Trump’s Latest Iran Sanctions Show an Unraveling of US Foreign Policy
Col. Lawrence Wilkerson says unilateral sanctions against Iran are illegal, and show the ascendancy of John Bolton; they intensify tension with China and threaten our international position
The Trump administration is ramping up its campaign against Iran by announcing it will end waivers allowing eight countries to continue importing Iranian oil—part of an attempt to drop Iranian oil exports to zero. This follows the Trump administration’s categorization of part of Iran's army, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, as a terrorist organization, and unilaterally withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal.
“This administration, for all intents and purposes in my view, is working against the interests of the United States,” Colonel Larry Wilkerson told The Real News Network's Marc Steiner. China and Turkey have already said they will not abide by the U.S. ending of the waivers, but India will possibly follow along, all of which could lead to a more profound trade war.
The decision also represents the influence of National Security Advisor John Bolton, who was in favor of these sanctions, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo wanted the waivers to continue.
Steiner noted that the sanctions violate international law and asked whether this brings the U.S. closer to war with Iran, or if the sanctions are “in lieu of war.” Wilkerson explained that John Bolton wants war even if Trump does not, and that regardless, these oil sanctions are “economic warfare”—an especially risky international gamble.
“We're getting away with it [only] because we are the most powerful country in the world, economically, financially, and militarily,” Wilkerson said. “That's not always going to be the case.”
Wilkerson suspects that countries such as China, Russia, or India will eventually respond to U.S. sanctions with their own, or make an end-run around them.
“I think we're going to see other nations objecting in ways we can't really calculate right now,” Wilkerson said. “And by that I mean we're going to have everything from the Chinese attempting to use other means of exchange than the dollar to the Chinese and the Russians perhaps working together to build an entirely separate and functional financial network that will eventually supplant that of the United States.”
He told Steiner that it appears as though the U.S. is “suicidal,” lacking any interest in diplomacy, and continuing to distance itself from its allies.
“We just lost badly in Syria, and we lost to a triumvirate of Syria under Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran. Look at what happened, what has happened in Iraq. We lost a lot of men and women there. We shed blood and treasure there for an utterly ill-conceived invasion, but nonetheless we did. Now Iraq is more or less under the influence of Iran. The only ally we have in the region that we can count on at any time is an authoritarian, brutal state under a boy king who's losing one war on one flank and alienated Qatar on the other,” Wilkerson said. “It's all falling apart. We're losing everywhere I look in the world, losing badly to that man in Moscow who picks up the pieces and you know, goes to Cuba when Marco Rubio decides he doesn't like Cuba, goes to Venezuela when we decide we might have an option for Venezuela that will include military force. Putin is the strategist in the world right now picking up on every piece we drop—and we're dropping too many.”
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us. Trump is stepping up his campaign against Iran once again, announcing that he will end waivers that allowed eight countries to continue importing Iranian oil. He wants to drive Iranian oil exports to zero. All this comes on the heels of officially labeling the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist organization and of course, forcing the U.S. to unilaterally pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal. Well what course are we on? Are we inching toward a war with Iran? Are these intensified sanctions just an alternative to all-out war? How could the U.S. just unilaterally impose international sanctions? Doesn’t that violate international law? Can he do it because the U.S. has a vital role in the international system of finance? Both Turkey and China have already announced they will not abide by Trump’s unilateral declaration of sanctions. Does this intensify our trade war with China? We’ll see. Joining us here at The Real News once again is Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, who served as Chief-of-staff to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, retired from U.S. Army, and is now Distinguished Adjunct Professor at the College of William and Mary where he teaches U.S. National Security. I welcome and good to have you back with us here on The Real News.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Good to be back again.
MARC STEINER So before we start, let’s run this short piece by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and what he had to say about the intensifying of sanctions.
MIKE POMPEO Today I am announcing that we will no longer grant any exemptions. We’re going to zero, going to zero across the board. We will continue to enforce sanctions and monitor compliance. Any nation or entity interacting with Iran should due it’s diligence and err on the side of caution. The risks are simply not going to be worth the benefits. We’ve made our demands very clear to the Ayatollah and his cronies: end your pursuit of nuclear weapons, stop testing and proliferating ballistic missiles, stop sponsoring and committing terrorism, halt the arbitrary detention of U.S. citizens. Our pressure is aimed at fulfilling these demands and others and I will continue to accelerate until Iran is willing to address them at the negotiating table.
MARC STEINER So what’s your instant analysis of what we’ve just seen here, what we’re seeing, Larry?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON First, the dispute within the administration— much ballyhooed between Bolton and Pompeo and Brian Hook, Pompeo’s main man on Iran— is apparently over and Bolton won. Pompeo and Brian Hook were not in favor of going all the way on oil sanctions. They were in favor of continuing the waivers for countries like China and India, and so forth. So that means Bolton’s won. That’s an ominous victory in my mind. More ominous was Bolton and Pompeo and Pompeo in particular’s testimony to the Congress about the “connections between al-Qaeda and Iran.” I’ve been there done that. I remember when George Tenet very forcefully and powerfully in late January-early February of 2003, pointed out to Colin Powell who had just said, toss that stuff out of my presentation to the United Nations. It stinks. That stuff being, connections between al-Qaeda and Baghdad over 9/11. Pompeo essentially said to Rand Paul in questioning him in the Senate and elsewhere, that there were connections between al-Qaeda and Iran, and implied that those connections gave the president the right to go to war with Iran without having to go to the Congress of the United States. In other words, the original A.U.M.F. authorization for the use of military force issued after 9/11, pertained some seventeen to eighteen years later to Iran.
MARC STEINER And that’s where you skin yourself. Most people who know this arena, know that area, the contradiction of saying Iran and al-Qaeda are one or are working with one another, just on its face doesn’t make any sense.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Nonsense just as it was with Saddam Hussein. We all know now, but it was a very powerful thing for Colin Powell to tell the U.N. Security Council and even more powerful for him to tell the American people that. And that’s what Trump and Bolton and Pompeo now are trying to duplicate: another specious case for war.
MARC STEINER So do you think— speaking of that— are we inching our way towards war with Iran, or do you think what we’re seeing, these sanctions, are actually in lieu of war? What do you think the dynamic is here?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I don’t think Trump wants war, but I know John Bolton does. So I have to imagine that there is going to be a come to Jesus meeting or some such resolution with Donald Trump if Bolton persists in wanting to use military force and Donald Trump doesn’t. On the side of all of this, is Trump’s new partner in crime, Bibi Netanyahu. We don’t know what Bibi promised Donald Trump when Donald Trump weighed in on Bibi’s election. I’m told by people who know these sorts of things in Israel, that had Trump not weighed in heavily for Bibi, that he might not have won, that it might have been a lot closer that it was, and it was pretty close anyway. So I don’t know what Bibi promised Trump in return. It might be that he conducts whatever military operation is conducted with respect to Iran. Anything’s possible here with these two characters.
MARC STEINER But the whole Bibi question is something we’ve spent a half-an-hour, hours just talking about what that relationship is, and who’s driving whose foreign policy when it comes to Iran especially.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Yes. Gideon Levy in Haaretz was right when he said U.S.-Middle East policy is not made in Washington. It’s made, he said Tel Aviv, but now he would say Jerusalem.
MARC STEINER So let me ask you another question. How can the United States just unilaterally impose international sanctions? I thought that’s something the Security Council would have to do and people are writing this as a violation of international law. So from your perch when you were the Secretary of State and now, how does that play into all this?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I think it plays very dangerously. We are becoming— through our manipulation of the Swiss system and other means in the world for financial transactions— a pariah in the world. Very much despised and even hated in the world and increasingly, by our own friends and allies like Germany, France, Britain, and so forth. This manipulation of this system that we largely set up for tracking terrorist monies and so forth, has been turned into a very sophisticated weapon. It’s economic warfare in anybody’s book and the only reason we’re getting away from it, you just hinted at. We’re getting away with it because we are the most powerful country in the world— economically, financially, and militarily. That’s not always going to be the case and I suspect there are going to people like China, like Russia, like India, like other countries in the world, finally getting tired of this and start reciprocating and building other systems to go around ours.
MARC STEINER Stepping up the sanctions against Iran and saying nobody can buy any oil from Iran at all, zeroing them out— China and Turkey have already said we’re not abiding by this. You can’t tell us how to run our economy and what we’re doing. India is caught between a rock and a hard place. They don’t want to go with this. Ten percent of their crude oil comes from Iran, but they’re in a tough bind given who finances them as well. So how is this going to play out? This can lead to greater trade wars between China and the U.S. How do you see this all tumbling out, both in terms of Iran and our relationship with those other nations?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I think we’re going to see other nations objecting in ways that we can’t really calculate right now. By that I mean, we’re going to have everything from the Chinese attempting to use other means of exchange than the dollar, to the Chinese and the Russians perhaps working together to build an entirely separate and functional financial network that will eventually supplant that of the United States. So this has enormous potential for backfiring, just like all the enemies we are creating in the world right now and the allies that we’re distancing ourselves from. These are not positive moves by the United States. If I were on Mars looking down at the United States right now, and I were some wise Martian statesmen, and I was trying to figure out what the United States— the current hegemon of the world— was trying to do, I would think we were trying to commit suicide. It’s as if we do not have any means of doing anything diplomatically or otherwise, that doesn’t rebound to our discredit. Look at what’s happened. We just lost badly in Syria and we lost to a triumvirate of Syria under Bashar al-Assad, Russia, and Iran. Look at what has happened in Iraq. We lost a lot of men and women there. We shed blood and treasure there for an utterly ill-conceived invasion, but nonetheless we did. Now Iraq is more or less under the influence of Iran. The only ally we have in the region that we can count on at any time is an authoritarian, brutal state under a boy-king who’s losing one war on one flank, and alienated Qatar on the other. Our latest NATO in the Middle East just lost its most formidable partner, Egypt. It’s all falling apart. We’re losing everywhere I look in the world and losing badly to that man in Moscow who picks up the pieces and goes to Cuba when Marco Rubio decides he doesn’t like Cuba. He goes to Venezuela when we decide we might have an option for Venezuela that would include military force. Putin is the strategist in the world right now, picking up on every piece we drop, and we’re dropping too many.
MARC STEINER So very quickly here before we run out of time, one quick question. If you were sitting in the halls of power at this moment, and your job is Chief-of-staff or the Secretary of State, I’m curious what you would be saying to a president that said we have to do this. What would you say is the alternative? What would you be saying at this moment?
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Which one do you want to pick? [laughter] Kim Jong-un is going to fire a ballistic missile or he’s going to do a nuclear test or both sometime around Christmas.
MARC STEINER Right.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON This administration for all intents and purposes, in my view, is working against the interests of the United States. So the first thing I would do is sit down and say, Mr. President, please before I walk out of here and go back to Foggy Bottom and retire from my position because you are going to fire me, I want to know what you think the national interests of the United States are. You said you were going to “make America great again.” You are destroying America. You said you were going to bring jobs back. You have only brought the jobs back that the last three years of the Obama administration generated, because no president ever generates them instantly. So you haven’t done anything yet that looks like it’s in the interest of the United States and you’ve done a whole load of things that are clearly not in our interest, not the least of which is to drive our allies away and make many enemies whom you said all options are on the table confronting. Please, Mr. President. Tell me what you think our interests are.
MARC STEINER And with that, I want to say thank you once again. Colonel Larry Wilkerson, always a pleasure to have you here at The Real News. And thanks so much for your thoughts and wisdom.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Thank you.
MARC STEINER And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.