HOW worried should we be about war with Iran? On the face of it, President Trump’s decision to call off the bombers with ten minutes to spare last week was hugely to be welcomed. The statement that he made, about the need for his response to the latest crisis in the Gulf being proportionate, seemed uncharacteristically wise. But how did he get to this position in the first place — slouching towards another conflagration in the Middle East?
President Trump is torn between two unsavoury right-wing instincts, and they are embodied in two groups of advisers. The warmongers, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo — motivated by oil, veneration of Israel, and an alliance with the murderous Saudis — have unashamedly advocated that the United States should bomb Iran. The doves, embodied in the Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson, advocate American isolationism, and deeply oppose any kind of foreign engagement — negative or positive — anywhere.
It is hard to know exactly what is going on in the Gulf from the few grainy photographs provided by American intelligence, which purport to show Iran’s Revolutionary Guard planting and removing mines from the side of oil tankers passing through the Straits of Hormuz.
There are no Western reporters in Tehran producing reliable in-depth insights into Iran’s internal politics — although in The New York Times last weekend the Iranian novelist Salar Abdoh wrote on the impact of US sanctions on Iran. A dramatic fall in oil exports, hugely devalued currency, and high inflation mean that fruits have become luxury items, families cannot afford meat, the price of paper has increased fivefold, and transplant patients cannot get immunosuppressive medicines.
All this has happened since the Trump administration recklessly decided, despite opposition from Britain and Europe, to tear up the imperfect but effective 2015 deal, painstakingly negotiated, which allowed Iran nuclear power without the ability to develop a nuclear bomb.
It is not clear that President Trump was telling the truth — when is it ever? — about his aborted bombing adventure. He said that he changed his mind because he was told at the last minute that 150 people might die in his retaliatory bombing raids. But White House insiders say that he was told this days before, and that his last-minute U-turn was rooted in something else — perhaps listening to a broadcast by Carlson. President Trump reportedly makes decisions based on the advice of the last person he talked to. He “like a feather pillow, bears the marks of the last person who has sat on him”, as Field Marshal Haig once said of a rival.
It may be that President Trump’s cranking-up of sanctions still further this week — albeit in ways symbolic rather than substantive — is an attempt to save face after his chaotic U-turn on the bombing.
How likely is war with Iran? It really is impossible to say. But Iran is no Iraq: it is a sophisticated society and substantial economy, with a highly educated population of 80 million people of considerable cohesion and determination. War with Iran could set the entire Middle East ablaze, with untold consequences. The idea that the deployment of the US’s overwhelming military might is in the hands of an individual so volatile, shallow, and braggardly as Donald Trump should worry us all.