Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani in June 14, 2019. ( VYACHESLAV OSELEDKO/AFP via Getty Images)
Amidst all the headlines—taking note of the end of the year, as well as the end of the decade—one headline, for this author, stands out. That headline looms large not because it speaks of something that has happened, but because it speaks of something that could happen. That is, a new Cold War, in which the U.S. is forced to square off with dominant Eurasian powers, operating in unison. That’s a scary concept, made even scarier, of course, by the risk that a cold war can always get hot.
The headline in the December 28 Financial Times was modest, even if it did appear on the front page: “US rivals launch Mideast war games.” As the newspaper put it, “Russia, China, and Iran launched their first joint naval exercises in the Gulf of Oman yesterday, throwing down a direct challenge to U.S. influence in the Middle East.”
We might pause over those words, “a direct challenge to U.S. influence.” The article quoted Iranian admiral Gholamreza Tahani as saying, “The most important achievement of these drills . . . is the message that the Islamic Republic of Iran cannot be isolated.” Tahani added, “These exercises show that relations between Iran, Russia, and China have a reached a new high level while this trend will continue in the coming years.”
The U.S. response to this development was muted; the FT quoted an unnamed State Department official saying that Iran should “think twice” about conducting joint naval exercises, warning that such actions “should concern all nations with an interest in safeguarding freedom of navigation in the region.” These words won’t exactly strike fear into the Iranians; especially since, as the article recalls, the Iranians shot down a U.S. drone in June and seized a British-flagged oil tanker allegedly in their territorial waters in July—and the U.S. didn’t do anything in response.
Thus the Iranians seem undaunted, and now, of course, thanks to their improving relationship with China and Russia, they have far more strategic depth.
So maybe that’s why there’s new pressure on U.S. forces currently in Iraq, which, of course, borders Iran. It’s long been understood that the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 had the inadvertent effect of opening the door to Iranian influence in that country, and it could well have been the hand of Iran that fired the rocket that killed a U.S. contractor on December 27. That death led to a familiar American response—airstrikes.
A few days later, on December 31, the Iranians might have played their hand again. According to the BBC, “Protesters angered by recent deadly US airstrikes targeting an Iranian-backed Iraqi militia have attacked the US embassy compound in Baghdad.” That attack on an embassy, of course, brings back memories of the Iranian seizure, in 1979, of the American embassy in Tehran—an event that vexed America for more than a year, echoing ever since.
In other words, it’s at least possible that the Iranians are deploying “asymmetric” tactics on us—that is, an attack on the U.S. that’s not for sure traceable back to Iran. Indeed, in light of myriad past intelligence failures—to say nothing of outright mendacities—Americans can be forgiven for not trusting “intelligence reports” about the causation of this embassy attack.
Still, for his part, President Trump seemed to trust the Deep State—at least on this one question. He declared that Iran will be held “fully responsible” for whatever happens in Baghdad.
Yet in the meantime, something has gone deeply wrong for the U.S. in Iraq—or has been wrong all along. As Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Fasshihi tweeted on December 31, “Three trillion dollars & tens of thousands of lives later, Iraqis break into American embassy chanting ‘US is the great Satan.’”
As of now, we don’t know whether or not this latest embassy crisis will be quelled, but we do know this much: If the Chinese and Russians are on Iran’s side, any U.S. military confrontation with Iran will be a big and uncertain thing, not a small and easy thing. In other words, U.S.-Iranian relations could be entering into a new phase: It might not just be Washington, D.C. vs. Tehran but, rather, Washington, D.C. vs. Tehran—and its big friends.
The idea that America might find itself escalating in the Middle East (again) is, of course, highly ironic. Donald Trump, after all, was elected in 2016 on a strong platform of opposition to “endless wars.” And yet at the same time, Trump chose to treat Iran like an enemy. In junking the Iranian nuclear deal and reimposing economic sanctions, he pleased some domestic constituencies, while yet further antagonizing Iran.
And as the Iranians have likely just demonstrated in Iraq, if they get punched, they can find a way to punch back. Once again, for a small country, it’s easier to punch a big country if it knows that other big countries are in its corner.
The further irony, of course, is that for all his bluster, Trump doesn’t seem to have any deep attachment to a permanently bellicose policy toward Iran; he has mused aloud, more than once, about sitting down and talking with the Iranians.
Indeed, it’s at least possible that Trump sees Iran though the prism of North Korea. As we can recall, all through his first year in office, Trump was in a war of words with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, whom Trump dubbed “Rocket Man.” The situation reached its hottest in August 2017, when Trump warned Kim of “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
And yet now, of course, after two summit meetings, Trump and Kim seem to regard each other as friends—or at least they smile a lot in each other’s company. To be sure, North Korea is no closer to de-nuclearizing than it ever was, and yet Trump doesn’t seem to care about that presumed goal. (And of course, outside of Beltway think tanks, most Americans also don’t care.)
So it’s at possible that Trump has the same scenario in mind for Iran: That is, talk tough, go to the brink—and then make a deal. If such a deal were to happen, it would be easier to see some sort of fig-leaf-y exit from Afghanistan in time for Election Day, allowing Trump to campaign for re-election as the president who finally extricated Uncle Sam from those “endless wars.”
To be sure, the Iranians would have to go along with all this possible plotting; as they learned during the embassy hostage crisis of 1979-81, they can have leverage on the American political process—and they might indeed seek to use that sort of leverage again.
In the meantime, the one thing we know for sure is that Iran has established some sort of modus vivendi with China and Russia. That Financial Times piece further quoted Jonathan Eyal, of the Royal United Services Institute: “This is a carefully calculated exercise in which all three participants are winners: Iran gets to claim it is a regional power, Russia demonstrates its role as the key actor in the Middle East, and China can show it is a global naval power.”
So yes, there it is: A Eurasian alliance, straight out of the gloomy geopolitics of Halford Mackinder. To be sure, the three countries have been at odds in the past—notably, China has fought Russia, and Russia has fought Iran—and yet today, they all have a common interest in opposing the U.S.
To be sure, we have allies, too. And so we can see another worldwide struggle in the making; call it, as of now, Cold War II.
So what can the U.S. do? Beyond the obvious—no more gratuitous foreign wars that fritter away resources and rally the locals against us—we might take a page from our success in Cold War I.
In that first cold war, we found that two Eurasian giants, Russia (then the Soviet Union) and China were allied against us. But in fact, it wasn’t much of an alliance, because the two neighboring countries had as many antipathies as affinities.
So back in 1971-2, President Richard Nixon and his top diplomat, Henry Kissinger, seized upon those cleavages and made them wider. By “going to China,” Nixon and Kissinger managed to split the Sino-Soviet axis. And arguably, this rift in the communist bloc was the hinge of the Cold War.
So today, can Donald Trump and his top diplomat, Mike Pompeo, figure out a way to split the new axis of Russia, China, and Iran? Most experts are skeptical about Trump’s ability to do anything but tweet, but then, most of those same experts have been consistently wrong. So maybe we shouldn’t dismiss the possibility that Trump and Pompeo, mindful of past American successes, have something up their sleeve.
In the meantime, of course, our geopolitical rivals know history, too, and so they’re trying just as hard to split our alliances. Indeed, over the last two decades, the Russians, in particular, have shown no small amount of strategic savvy.
So as of now, it’s hard to justify either optimism or pessimism. Most likely, here at the dawn of the 2020s, we’re likely looking at what John F. Kennedy foresaw at the dawn of the 1960s: “A long twilight struggle.”