The near-march to war over Iran shows just how dangerous it is to rely upon personal charm and boardroom style bullying in the conduct of foreign policy. When President Donald Trump last year overturned the agreement with Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment programme, he obviously had no idea of what would come next. It was a yawning policy gap through which ultra hawks like recently sacked National Security Adviser John Bolton tried to launch a war with Iran on the specious pretext of its alleged potential for destabilising the Arab world. 

There is a double irony in this proposition. The first and by far the most indisputably destabilising factor in the Arab world is American muscularity, with its lies about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the clumsy proxy war in Syria, the Libya intervention, and support for the Egyptian military in its overthrow of the country’s fledgling democracy. It is directly or indirectly responsible for the revival of al-Qaeda in the region and for the rise of Islamic State. Its most steadfast partner in this wild ride to mayhem has been Saudi Arabia, not so much with troops but with cash in return for a free hand in further disruption of the region with its Wahhabi bigotry.

Iran has assiduously fished these murky waters as it is the rallying point for the region’s Shias who look up to it as the only Shia state. Exploiting sectarian sentiment has been productive in expanding Iranian influence in Iraq (after Saddam Hussein’s overthrow by US troops), Syria (following the civil war), not to mention Lebanon and the Gaza. But this is as much a way of countering Saudi hostility and western suspicions as it is of increasing its own influence. Despite its revolutionary credentials Iran’s foreign policy has been accretive rather than acquisitive, raising its profile in opportunistic bursts through proxies such as Hezbollah.                        

Secondly, in the last few years the genocide in Yemen, presided over by this most faithful of US allies in collaboration with other Gulf States, has become a flashpoint between the two regional powers. What began as a long-term low-key political struggle between competing factions has morphed into something more fundamental, involving old Shia-Sunni hatreds. The Saudi-led Sunnis are ranged against the local principally Shia Houthi faction. It has thus become a war of extermination of the Shia, whom Saudi Arabia regards as its biggest enemy. Yemen has little or no oil and has no strategic significance. Sectarian solidarity seems to be the principal motivator.

Until Trump tore up the deal with Iran, it was certainly involved on the Houthi side but essentially at a remove. That seems to have changed with the new US-led economic sanctions. With oil sales falling, there has been a noticeable rise in Iranian belligerence and a willingness to take greater risks to assert its position. The atmosphere is more fraught than at any time since the signing of the agreement with the Obama administration. The devastating September 14 drone and cruise missile attack on Saudi oil facilities takes it to a new level. The Houthis said they were responsible for the attacks but no one believed them. Indeed, many on the hard right saw it as an Iranian operation, with the Houthi confession a mere fig leaf.   

  As the hawks rage at their their commander-in-chief’s pusillanimity more reasonable temperaments are dismayed at the casual incoherence that underlies the public policy of the world’s most powerful state.

The attack had the entire neocon crowd led by Bolton salivating at the prospect of yet another war, a real one this time, unlike Trump’s Twitter rampages. As he remarked in a moment of unusual acuity, “John [Bolton] never met a war he didn’t like.” Luckily for the region, this US president has never met a war he did like. After a couple of days of “locked and loaded” pugnacity Trump simply decided it wasn’t worth the trouble. So there is something to be said for running a foreign policy by the seat of your pants. It may signal an essential vacuity and lack coherence but its great virtue is that you can change the mood anytime you want, as many times as you want. The US has decided on further sanctions but secretary of state Mike Pompeo said they were seeking a “peaceful resolution”. For its part, Iran has thrown down the gauntlet to the Saudis, inviting them to respond but showed no belligerence towards the US or the west. Indeed, it just said the UK-flagged oil tanker Stena Impero seized in July is free to sail away. 

As the hawks rage at their impotence and their commander-in-chief’s pusillanimity more reasonable temperaments are probably dismayed at the casual incoherence that underlies the public policy of the world’s most powerful state. The case of Iran provides a sobering example. It was certified as being in compliance with all the conditions in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (as the deal is called) but the White House tore it up anyway.  How this flare-up ends, whether with a new accord marked by a Kodak moment, or in fire and blood, is still unclear. The one thing clear is that acting on impulse in ignorance of the facts (Iranian compliance) always leads to a mess.