The Daily Mail reported last week that former British ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch said that Donald Trump “set upon an act of diplomatic vandalism” to spite Barack Obama, citing leaked diplomatic cables between 2017-2019. These leaks add to the understanding among critics of the Trump administration that the president’s approach to Iran which has included sanctions and now, according to The Daily Mail, personal grievances with the former president, might move the U.S. will “bumble” into war with Iran.
But Khury Petersen-Smith, the Middle East Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington D.C., writes in an article for Counterpunch that “it’s the U.S. that is belligerently threatening Iran, not the other way around. And if a war breaks out, it won’t be because the administration ‘bumbled’ into one.”
“The fact is when you look at the situation, it’s the United States that pulled out of the deal that Iran was complying with, it’s the United States that put thousands of additional troops in the Middle East, the region where the U.S. already has many thousands of troops. It’s the United States that has maintained a devastating sanctions regime on Iran,” Petersen-Smith told The Real News Network’s Marc Steiner. “It’s the United States that came within minutes of attacking Iran recently. You know, it wasn’t Iran [to do] that, it was the United States that has an aircraft carrier off the coast of Iran. And I would ask viewers to consider what would happen if Iran, or any other country for that matter, put military muscle off the coast of this country. And so it’s really very clearly the United States that is the aggressor if you look at what’s actually happening.”
Petersen-Smith observed that Trump and National Security Adviser John Bolton have competing visions for Iran. The U.K. has its own differing vision, as evidenced by Darroch’s comments in the leaked cable and Darroch’s resignation once those cables went public. Nigel Farrage criticized Darroch while Prime Minister Theresa May said she supported Darroch.
“I don’t think the Trump restrictions are on the same page. And certainly I don’t think Britain and the U.S. are on the same page, right. And the U.S. is also cultivating a whole set of alliances actually at the moment against Iran, working with countries that have long been waging wars in and carrying out other activities in the Middle East in the name of isolating Iran, like Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, along with Israel,” Petersen-Smith said. “My point is these countries may not all be clear on exactly what they want, but they are united on an aggressive posture. And it’s in that context that we could see military escalation.”
The leaked cables offer more evidence of infighting, Petersen-Smith explained, but the U.S. and a number of its allies remain firmly on the same side when it comes to escalation: “We can look at the kind of goings-on that’s revealed by these cables, the different spats between Trump and the various heads of state around the world, actually, but it’s really important to step back and look at the big picture, which is that the U.S., Britain, and various U.S. allies, of course Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, et cetera—all of these countries are escalating tensions in the world, and that’s really, I think, the big story that we have to pay attention to.”
MARC STEINER Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you all with us.
Our guest has written that we are not necessarily bumbling into a war with Iran, but that Trump and his allies in the White House may be pushing for war with Iran. We have seen escalating tensions. Just this week, the British seized an Iranian cargo ship, Iran was accused of hijacking a UAE ship, and all of this in the wake of Trump building up troops, being within minutes of bombing Iran. And it all began when Trump took the United States out of the EU-led agreement with Iran to end economic sanctions in return for Iran pledging not to enrich uranium for military purposes. Now, it seems to have been revealed from leaked diplomatic cables that Trump’s motivation might have been deeply personal— to get back at Obama.
To sort all this out, we talk with Khury Petersen-Smith, the Middle East Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies in Washington, DC, who this week wrote the article “Iran is not the aggressor; The US is” in Foreign Policy in Focus. And welcome, Khury. Good to have you back.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Thank you. Good to be here, Marc.
MARC STEINER So let’s start with how you lead off your article here with Trump’s latest tweet. And I think it’s really, kind of, telling to talk a bit about what this tweet says, and where it might be taking us all. “Iran has long been secretly ‘enriching’ in total violation of the terrible 150 Billion Dollar deal made by John Kerry and the Obama Administration. Remember, the deal was to expire in a short number of years. Sanctions will be increased substantially!” says Trump. So let’s talk about what this means. First, let’s deal with what’s his whole argument here around this $150 billion, which has been debunked by everybody that this was not the case, but that’s being used, kind of, as the wedge here. So talk about both his threat and what that’s built on.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Right. Well. First of all, just coming from that tweet, you know, the obvious first question is, if this is a terrible deal that Trump pulled out of, [laughs] then why should Iran be abiding by it? I mean, the thing about what’s happening with Iran right now is they’re really trying to get us to forget any history. Not only, you know, the history of the past century, what the US has done with Iran as well as Britain and so on, but even in recent history, and what Trump himself has done very recently. And so, this is once again an effort to try to frame Iran as the aggressor, when in fact it’s the United States that pulled out of a deal that Iran was abiding by. And now, Iran is responding to that situation.
MARC STEINER I mean, to me, one of the things that many people don’t seem to be able to talk about here is that what Trump is pushing are the deals made in a treaty he pulled out of.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Right. Exactly.
MARC STEINER So, you know, he’s upset because Iran’s violating a treaty that we’re no longer part of as a nation.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Violating a treaty that it was abiding by, and it was the United States that pulled out of it. So the Trump administration came into its relationship with Iran not taking yes for an answer. Iran was complying and it’s really Trump that is starting the trouble.
MARC STEINER But one of the disturbing things also you point out in the lead of your article, before we talk about some of the things that have happened since your article was published, is that it seems that the press, the Western press, the American press in particular, whether it’s The New York Times that has more of a liberal bent in its editorial policy and is a newspaper of note, or whether it’s Fox News and they’re pushing in their headlines and their hosts, are all almost blaming Iran for what’s going on. As in a universal push by the American media, it seems, to agree that Iran is the enemy; they are the evil one.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Right. So that’s exactly right. You have the Trump administration itself with that narrative. You have people, like Senator Tom Cotton, who are other government officials who are saying that Iran is the aggressor, and you have the mainstream US media carrying that. And they may disagree with how Trump is going about things, but the idea that Iran is the aggressor here and that the United States has to do the right thing, that’s the line that they all agree on. And the fact is, when you look at the situation, it’s the United States that pulled out of the deal that Iran was complying with. It’s the United States that put thousands of additional troops in the Middle East, a region where the US already has many thousands of troops.
It’s the United States that has maintained a devastating sanctions regime on Iran, something that Trump refers to in his tweet that he says he wants to escalate. It’s the United States that came within minutes of attacking Iran recently. You know, it wasn’t Iran that did that. It’s the United States that has an aircraft carrier off the coast of Iran. And I would ask viewers to consider what would happen if Iran, or any other country for that matter, put a military vessel off the coast of this country. And so, it’s really, very clearly the United States that is the aggressor if you look at what’s actually happening. And yet, the media are describing what seems like an alternate reality in which it’s Iran that is pursuing the escalation.
MARC STEINER So what do you make of the latest machinations that have happened over the last week with Britain stopping the oil tanker at Gibraltar, with the UAE tanker being towed into Iranian waters, being pulled into Iranian waters, and the confusion still as to what that really meant. Was it retaliation for the British going after their tanker, or did they really help a UAE tanker that was in trouble? We don’t know the reality of that. It’s hard to say, but these clearly say in some ways that things are escalating to some dangerous levels.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Yeah. That’s right. It’s really, very scary. You know, I think that the Trump administration is not clear exactly what they want. They have an aggressive posture. But, you know, John Bolton’s vision with Iran might be different from Trump’s vision with Iran, and so on. And that’s why their policy has looked so haphazard and it’s not—So I don’t think the Trump administration is on the same page. And certainly, I don’t think Britain and the US are on the same page, right? And the US is also cultivating a whole set of alliances actually at the moment against Iran, working with countries that have long been waging wars and carrying out other activities in the Middle East in the name of isolating Iran— like Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular, along with Israel. My point is, these countries may not all be clear on exactly what they want, but they are united on an aggressive posture. And it’s in that context that we could see military escalation.
MARC STEINER So let’s take a look though at what we just alluded to a moment ago. Let’s talk about these leaked cables. First, let’s take a look for a moment and watch both Boris Johnson and Donald Trump and their response to this. And then we’ll talk about what the heart of this could mean.
BORIS JOHNSON, BRITISH MP I think he was a superb, is a superb diplomat, and I worked with him for many years. And I think that whoever leaked his diptels [diplomatic telegrams] really has done a grave disservice to our civil servants, to people who give impartial advice to ministers, and I hope that whoever that it is, is rundown, caught and eviscerated, quite frankly, because it is not right.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP Look, I wish the British ambassador well, but they’ve got to stop their leaking problem there, just like they have to stop them in our country.
MARC STEINER Stop those leaking problems. Call your plumbers. [laughs] But in seriousness, seriously when you—We haven’t seen the cables, but we’ve seen some of the responses from the British ambassador and others. It appears that they’re saying Trump doesn’t know what he’s doing, that there’s internal bickering in the White House, there’s no real clear policy, and that there was a real difference between Britain and the United States over coming out of this treaty. And all that’s coming out in these cables, so what does that really mean? I mean, how important is these cables being leaked, and do they mean anything to anybody?
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Well, you know, I think there’s two things. One is, what they reveal is something—They reveal something behind the scenes that’s actually really obvious I think to everybody in the world, which is that the US and Britain both are in quite unstable positions, particularly the Trump administration. It’s not clear exactly what they want. And Britain has been stuck for a while now in this Brexit situation, and it’s not clear what the people running Britain want either. These are two countries that have run the world, they have called the shots for a very long time, and now they are in a relative position of instability in terms of what’s happening, you know, in the White House and in the home office and so on.
So they have their own, kind of, internal instability. That is a reality. But that is not preventing them from taking this aggressive posture toward Iran and toward any number of other countries in the world. So I think, you know, we can look at the kind of goings on that’s revealed by these cables, the different spats between Trump and the various heads of state around the world actually, but it’s really important also to step back and look at the big picture, which is that the US, Britain, and various US allies— of course, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Israel, etc.— all of these countries are escalating tensions in the world. And that’s really, I think, the big story that we have to pay attention to.
MARC STEINER So, you know, Trump has also talked about, and we’ll look at this right here, about how he bragged about Iran was in fourteen different countries when I pulled out of the treaty, and now look how successful we’ve been. So let’s watch and take a look at this for a minute.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP When I first came to office, one of the first meetings I had was at the Pentagon with generals. And they were showing me the Middle East. And they had fourteen or fifteen sites where there was nothing but war, problems. Every single one of those sites was instigated by Iran. It was Iran military. It was people paid by Iran. It was just, you have no idea. It was just—I said, this is terrible. They were so strong. I ended the Iran nuclear deal. And actually, I must tell you, I had no idea it was going to be as strong as it was. It totally, the country is devastated.
MARC STEINER Every time I watch him, I keep thinking he’s going to yell “you’re fired” or something. [laughs] But let’s talk about the heart of what he said. You know, he came in, it was such a disaster, Iran was everywhere, and now look at what I’ve done. [laughs]
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Right. Yeah. The idea that the Middle East or any other region of the world is more stable and is a better place to live since Trump took office is one of those things. I mean, we’re all laughing at it because it’s laughable in a way, but, you know, the humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen, for example, there’s nothing funny about that.
MARC STEINER Right.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH And that’s one thing that the Trump Administration has blamed Iran for. I mean, the justification of the US supporting Saudi Arabia and the UAE in Yemen is that this is a proxy war for Iran, something of which there is just no proof for, and yet it’s Yemenis who are paying the price. That’s true of many number of countries in the world. So it’s absurd and, you know, this idea that Trump ended on, which is that the sanctions have been great, the country is devastated. Well, that’s true. Iran is devastated. Now it’s worth noting that actually last week, the Congressional Research Service issued a report to Congress about the impact of US sanctions. And they noted that the sanctions have had virtually no effect on the Iranian military, and yet they’ve had a devastating effect on the Iranian economy, and therefore the society. So that part of what Trump said is true. Iranians— ordinary Iranians— are paying the price for these policies, but it is not weakening the Iranian military at all.
MARC STEINER So I’m just curious, your analysis of one part. Because there’s part of what Trump said, the untruths about the fourteen nations, and compared to what you said. But the reality is that for very complex reasons, Iran and the West are in collision courses across the globe. I mean, there’s no—I mean, they may not be managing the Houthis, but clearly they are behind them. Just like they are— Iran— in Syria and supporting Syrian groups. And they’re also supporting, you know, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and part of Libya. All that’s there and Western interests are on the other side, and they’re in this battle of control in many ways. And I think many people on, kind of, analyzing what this treaty and what this attack around Iran really has to do with is solidifying control over the Middle East. I mean, because those tensions are real. They’re not made up.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Well, their tensions are real, but they come in a context, and I think that it’s the United States and its allies that are really shaping that context. The point that you make about the US and its allies wanting control over the Middle East is absolutely true. And certainly, somebody like John Bolton was one of the people advocating back in 2001, 2002, 2003, that the US should be attacking Iran, you know, as it went and attacked Afghanistan and Iraq. And that was precisely about making sure the United States was supreme in the region and that there was no state that did anything other than the, kind of, path that the US and its allies had forged. So that effort to really maintain control has for a long time been the plan for many people who are now in the Trump administration.
Now, it’s true that there is a certain polarization, but the question is what is driving that? So for example, Yemen actually, what’s happening in Yemen for Yemenis is not about Iran. [laughs] It’s not about the United States. And there are internal—Yemen has its own history, right? And it’s only in this battle that the United States and Saudi Arabia and Israel are fomenting with Iran. It’s in that context that there’s a polarization in which they can say, okay, what’s happening in Yemen is really a proxy battle between Saudi Arabia and the US and UAE on one side, and Iran on the other side. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s the United States that is contributing to a polarizing dynamic that makes it so that there are different forces that are choosing sides.
MARC STEINER Khury, I don’t want to believe this, but we’re almost out of time here. But, I mean, sometimes I think—How do I put this? Sometimes I think that people on the Left and progressives in general want to diminish the role that Iran plays— both internally as a repressive regime and externally— because it is involved. I mean, it doesn’t mean that that justifies an American response, and to have sanctions against Iran, or to come out of the treaty, or any of the other things.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Right.
MARC STEINER But to not realize we’re also on this world stage and these different forces, economic forces, are battling each other for control— Iran is in the middle of that. It’s not like they’re just an innocent player.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Yeah. No, you’re totally right. And I, you know, nothing that I write or say is an endorsement of, you know, the Iranian government. And there are resistance movements in Iran, as there are around the world.
MARC STEINER Right.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH But there are movements in Iran that are challenging that government for any number of reasons, including the repressive situation for most people there, particularly for women there, for all kinds of oppressed minorities in Iran. And Iranians in Iran are challenging what Iran is doing beyond its borders as well. So I think that for those of us, you know—My solidarity is with the people all around the world who are fighting for freedom. I just think that—
MARC STEINER Amen to that, Khury. We’re on the same page. [laughs]
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Yeah. And so, you know, really the question is, can the people of the world fighting for freedom look to each other and build solidarity instead of looking, believing what our governments are saying? And in that context, for those of us here in the United States, I just think it’s really important to start with, let’s be clear on, yes, this is a battle between the US and Iran, and we shouldn’t be choosing either government to side with. But, but, the United States surrounds Iran with, you know, all kinds of ships and troops and bases. The United States clearly has a dominant role in this relationship.
MARC STEINER So in the ten seconds or so we have left, I just wanted to ask you very quickly, the danger of where this could take us? Because you don’t think we would bumble into war. You actually think it would be precipitated.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Well, you know, there is what the US officials are saying, which is that they don’t want war. And then there’s what they’re actually doing. I don’t think they’re on the same page in terms of what exactly a military operation looks like. Would it be, in their minds, a limited kind of situation? Would it be a full-scale invasion? Either of which would be devastating for Iran, and neither of which is justifiable. But I don’t think they’re on the same page with that. But what they are on the same page on clearly is putting more troops and material in the region. And that’s why if there is a military conflict, it won’t be a mistake. I mean, the tactical details may have been unintended, but the US is very intentionally escalating the situation right now. We can’t lose sight of that.
MARC STEINER Well, Khury Petersen-Smith, it’s always a pleasure to talk to you and thanks for your work with the Institute of Policy Studies. We’ll be talking together soon I hope.
KHURY PETERSEN-SMITH Likewise, Marc. Take care.
MARC STEINER Take care. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Take care.