Foreign correspondent Reese Erlich untangles the complexities, analyzes what we face, and what the future may bring.
MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Great to have you all with us.
This morning, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced that he would bring a regional peace initiative to the UN General Assembly called the Hormuz Peace Endeavor, or HOPE. He invited the United States and the West to leave the Strait of Hormuz. He argued that all the West does is bring disruption. And in a speech yesterday he said, “your presence has always been a calamity for this region. And the farther you go from our region and our nations, the more security would come for our region.” All this of course on the heels of oil facilities bombed in Saudi Arabia, piracy on the high seas, the war in Yemen and in Syria that involves the US and Iran, and the progenitor of all this— the United States pulling out of the Iran nuclear accord.
We are joined by Reese Erlich, freelance foreign affairs reporter who writes the Foreign Correspondent column that appears in The Progressive and many other publications and websites, and the author of The Iran Agenda Today: The Real Story Inside Iran and What’s Wrong with U.S. Policy. Reese, welcome. Good to have you with us.
REESE ERLICH: Great to be here.
MARC STEINER: So let me just start with this clip that I found interesting, a reporter questioning Pompeo. Let’s begin with this.
MARTHA RADDATZ, ABC NEWS: Mr. Secretary, you say the plan is working, but the stated purpose of the maximum pressure campaign is to reduce Iran’s malign activity and prevent them from getting nuclear weapons through tough economic sanctions. Let me just go through this. Since you pulled out of the nuclear deal, there’ve been attacks on oil tankers, shooting down a sophisticated drone that cost more than $100 million, the attack on the Saudi oil fields, and Iran is now breaking the JCPOA limits on enrichment and storage. So isn’t this campaign having the opposite effect you hoped for?
SECRETARY MIKE POMPEO: Well Martha, some of the facts you had there aren’t quite right, but you started the clock at the wrong point. Remember, we took over – when the previous administration had handed this regime, this revolutionary, zany, zealous regime, $150 billion. We’re at the start of the sanctions campaign, not the middle or the end. The Iranian economy will shrink by somewhere on the order of 10 to 15% this year. And the regime knows their people won’t stand for this.
MARC STEINER: So Reese, you’re sitting there, what would you be saying to Mr. Pompeo at this moment?
REESE ERLICH: “Give me a break.” You blame everything on the Obama administration, right? That’s what they do. When in doubt, blame Obama. In reality, it’s the Trump administration that started the fight. They pulled out of an internationally recognized agreement. It wasn’t just between Iran and the United States. It involved seven countries and it was passed unanimously by the UN Security Council. The US is now in violation of a Security Council resolution and violation of international law. Not only that, it’s not working!
MARC STEINER: So let’s take it from “it’s not working.” What we’re seeing today is that the Iranians have said, going into the UN today, according to The New York Times and a couple of other journals, that they don’t find the support they had when this all began, when Trump walked away from that accord. So what’s the dynamic here? Let’s talk a little bit about the politics here. The changing, how this is being turned from the British seizing tankers to all the bellicose nature coming from our side, and responses from Iran. So let’s just talk about that for a moment.
REESE ERLICH: Okay, well, the US and Britain engaged in piracy. When you illegally detain a ship and detain its crew, it used to be called piracy. Except when it’s carried out by nation states they call it— “it’s okay because they violated the unilateral sanctions that we applied. Blah, blah, blah.” By the way, the US lost on that one as well because the ostensible reason for seizing the tanker was to prevent it from delivering oil to Syria. It delivered oil to Syria. So chalk up another loss for the Trump administration. But it’s a tit for tat situation. The US always likes to start with the tat, rather than the tit. That is, it starts with the fact that the Iranians responded in some way. They seized the tanker or they did this or they did that. But it started not with the Obama administration, but with the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of the JCPOA, the nuclear accord.
All the subsequent actions taken by Iran were predictable. How do we know it’s predictable? You can look at my book. You can look at what other people have been writing for years in which it was detailed: Well, if the US decides to get close to starting a war with Iran, Iran has all these options. It has allies in Hezbollah in Lebanon, in Iraq in the Iraqi Army— often referred to as pro-Iranian militias; they’re actually part of the Iraqi Army— the Houthis in Yemen. And they’re going to take steps and Iran is going to try to keep its hands clean and not be closely connected with these actions. But nevertheless, it’s going to hurt the US and its allies. And that’s exactly what happened.
MARC STEINER: A couple things have changed since this was done by the Trump administration. A, it seems that whether you’re talking about Gibraltar or Great Britain or the European Union or the banks in Europe, are all being put up against the wall by the US government at the moment, and being forced in some ways to adhere to the American agenda, this government’s agenda when it comes to what’s happening with Iran. That has shifted and it’s changed the dynamic considerably. And that’s what I think the Iranians were saying about what’s going to happen at the UN this coming week.
REESE ERLICH: Yeah, it’s no secret that the Europeans have not stood up the way they should’ve, I think. Several European countries were part of the accord. They had said they oppose Trump’s decision to pull out. They were going to set up a special economic entity which would allow the Iranians to have credit, to sell their oil and get cash for it. That’s not actually happened. The only people who have stood up to the United States were China, and to some extent, Russia— both of which are countries that have continued trading with Iran and buying Iranian oil. But yes, the British in particular, but the European countries in general, are basically not the lender. To be fair, they’re under tremendous pressure. That is, they can cut off wire transfers, they can cut off – various European countries with business investments in the United States can be armed.
The US is definitely playing hardball, but the key factor is it’s not worked in terms of pressuring Iran. We have seen no concessions from Iran, no indications the Iranian people are about to overthrow their government as predicted or as hoped for in Washington. Iran has a long history of popular demonstrations on economic issues, on political issues, on all kinds of things. We have not seen them. The Iranian people are rallying around their own government, at least for the moment, because of the anger with what the United States is doing.
MARC STEINER: From what I’ve heard from people inside of Iran, that’s exactly what people who would be demonstrating against this regime in Iran, who don’t agree with it just because they’re saying, “We also are patriots. If you’re going to attack our country, we’re going to fight back.” So what does that leave us on? If you look at it from the perspective of the attack that took place in Saudi Arabia – and the jury’s out. Who knows? It probably came from the Houthis, but the Houthis are backed by Iran. That’s part of the international games being played here at the moment. Whether it’s Syria or Lebanon or Yemen, and the horrendous war against Yemen. But all that filters into this. So some people would argue that “No, we’re not headed for war because Trump’s reluctant to do it.” But we could be stumbling into war. You’ve been following this for a while. What does your analysis tell you?
REESE ERLICH: Well, there’s always the danger of war, particularly because of Trump’s advisors and his erratic behavior. One never knows what Trump is going to do. I’m in Istanbul at the moment and people here are just scratching their heads like “what is going on with this guy in Washington?” And one thing though, is that Trump has shown time after time he’s not going to engage in military action. He’s either seen as weak as a result or as prescient because he’s realizing that yet another war would backfire, particularly for his election campaign and his prospects for winning the election. Who knows what ultimately is driving him?
But he is seen, even by people who advocate military action against Iran here in Turkey, they say he’s weak because he said he was going to bomb Iran and then he didn’t. He said he’s going to be tough about the ships. Notice, the British tanker and a Swedish tanker were seized and there was no military response by Britain or the United States or anyone else. In the rest of the world that’s seen as a weakness. And of course, there’s a large number of people in this region who don’t want to see any US interference at all. They’re very happy to see a weakened United States.
MARC STEINER: So let’s take a look at this quick clip here from Trump himself. It was from yesterday and the questions about this.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We’re doing our own thing with Iran and with a lot of other places. And I think we’re doing very well. A lot of progress is being made in a lot of different ways. So we’ll see, but it’s all going to work out. Always does. We get it to work out. If it doesn’t, sometimes it takes a little longer.
REESE ERLICH: “It’ll always work out, right?” Uh, hello? Why isn’t it working in Iran?
MARC STEINER: “I’ll buy another hotel in the Strait of Hormuz.”
REESE ERLICH: Yes, the Trump Iran.
MARC STEINER: The Tehran Trump. But in all seriousness, it seems that when I watch this and in talking to other people about this that it seems like the European Union in some ways and Iran are playing the long game here, trying to keep things at bay so nothing does explode, but clearly with the war with Yemen and what just happened to the Saudi oil fields, it could explode at any moment. So while it’s tenuous, this could just play out for another year and a half just as we’re watching now.
REESE ERLICH: Well, you were talking earlier about differences in political schemes. In Iran itself there are two different schools of thought. There are people who said, “We should just wait out Trump and rely on the American people to get rid of him in 2020, and then to go back to the nuclear accord and start all over again.” And there’s others who say, “Well no, we should take full advantage of his weakness now, and force Trump to back down because we don’t know who’s going to be nominated by the Democratic Party and what stand they’re going to take on Iran.” There’s hawks in the Democratic Party as well, and the Iranian leadership is very well aware of it.
So I think right now the second option seems to be predominating and that’s because by upping the ante, particularly the attack on the Saudi oil fields, which either were done – I think we can safely say the Iranians were involved in some level or another, not necessarily having fired it from their territory, but it was a very sophisticated attack. And that’s upping the ante on Trump to an unprecedented level. And Trump, they think he’s going to end up backing down and sitting down for meaningful negotiations.
MARC STEINER: I think it’s at least fairly clear for most people I’ve talked to that this technology the Houthis probably used had to come from Iran. But the question is that this is just an escalation we’re seeing that could get really dangerous because it’s pushing it to the edge. The Saudis seem to be backing down. And I know you’re not prescient, don’t have a crystal ball, but how do you think things will work out this week at the UN?
REESE ERLICH: I don’t expect any big developments. I don’t think the Iranians are ready to meet with Trump even if he wanted to at this point. Several years ago when President Rouhani was at the UN, he took a phone call from President Obama at the time. A phone call! Just, “Hi, how are you? What’s new? How’re the kids?” And there was uproar by the hardliners in Tehran criticizing him for even talking on the phone with the President. So the idea that Rouhani would sit down and have any kind of meaningful talk or meet at all with Trump is just fantasy. I think there’s going to be more things playing out in the Hormuz Strait and on the ground in the area before we see any kind of UN actions, or any meaningful action.
MARC STEINER: Well, Reese Erlich, it’s been a pleasure to have you here at The Real News with us. We look forward to many more conversations and your latest reporting coming out of there. I appreciate your work and your time with us today.
REESE ERLICH: My pleasure.
MARC STEINER: And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Give us your ideas and thoughts. Take care.