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Will War With Iran Be Trump’s October Surprise?

Reprinted with permission from Tom Dispatch

Was Donald Trump's Jan. 3 drone assassination of Major General Qasem Soleimani the first step in turning the cold war between the United States and Iran into a hot war in the weeks before an American presidential election? Of course, there's no way to know yet, but behind by double digits in most national polls and flanked by ultra-hawkish Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Trump is a notoriously impetuous and erratic figure. In recent weeks, for instance, he didn't hesitate to dispatch federal paramilitary forces to American cities run by Democratic mayors and his administration also seems to have launched a series of covert actions against Tehran that look increasingly overt and have Iran watchers concerned about whether an October surprise could be in the cards.

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The Wuhan Hoax And Trump’s War On The Intelligence Community

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

There's a meme that appears now and then on Facebook and other social media: "Those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it."

That's funny. What's not is that the Trump administration and its coterie of China-bashers, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and aided by Arkansas Republican Senator Tom Cotton, have recently been dusting off the fake-intelligence playbook Vice President Dick Cheney used in 2002 and 2003 to justify war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. At that time, the administration of President George W. Bush put enormous pressure on the U.S. intelligence community to ratify spurious allegations that Saddam Hussein was in league with al-Qaeda and that his regime had assembled an arsenal of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. Fantasy claims they may have been, but they did help to convince many skeptical conservatives and spooked liberals that a unilateral, illegal invasion of Iraq was urgently needed.

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How Giuliani Became Trump’s Shadow Secretary Of State

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Imagine, just for the sake of argument, that the president of the United States was an arrogant, information-challenged, would-be autocrat with a soft spot for authoritarian leaders from China, Russia, and North Korea to Egypt ("my favorite dictator"), Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. And then, suppose that very president, while hollowing out the State Department and slamming its diplomats as "Deep State" troublemakers, were to name a voluble wheeler-dealer attorney as his unofficial, freelance White House go-between with shady characters worldwide. Imagine further that the president would do an end run around the professionals of the U.S. intelligence community — more Deep Staters, natch — and rely instead on conspiracy theories trundled back to Washington in that attorney's briefcase.

Now, one last unimaginable thing, but humor me: accept that the attorney in question went by the name of Rudy Giuliani.

That, of course, is a reasonable description of the state of America in 2020. Three-plus years into Donald Trump's misshapen presidency, as the "adults" fled the room one by one or were pushed to the exits, the president was left with a rump collection of family loyalists and third-tier yes-people around him.

Rarely, if ever, do mainstream media types take a step back to survey the classic Star Wars bar-like crew of know-nothings, Bible-thumpers, and connivers who've been assembled as Trump's "team" and their breathtaking incompetence and perfidy. Luckily, with Giuliani in the mix, there's at least one figure so wildly over-the-top that analysts and pundits have heaped scorn or ridicule on his head, and often his alone, as a person so outrageously unfit, so borderline deranged, so nakedly in it for profit that it's impossible to consider him without marveling at the tragicomedy of it all.

Since 2017, however, Rudy Giuliani has emerged as Trump's shadow secretary of state with his hands in American foreign policy and politics from Iran to Russia, Turkey to Ukraine and beyond. That means anyone, anywhere in the world, with a few million bucks to proffer and an angle to pursue in Washington can avoid Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Christian-right uber-hawk from Kansas, and sidle up instead to the former U.S. attorney from the Southern District of New York and mayor of New York City.

During most of 2019, as is well known to anyone who even casually followed the impeachment proceedings in Congress, Giuliani had a starring role in President Trump's conspiracy-laden efforts to prove that Ukraine, not Russia, intervened in the 2016 election and that Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, were mixed up in something nefarious there. (To those in the reality-based world, of course, it was Russia, not Ukraine that meddled massively in 2016. And the Bidens, it's clear, did nothing illegal in Kyiv.)

As we shall see, the Trump-Giuliani conspiracy theory about that country originated with and was "fertilized" by three individuals who'd earlier been caught up in Robert Mueller's special counsel investigation of the White House: Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, the disgraced former national security advisor in the White House; Paul Manafort, who chaired Trump's election campaign; and Manafort's Ukraine partner and ally, an apparent operative for Russia's GRU intelligence service, Konstantin Kilimnik. In other words, the Trump-Giuliani Ukraine adventure did indeed get a boost from Vladimir Putin's secret service and Moscow's propaganda machine.

You'll remember, perhaps, or maybe you've forgotten, that before Mike Pompeo was secretary of state, before his predecessor Rex ("Rexxon") Tillerson even took the job, it looked for a while like Giuliani was going to get it. He and Donald Trump had been political friends-with-benefits since the mid-1990s, as evidenced by a cringe-worthy 2000 video of Trump placing his lips unbidden on Giuliani-in-drag's "breast." The former mayor had quietly sought to reposition himself as the reincarnation of Roy Cohn, the mob-connected lawyer who had been a mentor to the up-and-coming New York real estate tycoon. ("Where's my Roy Cohn?") It's hardly surprising then that, following Trump's surprise victory in November 2016, Giuliani began lobbying hard for the secretary of state job. At the same time, he was fervently urging the president-elect not to select never-Trumper Mitt Romney for it. (Giuliani did, however, also endorse John Bolton, Washington's warmonger-in-chief, for the job.)

Back in 2016, a week or so after the election, a New York Times editorial drily noted that the appointment of Giuliani as secretary of state "would be a dismal and potentially disastrous choice," that he lacked "any substantive diplomatic experience and has demonstrated poor judgment throughout his career," appeared "unhinged," and would come with a "flurry of potential conflicts of interest." And keep in mind that, back then, Giuliani was only getting started.

In recent years, much has been written, and accurately so, about the exodus of veteran diplomats — ambassadors to toilers in the ranks — from a gutted Foggy Bottom and its global outposts under both Tillerson and Pompeo. Writing last October for Foreign Affairs, for instance, former diplomat William Burns noted that fewer people took the department's entrance exam in 2019 than in any year in previous decades. "Career diplomats," wrote Burns, "are sidelined, with only one of 28 assistant secretary-rank positions filled by a Foreign Service officer, and more ambassadorships going to political appointees in this administration than in any in recent history." He added: "One-fifth of ambassadorships remain unfilled, including critical posts."

At the State Department, as one ambassador told the Hill, morale "is at a new low, although I am not sure it could fall much lower than where it has been for the past three years." And that decline only accelerated after the humiliating dismissal of the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, Marie Yovanovitch, whose ouster was orchestrated by Giuliani.

To be sure, the State Department was never a progressive bastion, not during the Cold War years nor in the era when America was the global hyperpower. It is, nonetheless, the main vehicle for any president wishing to use the levers of diplomacy rather than the oft-chosen military option. Now, with the adults gone and the diplomats increasingly neutered, we're left with Trump and Giuliani. Neither hawks nor doves, they're vultures, viewing every country as part of a vast veldt where they can pick at carcasses of every sort for their own business or political gain.

How to Become a Shadow Secretary of State

Giuliani's foreign policy portfolio extends far and wide, though it was in Ukraine — specifically with that country's many corrupt, Russian-leaning oligarchs — that he rocketed to world attention and helped trigger the president's impeachment. In his world travels, Giuliani has combined his roles as businessman, security consultant, political fixer, and the president's personal attorney into a mishmash of overlapping identities. He has, in other words, become a kind of walking, talking conflict-of-interest machine.

Before zeroing in on Ukraine, however, let's consider just a few of Giuliani's other foreign ventures. Since leaving office as New York's mayor, through Giuliani Partners, the Bracewell & Giuliani law partnership, and (after 2016) the giant law firm of Greenberg Traurig, along with Giuliani Security & Safety and Giuliani Capital Advisers, the former mayor has pulled in millions of dollars working on behalf of foreign clients, including highly controversial ones. Among those deals, contracts, and maneuvers, before and after Trump became president and hired his old friend Rudy to serve as his personal attorney in 2018, Giuliani has been involved in a far-flung series of deals: he's been a paid lobbyist in Romania; had a cybersecurity contract in Qatar; had deals in Colombia, Argentina, and El Salvador; worked shadow diplomacy (with a business angle) with Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro; operated in Japan, Serbia, and Guatemala; and that only begins to tell the story.

Consider Turkey, starting in 2017. Back then, when Lieutenant General Michael Flynn was forced to resign after just a few weeks as national security advisor, it turned out that he had quietly (and without reporting it) been working on behalf of Turkey's autocratic government, led by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, during the 2016 election campaign. Erdogan was disturbed by the presence of a dissident, Fethullah Gulen, in the United States. As an unregistered advocate for Turkey, Flynn lobbied in 2016 to have the United States expel Gulen and send him back to Turkey. Early the next year, Flynn was gone, but no fear, Rudy Giuliani promptly took up the same cause. He began urging President Trump to extradite Gulen to Turkey, where Erdogan was accusing him of having plotted an attempted coup d'état. (In the end, Gulen wasn't expelled.)

Given Giuliani's ability to mix policy with business, you won't be surprised to learn that he was also enmeshed in more lucrative efforts in Turkey. At around the same time, he was lobbying Trump to endorse a prisoner swap involving one of his clients, an Iranian-born Turkish gold trader named Reza Zarrab whom the FBI had arrested in 2016 on charges of money laundering and trying to do an end run around economic sanctions on Iran. According to the New York Times, Zarrab had been working with Halkbank, a major Turkish bank with close ties to Turkish Finance Minister Berat Albayrak who is also President Erdogan's son-in-law, to "funnel more than $10 billion in gold and cash to Iran."

At first blush, it might seem odd for Giuliani to offer his services on behalf of an Iranian expat accused of trying to break U.S. sanctions whose family, it turned out, had close ties to former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Curious, yes, but for Giuliani, business is business and there were bucks to be made. That he would use his connections to the Oval Office in an ultimately unsuccessful appeal for his client is even odder, given that Giuliani is otherwise a militant hardliner when it comes to demanding the overthrow of the Iranian government.

Case in point: his long-time affiliation with the People's Jihadists, otherwise known as the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq, or MEK. Like many of Giuliani's escapades abroad, his efforts with MEK were a money-making project. Along with John Bolton, the late Senator John McCain, former National Security Advisor Jim Jones, and former Attorney General Mike Mukasey, Giuliani has for years been affiliated with the MEK, making perhaps a dozen appearances, mostly paid speeches, at its conventions and rallies.

The MEK has almost no support inside Iran, not only because it's conducted a terror campaign against that country's top officials since 1981, but because it operated with the backing of Iraqi autocrat Saddam Hussein during and after the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. It's also widely regarded as a cult. Last year, in the midst of his anti-Joe Biden skullduggery in Ukraine, in his 11th appearance at an MEK confab, Giuliani traveled to Albania, of all places, where the group has established a military and political base. There, he called Trump "heroic" for "doing away with the reckless nuclear agreement and putting [Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps] on the terrorist list."

In 2018, this reporter attended one of the MEK's large-scale events, held at a hotel in midtown New York City. General Jim Jones, who became an ultra-hawk after being ousted as President Obama's national security advisor in 2010, spoke to the gathering first, noting proudly that he is supposedly on a list of people the government in Tehran plans to assassinate.

Rising to speak after Jones, Giuliani seemed jealous. "I hope I say enough offensive things that they'll put me on that list to kill me," he commented. Needless to say, both Jones and Giuliani are still alive and kicking, and there's no evidence that either one is on any Iranian kill list. However, thanks in part to Giuliani's hardline, anti-Iran advice to the president, that country's top general, Qassem Soleimani, was indeed placed on a presidential kill list and drone assassinated as 2020 began.

And Then There Was Ukraine

It was, of course, in connection with Ukraine that Giuliani's freelancing came to the world's attention. In the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence's impeachment report, his name is mentioned about 160 times. He's cited, first and foremost because, in that infamous "perfect" July 2019 phone call of his, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work through him; because the former mayor was the primary organizer of the smear campaign against the actual ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who was subsequently fired; and because it was he who, starting as early as May 2019, masterminded a months-long political witch hunt against the Bidens, demanding over and over that Ukraine carry out an ersatz investigation of the man the president then expected to be his chief 2020 election opponent.

Numerous figures, including Ambassador Bill Taylor, who succeeded Yovanovitch at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, would express dismay over Giuliani's role as the "irregular" channel for the Trump administration's Ukraine policy — the "Giuliani factor," as Ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker called it. The story of how all this led to the president's impeachment is too well known to be rehashed here.

The Joe Biden/Hunter Biden part of the Ukraine story was straightforward enough in its own way. Far more complicated and troubling was the adherence of the president and Giuliani to a weird conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, used its intelligence service to try to sway the 2016 election. According to various official reports and in the opinion of virtually every expert who's studied the matter, it was Russia that intervened to boost Trump's election campaign. According to Trump and Giuliani, however, Ukraine meddled in 2016 on behalf of Hillary Clinton and indeed, they argue, the actual Democratic National Committee server somehow found its way to Kyiv, thanks to a computer security firm called CrowdStrike, which Trump claimed was owned by a wealthy Ukrainian. (It is not.)

Naturally enough, this Trump-Giuliani theory was nonsense, but according to the Washington Post, it had its origins — perhaps not surprisingly — in propaganda generated in Moscow. The Post reported that Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Manafort's partner, Konstantin Kilimnik, "played a role in convincing Trump that Russia did not actually interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, despite what both Mueller and the U.S. intelligence community have concluded, and that it was actually Ukraine."

According to Rick Gates, Manafort's deputy, the Ukraine conspiracy theory originated with his boss who "parroted" the line from Kilimnik. And both Manafort and Kilimnik — who was indicted by Mueller — had ties to Moscow operatives and pro-Russian forces in Ukraine, while Kilimnik himself was identified by Mueller and the FBI as part of Russia's GRU.

As the Post concluded: "So we have two men [Manafort and Flynn] who have been convicted of offenses related to their Russia ties, have both lied to investigators about their interactions with Russian interests, and who apparently played a significant role in pushing a theory to Trump that Russia did not actually interfere in the 2016 election. They instead pointed the finger at Russia's nemesis, Ukraine, and that has apparently stuck with Trump for more than three years."

And it was that line that would be spread eagerly by pro-Trump writers like the Hill's John Solomon. In a review of Solomon's pieces, released this month, the Hill's editors analyzed 14 of his columns with titles like "As Russian collusion fades, Ukraine plot to help Clinton emerges." In doing so, they found numerous troubling facts about Solomon, his sources, and his overall reporting. As the Hill report put it:

"Giuliani has indicated he was a key source of information for Solomon on Ukraine, telling the New York Times in November 2019 that he turned over information about the Bidens earlier in the year to Solomon. 'I really turned my stuff over to John Solomon,' Giuliani said.

"The former New York City mayor later told the New Yorker he encouraged Solomon to highlight information on the Bidens and Yovanovitch, stating, 'I said, "John, let's make this as prominent as possible,"' adding, "'I'll go on TV. You go on TV. You do columns.'"

Two colorful characters who acted as Giuliani's Ukraine go-betweens, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, have been indicted on conspiracy charges and, according to Fortune, Giuliani, too, could be indicted in that case. As CNN noted in January, it's nearly unheard of for a U.S. Attorney's office — in this case the one for the Southern District of New York (SDNY) — to end up indicting a former U.S. attorney who led the same district. CNN added: "The SDNY community has watched in disbelief as Giuliani continues to seek the spotlight even as the investigation has unfolded and expanded into new fronts on a nearly weekly basis. The impeachment inquiry has also unleashed new evidence regarding his role performing shadow diplomacy on behalf of President Donald Trump as recently as [mid-January]."

Indeed, Giuliani is still at it. In concert with a collection of corrupt ex-prosecutors in Ukraine and in his ongoing role as shadow secretary of state-cum-intelligence chief, Giuliani is still gathering conspiracy-riddled information on the Bidens in Kyiv — and Attorney General William Barr has obligingly created an "intake process in the field" to absorb Giuliani's work product straight into the Department of Justice. One thing is guaranteed: "Secretary of State" Giuliani will have a clear field in Kyiv, since Ambassador Taylor was unceremoniously fired on January 1st of this year.

Bob Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist and TomDispatch regular, is a contributing editor at the Nation and has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Books, John Feffer's new dystopian novel (the second in the Splinterlands series) Frostlands, Beverly Gologorsky's novel Every Body Has a Story, and Tom Engelhardt's A Nation Unmade by War, as well as Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power and John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II.

Copyright 2020 Bob Dreyfuss

Is War With Iran On The Horizon?

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Here’s the foreign policy question of questions in 2019: Are President Donald Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, all severely weakened at home and with few allies abroad, reckless enough to set off a war with Iran? Could military actions designed to be limited — say, a heightening of the Israeli bombing of Iranian forces inside Syria, or possible U.S. cross-border attacks from Iraq, or a clash between American and Iranian naval ships in the Persian Gulf — trigger a wider war?

Worryingly, the answers are: yes and yes. Even though Western Europe has lined up in opposition to any future conflict with Iran, even though Russia and China would rail against it, even though most Washington foreign policy experts would be horrified by the outbreak of such a war, it could happen.

Despite growing Trump administration tensions with Venezuela and even with North Korea, Iran is the likeliest spot for Washington’s next shooting war. Years of politically charged anti-Iranian vituperation might blow up in the faces of President Trump and his two most hawkish aides, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Advisor John Bolton, setting off a conflict with potentially catastrophic implications.

Such a war could quickly spread across much of the Middle East, not just to Saudi Arabia and Israel, the region’s two major anti-Iranian powers, but Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and the various Persian Gulf states. It might indeed be, as Iranian President Hassan Rouhani suggested last year (unconsciously echoing Iran’s former enemy, Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein) the “mother of all wars.”

With Bolton and Pompeo, both well-known Iranophobes, in the driver’s seat, few restraints remain on President Trump when it comes to that country. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, and Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, President Trump’s former favorite generals who had urged caution, are no longer around. And though the Democratic National Committee passed a resolution last month calling for the United States to return to the nuclear agreement that President Obama signed, there are still a significant number of congressional Democrats who believe that Iran is a major threat to U.S. interests in the region.

During the Obama years, it was de rigueur for Democrats to support the president’s conclusion that Iran was a prime state sponsor of terrorism and should be treated accordingly. And the congressional Democrats now leading the party on foreign policy — Eliot Engel, who currently chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Bob Menendez and Ben Cardin, the two ranking Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — were opponents of the 2015 nuclear accord (though all three now claim to have changed their minds).

On the roller coaster ride that is Donald Trump’s foreign policy, it’s hard to discern what’s real and what isn’t, what’s rhetoric and what’s not. When it comes to Iran, it’s reasonable to assume that Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo aren’t planning an updated version of the unilateral invasion of Iraq that President George W. Bush launched in the spring of 2003.

Yet by openly calling for the toppling of the government in Tehran, by withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement and reimposing onerous sanctions to cripple that country’s economy, by encouraging Iranians to rise up in revolt, by overtly supporting various exile groups (and perhaps covertly even terrorists), and by joining with Israel and Saudi Arabia in an informal anti-Iranian alliance, the three nations are clearly attempting to force the collapse of the Iranian regime, which just celebrated the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

There are three potential flashpoints where limited skirmishes, were they to break out, could quickly escalate into a major shooting war.

The first is in Syria and Lebanon. Iran is deeply involved in defending Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (who only recently returned from a visit to Tehran) and closely allied with Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite political party with a potent paramilitary arm. Weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu openly boasted that his country’s air force had successfully taken out Iranian targets in Syria. In fact, little noticed here, dozens of such strikes have taken place for more than a year, with mounting Iranian casualties.

Until now, the Iranian leadership has avoided a direct response that would heighten the confrontation with Israel, just as it has avoided unleashing Hezbollah, a well-armed, battle-tested proxy force.  That could, however, change if the hardliners in Iran decided to retaliate. Should this simmering conflict explode, does anyone doubt that President Trump would soon join the fray on Israel’s side or that congressional Democrats would quickly succumb to the administration’s calls to back the Jewish state?

Next, consider Iraq as a possible flashpoint for conflict. In February, a blustery Trump told CBS’s Face the Nation that he intends to keep U.S. forces in Iraq “because I want to be looking a little bit at Iran because Iran is the real problem.” His comments did not exactly go over well with the Iraqipolitical class, since many of that country’s parties and militias are backed by Iran.

Trump’s declaration followed a Wall Street Journal report late last year that Bolton had asked the Pentagon — over the opposition of various generals and then-Secretary of Defense Mattis — to prepare options for “retaliatory strikes” against Iran. This roughly coincided with a couple of small rocket attacks against Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone and the airport in Basra, Iraq’s Persian Gulf port city, neither of which caused any casualties.  Writing in Foreign Affairs, however, Pompeo blamed Iran for the attacks, which he called “life-threatening,” adding, “Iran did not stop these attacks, which were carried out by proxies it has supported with funding, training, and weapons.” No “retaliatory strikes” were launched, but plans do undoubtedly now exist for them and it’s not hard to imagine Bolton and Pompeo persuading Trump to go ahead and use them — with incalculable consequences.

Finally, there’s the Persian Gulf itself. Ever since the George W. Bush years, the U.S. Navy has worried about possible clashes with Iran’s naval forces in those waters and there have been a number of high-profile incidents. The Obama administration tried (but failed) to establish a hotline of sorts that would have linked U.S. and Iranian naval commanders and so made it easier to defuse any such incident, an initiative championed by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen, a longtime opponent of war with Iran.

Under Trump, however, all bets are off. Last year, he requested that Mattis prepare plans to blow up Iran’s “fast boats,” small gunboats in the Gulf, reportedly asking, “Why don’t we sink them?” He’s already reinforced the U.S. naval presence there, getting Iran’s attention. Not surprisingly, the Iranian leadership has responded in kind. Earlier this year, President Hassan Rouhani announced that his country had developed submarines capable of launching cruise missiles against naval targets.  The Iranians also began a series of Persian Gulf war games and, in late February, test fired one of those sub-launched missiles.

Add in one more thing: in an eerie replay of a key argument George Bush and Dick Cheney used for going to war with Iraq in 2003, in mid-February the right-wing media outlet Washington Times ran an “exclusive” report with this headline: “Iran-Al Qaeda Alliance may provide legal rationale for U.S. military strikes.”

Back in 2002, the Office of Special Plans at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s Pentagon, under the supervision of neoconservatives Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith, spent months trying to prove that al-Qaeda and Iraq were in league. The Washington Times piece, citing Trump administration sources, made a similar claim — that Iran is now aiding and abetting al-Qaeda with a “clandestine sanctuary to funnel fighters, money, and weapons across the Middle East.”  It added that the administration is seeking to use this information to establish “a potential legal justification for military strikes against Iran or its proxies.” Needless to say, few are the terrorism experts or Iran specialists who would agree that Iran has anything like an active relationship with al-Qaeda.

The Trump administration is, in fact, experiencing increasing difficulty finding allies ready to join a new Coalition of the Willing to confront Iran. The only two charter members so far, Israel and Saudi Arabia, are, however, enthusiastic indeed. Last month, Prime Minister Netanyahu was heard remarking that Israel and its Arab allies want war with Iran.

At a less-than-successful mid-February summit meeting Washington organized in Warsaw, Poland, to recruit world leaders for a future crusade against Iran, Netanyahu was heard to say in Hebrew: “This is an open meeting with representatives of leading Arab countries that are sitting down together with Israel in order to advance the common interest of war with Iran.” (He later insisted that the correct translation should have been “combating Iran,” but the damage had already been done.)

That Warsaw summit was explicitly designed to build an anti-Iranian coalition, but many of America’s allies, staunchly opposing Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear accord, would have nothing to do with it. In an effort to mollify the Europeans, in particular, the United States and Poland awkwardly renamed it: “The Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East.”

The name change, however, fooled no one. As a result, Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo were embarrassed by a series of no-shows: the French, the Germans, and the European Union, among others, flatly declined to send ministerial-level representatives, letting their ambassadors in Warsaw stand in for them.  The many Arab nations not in thrall to Saudi Arabia similarly sent only low-level delegations. Turkey and Russia boycotted altogether, convening a summit of their own in which Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan met with Iran’s Rouhani.

Never the smoothest diplomat, Pence condemned, insulted, and vilified the Europeans for refusing to go along with Washington’s wrecking-ball approach. He began his speech to the conference by saying: “The time has come for our European partners to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal.” He then launched a direct attack on Europe’s efforts to preserve that accord by seeking a way around the sanctions Washington had re-imposed: “Sadly, some of our leading European partners… have led the effort to create mechanisms to break up our sanctions. We call it an effort to break American sanctions against Iran’s murderous revolutionary regime.”

That blast at the European allies should certainly have brought to mind Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s disparaging comments in early 2003 about Germany and France, in particular, being leaders of the “old Europe.” Few allies then backed Washington’s invasion plans, which, of course, didn’t prevent war. Europe’s reluctance now isn’t likely to prove much of a deterrent either.

But Pence is right that the Europeans have taken steps to salvage the Iran nuclear deal, otherwise known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In particular, they’ve created a “special purpose vehicle” known as INSTEX (Instrument for Supporting Trade Exchanges) designed “to support legitimate trade with Iran,” according to a statement from the foreign ministers of Germany, France, and Great Britain. It’s potentially a big deal and, as Pence noted, explicitly designed to circumvent the sanctions Washington imposed on Iran after Trump’s break with the JCPOA.

INSTEX has a political purpose, too. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA was a body blow to President Rouhani, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, and other centrists in Tehran who had taken credit for, and pride in, the deal between Iran and the six world powers (the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia, and China) that signed the agreement. That deal had been welcomed in Iran in part because it seemed to ensure that country’s ability to expand its trade to the rest of the world, including its oil exports, free of sanctions.

Even before Trump abandoned the deal, however, Iran was already finding U.S. pressure overwhelming and, for the average Iranian, things hadn’t improved in any significant way. Worse yet, in the past year the economy had taken a nosedive, the currency had plungedinflation was running rampant, and strikes and street demonstrations had broken out, challenging the government and its clerical leadership. Chants of “Death to the Dictator!” — not heard since the Green Movement’s revolt against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reelection in 2009 — once again resounded in street demonstrations.

At the end of February, it seemed as if Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo had scored a dangerous victory when Zarif, Iran’s well-known, Western-oriented foreign minister, announced his resignation. Moderates who supported the JCPOA, including Rouhani and Zarif, have been under attack from the country’s hardliners since Trump’s pullout.  As a result, Zarif’s decision was widely assumed to be a worrisome sign that those hardliners had claimed their first victim.

There was even unfounded speculation that, without Zarif, who had worked tirelessly with the Europeans to preserve what was left of the nuclear pact, Iran itself might abandon the accord and resume its nuclear program. And there’s no question that the actions and statements of Bolton, Pompeo, and crew have undermined Iran’s moderates, while emboldening its hardliners, who are making I-told-you-so arguments to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader.

Despite the internal pressure on Zarif, however, his resignation proved short-lived indeed: Rouhani rejected it, and there was an upsurge of support for him in Iran’s parliament. Even General Qassem Soleimani, a major figure in that country’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and the commander of the Quds Force, backed him. As it happens, the Quds Force, an arm of the IRGC, is responsible for Iran’s paramilitary and foreign intelligence operations throughout the region, but especially in Iraq and Syria. That role has allowed Soleimani to assume responsibility for much of Iran’s foreign policy in the region, making him a formidable rival to Zarif — a tension that undoubtedly contributed to his brief resignation and it isn’t likely to dissipate anytime soon.

According to analysts and commentators, it appears to have been a ploy by Zarif (and perhaps Rouhani, too) to win a vote of political confidence and it appears to have strengthened their hand for the time being.

Still, the Zarif resignation crisis threw into stark relief the deep tensions within Iranian politics and raised a key question: As the Trump administration accelerates its efforts to seek a confrontation, will they find an echo among Iranian hardliners who’d like nothing more than a face-off with the United States?

Maybe that’s exactly what Bolton and Pompeo want.  If so, prepare yourself: another American war unlikely to work out the way anyone in Washington dreams is on the horizon.

Bob Dreyfuss, an investigative journalist and TomDispatch regular, is the founder of TheDreyfussReport.com. He is a contributing editor at the Nation, and he has written for Rolling StoneMother Jones, the American Prospect, the New Republic, and many other magazines. He is the author of Devil’s Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam.

IMAGE: A ballistic missile is launched and tested in an undisclosed location, Iran, March 9, 2016. REUTERS/Mahmood Hosseini/TIMA