US-Iran Standoff Moves From High Seas To Dry Land

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Above photo: Signs clearly targeting an English-speaking audience in Lebanon. From Rasthamag.com.

Mass anti-government demonstrations in Lebanon and Iraq have raised alarm bells in Tehran, compounding months of US ‘maximum pressure’

NOTE: While there are many legitimate reasons for people in Iraq and Lebanon to protest, we can’t help but notice that the protests have quickly turned to calling for people who are not obedient to the United States to resign. This is a consistent pattern of US intervention. We question what role the US is playing in these actions and if the US is using the protests for its goal of antagonizing Iran.

A simmering regional standoff between the US and Iran shifted from the high seas to dry land over the past two weeks, as street protests from Beirut to Baghdad challenge existing political orders and alliances.

The Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign, aimed at bringing the Islamic Republic to its knees, hit the rocks in the Persian Gulf over the summer. Explosions targeting oil tankers – capped by a precision attack on Saudi Aramco in September – drove home the message to Arab monarchies that their own interests would suffer should they continue to egg on the US campaign.

But in October, first in Iraq and then in Lebanon, nationwide street protests erupted against dire economic conditions and endemic corruption of sectarian political elites.

In both countries, allies of Iran play a dominant role in government while the US exerts significant influence on the military and political spheres.

“Popular protests in the Middle East cannot be separated from the confrontation that is going on between the two powers,” said Noam Raydan, a Baghdad-based geopolitical analyst at ClipperData.

The Trump administration in May of last year withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal, setting the stage for a resumption of crippling sanctions, with the goal of driving Iran’s critical petroleum exports to zero.

“We cannot forget the pressure being put on Iran right now,” Raydan told Asia Times.

Maximum pressure

As leaderless street revolts threaten to morph into protracted political upheaval in Lebanon and Iraq, alarm bells are going off in Tehran. “It cannot lose what it has gained over the past years,” said Raydan.

Iraq is of paramount importance, being not only neighbor and OPEC member, but most crucially a holder of a US sanctions waiver that allows for the continued import of Iranian energy supplies.

“And we can’t forget, Iranian policymakers and leaders today were all shaped by the Iran-Iraq war. They want to ensure that Iraq never poses the kind of threat to Iran that it did,” said veteran journalist and NYU professor Mohamad Bazzi.

The Trump administration has called on the Iraqi government to rein in Iran-backed paramilitaries, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visiting Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi in May.

Iraqi protesters last weekend torched the offices of several Iran-backed paramilitary groups in the southern provinces, sparking calls for vengeance and finger-pointing at the United States. In some cities, Iraqi protesters have shouted slogans calling on Iran to leave.

Those paramilitaries are accused of participating in the crackdown against protesters, which left nearly 250 people dead in October alone, according to the Iraqi Human Rights Commission. Attempts to forcefully disperse the demonstrations, including with live ammunition and tear gas canisters fired at peoples’ heads, has only swelled their numbers, with growing participation by women and schoolchildren.

“The people have justifiable demands, but they should know their demands can only be fulfilled within the legal structure and framework of their country,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, tweeted on Wednesday. 

He was speaking about not only Iraq, where the prime minister could soon be compelled to step down, but also Lebanon.

Hezbollah allies threatened

In Lebanon, the first night of the October protests saw working-class people block intersections with burning tires, in outrage over new taxes to be levied on fuel and free internet calling services.

“Shiites were at the forefront of the original protests,” said Amal Saad, a professor of political science at Lebanese University.

Saad, who is writing a forthcoming book on Hezbollah’s evolution into regional power, says the group’s fear is that the current nationwide outrage could be channeled into an anti-Hezbollah agenda – specifically targeting its arms.

In May, Mike Pompeo traveled to Beirut where – standing side-by-side with his Hezbollah-allied counterpart, Gibran Bassil – he labeled Hezbollah a threat to Lebanon and called for the Lebanese people to rise up against it.

Four months later, when Bassil traveled to Washington on the heels of the UN General Assembly, he found no administration official willing to hold court.

When mass protests broke out in Lebanon two weeks ago, one of the first chants to catch fire directly targeted Bassil.

In Hezbollah’s view, Saad says, the US seized the moment to pressure Bassil – the rising star of President Michel Aoun’s party – out of the cabinet. When Aoun refused, Prime Minister Saad Hariri resigned from his post. His return is now believed to be contingent on Bassil leaving.

“Bassil was the person that the Americans wanted to get rid of,” Saad told Asia Times. “As a foreign minister, he is kind of like an ambassador for Hezbollah.”

With the combination of Bassil representing a Christian nationalist constituency, and Hariri catering to the West and Gulf Arabs, “we have a Lebanese government that is giving political and legal cover for Hezbollah – and even international legitimacy,” she said. 

Hezbollah throwing Bassil under the bus would have torpedoed a more than decade-old alliance. At the same time, the Shiite party needs Hariri in its corner to avert Lebanon becoming a regional and global pariah.

Bazzi, who has a forthcoming book on regional proxy wars, notes that while Hariri provides international cover for Hezbollah, a staunch defender like Bassil could be impossible to replace.  

“Nasrallah obviously is in a very delicate position because if he completely overlooks Hariri and tries to form a government without him, it could subject Lebanon to US sanctions,” said Saad. 

No bailout coming

Neighboring Israel is meanwhile lobbying the US to prevent any future Lebanese government from including its Shiite rival, and urging that aid be halted “as long as Hezbollah is part of the Lebanese government.”

“Israel is very concerned that Hezbollah will develop an industrial capacity of manufacturing precision missiles, which could pose a significant threat to its military bases and strategic sites,” journalist Barak Ravid reported for Israel’s Channel 13 news.

While President Trump has shown an aversion to Middle East commitments, his administration has embraced economic sanctions as a tool of war.

The Trump administration is now reportedly withholding $105 million in security aid to Lebanon, Reuters said Friday citing two unnamed officials.

Already, Lebanon’s economy was in dire straits with the central bank in recent years relying on “financial engineering” to attract hard currencies from the banking sector, in exchange for immediate profits in Lebanese pounds in the form of high interest rates.

The banks have made billions in profits since 2016 through this mechanism, paid for by increasing public debt, with the goal of propping up the sacrosanct peg to the dollar.

Lebanon’s central bank governor Riad Salameh warned Monday the country had only “days” to find a political solution to avert financial disaster.

The US and Saudi Arabia, to which Lebanon could historically turn for a bailout, appear to be allowing the country to approach the precipice before they step in to negotiate any sort of compromise.

President Aoun on Thursday called for any new government comprised of ministers chosen on “merit, not political affiliations.”

Lebanese banks opened on Friday morning for the first time in two weeks, instituting varied daily or weekly limits on dollar withdrawals. Overseas transfers were being carried out on a case by case basis, depending on client’s track records and requirements.

Salim Sfeir, the president of the Association of Banks in Lebanon, hailed the citizenry for demonstrating “awareness and responsibility”– not panic – in their transactions. 

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah speaks Friday at 2:30pm.

  • What a mess. And much of the timing of these uprisings is very likely due to external interference. Do all of these countries need to conduct some internal reforms? I know of zero sovereign nations that do not.

    The international monetary system needs to be reset and reborn into a system that does not favor one country over another and offers just and equitable treatment to all.

    The massive outstanding sovereign debts have reached a point to where it is unfeasible to repay them – including the United States’. The only recourse is default (outright or subtly through currency and interest rate manipulation) or by stealing other nations’ resources through war.

    A worldwide transparent debt jubilee is a far more positive action than that of war.

    The U.S. is only interested in the Middle East for two reasons – one, the natural resources it contains and two, the strategic location it encompasses. The economic threat to U.S. global hegemony is China. China’s Belt and Road initiative incorporates much of the Middle East. For the Belt and Road initiative to be successful, stability in the region is necessary. To thwart China’s plan, the U.S. foments instability.

    How sick minded is this. Especially when there is a peaceful way forward for the West. China’s method of trade ((infrastructure investment for surplus (not required internally by the producing nation) oil as one example)) is a far more appealing choice than that offered by the U.S. which is ‘Do what we want or be destroyed’.
    .
    The West could acknowledge China’s Belt and Road plan as imaginative and wise and create something similar in the Western Hemisphere that ultimately joins with the Eastern Hemisphere’s Belt and Road. A good idea is a good idea no matter how you may feel about its source. To get a sense of what the Belt and Road project aspires to do, take a look at the Phoenix Project – http://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=1261&v=VRM2T8cF6Po

    If not stopped, the U.S. and it’s willing allies such as Canada, Britain, and Israel, will cause WW3. The people of the U.S. can work toward thwarting their government’s madness but they will probably not be able to stop it on their own. Pressure from strong independent nations and allied groups of nations will also need to be brought to bear.

    The age of Empire building through aggressive conquest is coming to an end. The question is, will it end in violent upheaval and destruction? or will in end in a new peaceful beginning brought about through nonviolent pressure and diplomatic means?

  • Michael

    Under Trump America is waging some level of war against
    Iran, China, Russia, Syria, Yemen, Venezuela, North Korea, Iraq, Lebanon, and have sanctions on many more nations. One major victim is the American farmer. Farms going bankrupt has never been this high since 2011.