Iran Chat: Interview with Jim Lobe about the Likelihood of War with Iran

After a long break, Iran Chat is back and we felt this year’s series should begin with a deep dive into the current state of US-Iran relations, focusing on the very real and growing possibility of war with Iran. 
To help sort through all the recent news and issues concerning US-Iran relations, we spoke with journalist Jim Lobe.  He served as chief of the Washington DC bureau of Inter Press Service from 1980 to 1985 and again from 1989 to 2016.  Currently he is an Associate Fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies where he directs LobeLog, an award-winning web blog focused on foreign policy, featuring posts by expert contributors on a variety of global issues, with an emphasis on US policy towards the Middle East. 
Recently, he co-wrote an article for Lobelog entitled War Against Iran Becoming Ever More Likely.  We discuss his rationale for this assessment during our conversation.  

Some excerpts:

Regarding the Anti-Iran Advisors Around Trump

There are a fairly significant number of people around the President who seem to not like Iran at all, and while they may not want war with Iran -- they would prefer for the regime to collapse or for there to be a popular insurrection that would displace the regime -- they are of the view that regime change is essential and at the very least the US needs to inflict as much damage as possible on military and paramilitary capabilities of Iran before they leave office. 

The prime example is John Bolton who is the National Security Advisor.  He seems to have a lot against Iran, seemingly dating from the hostage crisis, which he considers to have humiliated the US… He’s closely associated with the MEK and has spoken before them many times; the last time predicting the imminent end of the Islamic Republic, just before he become National Security Advisor. 

Then there’s Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, who may not be quite as hawkish as Bolton, but clearly really hates Iran.  When he was a Congressman, he was involved in various stunts designed to embarrass Iran.  He was constantly denouncing Iran and vehemently opposed the JCPOA … He is definitely a Christian Zionist, making reference to the rapture in public, and he is very devoted to the idea of a greater Israel of the kind that Likud has historically espoused. There is very little doubt in my mind that he thinks devotion to Israel should be a fundamental principle of US foreign policy.

Then there’s someone like Sheldon Adelson who is the Republican Party’s biggest donor.  And who, back about seven years ago, suggested that the US drop a nuclear bomb somewhere in the - as he put it - Iranian desert, coupled with the ultimatum that Iran must give up its entire nuclear infrastructure if it wanted to survive; and, if Iran failed to comply his idea was to drop a nuclear bomb in the middle of Tehran.

President Trump's Attitude Towards War with Iran

Personally, I think that if you presented the idea of war to President Trump, he wouldn’t like it because he takes pride in the fact that there hasn’t been a war despite various pressures.  I think he does genuinely want to disentangle the US military from the Middle East.  I think that is a genuine, albeit not necessarily consistent, kind of leitmotif of his. And it’s something he could take to the 2020 election.  Dennis Ross from the Washington Institute called Trump’s policy “belligerent isolationism,” which I think is a pretty good tag. He doesn’t really like to be involved with foreign affairs politically and he thinks it’s a loser because everyone is trying to take advantage of the US, or of him. 

But, the question is: if there is a moment of crisis where Trump feels besieged and like he could be impeached and he could actually be repudiated by the Republican Party and hence his chances of winning reelection are looking like virtually nothing, what would he do?  Who would he consult with?  And who are the people around him, and what would they say?  John Bolton -- it’s pretty clear what he would say.

Trump is belligerent and he’s also impulsive, and I think if he thinks he is in deep trouble politically, the attraction of war might become very strong.

The Current State of the Neoconservative Movement

Neoconservatives have become very split, and it’s hard to speak of a coherent movement now.  It is true I think that all neocons consider the security and interests of Israel to be central to their worldview, but there are major differences that have emerged so that you have a few neocons defending the JCPOA and opposing the gratuitous deterioration of relations between the US and Iran, in major part because it created tensions with the European allies.  But at the same time, you have a lot of neocons who are Islamophobic and definitely Iranophobic, and I would even say that although the intellectual leadership of neoconservatism tends to be somewhat more moderate, the body of neoconservative opinion has become quite Islamophobic and Iranophobic.

A complicating factor that has deepened the splits within the neocon movement was Trump himself because most of the intellectual leaders of neoconservatism are real “Never Trumpers;” they consider Trump to be outrageous and potentially antisemitic… and they feel very strongly that Trump is a disaster for Jews and some of them think ultimately for Israel despite Netanyahu’s embrace of Trump.  But, most neocons really like Netanyahu and since Netanyahu likes Trump so much they are willing to forgive Trump's kind of crudity, his white supremacism and racism.

The latter group has definitely penetrated the Trump administration, even though he says he doesn’t like neocons and holds them responsible in major part for the Iraq War or "stupid war."  But they are infiltrating his administration through Bolton, through Pompeo, though neither of them is a classic neoconservative... I think it’s important to distinguish between the aggressive nationalists who are belligerent isolationists in the administration and the neocons, but they are gradually working together. I think neoconservatives are making a bit of a comeback.

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