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How we talk about Iran matters

Sophia A. McClennen, Professor of International Affairs, Pennsylvania State University. 

Slaon: We should be used to this by now. Wake up, check the news, notice that President Trump has insulted yet another sovereign nation, and then wait for the news media to have a field day with it. But recent events have surpassed all expectations of a leader who regularly tweets threats at foreign leaders in all caps, when Trump took to Twitter to threaten President Hassan Rouhani of Iran:

There is something deeply ironic and more than a little disturbing in Trump’s final warning to “Be cautious!” given the fact that being cautious is simply not something he ever does.

But there’s more to it — we have to take note of the way that Trump rhetoric itself becomes the story rather than the actual actions of his administration. All signs suggest that his administration is poised to increase conflict and confrontation with Iran and possibly work to topple the government. As Roxane Farmanfarmaian, who directs the University of Cambridge – Al Jazeera Center for Studies media project, writes, “Trump's new flock of advisers are long-term anti-Iran hawks, and his regional allies Saudi Arabia and Israel have themselves intensified threats to destabilise Iran from within, so as to hasten regime change.”

Farmanfarmaian outlines why a full-blown war with Iran is unlikely: Trump’s weak ties to Europe, his strong ties to Russia (who does not want war to its south) and Trump’s dependence on Russia in Syria. But as she explains, Trump’s aggressive stance on Iran is cause for real concern, most especially because “the region's razor-edge politics are as mercurial as Trump's own.”

One of the reasons why the region is so mercurial, argues journalist and author Vijay Prashad, is the high concentration of military weapons. As he puts it in a recent column on the astonishing increase in weapons sales under the Trump administration, “Half of all arms sales are to the Middle East. It is well-worth considering that the arms sales, rather than fundamentalism, fuel the conflicts in the Middle East.”

While the Unites States has curtailed its sale of weapons to Iran, having been their top provider from 1950-1970, it does provide weapons to Iran’s adversaries, especially Saudi Arabia, which is the largest purchaser of U.S. weapons. In May 2017, Trump posed for a photo op during his visit to Saudi Arabia holding a glowing orb. He would leave the Kingdom having put in place arms sales deals worth $110 billion. More recently, in March the U.S. government approved a $1 billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia.

As Prashad notes, there is a direct human cost to these deals, one which is increasingly affecting civilian populations. He focuses on the war in Yemen where Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have created what the UN calls the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.” Prashad notes that 75 percent of the country’s population — around 22 million people — are in terrible straits, with hunger and disease rampant. Half of the population — over 11 million — are children. A child dies in Yemen every 10 minutes >>>