Lawrence Wilkerson: Trump Is Deepening the ‘Economic War’ Against Iran

Yves here. Colonel Larry Wilkerson, an astute critic of American foreign policy, weighs in on the latest effort by the Administration to toughen sanctions against Iran. This was an obvious face-saving effort after Trump had the good sense to pull back on an planned attack against Iran. The wee problem with the last punitive measures, however, is they are nothingburgers. Sanctioning the leader of Iran, who are already effectively bunkered in their country, has the effect of showing the US has pretty much hit the limits of what it can do short of military strikes.

Wilkerson’s key point in this Real News Network interview is one that too few pundits in the US will acknowledge: that the severity of economic sanctions against Iran are tantamount to an act of war. Wilkerson also makes observations about who in addition to John Bolton has sway over Middle East policy.

GREG WILPERT It’s The Real News Network and I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. President Trump announced on Monday that his administration will impose new sanctions on Iran to put yet more pressure on its leadership to renegotiate the 2015 nuclear agreement known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA. The new sanctions target five Iranian Revolutionary Guard commanders. Here’s what Trump said just before signing the Executive Order.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP Sanctions imposed through the Executive Order that I’m about to sign will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader’s office and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support. The assets of Ayatollah Khomeini and his office will not be spared from the sanctions. These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions. We will continue to increase pressure on Tehran until the regime abandons its dangerous activities and its aspirations, including the pursuit of nuclear weapons, increased enrichment of uranium, development of ballistic missiles, engagement in and support for terrorism, fueling of foreign conflicts, and belligerent acts directed against the United States and its allies.

GREG WILPERT It’s not clear what impact these new sanctions will have on Iran, but the sanctions that have already been imposed since the US withdrew from the JCPOA last year have had a serious effect on Iran’s economy. According to oil industry analysts, Iranian oil exports have dropped from 2.5 million barrels per day in April 2013, to about 300,000 barrels per day currently. The latest sanctions come on the heels of heightened tensions. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused Iran of attacking two oil tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. Then later that week, Iran downed an expensive US drone over the same strait saying that it had entered Iranian airspace. President Trump later revealed that the US was about to retaliate over the weekend with an airstrike against Iran, but Trump changed his mind in the last minute and launched a cyber-attack against Iranian military facilities instead. Joining me now to discuss the latest in the confrontation between the US and Iran is Colonel Larry Wilkerson. He is former Chief of staff to the Secretary of State Colin Powell, and now a Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. Thanks for joining us again, Larry.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Good to be with you.

GREG WILPERT So let’s start with the sanctions. As I said, it’s far from clear whether these latest sanctions mean anything, but the earlier sanctions are certainly having an effect on Iran, shrinking its economy and causing shortages. Now Trump argued that he called off the airstrike on Iran because he had been told that up to 150 people could have been killed, and that this would have been a disproportionate response to shooting down their drone, but there are reports that Iranians are having trouble accessing lifesaving medicines, such as for cancer treatment. Now, what do you make of this rationale for calling off the airstrike but then at the same time intensifying sanctions?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON There is no question that the sanctions we have on Iran— and for that matter on North Korea, and on Venezuela, perhaps even still do on Venezuela— constitute economic warfare. That’s the reality that the world doesn’t seem to want to address because the United States is so powerful and that their economies and financial networks are so wrapped up with us. That said, it’s not like—And the crassness of the United States with regard to these sanctions was about saved by none other than Madeleine Albright best when she was confronted with a number of Iraqi children who were dying as a result of the sanctions we had on Saddam Hussein. And she simply said, well I thought it was worth it. Worth it— to kill all those children? The sanctions regimes we execute though, are a little bit more sophisticated, a little bit more well-aimed, more precisely aimed these days.

I was very much associated with the ones on North Korea, ones on Iraq, the way we tried to smarten them up and so forth. The ones on Iran I think are having a very meaningful impact in terms of cutting down on Iran’s ability to do everything that it does, including as you pointed out to sell oil. But that said, if Saddam Hussein could evade the sanctions that were on him to the extent that we now know he did, and we know from past experience how well the Kims evaded sanctions in North Korea and invented ways to get around them— criminal activity like counterfeiting American hundred-dollar bills, for example. And other things that I know about sanctions, I would say the Iranians would be able to survive these no matter how tight we think we’ve made them. By and large, the Iranian government— the Majlis, the judiciary, the Ayatollahs, the Guardian Council, the IRGC, the Quds Force— they don’t care about the Iranian people. That’s one thing we ought to say more often and more frequently because it’s true.

Corruption is so rife in Iran and all sanctions do is increase the money in the hands of those who are corrupt, like the IRGC and the Quds Force. So despite all these statistics and everything—Look at oil, for example. ISIS, we now know, survived quite richly off its oil sales and we know that Turkey was behind most of the facilitation of those oil sales. The same thing is going to happen with Iran, so official statistics are really meaningless. That said, the sanctions are biting, but I don’t think they’re ever going to bite to the extent that someone’s going to come forward like our Mr. Zarif and say, okay John. Okay Mike. Okay Donald. We’re ready to talk. It is just not gonna happen.

GREG WILPERT All right. Now on last Sunday’s Meet the Press, President Trump said the following about National Security Adviser John Bolton.

CHUCK TODD [MEET THE PRESS] Do you feel like you were being pushed into military action against Iran by any of your advisors?

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP I have two groups of people. I have doves and I have hawks. I have some hawks—

CHUCK TODD [MEET THE PRESS] And you have some serious hawks.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP Oh, yeah. John Bolton is absolutely a hawk. If it was up to him, he’d take on the whole world at one time, okay. But that doesn’t matter because I want both sides. You know some people said, why did you put—You know, I was against going into Iraq for years and years. And before it ever happened, I was against going into Iraq, and some people said, oh I don’t know. I was totally against. I was a private citizen. It never made sense to me. I was against going into the Middle East. Chuck, we spent $7 trillion in the Middle East right now.

GREG WILPERT Now it seems rather surprising that Trump brings up Bolton as wanting to go to war with the whole world and that the US spent seven trillion dollars in wars in the Middle East. Now, if Trump is truly opposed to these things, which of course we have reason to be skeptical about that, but still who or what then is actually behind the US rush into a confrontation with Iran?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON That’s an excellent question. That’s rather disingenuous to say you were against the War in Iraq, it was a stupid war, and so forth and so on, all of which is true. Thank you, Mr. President. But one of the greatest advocates for that war was your National Security Adviser, Mr. President. So just saying now that John Bolton is for war with everybody in the world, which is true, is not a really meaningful way of explaining why you picked that man to be your National Security Adviser. This is a very, very disingenuous man. I think he sincerely does not want another war— for election purposes if nothing else— and he’s sincere when he says he doesn’t want another war in the Middle East in particular. But I’m not sure that’s enough. And I’m not sure he realizes it might not be enough to stand up to all the powers that are arrayed against him for that war.

GREG WILPERT Well, what are those powers?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Well, John Bolton stands first and foremost. I’m told right now that with the lack of leadership at the Pentagon, Bolton treats the Pentagon as if it were his vassal state. I’m told that Mike Pompeo is pretty much the same way. Let’s look at the strategic genius we have dealing with Iran right here. Mike Pompeo, a former Army Captain. Wow, there’s a strategic genius for you. Tom Cotton, former Army Captain. Wow, there’s another strategic genius for you. Nobody at the Pentagon of any consequence. This is a massive opportunity for the president to do what he seems to be insinuating he wants to do, and that is to say to have himself be the only person making any decision in the world, but it’s also because of his disingenuousness, his narcissism, his ego and the very fact that he contends that he’s in control for this bureaucracy, this massive imperial bureaucracy, to take over.

I’ve studied every president since Harry Truman, studied the decision-making process of every one of them. I’ve been up close and personal with four of those presidents’ decision-making processes. Some of them are more competent, some of them are very incompetent depending on the particular decision. But across the board, none of them work like this administration. Not a single one of them even remotely resembles this administration. So the only conclusion I can come to is that Donald Trump is an absolute genius— you will excuse me if I don’t arrive at that conclusion— or he’s an inexperienced, narcissistic, egotistical man who’s going to get in big trouble sooner or later, if he’s not already.

GREG WILPERT And what about the other allies of the United States? What role are they playing? I’m particularly thinking, of course, of Saudi Arabia and Israel.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Yes. I think Mike Pompeo went to Riyadh. Others have been dispatched— Bolton. And they’re saying sorry, we told you it was coming. But standby, it will come. I think we have outside Washington some really powerful figures pushing for this too. Bibi Netanyahu, Mohammad bin Salman, and maybe even Mohammed bin Zayed in the Emirates, all want bombs to fall on Iran. I don’t think they want an invasion, but that shows how little they know about strategy because if bombs fall on Iran, here’s what will happen. No matter how precise, how around-the-clock, how devastating, no matter where they’re dropped— on the nuclear complex, on the IRGC, on the Quds force, wherever they might be dropped.

All those bombs will do besides destroying infrastructure and killing people, all they will do is force the Iranian people to coalesce around this very, very bad government, which they aren’t right now. They’re finding it corrupter and corrupter. And so, they are as against their government as they’ve ever been, as a bloc, all echelons of Iranian society, but we will force them together with those bombs and they’ll stand with their government. The second thing they will do is go right back to North Korea, which they did when I was in government. They’ll learn more about going underground. They will go underground. They’ll build a nuclear weapon. They’ll test it and then they’ll say, okay, now come get us. And we’ll do the same thing we’re doing with North Korea right now and they know that we will not invade. So what do we do after we’ve dropped the bombs? We figure all this out real quickly and we invade. And invasion of Iran— you heard it here— is a disaster in the making.

GREG WILPERT Now, Iran says that it would be willing to negotiate if first the sanctions are lifted. Earlier this year though, Mike Pompeo outlined twelve separate issues for negotiation— several of which go far beyond the issue of nuclear power; such as ending support for Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Houthis in Yemen. Now, it looks like there’s a complete impasse basically between the two sides. Do you think there is any chance that this conflict could still be worked out peacefully, given how far apart the two sides are?

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON I don’t want to dismiss it entirely because I think people like Bill Burns and others who did some of the significant negotiating for President Obama that led to the JCPOA, the nuclear agreement with Iran. I think that is still possible. I think there’s still places like Oman that would offer their good offices, like maybe Prime Minister Abe from Japan or Sisi in Egypt. There are a lot of people out there who would offer their good offices and might be able to affect some kind of beginning of talks. Here’s the problem though. As long as you have a thug like Mike Pompeo calling other world leaders “thugs,” principally those in Iran, and using that kind of language, and treating them the way we treat them, then there’s no respect being shown by the United States for the other party. Iran— a 5,000-year-old civilization. A country for a long-time homogeneous, 50-plus percent are Persian, 80 million people, a vast country—You’ve got to show that country some respect. You can’t talk to them the way Trump, Pompeo, and Bolton do. You can’t disrespect them consistently like that and expect them to ever come talk to you. So that has to stop, and I don’t see it stopping anytime soon— let alone, taking on a more positive turn. And therefore, I don’t see how we can talk.

GREG WILPERT Okay. Well we’re going to leave it there for now. I was speaking to Colonel Larry Wilkerson, Distinguished Adjunct Professor of Government and Public Policy at the College of William and Mary. Thanks again, Larry, for having joined us today.

COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON Thanks for having me on.

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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    1. Darius

      These people are mad at Khomeini for the hostage crisis and think he’s still in charge.

  1. psv

    Thanks for this, I largely agree with Col. Wilkerson’s impression, and his comment about disrespect, among other things.

    It’s a minor detail, but I wonder on what he bases his view of the level of corruption in the society there. Does he think it’s American-level corruption, or less, or more? The type of nuance and detailed information that would be required to make that type of judgement in my view is difficult to find in the West these days.

    It’s unfortunate and telling in a way also that in the article RepubAnon mentions above, the Middle East Monitor didn’t manage to get Khamenei’s name right either.

  2. mrtmbrnmn

    Trump has finally gone full banana peel. Anyone who is able to stand up straight for five minutes without falling over backward cannot still doubt that Trump is a dangerous lunatic, so intellectually stunted, ignorant and narcissistic (constantly measuring the heat and brightness of the spotlight he desperately craves, like a hypochondriac taking his temperature and blood pressure every 10 minutes) and so easily teed up and maneuvered in this grotesque Iran con by psychotic madmen/sycophants like Pompous & Bolton and breathtakingly devious vipers like Bibi Satanyahu and Saudi butcher MSOB. It is plain as doomsday.

  3. David Mills

    Trump’s repudiation of the JCPOA has created an interesting situation. No country should deal with the US unless the contents of the deal offered have prior approval from both the House and the Senate.

    Scott Ritter had a good interview with Chris Hedges detailing Pompeo’s ridiculous preconditions. Iran should start setting their own.

    As for who was responsible for the damage to the two tankers in the Gulf of Oman, I think the market called BS on it. One filled with naptha, the other with kerosene/jet1… not hard to make them go “BOOM”. I’m waiting for an LNG tanker to go up – they have calorific equivalents close to low yield nuclear weapons.

    May you live in interesting times.

  4. PlutoniumKun

    They’ll learn more about going underground. They will go underground. They’ll build a nuclear weapon. They’ll test it and then they’ll say, okay, now come get us. And we’ll do the same thing we’re doing with North Korea right now and they know that we will not invade. So what do we do after we’ve dropped the bombs? We figure all this out real quickly and we invade. And invasion of Iran— you heard it here— is a disaster in the making.

    This is an interesting point that I must admit I hadn’t thought of before. It seems obvious to anyone with even a modicum of military knowledge that an invasion of Iran would be a gigantic and maybe impossible task, it would require an effort significantly larger than the Vietnam War – almost certainly the largest mobilisation since WWII, and one with no guarantee whatever of even limited success. When you read ‘insider’ articles on the topic there is a general assumption that a war with Iran is something very different – essentially, a stand off assault intended to cripple Iran through air strikes.

    But it may well be that Bolton and his crazies (plus the Saudis and Israelis) are actually playing a double game with the Pentagon. They are persuading them that all that’s needed is a manageable air and naval war (which is comfortable ground for US military strategists), while full well knowing that Iran is highly unlikely to collapse under that sort of stress. Bit by bit, the US will be dragged into a ground war, one created by the unstoppable momentum of a large scale air strike. This may well be the neocons actual strategy.

    1. H. Alexander Ivey

      Well my 2 bits is that a US invasion of Iran is impossible since the Iranians are already clearly pushing back. The Iranians have shown they can and will slow or stop the flow of oil through their area. That action will force the US to stop (it will be a race between the US economy collapsing vs the rest of the world making the US stop) long before the US can mobilize for an invasion.

  5. rc

    Thanks to Larry Wilkerson for helping present lies to the world that lead us to believe there was a nuclear weapons program in Iraq and helped send us into a war that destroyed many lives and wasted significant treasure. Strategically his efforts took the eye off the bigger threat from China. Why do we feel the need to listen to him state the obvious?

    Everyone in the military and DoD knows that a war in Iran is disastrous and Bolton is an unapologetic warmonger. Wilkerson fails to place all of this into a broader strategic context. Namely, a strong mullah-run Iran is in no country’s interest. How does Hezbollah allegedly have over 150,000 rockets? Or, why is Iran back a war in Yemen? Isn’t Russia always attuned to the threat from Islamic radicals in its southern flank? The ‘agreement’ with Iran was not ratified by Congress that probably collectively recognized the various long term weaknesses in that deal.

    Pompeo, an Army Captain who has been successful in business and politics (as opposed to Wilkerson’s glaring failure-lying to the American people and the world), rightly calls the leaders of Iran thugs. He also properly calls the Chinese Communist Party an authoritarian regime. There is a strategic reason behind defining the opponent in moral terms. Wars have a moral dimension. The U.S. has many things to criticize about it, but it is far superior to China’s Dream of tiangxi that contemplates our subjugation.

    China is at war with the U.S. Most of the U.S. is in denial about this fact. The Chinese have written about it in the Xi’s China Dream, China 2025, the Belt and Road Initiative and the varied writings of the People’s Liberation Army. Keep your eyes on the ball, Colonel.

    1. James

      Wow! Where to start?

      Namely, a strong mullah-run Iran is in no country’s interest. How does Hezbollah allegedly have over 150,000 rockets? Or, why is Iran back a war in Yemen?

      I dunno. Why does Israel have nukes and is armed to the teeth with US military hardware? And why does the US back and commit to war pretty much everywhere, based on nothing more than our fearless leaders’ say so?

      There is a strategic reason behind defining the opponent in moral terms. Wars have a moral dimension.

      First and foremost, for the US at least, wars also have an economic dimension. Morals are malleable enough to fit any occasion. Maximizing profits is universal for all occasions.

      The U.S. has many things to criticize about it, but it is far superior to China’s Dream of tiangxi that contemplates our subjugation.

      Debatable, at the very least. The US has been actively seeking to subjugate the entire world since at least the end of WWII, all of which kicked into hyper-drive after the 9-11 casus belli event. I think we’d all be better off taking our chances with the Chinese at this point.

  6. Ashburn

    Even a so-called “surgical strike” on targets within Iran risks the Iranians closing the straight of Hormuz and blocking all oil shipments– somewhere between 20%- 30% or world’s oil exports. World oil prices would skyrocket and the entire world’s economy would be in chaos. Trillion$ in derivatives would instantly be at risk. There is no way the US military, or the Saudis can prevent this. I believe this is the real reason Trump supposedly cancelled the planned retaliatory strike for Iran’s shoot-down of our drone.

    Iran knows that sanctions on Iraq during the 90’s killed over 500,000 Iraqi children. Even though Col. Wilkerson says Iran’s leadership doesn’t care about its people, they certainly care more than the US does and won’t be willing to sit on their hands and watch this happen. They will resist with force if necessary and make the US and its subservient allies pay the price.

  7. RJ McElroy

    Why anyone would consider attacking Iran would have to be from a position of pure unadulterated ignorance. Iran is undergoing a disastrous long term drought with 50-70% of the population effected. Hundreds of villages require water to be brought in from outside. Agricultural activity is deteriorating. Major lakes and rivers have dried up. Youth unemployment (18-25) at 25%. Any sensible military man with a time horizon longer than 10 minutes would not risk significant casualties under these circumstances.

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