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.