What exactly is the Trump administration up to in Iran?
If its goal were to topple the Islamic Republic’s clerical and military leadership, things probably wouldn’t look much different from what’s going on now.
In the last 10 days, the US eliminated Iran’s military general Qasem Soleimani and reportedly tried to wipe out another top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander in Yemen. President Donald Trump cranked up already punishing sanctions, and spent the weekend tweeting support for anti-government protests and warning the regime in Farsi not to crack down. Top officials are meanwhile tying themselves in knots on intelligence used to justify the Soleimani strike, raising suspicions about the “imminent” attacks they claim to have pre-empted.
Foreign policy hardliners argue that toppling an adversary that threatens the US and its allies is legitimate, legal and prudent. But regime change is the policy that dare not speak its name after disasters in Iraq and Libya. And the roots of nearly 70 years of antagonism between the US and Iran lie in the CIA’s overthrow of Mohammed Mossadeq.
It’s hard to tell whether the US “maximum pressure” campaign that destroyed Iran’s economy is deliberately evolving into a regime change strategy. But there’s no evidence the US has a plan for what could happen if a leadership collapse occurs in Tehran, and the sectarian splintering in Syria and Iraq when brutal governments were destabilized ought to serve as a warning.
After the Iraq war, everyone in Washington vowed that never again would the US embark on a mission to remake a Middle Eastern nation based on questioned intelligence and a misleading public rationale. That there’s even a chance it might be happening again only 20 years later is remarkable.
“I can reveal that I believe it probably would’ve been four embassies.”
Donald Trump used a Fox News interview on Friday night to significantly expand on the scope of purported attacks being planned by Soleimani, which the administration is using to justify his killing. “I can reveal that I believe it would’ve been four embassies,” Trump said in an interview with Fox News.
But he’s set off a storm: Lawmakers briefed by the administration last week say they were not told specifics about threats to US embassies other than the one in Baghdad that had already been attacked by a mob. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had already said that “we don’t know precisely when and we don’t know precisely where” the supposed strikes were supposed to happen — though they were “imminent” and “real.”
Reading intelligence is not an exact science. But as the Iraq war shows, it can confirm pre-existing beliefs — like the man in the Simon and Garfunkel song who “hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.” All the more important that politicians handle intelligence with appropriate caution.
So did the President reveal new details of Soleimani’s intentions that could significantly change the debate about Trump’s order to have him killed? Or is the President inflating the threat to justify an operation on increasingly shaky legal and political ground in Washington? And are his subordinates — as is often the case — contorting themselves to cover up for Trump’s untruthfulness?
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told CBS on Sunday that he had not seen intelligence regarding possible attacks on four embassies. Then he went on CNN, and apparently wary of contradicting his boss, said he couldn’t talk publicly about intelligence. He added:
“What the president said was, he believed it probably could have been.“
National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien came up with a similar word salad on other Sunday talk shows, On “Fox News Sunday” he said it was “consistent with the intelligence to assume that they would have hit embassies in at least four countries.”
“We knew that there were threats to American facilities — now whether they were bases, embassies, you know, it’s always hard until the attack happens.”
Over the weekend: Haiti’s horror, 10 years on
“I remember I was in the center of Port au Prince when I heard the noise. I thought it was an atomic bomb. There had been some students protesting, there’d been a bit of political furor. Then I saw the building move,” says MSF psychologist Marline Naromie Fatal Joseph, recalling the day when an earthquake struck Haiti ten years ago, on Jan. 12, 2010.
“It was a five-story structure right in front of me, and when it began to sway, I thought surely it would collapse. So I ran into an alley, and found it full of people, covered in dust from head to toe. There was more and more dust, and soon we could barely see anything. So many people already had missing limbs and bloodied heads.”
“Six days after the earthquake, [Doctors without Borders] called us to come take care of the sick. So I came back to work, accompanying people who were bereaved, who had lost limbs, their family members, children who had lost their parents,” she tells Meanwhile. “At night, my husband and I slept under the stars in the Champs de Mars public square, because we all were afraid to sleep indoors. There were still aftershocks, and we feared that houses that had stood so far would eventually fall.
Has Haiti rebuilt in a way that would make it more resilient today? “We are not ready for another earthquake,” says Joseph. “And I can’t say that Haiti has any institution capable of dealing with all the psychological trauma of another catastrophe like that.
“Some trauma is permanent,” she adds.
Number of the day: 500
The sheer number of people on Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders’ campaign is one of the reasons he offered to explain a Politico report that that someone on his team told volunteers to trash-talk his political rival and ideological ally Elizabeth Warren.
“We have over 500 people on our campaign. People do certain things. I’m sure that in Elizabeth’s campaign, people do certain things as well,” Sanders told reporters on Sunday. “But you have heard me for months. I have never said a negative word about Elizabeth Warren who is a friend of mine. We have differences of issues, that’s what the campaign is about, but no one is going to be attacking Elizabeth.”
“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” Warren had told reporters earlier in the day.