On June 26 (today), in a welcome historical coincidence, the two leaders most capable of mediating between the US and Iran will meet face-to-face in Tokyo to put an end to the current dangerous escalation that risks setting the Middle East on fire.
Emmanuel Macron, on an official visit to Japan, will have plenty of time to work seriously with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the Persian Gulf crisis. The Osaka G20 summit, in which Donald Trump will participate, does not start until June 28.
After the Iranians shot down a US Navy surveillance drone on Thursday, June 20 (flying over Iranian waters according to Tehran, international waters according to the Pentagon), the planet came close to the outbreak of a fourth Gulf war in forty years. It was only at the last minute that Trump cancelled a US Air Force raid against Iran’s air defence batteries.
Asking about the number of deaths that such a raid could cause, he was told “around 150”. With a certain amount of common sense, the American president considered such a lethal reaction to the destruction of an unmanned aircraft disproportionate.
Trump sincerely doesn’t want war. But his two closest advisors, National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, are warmongers. Their hidden dream is to force regime change in Tehran.
American generals, starting with Joseph Dunford, the chief of staff of the United States armies, are more cautious than geopoliticians in chambers. They know what war is. They have experienced the suffering it implies, the unpredictable consequences it causes, the difficulties it creates in withdrawing when you want, as you want.
Coming from the Marine Corps, General Dunford understands that the Americans will never be able to control an escalation of their conflict with the Iranian mullahs. Since Congress will never allow a military invasion of Iran (as it authorized an invasion of Iraq in 2003), the general seized on the fact that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards will retain their freedom of initiative throughout the Middle East.
They will subject the American forces stationed in the East to an asymmetric warfare that is very difficult to control.
Despite the immense military and civilian resources deployed in Afghanistan since 2001, the Americans have never been able to drive the Taliban out of the countryside, where they continue to rule after sunset. The more the GIs and marines multiply their patrols, the more they lose the support of the population.
President Trump, as well as many Americans in Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, seem to have understood that a war against Iran is unlikely to serve the long-term interests of the United States.
Its cost-benefit balance is sobering. In the face of the unlikely benefit of the arrival of gentle pro-American democrats in power in Tehran, there are relatively certain risks of an indirect attack against all American interests in Iraq, an insurrection of the Shia populations of eastern Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and a complete blockade of the Straits of Hormuz.
Is it really worth it?
That is the question Donald Trump is asking himself. Privately, he would like to reach a deal with the Iranians in which they would permanently abandon their capability for uranium enrichment for military use (and not for a fixed period, as provided for in the nuclear agreement of 14 July 2015, signed by the Obama administration, but then denounced by it).
The problem is that the US President has no way today of engaging directly with Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. The National Security Council, the State Department and the CIA are of no use in this respect. War could therefore be triggered by accident. Bolton and Pompeo will push the blame onto the Iranians.
Given the nationalist one-upmanship that exists between the different clans that revolve around the leadership in Tehran, one can envision the Pasdarans falling into the trap.
To get humanity out of this sleepwalking geopolitics, Macron and Abe must act quickly.
France and Japan must commute between Tehran and Washington until the Americans and Iranians agree seriously to sit around a table. That’s when they will strike a deal. For both of them have a profound long-term interest in this.
This article first appeared in Le Figaro.