Donald Trump was supposed to be yesterday’s man. His margin of defeat now stands at a hefty six million popular votes, or four percent, his efforts to hold onto power are looking more and more foolish, and even diehard supporters like Republican senator Roy Blunt of Missouri now acknowledge that Joe Biden will “likely” take office on January 20. So he is finished, kaput, done for.
But if that is the case, how is it that Washington’s biggest has‑been has turned the tables on his opponents and is now setting the standards for Middle East policy for years to come?
That is the head-scratcher posed by the November 27 assassination of top Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. With all the signs pointing to Israel as the culprit, several things seem clear. One is that US secretary of state Mike Pompeo green‑lit the operation – either at his meeting five days earlier with Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the futuristic Red Sea city of Neom, or he did so shortly thereafter. Another is that, politically, Trump has benefited from the killing as much as Netanyahu, if not more.
After all, this is the man who asked the Pentagon to provide a list of Iranian targets shortly after US TV networks declared Biden the winner.1 Even though he allowed himself to be dissuaded from launching a military assault, he was clearly pleased when Israel stepped into the breach and did it for him.2
But there is a third thing that is clear: the losers. Not only is it Iran and Fakhrizadeh himself, not to mention his family, friends and co‑workers, but US Democrats – big time. Talk of resurrecting the 2015 Iran nuclear accord – one of the ‘crowning achievements’ of the Obama administration – is now dead. Hopes of avoiding a confrontation in the Persian Gulf are rapidly diminishing. In effect, Trump has put America on a collision course with the Islamic Republic and, what is more, has arranged matters so that the confrontation will take place under Biden’s watch. That way, it will be left to Democrats to deal with the fallout, while he jeers from the sidelines. And there is nothing the Biden team will be able to do to stop it.
This explains the president-elect’s remarkable silence in the wake of the Fakhrizadeh murder. Normally, one would expect at least a tweet out of the future president, or a sidekick like Antony Blinken or Jake Sullivan – respectively Biden’s designated secretary of state and national security advisor. But, four days after the killing, there has been nothing. Such silence speaks volumes. Biden knows he has been boxed in and that, instead of implementing his own foreign policy, he is now reduced to implementing the incumbent’s. But he is too afraid to admit it.
So how did a so-called loser like Trump pull it off? The short answer is that he merely had to stand by and watch, as his opponent tripped over his own two feet.
Biden is a victim of his own deference to the Jewish state – a position of abject servility that renders him all but helpless when it comes to atrocities like the Fakhrizadeh killing. He is a self-proclaimed Christian Zionist, who has declared that, if it did not already exist, “the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect our interests in the region”.3 If Israel knocks off the occasional Iranian physicist, therefore, he is in no position to complain, since, by his own admission, Israel is merely acting on America’s behalf.
But Biden is the victim of something else: years of Democratic hypocrisy and double talk. Two events have seared themselves into the party’s collective memory. One occurred in 1972, when George McGovern ran on a peace platform during the Vietnam War and got walloped by Richard Nixon by a margin of three to two in the popular vote. The second was in early 1991 when 80% of Democrats in the Senate and 67% in the House voted against the use of military force in the coming Persian Gulf War – a war that, as everybody knows, turned into one of the most one-sided slaughters in modern imperial history. The lesson that the Dems took from both is that, while occasionally throwing doves a bone, they must never allow themselves to be out-hawked again. Even when making peace, they must emit great billows of tough-guy rhetoric to show that they are just as much a war party as their Republican rivals.
Pseudo-macho rhetoric of this sort was on full display in an article that Biden wrote about the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the 2015 Iran agreement is formally known. The piece, published in mid-September this year, made a simple point: Trump was wrong to walk away from the JCPOA in 2018 and, if elected, Biden would make re-entering the pact a top priority in 2021. But, lest readers think that his attitude was anything less than bellicose, Biden tossed in an additional argument, to the effect that, by abandoning the pact, Trump had “worsened the threat” posed by “a bad regional actor” and that only Democrats knew how to put Iran back in its place.
“[T]here is a smart way to be tough on Iran, and there is Trump’s way,” he said:
Before Trump, years went by without a militia rocket attack on US facilities in Iraq. Now they happen regularly. Instead of restoring deterrence, Trump has emboldened Iran. Instead of ending ‘endless wars,’ Trump has repeatedly brought America to the brink of a new one. If this is what Trump considers success, I would hate to see what failure looks like.4
“By any objective measure,” he added, “Trump’s ‘maximum pressure’ has been a boon to the regime in Iran and a bust for America’s interests.”
Blinken, Sullivan or whoever else wrote the piece on Biden’s behalf must have thought this was all terribly clever. But it was fatuous nonsense through and through. Rather than making Iran stronger, Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign of punitive and comprehensive sanctions brought it to its knees. GDP contracted by 9.5% in 2019 alone, living standards plummeted and widespread rioting erupted, while the country’s ability to deal with Covid-19 was crippled. Even though Iran had emerged as one of the world’s leading hot spots, The Lancet reported last April that its ability to cope with the pandemic was “substantially impeded by unilateral economic sanctions”, with medicine, test kits, protective equipment and ventilators all in short supply.5
Where Mongols supposedly used catapults to hurl disease-ridden bodies into besieged cities so as to spread a plague, America was now working to the same end by blocking hospital equipment and pharmaceuticals. Indeed, the Trump administration went so far as to veto a $5 billion International Monetary Fund emergency loan to enable Iran to get through the crisis. Yet here was Biden saying that Trump was not being tough enough on Iran and that he himself would do even more.
This explains Biden’s current paralysis. He cannot say that Trump and Netanyahu are weak, since nothing is tougher than sending out a hit squad to gun down a scientist in broad daylight. But he cannot say they have gone over the top either, since, by his own admission, one can never be too tough in dealing with an outlaw country like Iran. So he has said nothing. For fear of offending doves, neoconservatives and an ultra-right government in Jerusalem, he has decided to hold his tongue.
The implications for the JCPOA are plain. If Iran had killed the head of the US department of energy – the agency in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal – missiles would already be flying. The same would be true if it had knocked off the head of the Israeli nuclear research centre near the city of Dimona. Given all that, it is hard to imagine how Iran can now sit down at the table with a country that believes that it and its Israeli partners have an unqualified right to continue killing its leading citizens. If Iranian president Hassan Rouhani so much as raises the possibility, the result will likely be a nationalist reaction that sends his government reeling. Negotiations are thus off the table, while it is hard to imagine how the JCPOA can ever be brought back to life.
But Iran’s options at this point are limited as well. Fakhrizadeh – a professor of nuclear engineering at Imam Hossein University in Tehran and the so-called ‘father’ of Iran’s nuclear programme – was the fifth Iranian nuclear scientist to be killed by Israel since 2010. If a 12-person death squad did indeed ambush him at 2pm local time some 70 kilometres outside of Tehran, as Iranian journalist Mohammad Ahwaze, citing government sources, has reported,6then the ongoing security breach has been nothing short of massive. If Iran had tried to infiltrate a team that size into Israel, dozens of alarms would have gone off before a single shot was fired. But apparently, Iranian intelligence is so inefficient, so financially strapped – or perhaps so thoroughly penetrated by Israeli double agents – that no flags went up at all.
The military balance of power is meanwhile woefully lopsided. Israel has launched thousands of air strikes at pro-Iranian targets in Syria and Iraq with minimal fear of retaliation. While Iran has staged military exercises, in which a mock US aircraft carrier is attacked and destroyed, any such attempt in real life would be tantamount to suicide, given America’s overwhelming advantage in firepower. Iran could also continue refining uranium now that the JCPOA is a dead letter. But doing so would expose it to yet more US-Israeli retaliation, this time on an even grander scale.
Iran is unable to defend itself, but unable not to defend itself either. But if it cannot strike at US or Israeli military targets, it can take aim at Saudi Arabia – the soft underbelly of the US-Israeli Middle East axis and the victim in September 2019 of a highly effective drone strike by Houthi militia forces in Yemen. This is why bin Salman was reportedly reluctant to go along with the Fakhrizadeh assassination at the November 22 Neom meeting – he is afraid that a Biden administration will not defend him against Iranian retaliation the way Trump would.7
But MBS is now in the thick of things regardless, as the mood darkens in the Persian Gulf, which means that Biden will have no choice but to firm up relations with him as well, now that he has walked straight into the trap set by Trump and Netanyahu. It is yet another example of why it is impossible to fight incipient fascism with a force as weak and duplicitous as the US Democrats.
2) Within hours of the killing, Trump retweeted a statement by Israeli journalist Yossi Melman that Fakhrizadeh’s death was “a major psychological and professional blow for Iran”.↩︎
This column first appeared on the Weekly Worker (UK).