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The US and Iran Battle It out at the UN

Presidents Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani risk fueling a conflict that could escalate out of hand.

Credit: Serhii Lohvyniuk - Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • US President Donald Trump and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani are gearing up for two days of diplomatic sabre rattling at the United Nations.
  • Presidents Donald Trump and Hassan Rouhani risk fueling a conflict that could escalate out of hand.
  • Mounting hostility between the US and Iran is shaped as much by fact as by perception – a combustible mix that is easily exploitable by parties on both sides of the divide.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani are gearing up for two days of diplomatic sabre rattling at the United Nations. The General Assembly in New York is held in the month before the imposition of a second round of harsh U.S. sanctions takes effect.

Both men are scheduled to address the UN general assembly on Tuesday and Mr. Trump is slated to chair a meeting on Wednesday of the Security Council expected to focus on Iran.

As they are bound to lock horns, both men risk fueling a conflict that could escalate out of hand.

Inflammation reigning supreme?

It’s easy to dismiss Iranian denunciations of the United States and its Middle Eastern allies as part of the Islamic republic’s long-standing rhetoric. However, the harshness of Iran’s rhetoric makes it equally easy to understand American distrust.

Mr. Trump’s administration, for its part, insists that its confrontational approach is designed to alter Iranian behavior and curb its policies, not topple its regime.

At the same time, the U.S. administration has stepped up its engagement with exile groups associated with the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq. It is a controversial Saudi-backed organization that calls for the violent overthrow of the government in Tehran and enjoys support among prominent current and former U.S. officials.

Favoring regime change?

Consider the case of John Bolton. Before becoming Mr. Trump’s National Security Advisor, he has repeatedly advocated regime change for Iran. During the UN assembly, he is scheduled to give a keynote address at the United Against Nuclear Iran’s (UANI) annual summit. So is U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, another hardliner on Iran.

Since coming to office, Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Bolton, who has spoken in the past at events related to the Mujahedeen, had so far refrained from addressing gatherings associated with Iranian opposition groups.

To date, the Trump administration has left that to Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani, the former Mayor of New York. Last weekend, he told the Iran Uprising Summit organized by the Organization of Iranian-American Communities, a Washington-based group associated with the Mujahedeen and attended by the exile’s leader, Maryam Rajavi, that U.S. sanctions were causing economic pain and could lead to a “successful revolution” in Iran.

“I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them. It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen,” Mr. Giuliani said speaking on the day of an attack on a military march in the southern Iranian city of Ahvaz that killed 25 people and wounded at least 70 others.

The Iranian onslaught

Messrs. Bolton, Pompeo and Giuliani’s hardline rhetoric stems from U.S. suspicions rooted in anti-American and anti-Western attitudes that are grafted in the Islamic republic’s DNA.

The Iranian rhetoric includes a steady diet of bombastic threats against Israel, denial of the Holocaust, support for anti-American insurgents in Iraq, the brutal regime of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, Hezbollah in Lebanon, Houthi rebels in Yemen and Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

And it extends to the propagation of religiously inspired republican governments as an alternative to conservative monarchy in the Gulf, as well as varying degrees of duplicity regarding its nuclear program. All of these factors reaffirm American suspicions.

For its part, Iran traces back the grief with the United States back to the 1953 U.S.-supported overthrow of the nationalist government of prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh. He was replaced by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi whom Washington staunchly supported until his fall in 1979.

Iranian concerns were reinforced by such factors as the U.S. backing of Iraq in the 1980s Gulf war, U.S. support for Kurdish and Baloch insurgents and Mr. Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 international agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program despite confirmation of its adherence to the accord.

All of this means that mounting hostility between the United States and Iran is shaped as much by fact as by perception – a combustible mix that is easily exploitable by parties on both sides of the divide that are keen on raising the ante.

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About James M. Dorsey

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and an award-winning journalist. [Singapore]

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