Trump, Putin and the Iran Agenda

Paul Jay and James M. Dorsey analyze the Helsinki meeting and the “Grand Bargain with Russia” pushed by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay.

On Monday, Presidents Trump and Putin met in Helsinki, their news conference ending around noon Eastern time. Most of the corporate media focused on things like whether President Putin slouched in his chair, or President Trump stood up straight, or did President Trump confront Putin, mostly on interfering in the U.S. elections. Of course, the talking point is an attack on American democracy, we’re told it was, over and over and over again. Of course, not much discussion of just how much democracy, in fact, is there in the United States to be attacked. We can talk about that, I guess, on another day.

Now joining us to discuss the significance of this conference, this press conference and these meetings is, joining us today from Manila, although usually he’s in Singapore, is James Dorsey. He’s a senior fellow at the Rajaratnam, I hope I’m pronouncing that right, School of International Studies; co-director of the University of Wuerzburg Institute for Fan Culture. Thanks very much for joining us, James.

JAMES DORSEY: Pleasure to be with you, Paul.

PAUL JAY: So, while most of the media here is focusing, as I say, on did Trump confront Putin and all this, and talking about Russia’s illegal annexation of the Crimea, and so on- of course there’s no discussion of the American invasion of Iraq, or the countless violations of intenational law by the United States. But without-. Set aside for a moment the obvious hypocrisy of it all. There is, in fact, a realignment of forces going on in the world today, certainly pushed by the Trump administration. And I think you have to give Trump some credit from doing what he said he was going to do when he got elected. His plan worked out with Steve Bannon and John Bolton, backed by billionaire Robert Mercer and other people within those extreme neocon circles. People like, at least I don’t know if Cheney himself is directly involved, but certainly people that were involved in Project for New American Century, which envisions the use of American force to bring about regime changes in various countries, most importantly Iran.

And that was the foreign policy priority of this administration. At the very least, weaken and destabilize Iran with the hope that the Iranian people will bring about regime change. The context of that hasn’t changed. The policy of that changed. The other big objective of the Trump administration, vis-a-vis, through Bannon’s vision of the world, as expressed by Bannon, was to have trade war with China. And now we have it. They’re following on a very definite plan, and seems to me this press conference that we see after these meetings, and the meetings themselves, they have to be judged in the context of the real foreign policy objectives of the administration, and how this is realigning the world for what Bannon called a long and bloody war against, he said, Islamic extremism. I find it hard to understand why he calls it that when Saudi Arabia is one of the allies in this war. But clearly it comes down to wanting to have regime change in Iran and to, one way or another, backed by Netanyahu, backed by the Saudis, backed by the United Emirates, get Putin, to some extent, on side in this plan. So I don’t know whether you agree with all that, and what do you make of it, these meetings in the context of that?

JAMES DORSEY: Well, I do think you’re seeing with Trump is indeed, one, he’s true to his word. He made promises during his campaign, and he is fulfilling those promises. He obviously feels far more comfortable with autocratic, or at least authoritarian, leaders. And he feels that those are alliances with which he can work.

I thought, one of the things I thought was very telling in the news conference that he gave with President Putin was when he was asked about cooperating with Russia and Syria, his reply was, we both work very well together with Israel, and Israel’s security is a driving issue. With other words, he reduced this to an Israeli issue rather than the broader regional conflict that it represents.

PAUL JAY: Well, and one can see why. This is part of the hypocrisy of the American corporate media. Netanyahu has been to Moscow, what is it, like, half a dozen times in the last year and a half. Netanyahu just got back from meetings with Putin. And, and clearly this plan to focus the real agenda on destabilizing Iran may have some sympathy from Putin. Whether they need any overt support from him, I wouldn’t think so. I would think quite the other way. Putin can open his arms and let Iran fall into his arms the more the Israelis and Saudis and Americans push on Iran. But, but Netanyahu seems very much one of the drivers of this whole policy.

JAMES DORSEY: I think there’s one thing, though, that I would say one’s got to be cautious about, Paul. And that is that while there is a lot of agreement between, for example, Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, there also is a factor of Israelis and other allies of the United States viewing Trump as unreliable, or at least unpredictable. So part of the-. Russia obviously is a player in Syria. I’s got troops on the ground there. The fact that Bashar al-Assad, the president, is surviving is due to Russian forces. It’s not due to the strength of his own military. And so probably going to, you know, for example of Netanyahu, going frequently to hold talks with Netanyahu, it’s edging his bets. It’s not simply part of, you know, I don’t think it’s, it’s a little bit too simple to have this cabal, this conspiracy in which Putin, Trump, Netanyahu, whoever else are in full agreement, and marching in lockstep with one another.

PAUL JAY: I wouldn’t, I’m certainly not suggesting that. It’s a convergence of interests. And they don’t all have the same agenda, but the agendas may well mesh right now.

JAMES DORSEY: I think, I think that’s true. But there’s also an element of uncertainty. So with other words, Trump is someone who can turn around. He can get on his plane in Helsinki and say something totally different from the plane, just like he did at the G7 in Canada a month or two ago. So part of the direct dealing, and it’s not only Netanyahu, but also Gulf leaders, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, in dealing with Russia. It’s partly also hedging against the unpredictability of Trump.

PAUL JAY: Iranian friends of mine that I talk to, who are not that sympathetic to the Iranian government; on the other hand, they’re very opposed to U.S. policy towards Iran. They say the sanctions are having some serious effect in Iran, and with increased sanctions that are coming, now, with the abrogation of the agreement by the United States, the nuclear agreement, that the possibilities of real economic disintegration or crisis is really going to become sharper. And the plan of the U.S. to destabilize to such an extent that the economy really starts to collapse. He, at least in their opinion, these Iranians, some of them are businessmen that do a lot of business with Iran. They think it’s very real. And they’re very afraid of it. They’re very opposed to it. They think the American-Saudi-Israeli plan is to turn Iran into a kind of Iraq situation. How real is that as a realizable possibility? It certainly does seem to be the agenda.

JAMES DORSEY: Iran has serious economic problems that have to do with rampant corruption, with mismanagement of the economy, all of which is exasperated, of course, by U.S. sanctions. Iran’s not on its knees, but is in deep trouble. And it has witnessed in the last six months multiple protests against primarily economic issues. A lot of people attribute great importance to some of the slogans that are calling for the death of the supreme leader, or the president, or Palestine. Of course those slogans are there. But the real driver of these protests is economic and social issues.

Now, what is becoming increasingly clear is that the Iranian hopes that the Europeans not only would be willing, which they are, but would be capable of effectively standing up to U.S. sanctions that would effect European companies if they were to continue to do business with Iran, but the Europeans are probably incapable of doing so. So what the Iranians are left with are the Russians and the Chinese. The Russians in the last few days have offered to invest about $50 billion into the Iranian oil and gas sector. The Chinese have been very clear on that they will continue to do business with Iran. The issue there is that neither Russia nor China can compete. They can obviously invest, they help. But they cannot provide the kind of technology, that kind of quality that the U.S., what the United States can provide.

The other question that’s involved here also is that the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have threatened very early on in the Gulf crisis with Qatar that they would force international companies to two sides, that they could very well do the same thing on the Iranian issue, which would put the Russians and the Chinese in, in difficulty, even though they have greater possibilities of circumventing the sanctions than Western countries do.

PAUL JAY: I don’t think one needs to stretch one’s imagination to see John Bolton as a very brilliant fanatic, at least smart, maybe very brilliant’s pushing it; but smart, and a good historian. I’ve interviewed Bolton, he’s actually a military historian. He’s, he’s quite a knowledgeable guy. Fanatically focused on the issue, many issues. But prime in his mind is regime change in Iran. And that’s been, him and his circle have had that as their objective for quite a number of years, certainly since the, you know, from the Iranian revolution. But in the last decade, one can remember John McCain when he was in the region singing a song, Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb Iran.

If they might lose the presidency in 2020, the prospect of that certainly seems more than possible, one can imagine John Bolton, Trump, and like-minded people that are running U.S. foreign policy are going to want to do something serious about Iran before they might lose the White House. Which means-. And if sanctions alone aren’t enough to bring down the regime within a year and a half or so, and that doesn’t look likely, the possibility of them wanting to have some kind of military attack on the Iranian infrastructure, something to spur the economic collapse of Iran. Do you think that’s something that’s a real threat, possibility, before 2020?

JAMES DORSEY: Well, I think there’s several things here. One is I would agree with you, and I’ve met Bolton. I would agree with you on your assessment of Bolton. He’s a very smart man, and I would not underestimate him. However, I think that he totally miscalculating in the fact that he has, views the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, as does somebody like [Giuliani] and many other former U.S. officials, as a viable alternative or a viable opposition to the regime in Teheran. If that’s the horse they’re going to ride they may very well fail, because the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq is extremely strong, and the inroads it’s made into various Western capitals and establishments, it has no inroads in Iran anymore.

And I go back to the original founding family, the Rajavis, of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, who [combined] that in the late 1970s for the first time, when they did have a popular base of some kind in Iran. But they have lost that totally, particularly by siding with Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war. Now, the U.S. strategy is basically built, at this point, on fomenting social and economic discontent, and essentially having another popular revolution, or revolt, if you wish. That remains to be seen. What we’ve seen in protests until now has not been a popular revolt.

There have been widespread popular protests, without question. And there’s a lot of, there’s a lot of rooting of those protests among the public, support for them. But they don’t amount to the call for regime change. And Iranians, as much as they may very well feel that, you know, they had their experience of an Islamic republic and it’s time for the republic to go, they also, like others in the region, look around the region and look what has happened in the last seven years since the 2011 popular Arab revolts that happened for Arab leaders, and the volatility and violence of the counter revolution that has ensued since. I’m not sure that they really have the appetite for that.

Now, the other strategies. You talked about a military strike. It’s possible. One of the alternative strategies that I see, or at least I see evidence for, is that the United States, either directly or more probably through the Gulf states, and first and foremost Saudi Arabia, would try to foment unrest and discontent among the ethnic minorities in Iran who account for a very substantial part of the population, anywhere close to half of the population. And you can see building blocks for policy like that being put in place already. The problem with that is that it probably is not going to succeed, and it’s certainly not going to lead to regime change. The United States tried that earlier, and they were indirectly or tacitly supporting a group in the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which borders on Iran.

And the last remarks I would build on this is that regime change, even if it works in the short and middle term, fails in the long term. Look at Iran. You had the overthrow in 1953 of Mosaddegh, and the rise of Khomeini was, in part, the result of that.

PAUL JAY: The rationality of whether something will succeed or not doesn’t seem to guide the foreign policy of this cabal of foreign policymakers in Washington. Otherwise I don’t think they would have invaded Iraq, because anyone that did an analysis of the situation before the invasion, and many people did that knew the region, said this was going to be a disastrous policy for the United States. Nevermind, of course, a catastrophe for the Iraqi people. And in fact, has led to more Iranian influence in Iraq perhaps than even American influence in Iraq.

So the rationality of it may not be what decides this. And if I’m Trump sitting with Putin, and maybe one of the reasons I want a private meeting without any witnesses other than the translators- who often do write books later in life, so I think they should be careful, but at any rate- I might want to say to Putin if the Iranian regime is on its last legs, we want you to stay out of this. And maybe Putin, I don’t know what Putin’s answer to that is. But if Putin just plays his cards against his vest and lets things unfold, if nothing else, it pushes Iran closer and closer to Russia.

But, but this bargain they’re talking about that’s been coined the ‘grand bargain,’ where the Russians push the Iranians out of Syria as part of this deal, but it seems to me maybe more than that could be afoot.

JAMES DORSEY: I think, first of all, to be fair to the Trump, the crowd that is in power now is not necessarily the crowd that was in office when the decision was taken to invade Iraq. Second of all, whatever you think of the neocons, they actually had a vision. They actually thought that what they were doing in the Middle East is doing far too late what they had done post-World War II with the Marshall Plan and whatever else, and World War II itself, in Europe. But they had a vision. I don’t think that Trump, as such, has a vision like that. I don’t think he knows, really, in any degree of detail, what the day after regime change would look like. That’s one.

Second of all, I think that from the Russian perspective, you’ve got to also look at a much broader picture. And that is that neither Russia or China may necessarily want to fundamentally, wants to destroy the existing world order. They certainly want to rebalance it. And China’s Policy towards North Korea, as well as towards Iran, was in part driven by the fact that these were just ruptures within the world’s existing world order, and that disruptions served their purpose. I think that’s certainly true for Russia, also.

The third thing that I think you need to keep in mind is that while the Russian-Iranian relationship may very well be a marriage of convenience, Iran has cards to play. Iran is basically bordering on the soft underbelly of Russia. It has ethnic and religious and linguistic links into Central Asia that are not insignificant. Some of those are very troubled relationships for different reasons, including with Tajikistan, with Azerbaijan. But nonetheless, those fundamental relationships are clear, and that’s something that Russia has to take into consideration.

PAUL JAY: So what’s your expectation of what comes out of these meetings that’s perhaps not so public?

JAMES DORSEY: I’m not sure we’re going to see that much come out of it. You know, we haven’t seen much come out of the North Korea summit. I think there’s also, you know, we talk about all of these trends and whatever, and we sometimes forget that it’s people who do them. Trump is a narcissist. He loves the setpiece summits in which he goes one-on-one, is convinced of his persuasive powers, his ability to communicate. Nothing much really happens. Promises may be made. There is no basis on which to assume that those promises will be kept. But Trump comes out of this, in his mind, looking as a great statesman.

PAUL JAY: All right. Well, thanks very much for joining us, James. We’ll week-to-week keep up this conversation.

JAMES DORSEY: My pleasure.

PAUL JAY: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.