The Guns of August

The trouble with August is that the historical record shows that whilst everyone is on holiday it’s a great month to start a war.

From the guns of August in 1914, via the start of the Wehrmacht’s ‘Grand Tour of Europe’ in 1939, the Gulf of Tonkin Vietnam war inciting incident of 1964, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990, down to the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, August has meant ‘war’.

This August doesn’t look much better. There is global trouble brewing, big time. It may be the heat: perhaps the madness of ‘le Cafard,’ (the Foreign Legion’s description of the delirium caused by a Saharan summer), but the war drums are beating once again.

The problem is Iran. The US and Iran have been at odds increasingly over Tehran’s growing political and military influence in the Middle East. Things are not looking good for the ‘Mad Mullahs’ of Tehran this August. Trump has deliberately put the clerical regime in Tehran and the Iranian people between a rock and a hard place. The Ayatollah and President Trump are on a collision course.

Many thought that Trump would go back on his threat to quit Obama’s 2015 wishy-washy nuclear ‘deal.’ They were wrong. The economic war started on Tuesday, 7 August 2018, with new US sanctions on cars, aircraft, currency and gold. Any company with an office in the US caught ‘trading with the enemy’ will be prosecuted. Sanctions will cut off the money tap. Europeans are stunned by their loss of potential profits, but the Yanks mean business.

The current American President has simply followed through on his campaign promise. If anyone was in doubt about his willingness to use US power, Trump has shown that when he sets his mind to something it’s going to happen, despite the anguished wails of dismay from EU corporations who thought that their juicy new Iranian contracts would bring them an early Christmas.

Trump is deliberately placing the Iranian economy under intolerable pressure. Global companies are now fleeing the country and the Iranian rial has collapsed, losing half its value since April. Behnam Ben Taleblu, Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington DC, says: ‘Re-imposing these sanctions is the first step towards tightening the noose on Tehran, putting the regime to a choice between continuing its malign activities or improving its economy.’ Washington’s new penalties are just the first warning shot for even more savage sanctions planned for early November that will target Iran’s valuable oil exports.

The threat is mortal. Tehran needs to sell its oil to survive. The lack of oil revenue could bankrupt Iran. The reaction to American threats from the regime was therefore predictable: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani promptly threatened to disrupt international oil shipments through the Persian Gulf if renewed US sanctions strangle Iran’s oil sales. ‘No one who really understands politics would say they will block Iran’s oil exports, and we have many straits, the Strait of Hormuz is just one of those …. We are the honest men who have throughout history guaranteed the safety of this region’s waterways. Do not play with the lion’s tail, it will bring regret.’

Trump promptly Tweeted in kind, mostly in capital letters: ‘To Iranian President Rouhani: Never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have suffered before. We are no longer a country that will stand for your demented words of violence and death. Be cautious!’

Whether that will change the change the minds of Iran’s Shi’ite clerical leadership is another matter. Already Tehran is preparing for a fight. The US military’s Central Command reported on Wednesday, 8 August 2018, an increase in naval activity in the Strait of Hormuz, the critical waterway at the mouth of the Persian Gulf for the international shipment of oil from the Middle East. Iran is threatening to block it off with ships and mines if the USA’s renewed sanctions begin to bite.

The spokesman for Iran’s Revolutionary Guards confirmed the deployment of more than 100 vessels to the Gulf: ‘This exercise was conducted with the aim of controlling and safeguarding the safety of the international waterway in the Persian Gulf and within the framework of the programme of the Guards’ annual military exercises.’ He added: ‘They are to enhance defence readiness and to confront threats and potential adventurous acts of enemies.’

In turn, the Americans have warned Iran off. According to Washington, ‘Iran has threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz. They’ve done that in the past. They saw the international community put dozens of nations of the international community naval forces in for exercises to clear the straits. Clearly, this would be an attack on international shipping, and it would have, obviously, an international response to reopen the shipping lanes with whatever that took, because of the world’s economy depends on those energy supplies flowing out of there.’

This is fighting talk by both sides, but America has serious muscle on the water to back its rhetoric. The US 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain, is the ‘combined 5th Fleet’, which means it does not just comprise the US Navy. As well as a powerful US Carrier Strike Force, it has got Kuwaiti, Bahraini, Saudi, and Emirati vessels under command, as well as the occasional Royal Navy warship (when Britain’s MoD can afford to spare one as a token gesture).

From the Iranian side this war of words is not just sabre rattling. This is a battle Iran dare not lose, for domestic reasons. The Government of President Hassan Rouhani is already facing serious trouble at home, where the opposition has demanded action on corruption and for renewed efforts to rescue the economy. A combination of scarcity and inflation has caused prices to soar. Everything from real estate, groceries, and electronic goods have almost doubled in price. Iran is facing the worst economic crisis the country has ever seen.

Worse is to come. Iran has major internal socio-political problems, with serious water shortages and street protests breaking out in the country since the beginning of 2018 over high prices, disconnected water supplies, power cuts and widespread corruption. Since the start of August 2018, thousands of people have rioted in Iranian cities – including Isfahan, Karaj, Shiraz and Ahvaz – in protest against high inflation caused in part by the collapsing rial.

Already there are signs of a widespread clampdown by the clergy and the Revolutionary Guards. What started off as protests, spurred on by the deteriorating economic conditions in Iran and the inflation in prices of basic necessities, could now escalate into a rebellion against the Islamic Republic itself. As domestic economic conditions get worse there is growing anger at Iran’s foreign policy – which includes spending billions of dollars to supply weapons and fighters to take over Syria, funding the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, as well as lending financial support to Lebanese Shi’ite group, Hezbollah – whilst Iranian citizens back home go short. The Mullahs can no longer rely on a docile population.

The questions to pose are, ‘To what extent are these protests threatening the theocratic regime?’ and ‘Could such an upheaval foreshadow a second Iranian revolution?’ This is a real possibility and it explains Washington’s adamantine stance. Despite US denials, Trump and his team really want nothing less than to bring the Mullahs down.

This would explain the sudden receptiveness of the regime to the pleas of the protesters. In January 2018, Iran’s Parliament rejected a then-recent budget plan that increased the price of petrol by 50% and proposed increases in the price of water, electricity, and gas (‘Protests, 2018 budget and public discourse in Iran’, Al Jazeera News, 30 January 2018).

This apparent responsiveness from the current Islamic Consultative Assembly government is a desperate attempt to defuse the sense of grievance felt by many Iranians in the hope of reducing the risk of more violence on the streets or, in the worst-case scenario, protests escalating into a fully fledged revolution. On every front, trouble looms.

Will it end in tears and war? If so, when? Who can predict the outcome?

Once again, the guns of August are loaded and ready to fire – on both sides of the crisis.

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