suppressed massive protests following the Presidential election of 2009, which was widely considered fraudulent.
The exemption granted to India alongside Italy, Greece, Turkey, China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea is temporary. It is contingent on countries making sharp cuts to imports from Iran, a demand with which India has complied. Moreover, oil purchased from Iran can no longer be paid for in the traditional way. The money due to the seller has to be placed in escrow accounts in purchasing nations, which Iran can use as credit to import goods from those nations. The US is dictating how much oil the world can buy from Iran, how long it can buy oil for, and how it can pay for the oil. In the past, such bullying would have created a sharp pushback from governments and the media, but the world at large has greeted this unilateral imposition of harsh measures with astounding meekness.
Should the Democrats gain control of one or both houses of Congress in the mid-term elections, results of which will be known by the time this article is published, it will constrain Donald Trump’s domestic agenda in the two remaining years of what I dearly hope will be his only term as US President. He will turn his limited attention span increasingly to international affairs, in which sphere American heads of state function with great autonomy. That can only be bad news.
Trump holds in contempt transnational bodies like the European Union and the United Nations. Granting Italy and Greece waivers after bilateral talks, while withholding them from other West European nations like Spain, is a stab at the heart of the EU’s joint foreign policy. Going it alone on Iran aligns well with his temperament, but also signals a shift from the “America First” isolationism he professed in his Presidential campaign. A number of his senior counselors, notably National Security Advisor John Bolton, prize American exceptionalism, the idea that the United States is a unique nation with a unique mission. There are left-wing and right-wing versions of American exceptionalism, and Bolton’s vision involves the United States jealously protecting its own sovereignty while ignoring that of other nations. It’s a recipe for war without end.
Iran has its own national myth, based on the story of Imam Husaynibn Ali and his band of followers. Husayn, the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, who had been installed as Caliph in breach of an agreement between his father Muawiya and Husayn’s older brother Hasanibn Ali. Yazid’s forces, numbering around 4,000, intercepted Husayn and his companions, who counted 72 males of fighting age, at Karbala in modern Iraq, and massacred them on October 10, 680 CE. This episode was central to the evolution of the Shia Ithna Ashari faith, the official religion of Iran’s rulers and the belief system of a large majority of its population. The martyrdom of a pure band of people upholding truth and righteousness in the face of a larger oppressive force is central to Iran’s self-identity, however inappropriate it may seem as a descriptor of a nation of 80 million with a strong, professional army.
Whoever the oppressors are, Iranians equate them with Yazid. When Reza Shah Pehlavi was in power, he was Yazid to revolutionaries. When protestors marched against the regime in 2009, the Ayatollahs appeared like Yazid. Donald Trump is already developing into a perfect Yazid, and nobody should expect Iran to bow before him. It is hard to see how the latest clash between American exceptionalism and Iran’s martyr creed can be resolved peacefully. Add belligerent Israelis and Saudi Arabians to the mix and a war between nations appears a likelier outcome than serious conflict within Iran.
Should such a war break out, millions will march against it in the world’s capitals, as they always do when war breaks out. Those marches are worthwhile, but I wish humanity could find ways to protest more forcefully when the seeds of war are placed in the soil, rather than waiting till they have germinated.