An update on Trump’s Saber Rattling in the Middle East

Summary: Martin van Creveld, with a front row seat and deep knowledge, provides an update on Trump’s most belligerent foreign policy action. It is, of course, a farce.

Iranian launches in the Persian Gulf.
Iranian launches in the Persian Gulf. Photo by Iranian Ministry of Defense/Press TV.

Crisis? What Crisis?

By Martin van Creveld. From his website, 6 June 2019.
Posted with his generous permission. Links added.

Weeks have passed since The Donald, by announcing the U.S withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (aka the Iran nuclear deal, aka the Iran deal), started a “crisis” in the Middle East. Such being the case, it is time to draw at least a temporary balance as to what happened, what did not happen, and what is likely to happen in what is known, euphemistically, as “the foreseeable future.” So here goes.

Iran was and remains the largest and most powerful, state in the region around the Persian Gulf. That this Iran has its ideology, its interests, its objectives, its phobias, its friends, and its enemies just as any other country does hardly requires saying, To be sure, Iranian policy has its peculiarities. But no more so than that of any others.

As far as anyone knows, the Mullahs have now been working on their nuclear program, which they inherited from the Shah, for some thirty years. {Editor’s note: almost certainly not true. See below.} As far as anyone knows, Trump’s new sanctions have not caused them to greatly accelerate that program or sharply change its course towards bomb-making. The step they, responding to Trump, have taken, i.e. increasing the enrichment of low level uranium, is mostly symbolic, though this might change later if and when they feel they are in real danger of coming under attack.

As was to be expected, the U.S-led sanctions on Iran, while making life difficult for many ordinary Iranians, have not worked. Nor are they very likely to work in the future. To be sure, many Iranians have no special love for the Mullahs’ regime, which they see as fanatical, oppressive, corrupt, and unnecessarily bellicose. They would certainly like to get rid of it; however, they seem to dislike foreigners meddling in what they see as their own affairs even more. This aspect of the matter, whose importance is paramount, would surely remain in place even if the Mullahs were to disappear tomorrow.

The Houthi rebels of Yemen, presumably armed and instigated by Iran, have mounted some attacks on Saudi and other Gulf country targets. Going from strength to strength, they have shown that the Saudis are as incapable of giving a good fight as they were back in 1991. More attacks, apparently meant to deter the Americans without provoking them too much, are likely to follow. Nevertheless, contrary to the fears of many there has been no dramatic increase in terrorism in the Middle East.

Contrary to the fears of many, too, there has been no dramatic increase in the price of oil. To the extent that the price has gone up, the greatest beneficiary has been America’s competitor, i.e. Russia. For your attention, Donald.

For Tehran, opposing and threatening Israel is the red flag with to attract sympathy and allies in much of the Arab world. For Netanyahu, Iran is the rod with which to attract followers inside Israel. He continues doing his very best to get the U.S to launch a war against Iran, and will surely go on doing so as long as he remains in the prime minister’s office and out of prison.

The “crisis” has caused some Arab countries, notably those of the Gulf, to further tighten their already quite close relations with Israel. To that extent, Israel has also benefited from it.

Trump’s bluff has been called. For all his bluster, he has not brought the Mullahs to their knees. Nor did he start a war, nor reinforced his forces in the Gulf nearly to the point that would be needed in order to do so. The telephone number he gave the Swiss has remained unused, leaving him in a weaker position than previously.

Meanwhile, some of the heavyweights in Beijing may not be at all averse to witnessing this latest show of American weakness. That weakness is certain to have consequences later on, though when they will emerge and what form they will take is hard to say. As in the song: “Don’t know where, don’t know when, but I know we’ll meet again.”

Finally: The Europeans do not count, since all the important decisions are made over their heads. As usual.


Editor’s note

About Iran’s nukes.

Any medium-sized industrialized nation can build a nuke in a decade. Small, poor, slightly industrialized North Korea did so in 20 years (started ~1986, first successful explosion in 2006). Iran began their program earlier, perhaps (as MvC notes) under the Shah. Iran was predicted to have nukes when North Korea was just starting their program.

“Iran is engaged in the production of an atomic bomb, likely to be ready within two years, according to press reports in the Persian Gulf last week.”
Jane’s Defense Weekly, 24 April 1984.

The likely reality is that Iran did not have a serious nuclear program for most of that time (see Wikipedia). The 2007 National Intelligence Estimate reported that “We judge with high confidence that in fall 2003, Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program.” That was a horrific mistake by Iran’s leaders, for which they might pay dearly. As Otter said to Flounder in the classic film Animal House

“You f**ked up. You trusted us!”

For more about this, one of America’s most successful propaganda campaigns, see Fear Iran’s nukes, coming very soon since 1984. Also see What happens if Iran gets nukes? Not what we’ve been told.

About Iran’s navy.

Iran has two navies. First, the Islamic Republic of Iran Navy – a conventional force. Second, the Navy of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – an unconventional force designed for asymmetric warfare. We saw how they might win in the Millennium Challenge 2002 war games, one of the largest (perhap the most expensive) ever done. The “Red” force simulate Iran, and was commanded by Paul K. Van Riper (Lieutenant General, USMC). From the Wikipedia entry …

“In a preemptive strike, Red launched a massive salvo of cruise missiles that overwhelmed the Blue forces’ electronic sensors and destroyed sixteen warships. This included one aircraft carrier, ten cruisers and five of six amphibious ships. An equivalent success in a real conflict would have resulted in the deaths of over 20,000 service personnel. Soon after the cruise missile offensive, another significant portion of Blue’s navy was “sunk” by an armada of small Red boats, which carried out both conventional and suicide attacks that capitalized on Blue’s inability to detect them as well as expected.”

Martin van Creveld

About the Author

Martin van Creveld is Professor Emeritus of History at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and one of the world’s most renowned experts on military history and strategy. See his Wikipedia entry.

The central role of Professor van Creveld in the development of theory about modern war is difficult to exaggerate. He has written 24 books about almost every significant aspect of war. See links to his articles at The Essential 4GW reading list: Martin van Creveld.

OF more general interest are his books about western culture: Men, Women & War: Do Women Belong in the Front Line?, The Privileged Sex, and Pussycats: Why the Rest Keeps Beating the West.

To better understand our future, see his magnum opus – the dense but mind-opening The Rise and Decline of the State – describes the political order unfolding before our eyes.

His latest book is Hitler in Hell, a mind-blowing memoir “by” one of the most remarkable men of 20th century.

For More Information

Ideas! For shopping ideas see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about Iran, and especially these …

  1. Have Iran’s leaders vowed to destroy Israel? — No, but it’s established as fact by repetition.
  2. Stratfor: Trump’s art of wrecking the nuclear deal with Iran.
  3. We pay for Trump’s gift to the hard-liners of Iran & America.
  4. Jessica Mathews: why scuttling the Iran deal is MAD.
  5. New and secret alliances reshape the Middle East.
  6. Martin Van Creveld: Trump’s scary saber rattling in the Middle East.

About Obama’s diplomatic triumph with Iran, thrown away by Trump

Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy
Available at Amazon.

Losing an Enemy:
Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy

By Trita Parsi (2017).

From the publisher …

“The definitive book on Obama’s historic nuclear deal with Iran from the author of the Foreign Affairs Best Book on the Middle East in 2012.

“This timely book focuses on President Obama’s deeply considered strategy toward Iran’s nuclear program and reveals how the historic agreement of 2015 broke the persistent stalemate in negotiations that had blocked earlier efforts.

“The deal accomplished two major feats in one stroke: it averted the threat of war with Iran and prevented the possibility of an Iranian nuclear bomb. Trita Parsi, a Middle East foreign policy expert who advised the Obama White House throughout the talks and had access to decision-makers and diplomats on the U.S. and Iranian sides alike, examines every facet of a triumph that could become as important and consequential as Nixon’s rapprochement with China. Drawing from more than seventy-five in-depth interviews with key decision-makers, including Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, this is the first authoritative account of President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement.”

17 thoughts on “An update on Trump’s Saber Rattling in the Middle East”

  1. “The deal accomplished two major feats in one stroke: it averted the threat of war with Iran…”. I am not familiar with Obama”s deal with Iran, but I don’t place much faith in the alleged averting given the nature of our taxpayer depleting War Machine. It would have, however, been interesting to view the details behind the proverbial “follow the money” path in regard to that Obama deal.

    1. Chad,

      “I am not familiar with Obama”s deal with Iran, but I don’t place much faith in the alleged averting given the nature of our taxpayer depleting War Machine.”

      Doubting simple facts on the basis of a political belief is, imo, unwise. It’s the path to seeing the world only in terms of tribal truths.

  2. “Doubting simple facts on the basis of a political belief is, imo, unwise. It’s the path to seeing the world only in terms of tribal truths.”

    I am uncertain to what political belief you are referring to in that quote, as my statement was not based upon a political belief but instead on cold hard facts observed from the inside of our War Machine.

    Tribal truths – I am an Independent, so I critique and criticize Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Socialists, Communists, etc. equally. I wish there were enough of my fellow travelers to constitute a tribe.

      1. I have no idea which simple facts based on a political belief you are alluding to, and my comprehension of the English language is quite good, so there is no need to reread your brief contribution to van Creveld’s article which puts forward information I hold in high regard.

        My point about Parsi”s point concerning averting the threat of war – there will always be a threat of war, but not necessarily a war carried out, from our War Machine now or later if certain countries do not dance to a particular tune. That is a given.


    Is the source of oil moving over the next decade to the neighbouring “stans”, Saudi Arabia’s 2030 project is all about diversification out of oil, if there is oil to 2090 and the petrol and diesel ban on cars in UK and Europe only kicks in 2040, is it necessary to push through such big projects, at huge costs, so quickly, it is a recipe for waste and inefficiencies.

    Trump has fired a shot across the bow and the ship kept coming, he can’t fire a second without some provocation, It is the big kids dilemma if he foolishly insults the vocal small kid, and they insult him back what is the next step – punch the small kid in the face? Launch 1,000’s of Cruise missiles? The small kid knows he will get away with insults and rudeness while he has witnesses and they are only at the irritating level, but not excessive, the teachers/ press will jump on the big kids for punching him in the face and for being weak if he does nothing about the insults.

    Any instructor, teacher etc has seen how the small vocal kids in the class can get away with this, especially if the big kid is on the sports team and strong or fresh from too many recent wars, they will get in the most trouble. This situation isn’t so different.

    I recently read:, which is a start to this discussion.

    Is Iran trucking in oil from Turkmenistan, which it borders? Ted Rall seems to say yes in the above book. If so that is probably a factor. Is this the last big 10 – 15 years of Saudi oil? Is the game and multinationals interest really shifting towards the “stans”, makes the TAP or TAPI pipeline, the start of a modern Great Game, all the same players mainly only the US will take the British Empires seat at the table.

    If the mess in the Middle East is anything to go by, is the next stage to create the same in the “Stans”, as their oil becomes more important. Are they manoeuvring to use Iran as an excuse?

    1. Just a Guy,

      That Seeking Alpha article is just 5he usual bold guessing. I’ve been reading identical articles for over a decade. It is interesting only to people unfamiliar with the issues.

      As for Ted Rall, I cannot imagine why you ignore experts but get information from a cartoonist. But that’s our America!

  4. The mullahs who are Iran’s public face are fond of hurling colorful insults in America’s general direction. Trump, being easily baited, may not get that the invective is political theater, ultimately meaning little, so he overreacts.

    Not a fan of either Trump or Obama, but the latter at least had the capacity to distinguish between a jeer delivered for effect and a genuine threat.

    Then again, maybe Trump’s overreactions are intentional, his own form of political theater, and a tactic.

    1. Scott,

      True. And American are fond of blaming Iran for all sorts of things (often imaginary) and threatening dire actions. The mullah may not understand that much of this is for domestic consumption.

      Of course, insufficient paranoia by leaders of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya proved unwise. The mullahs might come to regret not building nukes in the 1980s and 1990s.

      1. As a wise man once noted: It’s not paranoia if they really are out to get you.

      2. Scott,

        Nobody is out to get you. As I wrote earlier, America is declining in ways similar to the Roman Republic. Appropriate, since that was a model the Founders used when building America.

        The driving force, then and now, is the people’s unwillingness to bear the burden of self-government.

      3. Its not without reason perhaps that it has been said (see below). For if man do not govern himself in matters of morality and self-discipline. How then could he take on the burden of self-government?

        “Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Oaths in this country are as yet universally considered as sacred obligations. That which you have taken, and so solemnly repeated on that venerable ground, is an ample pledge of your sincerity and devotion to your country and its government.”

        — Letter from President John Adams to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, 11 October 1798.

      4. info,

        That’s a great quote. I added the larger passage of which it is a part. I doubt that it well describes us today. For example, oaths mean nothing. To what binding force or being could they be sworn? Perjury is, as in most places and times, just good sense.

        In my 12 years as an arbitrator, we often joked that we should give scores (as they do at Olympic events such as 2.3) for most moving testimony instead of awards.

      5. @FM

        Indeed I absolutely agree.

        I just watched something about a new kind of business innovation is occurring. And perhaps that can have a potential for helping people into the process of self-government:

        I don’t know if its actually related. But I found that this kind of business structure has resemblance to the ideal of self-government.

        It entails removing a lot of middle managers. And breaks up the business into self-managing teams. Where everyone in the company has to be an entrepreneur like a kind of mini-CEO

        You are free to dismiss this if this is actually irrelevant.

        Or its a new topic that may be of interest.

  5. The entire narrative that Trump is “anti-intervention” has lasted far too long – the Iran escalation being the most blatant and recent counter-example to this narrative. Keeping troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, sending troops (probably permanently) to Syria and a coup-attempt flop in Venezuela were all signs that it’s business as usual on the FP front.

      1. Larry,

        You’re too fast for me, even with a 2 day break. I’m still trying to absorb “The Coming Technological Singularity”. It has my imagination running wild.

        This post was also a very good one I had to re-read. Van Creveld’s focus on the moral high ground is something I admire.

        Trump is following std NGOP* playbook. I totally agree. Then again, so do the Dems. Dem Congresscritters vote to fund War Machine in their districts.

        And then, as we compete, our advances with our high tech autonomous weapons, enhanced nets and other advances it will soon get away from us, runaway, the Singularity has arrived and humanity is wiped out.

        And now you start my week with a Lind post I’ll definitely read.

        Not GOP.

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