So who Created ISIS?

William Morris, the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General, addressed lecturers at Takrit University in Northern Iraq as a precursor to discussions the subject of which was, at Takrit University’s behest, the role of Iran and America respectively in Iraq. This podcast was made in the aftermath of that meeting and reflects salient points from that discussion. Podcast from NCF Secretary General William Morris on this link

The following observation and associated note for clarification is relevant and comes from our senior member in Iraq, Stafford Clarry:

Following the drone assassination of two top military commanders – one Iranian and the other Iraqi, an Iranian military strike against US military forces in Iraq, and the Iraqi Parliament passing a non-binding resolution for withdrawal of US forces, the US-led coalition and Iraqi military have since resumed joint operations against ISIS. In addition, the US is negotiating to install defensive Patriot missiles in Iraq. Further, the US is urging a review of the SFA.

To clarify:

In 2008, the US and Iraq entered into two binding agreements.

  • One, the Strategic Framework Agreement (SFA), covered the overall political, economic, and security relationship.
  • The other, the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA), required all US combat forces to withdraw from major populated areas by end-June 2009 and for all US forces to withdraw from Iraq by end-December 2011.

These binding agreements were decided and signed during the White House administration of President George W. Bush. They were publicly endorsed by both Iraq’s President Jalal Talabani and US President George W. Bush in December 2008 in Baghdad.

Thus, contrary to misinformation, President Obana DID NOT decide to withdraw US forces from Iraq. In 2014, in reaction to the ISIS onslaught, however, upon the invitation of the Iraqi government, President Obama DID decide to send US combat forces back into Iraq.

President Obama used the 2001 Authority for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda and other associate militant groups that was passed by the US Congress on 14 September 2001 and signed into law by President George W. Bush on 18 September 2001.


Former US presidential envoy speaks candidly about Iraq and Iran

Brett McGurk, a senior national security adviser to three presidents, left the Trump Administration after the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria. Our Senior NCF member in Iraq, Stafford Clarry, shared this fascinating insight from Andrew Dyer of the San Diego Union Tribune datelined Jan. 23. It is of particular interest because the NCF is partnering with Takrit University’s Department of Peace Studies and for our first guest lecture, this Thursday, they have asked us to talk to students on the involvement of the USA and Iran in Iraq. For the original text see this link:

SAN DIEGO — A former national security advisor under three presidents, including President Donald Trump, described the administration’s current Middle East policy as “aimless” and flawed during a recent talk at San Diego State University.

Brett McGurk, who resigned in December 2018 as special presidential envoy to the coalition to defeat ISIS, described his experiences in the region, from when he first arrived as an adviser to the early Iraq provisional government, set up under then-President George W. Bush, until he left shortly after Defense Secretary James Mattis resigned and Trump ordered the withdrawal of American troops from Syria.

McGurk said during his talk that Trump’s decisions in the Middle East over the last three years — such as pulling out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, pulling U.S. forces out of Syria and assassinating Iran’s top general — were indicative of a poorly thought-out strategy.

“I just don’t think the Trump Administration has thought this through,” he said.
McGurk said that withdrawing from the Iran Nuclear Deal has resulted in a series of consequences that effectively leaves the U.S. in a “strategic trap” with Iran.

“(The Iran deal) was an arms control deal — it wasn’t designed to change the Middle East,” McGurk said. “It was designed to put this horrible problem at least on the back burner (so) we can deal with other things in other ways, and that makes strategic sense.”

Trump criticized the international deal, which lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for certain limits on the country’s nuclear program, during his 2016 campaign. In May 2018, Trump announced the U.S. withdrawal from the deal and reimposed sanctions on the country.

In 2019 Iran-backed militias in Iraq, which had been U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS, began targeting U.S. facilities in the country. In December, the U.S. struck back at some of those militias in Iraq and Syria with airstrikes.

In retaliation, militia supporters broke into and set fire to part of the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad, leading to Trump’s decision to assassinate Iranian General Qassem Soleimani in a January drone strike.
Days later, Iran launched missiles at two Iraqi bases that house U.S. troops and, during the strikes, also shot down a Ukrainian airliner after it took off in Iran, killing all 176 people aboard.

Trump then announced new sanctions on Iran. Sanctions aren’t the solution, McGurk said.

“(The Trump Administration) thinks sanctions will fundamentally change Iran’s behavior, but there’s no evidence of that at all,” McGurk said.
“It makes their behavior worse. Everything is going the wrong way.”

Another consequence of the Soleimani strike — which occurred at the Baghdad airport — was a vote in Iraq’s parliament to kick the U.S. out of the country.

While McGurk said he felt a sense of justice in Soleimani’s death, “elementary errors” by the Pentagon in the immediate aftermath — such as the drafting of a letter announcing the U.S. would comply with the country’s parliament and withdraw entirely from Iraq — did not paint the U.S. in the best light in the region and among our allies, he said.

“It makes people think we don’t know what we’re doing,” McGurk said.

The talk at SDSU, which was hosted by the nonpartisan nonprofit San Diego Diplomacy Council and the university’s Fowler School of Business, attracted more than 120 people. McGurk took questions from attendees about a broad array of U.S. policies in the Middle East — especially on the fight against ISIS.

McGurk addressed the controversial decision by Obama not to order air strikes in Syria after President Bashar al-Assad’s regime was credibly accused of using chemical weapons in 2013. Obama was on record as saying the use of such weapons was a “red line” Assad could not cross.

McGurk said he didn’t think U.S. airstrikes would have been effective in that instance. He cited strikes ordered by Trump in response to more chemical weapons use by Syria in 2018.

“I am skeptical of the view that had Obama enforced the red line, that that would have been the end of Assad,” McGurk said. “Trump has done two series of air strikes against the Assad regime after the use of chemical weapons, and it made no strategic difference in the conflict at all.”

After his talk, McGurk spoke with the Union-Tribune about why it’s important for the U.S. to maintain a presence in Iraq and Syria, because of potential Russian involvement there.

“We built a force of 60,000 Syrians, and it gave us some leverage against Russia, and President Trump gave it up overnight,” he said.
“I thought that was a big disaster. But if we can’t stay in Iraq, then we also can’t stay in that chunk of Syria we’re still in…. The vacuum will be filled by ISIS and by Iranian-backed militias. And the great power that will come in to fill our space is Russia. So we need to stay. “

McGurk currently serves as the Frank E. and Arthur W. Payne Distinguished Lecturer at Stanford University.


Stumbling toward war: Why?

The following sequence of events was recorded by Stafford Clarry, one of our senior members in Iraq. He covers most everything in his list, except the key rocket strike on the Saudi oil field on September 14th, which, though never publicly admitted, was, we are led to believe, launched from Iraq by an Iran backed militia group.

Recent militaristic events in Iraq and Iran clearly demonstrate how situations can rapidly go out of control to a point verging on another war with devastating consequences on all sides and beyond.

In Iraq, most everyone has suffered through a lifetime of conflict – battles and bombings during the 1960s and 1970s; chemical weapon attacks, disappearances, community destruction, political detention, torture, and forced dislocation during the 1980s; effects of the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iran War and the 1961 Gulf war; 13 years of severe economic sanctions (1990-2003); the 2003 war followed by vicious sectarian conflict; the 2014-2018 ISIS war with its savagery; and even more violence in between.

At the country level, those who are more inclined to wage war (the hawks) tend to treat the land and its leadership as essentially separate from the countless families who want what families everywhere want: the opportunity to live peaceful and prosperous lives.

Keeping in mind there are no winners in war, and notably keeping in mind the purposes/intentions of the Vietnam and 2003 Iraq wars, let’s help ourselves get a better grip on what’s been recently happening in Iraq and Iran, its consequences and impact. We are where we are, but it could be much worse.

Discussions continue about the how, why, short-term consequences, and long-term impact of recent incidents. It begins with the JCPOA (nuclear agreement). Very briefly, here’s the sequence of relevant main events:

14 Jul 2015

  • JCPOA agreed, negotiated by six leading countries (P5+1/EU3+3) against one country (Iran) to halt Iran’s movement toward developing nuclear weapons. UN and EU sanctions were terminated/suspended. US sanctions for human rights abuses, missiles, and support for terrorism remain in operation.

8 May 2018

  • Unilateral US withdrawal from JCPOA.

4 Nov 2018

  • Unilateral re-imposition of severe pre-JCPOA sanctions.

27 Dec 2019

  • Rocket attack on K-1 Iraqi military base near Kirkuk (Iraq) where US military personnel were located, with casualties, one fatal. This followed earlier attacks on various locations that occurred without casualties.

29 Dec 2019

  • Airstrikes on five Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) sites in Iraq and Syria. PMF are independently formed and operated (private) militia groups that are included as official security forces of the Iraqi government, which funds and provides weaponry, including equipment received from the US-led international coalition against ISIS. Some PMF units are also backed and perhaps supervised/directed by Iran.

31 Dec 2019

  • US Embassy in Baghdad attacked by PMF supporters/sympathizers. No casualties.

3 Jan 2020

  • Suleimani (Iranian) and Muhandis (Iraqi), both senior government officials, assassinated.

8 Jan 2020


What’s the Endgame of Sanctions?

Stafford Clarry, Senior NCF Member in Northern Iraq, sends the following comment on moves to further increase US sanctions on Iran:

It’s hard to imagine the purpose of increasing sanctions being other than pure punitive. What exactly are they expected to achieve? 

If Iraq could survive thirteen years of UN-authorized international sanctions, Iran can likely survive, under its current leadership,  unilateral sanctions for at least a few more years.

Arguably, Iran has far more capacity than Iraq had to withstand economic sanctions that may only irritate the Iranian leadership but deeply hurt ordinary Iranians.

What is the endgame expected by increasing sanctions – chaos, anarchy, the implosion of Iran?

What are the criteria that must be met in order for sanctions to be lifted? What are the measurable behaviors to be observed?

It’s hard to imagine that whatever the criteria and observable behaviors may be, they cannot be attained without regime change. If that is the case, how will the regime change process play out and what and who will replace it?

Regime change in Iran could result in another deadly dystopian country like Iraq, which, nearly seventeen years after regime change, has yet to become a “normal” country peacefully pursuing a prosperous future for all its citizens.

The JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action)

The JCPOA (or Iran Nuclear Agreement) was negotiated to keep Iran from possessing nuclear weapons for at least 15 years, with some provisions being extended for longer periods. Monitoring centrifuge production would continue for 20 years, monitoring of uranium mines and mills for 25 years, and International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) enhanced access indefinitely.

Other than Iran, the JCPOA was signed by China, France, Germany, Russia, UK, and US. These other signatories are known as the P5+1 (five permanent members of the UN Security Council + Germany), and EU+3 (EU members France, Germany, UK + China, Russia, US).

Unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA and application of severe economic sanctions are unlikely to generate regime change in Iran as initially promoted and not (yet) taken off the table, despite words to the contrary. All other signatories to the JCPOA continue to support the agreement.

What would be gained if all six signatories withdrew from the JCPOA? The 2018 White House withdrawal from the JCPOA plus the other five signatories, if they withdraw, would cut short all provisions of the agreement from a minimum of 15 years to less than five years!

Michael R. Pompeo statement on 10 January

MICHAEL POMPEO: Today, the United States is taking a series of actions in response to Iran’s attacks against U.S. forces and interests, and to deprive the Iranian regime of revenue to conduct its violent foreign policy. We will continue to hold individuals and entities accountable for supporting the Iranian regime’s many fronts of terror.

We are sanctioning eight senior Iranian leaders, including Ali Shamkhani, the Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, Gholamreza Soleimani, the Commander of the Basij, and six other senior officials pursuant to Executive Order 13876 (E.O. 13876) for being appointed by, or acting for or on behalf of, the Supreme Leader.  These individuals have carried out Iran’s terror plots and campaigns of mayhem across the region and are complicit in the recent murders of around 1,500 Iranians protesting for freedom.

The Iranian regime exploits revenue from its metals industry to fund its destabilizing activities.  Accordingly, the Department of State is sanctioning Pamchel Trading (Beijing) Co., Ltd. pursuant to section 1245 the Iran Freedom and Counter-Proliferation Act for transferring 29,000 metric tons of steel from an Iranian firm that is a Specially Designated Global Terrorist.  The Department of the Treasury is similarly sanctioning twenty-two entities and three vessels pursuant to E.O. 13871, for operating in the iron, steel, aluminum, or copper sectors of Iran, and related activities.

The President will also issue an Executive Order authorizing the imposition of sanctions with respect to additional sectors of the Iranian economy, including: construction, manufacturing, textiles, and mining.  This action will significantly expand the United States’ ability to target this regime’s various revenue streams.

As President Trump said yesterday, our sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior. The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Iran’s campaign of terror, murder, and mayhem will not be tolerated any longer.  The United States calls on all nations to stand against the Iranian regime’s ideology of terror and to hold Iran accountable for its violence.

Remarks by President Trump on 8 January

THE PRESIDENT:  As long as I am President of the United States, Iran will never be allowed to have a nuclear weapon.

Good morning.  I’m pleased to inform you: The American people should be extremely grateful and happy no Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime.  We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.

Our great American forces are prepared for anything.  Iran appears to be standing down, which is a good thing for all parties concerned and a very good thing for the world.

No American or Iraqi lives were lost because of the precautions taken, the dispersal of forces, and an early warning system that worked very well.  I salute the incredible skill and courage of America’s men and women in uniform.

For far too long — all the way back to 1979, to be exact — nations have tolerated Iran’s destructive and destabilizing behavior in the Middle East and beyond.  Those days are over.  Iran has been the leading sponsor of terrorism, and their pursuit of nuclear weapons threatens the civilized world.  We will never let that happen.

Last week, we took decisive action to stop a ruthless terrorist from threatening American lives.  At my direction, the United States military eliminated the world’s top terrorist, Qasem Soleimani.  As the head of the Quds Force, Soleimani was personally responsible for some of the absolutely worst atrocities.

He trained terrorist armies, including Hezbollah, launching terrorist strikes against civilian targets.  He fueled bloody civil wars all across the region.  He viciously wounded and murdered thousands of U.S. troops, including the planting of roadside bombs that maim and dismember their victims.

Soleimani directed the recent attacks on U.S. personnel in Iraq that badly wounded four service members and killed one American, and he orchestrated the violent assault on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad.  In recent days, he was planning new attacks on American targets, but we stopped him.

Soleimani’s hands were drenched in both American and Iranian blood.  He should have been terminated long ago.  By removing Soleimani, we have sent a powerful message to terrorists: If you value your own life, you will not threaten the lives of our people.

As we continue to evaluate options in response to Iranian aggression, the United States will immediately impose additional punishing economic sanctions on the Iranian regime.  These powerful sanctions will remain until Iran changes its behavior.

In recent months alone, Iran has seized ships in international waters, fired an unprovoked strike on Saudi Arabia, and shot down two U.S. drones.

Iran’s hostilities substantially increased after the foolish Iran nuclear deal was signed in 2013, and they were given $150 billion, not to mention $1.8 billion in cash.  Instead of saying “thank you” to the United States, they chanted “death to America.”  In fact, they chanted “death to America” the day the agreement was signed.

Then, Iran went on a terror spree, funded by the money from the deal, and created hell in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  The missiles fired last night at us and our allies were paid for with the funds made available by the last administration.  The regime also greatly tightened the reins on their own country, even recently killing 1,500 people at the many protests that are taking place all throughout Iran.

The very defective JCPOA expires shortly anyway, and gives Iran a clear and quick path to nuclear breakout.  Iran must abandon its nuclear ambitions and end its support for terrorism.  The time has come for the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Russia, and China to recognize this reality.

They must now break away from the remnants of the Iran deal -– or JCPOA –- and we must all work together toward making a deal with Iran that makes the world a safer and more peaceful place.  We must also make a deal that allows Iran to thrive and prosper, and take advantage of its enormous untapped potential.  Iran can be a great country.

Peace and stability cannot prevail in the Middle East as long as Iran continues to foment violence, unrest, hatred, and war.  The civilized world must send a clear and unified message to the Iranian regime: Your campaign of terror, murder, mayhem will not be tolerated any longer.  It will not be allowed to go forward.

Today, I am going to ask NATO to become much more involved in the Middle East process.  Over the last three years, under my leadership, our economy is stronger than ever before and America has achieved energy independence.  These historic accomplishments changed our strategic priorities.  These are accomplishments that nobody thought were possible.  And options in the Middle East became available.  We are now the number-one producer of oil and natural gas anywhere in the world.  We are independent, and we do not need Middle East oil.

The American military has been completely rebuilt under my administration, at a cost of $2.5 trillion.  U.S. Armed Forces are stronger than ever before.  Our missiles are big, powerful, accurate, lethal, and fast. Under construction are many hypersonic missiles.

The fact that we have this great military and equipment, however, does not mean we have to use it.  We do not want to use it.  American strength, both military and economic, is the best deterrent.

Three months ago, after destroying 100 percent of ISIS and its territorial caliphate, we killed the savage leader of ISIS, al-Baghdadi, who was responsible for so much death, including the mass beheadings of Christians, Muslims, and all who stood in his way.  He was a monster.  Al-Baghdadi was trying again to rebuild the ISIS caliphate, and failed.

Tens of thousands of ISIS fighters have been killed or captured during my administration.  ISIS is a natural enemy of Iran.  The destruction of ISIS is good for Iran, and we should work together on this and other shared priorities.

Finally, to the people and leaders of Iran: We want you to have a future and a great future — one that you deserve, one of prosperity at home, and harmony with the nations of the world.  The United States is ready to embrace peace with all who seek it.

I want to thank you, and God bless America.  Thank you very much.  Thank you.  Thank you.

Tlaib and Omer / Trump and Bibi

Paul Scham submits the following to the NCF. Paul Scham is a scholar at MEI and the executive director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland, where he teaches courses on the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The views expressed in this article are his own:

The current Rashida Tlaib/Ilhan Omar debacle has received more attention from every quarter than virtually anything other than a war. All the usual suspects have weighed in with (mostly) predictable comments, generally in the context of the long-running “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S. The two domestic political contexts are often mentioned only in passing.

With all respect to those who have tried to take a longer or strategic view, I would suggest that it really boils down to the political calculations of just two men, President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, each of whom is adored by the other’s base voters, and the desperate (yes, desperate) attempts by each to use the other to burnish their right-wing credentials. The resulting media storm was likely welcomed by both, as neither has much interest in what the writers of The New York Times or Haaretz — and all their ilk — have to say.

Bibi Netanyahu is the most desperate, and his actions can only be understood with reference to the current Israeli political scene and the Knesset election coming up on Sept. 17. His Likud Party has been running virtually neck-and neck in the polls with Kahol Lavon (the hastily-organized Blue-White Party) at about 30 Knesset seats each, out of a total of 120. The party with the most seats — no party has ever won a majority — is normally invited by the president to have first crack at forming a government, and Bibi needs that to be the Likud. His calculation is that the only place to get more voters is from those to the right of Likud, who may currently be planning to vote for one of several ultra-nationalist parties. He needs to burnish his nationalist credentials to attract them, and he is doing everything he can to get them to take notice. Allowing Tlaib and Omar to visit — something he would probably have routinely approved at any other time — would be seen by them, exactly as President Trump tweeted, as a show of “weakness.”

The fact that Trump clearly advocated that they be barred also represented a further chance for Bibi to identify himself with the American president his potential voters regard as the best friend Israel has ever had. By contrast, there would be no political gain where it counted to turn down the president’s advice, and every reason to tie himself to Trump’s coattails. It was a no-brainer.

AIPAC — very unusually — criticized Bibi’s act, because it undercuts the bipartisanship it has attempted to maintain since its founding. But Bibi has no use for bipartisanship when it may chip away at his electoral prospects. Just as important is the fact that he — at least if he wins — will have to help energize Trump’s base for 2020, since he is a hero to most of it. Trump also has no use for bipartisanship, something he has made clear time and again.

This is not a political “mistake” as many have termed it; rather, it is the result of cold political calculation. Bibi’s desperation is largely based on the fact that he not only wants to hold onto his office, but also that he has every expectation that he will be indicted on corruption charges shortly after the election. As prime minister, he can ram through a bill giving himself immunity, and then neutralize the Israeli Supreme Court when it declares the immunity unconstitutional. As leader of the opposition, he is powerless.

Trump likewise needs Bibi to be prime minister, though not so desperately. As prime minister, Bibi can energize Trump’s evangelical base, likely unconstrained by any of the usual non-interference norms of international relations. That would be a lot harder to do if he is fighting to stay out of jail. He will owe Trump big time — and will be more than happy to pay off.

Nor is Bibi truly afraid of what Tlaib and Omar might publicize, as Peter Beinart suggests. I have no doubt that Bibi genuinely believes in the righteousness of his cause. Moreover, the situation of West Bank Palestinians has been publicized innumerable times, so that there is little new that they could say. In any case, Tlaib and Omar have been so tarred with anti-Israel and alleged anti-Semitic prejudice that no one except their existing supporters will regard them as impartial.

This event is not a watershed and will likely only rate a footnote — if that — in any history of Israeli-U.S. relations. It is a sign of the times and the current trends, including diminishing Democratic rank-and-file support for the close relationship with Israel, will continue. But this affair is at base a tawdry political drama in which Tlaib and Omar are pawns, orchestrated by two men whose own political goals trump any considerations of statesmanship or national interest.




What is American policy toward Iran right now? Strategic belligerence?

Above is the latest take on Iran as broadcast on Hala London Radio by the Next Century Foundation’s Secretary General, William Morris. Meanwhile, Stafford Clarry, our senior member in Iraq, highlights a response by Wendy R. Sherman, the lead American negotiator on the nuclear agreement, and a former State Department ambassador to Isaac Chotiner’s question in the New Yorker when asked:  “What is your sense of American policy toward Iran right now? Do you see any rhyme or reason, or anything that could even be called strategic belligerence?”

I do not think there is a coherent policy or strategy regarding Iran. I think President Trump made a commitment during the campaign to withdraw from the deal. His then [team] all believed he should not. When they all departed, his new team supported his withdrawing from the deal. Within that new team, I would say we have the never-saw-a-war-he-didn’t-want-to wage national-security adviser, John Bolton. We have a chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, who pretty much endorses everything the President says. We have an acting Secretary of Defense [Patrick Shanahan, who withdrew from the confirmation process on Tuesday] who clearly doesn’t have a voice in this Administration, it appears. And we have a Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo] who may think he is trying to bring nuance to this policy, but seems to be pursuing a path which, either intentionally or by accident, may take us to war.

Trump’s better deal with Iran will probably look a lot like Obama’s

Stafford Clarry, our senior NCF member in Iraq, pointed out this article from Politico by Nahal Toosi. The point being that Iran appears to be ready to negotiate, and the Trump team claim they are ready to negotiate. But it would seem that the White House is very reluctant when it comes down to the wire, to actually engage in the substantive second track discussions that are necessary. (Politico is a free political newsletter accessible on this link)

Donald Trump has long trashed the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement as “the worst deal ever,” a “disaster” that didn’t cover nearly enough of the Islamist-led country’s nefarious behavior.

In recent weeks, however, the president has indicated that the Barack Obama-era deal might not be so bad after all.

Trump has repeatedly urged Iran to engage in negotiations with him, while saying that Tehran’s nuclear ambitions are his chief concern — “A lot of progress has been made. And they’d like to talk,” Trump asserted Tuesday at the White House. His aides and allies, meanwhile, have recently suggested that Iran and other countries should follow the guidelines of a deal they themselves have shunned as worthless.

At times, analysts and former officials say, it sounds like Trump wants to strike a deal that essentially mirrors the agreement that his White House predecessor inked — even if he’d never be willing to admit it. Iranian officials seem willing to egg him on, saying they’ll talk so long as Trump lifts the sanctions he’s imposed on them and returns to the 2015 Iran deal. And as European ministers warn that the existing deal is nearly extinct, Trump may feel like he is backed into a corner and running out of options.

“Trump got rid of the Iran nuclear deal because it was Barack Obama’s agreement,” said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official who helped oversee the 2015 deal’s implementation. “If you were to present to Trump the same deal and call it Trump’s deal, he’d be thrilled.”

The administration’s confusing messaging is a result of warring between two major factions, U.S. officials say, with Trump in his own separate lane. The infighting has been deeply frustrating to those involved in the debate. “In the past, even when I personally disagreed with a policy, I could explain its logic,” a U.S. official said. “Now I can’t even do that.”

Trump quit the nuclear deal in May 2018, reimposing sanctions the U.S. had lifted on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. He said the deal should have tackled Iran’s non-nuclear activities, such as its sponsorship of terrorist groups, and blasted the expiration dates on some of its clauses.

For a year afterward, Iran continued to abide by the deal’s terms, hoping that the other countries involved — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — could offer Tehran the economic relief Trump had taken away. But as that relief has failed to materialize, Iran has begun backing away from its commitments.

Tehran recently breached limits on its enrichment and stockpiling of uranium and has promised more infractions in the coming months. The U.S. has also accused Iran of attacking several international oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, and the Pentagon has sent warships and more troops to the region in response.

As tensions have spiked, one voice pushing for a deal has been Trump.

He’s said he’s “not looking for war,” wants to talk to Iran without preconditions and isn’t interested in regime change. He called off a military strike on Iran over its downing of an unmanned U.S. drone, overriding the advice of several top aides. His main public demand is that Iran not build nuclear weapons. In return, Trump has offered to help revive Iran’s sanctions-battered economy.

To observers, that sounds suspiciously like the 2015 deal.

“They can’t have a nuclear weapon,” Trump said Tuesday. “We want to help them. We will be good to them. We will work with them. We will help them in any way we can. But they can’t have a nuclear weapon.”

Trump occasionally nods to other disputes with Iran, such as its funding of militia groups, ballistic missile testing and Tehran’s support of rebel forces in Yemen, but nuclear weapons dominate his rhetoric.

In June, Jackie Wolcott, the U.S. ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency — the body that inspects Iran’s nuclear program under the 2015 agreement — called on Iran to stick to the deal after an IAEA inspection report detailed a disputed potential violation.

“Iran has claimed that it continues to comply with the JCPOA, but it is now reported to be in clear violation of the deal,” Wolcott said, referring to the agreement’s official name, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. “This should be of great concern to all of us. The United States calls on Iran to return to compliance without delay.”

Afterward, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus faced questions about why the U.S. wants Iran to adhere to a deal that it has claimed doesn’t truly constrain its nuclear ambitions.

“I don’t think it’s contradictory in the fact that we have stated very loudly since the beginning of this administration that we do not want the Iranian regime to get a nuclear weapon,” Ortagus said. “We think it would be disastrous for the Middle East. I — we haven’t changed our position.”

In a statement to POLITICO, a State Department official called the JCPOA “a flawed deal because it did not permanently address our concerns with respect to Iran’s nuclear program and destabilizing conduct. The U.S. is seeking a deal with Iran that comprehensively addresses the regime’s destabilizing behavior — not just their nuclear program, but also their missile program, support to terrorism, and malign regional behavior.”

Several European officials express astonishment at the audacity of the Trump administration demanding that Iran adhere to the deal when the U.S. the one who breached the agreement in the first place. Some said they were not surprised that Iran may have taken actions in the Persian Gulf as payback for the U.S. abandonment of the deal.

Europeans “know that the original sin causing the current escalation in the Gulf is the U.S. violation of the Iran nuclear deal,” said Nathalie Tocci, an adviser to European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. “At the same time, they are terribly concerned about the escalation and the threat it poses to the Middle East and to Europe itself.”

U.S. officials and outside observers say there appear to be two main competing factions inside the Trump administration when it comes to Iran policy.

Both camps are convinced that Iran’s Islamist regime is a bad actor in the Middle East. Neither particularly cares for the nuclear deal, either, viewing it as too weak a document.

But one group, led by national security adviser John Bolton, is simply more hardline than the other.

Bolton, who has previously called for regime change in Iran, and his supporters appear determined to kill the deal and heap on sanctions, erasing Iran’s ability to trade beyond its borders. Their version of what the administration calls a “maximum pressure campaign” seems to aim for a major reckoning in Iran, though they demure on whether that could involve a U.S.-led ouster of the regime or would simply set the stage for ordinary Iranians to revolt.

The other group appears to not have a visible leader, but it seems willing to allow the nuclear deal to tenuously remain intact, while ramping up economic sanctions that starve the regime of resources. This group, for instance, is hoping for the success of a European financial mechanism built to help Iran more easily obtain non-sanctioned goods, thus possibly helping sustaining the deal in hobbled form. That way, the group argues, Iran can’t race toward a nuclear weapon, but it also will be unable to spend as much funding militias and terrorist groups in the region.

A second U.S. official said one main difference between the two groups is that Bolton-led crew has no desire to make any sort of deal with Iran, while the other side believes that under enough pressure, Iran would be willing to negotiate a new, better agreement than the one in 2015.

“Bolton thinks he’s playing the longer game. That he can’t leave this administration having given an inch on Iran,” the official said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is generally believed to be in the camp that wants a deal, but he’s also laid out a set of 12 conditions on Iran that are so broad they may be damaging the odds of talks. A third U.S. official who confirmed the outlines of the internal debate said Pompeo may be worried about his future in the Republican Party and whether engaging in any sort of negotiation with Iran could damage it.

The result is a cacophony of voices speaking for the administration, including some out of sync with Trump.

“We’ve got very different messages because they don’t seem to have the same end goals,” the first U.S. official said of the various Trump aides involved. “We’re studiously ignoring ‘the deal that shall not be named’ in our official talking points, but in the same breath demanding that Iran adhere to conditions that were part of the deal.”

Blanc, the Obama administration official, said what Trump seems to want is a grand show, the type that he’s gotten in his one-on-one meetings with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. But there are serious political risks for Iran’s leaders in meeting Trump, especially after the president walked away from a deal that was hard to sell to all of Iran’s competing political factions in the first place.

Trump, Blanc said, “has an instinctive understanding that he’s not going to get that pageant if Iran thinks he’s pursuing a regime change policy.”

Perhaps sensing this, Trump on Tuesday went out of his way to note that he didn’t want to oust the government in Tehran. “We’re not looking, by the way, for regime change because some people say [we are] looking for regime change,” he said. “We’re not looking for regime change.”

In the meantime, Iran appears determined to exploit the divisions within the Trump administration, as well as the fissures between the U.S. and Europe over the Iran deal.

Iran’s recent calculated breaches of its nuclear pledges are meant to increase pressure on the Europeans to find ways around U.S. sanctions. And Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif even uses Twitter to taunt the Trump team over these disagreements, lambasting the president’s top aides as the “B-Team.”

“As it becomes increasingly clear that there won’t be a better deal, they’re bizarrely urging Iran’s full compliance,” Zarif tweeted on July 8. “There’s a way out, but not with #B_Team in charge.”

The way out Zarif mentions? Presumably a U.S. return to the 2015 nuclear deal.

As America and Iran inch closer to war, new talks are needed

A couple of interesting and well informed articles on Iran by Nick Pelham in the Economist the other day. This was the editorial:

For nearly four years Iran’s path to a nuclear weapon was blocked. The deal it signed with America and other powers in 2015 limited its nuclear programme to civilian uses, such as power-generation, and subjected them to the toughest inspection regime in history. The experts agreed that Iran was complying and that its nuclear activities were contained. But then President Donald Trump ditched the nuclear deal and Iran resumed stockpiling low-enriched uranium. It is now poised to breach the 300kg cap set by the agreement. Iran may hesitate before crossing that line, but it is also threatening to increase the enrichment level of its uranium, bringing it closer to the stuff that goes into a bomb.

Fortunately, Iran is not about to become a nuclear-weapons power. Its breakout time is over a year. But it is once again using its nuclear programme to heap pressure on America. That adds an explosive new element to an already-volatile mix. America accuses Iran of attacking six ships in the Strait of Hormuz since May. On June 20th Iran shot down an American spy drone. America insisted the aircraft was above international waters, not Iran’s, and sent warplanes to strike back. Ten minutes before they were due to hit targets inside Iran Mr Trump called them off and contented himself with a cyber-attack instead . . .

The rest of the editorial can be found here. And for the full background article use this link.

Are John Bolton’s days numbered?

Stafford Clarry, the Next Century Foundation’s senior member in Iraq, seems to think that John Bolton’s days as the US government’s National Security Advisor are coming to an end. He writes that:

There is a good chance, as with so many other top staff in the White House administration who have come and gone.
National Security Advisor (NSA) Bolton’s historically hawkish approach to US foreign policy has been long known, which is affirmed by his behavior during his short stint in the White House.
On Iran Stafford adds:
US-Iran relations that impact the Iraqi Kurdistan Region (IKR) are currently under control. Knowledgeable and experienced observers, however, fear “miscalculation, misjudgment, or human error”. See Speigel Online interview with former US CIA Director and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta below.
US-Iran military conflict is less likely largely because of potential adverse impact the 2020 US presidential election for the current White House. This is compounded by White House (Trump) well-known hesitancy in involving the US in another war.
North Korea attracts wanted/needed attention from the highest levels because they have nuclear weapons and missile capabilities for leverage. 
In observing the North Korea situation, Iran is making moves toward increasing its nuclear and missile capabilities in order to gain leverage to attract unwanted/unneeded attention.

NBC News 2 July 2019

Bolton the hawk struggles to retain his influence with Trump

Analysis: John Bolton remains the chief skeptic of diplomacy with North Korea and Iran, but is he losing influence with the president?

By Dan DeLuce, Carol E. Lee, and Andrea Mitchell

WASHINGTON — John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s famously hawkish national security adviser, could not have been enthusiastic when his boss crossed into North Korean territory last weekend to make a bit of history with the leader of the Pyongyang regime, Kim Jong Un.
For years, Bolton has warned against conciliatory gestures or negotiations with North Korea. Two months before he took his current job, Bolton argued in an op-ed for a preemptive strike on North Korea based on what he called an “imminent” threat.
Now Trump’s latest diplomatic gambit with North Korea has raised fresh questions about the influence of his national security adviser, who has appeared out of sync with the president in recent weeks, particularly when it comes to how to handle Pyongyang.
When the president stepped into North Korean territory briefly alongside Kim Jong Un over the weekend, Bolton was conspicuously absent, holding talks 1,200 miles away in the capital of Mongolia, Ulaanbaatar.
While Bolton was on his previously scheduled trip to Mongolia, a fierce critic who has painted him as a warmonger — Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson — was on hand for the president’s rendezvous with the North Korean leader.
A day after Trump’s unprecedented walk across the demilitarized zone into North Korean territory, Bolton pushed back against a report in the New York Times that said the administration was considering scaling back its demands on Pyongyang and accepting a freeze on North Korea’s production of nuclear material instead of a full dismantling of its arsenal.
“Neither the NSC staff nor I have discussed or heard of any desire to ‘settle for a nuclear freeze by NK,'” Bolton tweeted. He called the report “a reprehensible attempt by someone to box in the President.”
Trump, who as a candidate promised to extract America from wars overseas, has openly acknowledged that he and Bolton do not see eye to eye at times, but he has insisted he retains confidence in his national security adviser.
“John Bolton is doing a very good job but he takes a generally tough posture,” Trump said last month. He called Bolton a “hawk,” and added, “I have other people that don’t take that posture, but the only one that matters is me.”
Bolton’s trip to Mongolia had been planned a month before the impromptu meeting with Kim, a person familiar with the planning said, and he stopped in Jerusalem to meet with Israeli and Russian officials. Bolton chose to go to Mongolia instead of the DMZ because the country has “a critical bilateral relationship that the U.S. is looking to deepen across economic and military ties,” this person said.
A senior official insisted Bolton’s view was not out of step with Trump’s on North Korea. The president remains committed to an agreement that would require Pyongyang to give up its entire nuclear weapons program in return for a lifting of economic sanctions, instead of an incremental, step-by-step negotiation, the official told NBC News. “The policy on North Korea is what it has been and continues to be, the big deal. Hand over all of it,” said the official, who was not authorized to speak on the record.
It was the State Department and Stephen Biegun, the U.S. envoy to North Korea, who have sometimes moved beyond the president’s position, the official said, citing the February summit in Hanoi that ended abruptly without an agreement. “The last time the State Department got ahead of the President he walked from Hanoi.”
In May, hours after Bolton told reporters North Korea had violated United Nations resolutions with a short-range missile test, Trump played down the episode.
“North Korea fired off some small weapons, which disturbed some of my people, and others, but not me,” Trump tweeted. “I have confidence that Chairman Kim will keep his promise to me.”
It’s not the first time the president has publicly contradicted senior members of his administration. Trump blindsided former Defense Secretary James Mattis, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others with tweets and remarks that ran counter to previously stated policies.
“It’s kind of a way of publicly putting Bolton in his place,” one source close to the White House said. “He kind of takes glee in doing it publicly.”
According to three sources with close ties to the administration, friction between Trump and Bolton worsened in late May over Iran.
Outside advisers and supporters told Trump he was being dragged into a confrontation with Iran and alleged his aides were moving ahead without fully consulting him, the sources said. The president came away angry and ready to question Bolton.
“There definitely are tensions,” one of the sources said of Trump’s and Bolton’s relationship.
The dynamic between the two men ebbs and flows, with Bolton at times favored by Trump and at other times a source of irritation, the sources said. Bolton’s status is not helped by the fact that he has made few allies inside the administration.
Nevertheless, the president did not appear to be ready to sack Bolton, the sources said.
While Bolton is at odds with some other members of the administration over North Korea, he and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are mostly in agreement on pursuing a tough line with Iran, current and former officials said. But Pompeo enjoys a closer rapport with the president, and is more adept at adjusting to Trump’s view and pulling back on a course of action that makes the president uncomfortable, current and former officials said.
The White House National Security Council did not respond to requests for comment.
James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander, said that under previous administrations, it would have been “unthinkable” for a president and a national security adviser to air their disagreements in public.
“Publicly it sends a very bad signal, both to our allies and also it encourages our opponents,” the retired admiral told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “Kim is thinking, ‘Wow, this is terrific.'”
Despite Trump’s wariness of military confrontation, Bolton has had a substantial impact on the administration’s policies, helping to push through harsh economic sanctions on Iran and the Maduro regime in Venezuela, former officials and experts say.
But Trump is reportedly disappointed that the sanctions have not spelled the end of the Maduro regime as quickly as Bolton and his team expected.
Last week, Bolton played a role in Trump’s decision to impose yet more sanctions on Iran, targeting Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other senior Iranian officials days after Tehran downed a U.S. drone.
People close to the national security adviser downplayed the significance of any differences between Bolton and the president, saying Bolton’s not worried. Trump “likes people who have different opinions,” one of them said.
In an interview with the New Yorker magazine published in April, Bolton said he accepts that his view does not always prevail in the White House.
“You have to know in advance the president’s views are not always yours. When you enter government, you know that you aren’t going to win everything.”
Stavridis said the president’s treatment of Bolton could force the national security adviser to question his future in the administration.
“He’s got to start seeing that self-respect light flickering a little bit, flashing yellow,” Stavridis said.
“I think he has to figure out a way to close the gap with his boss or look for other opportunities to serve,” he said.

Spiegel Online 2 July 2019

Former Secretary of Defense Panetta on Iran ‘You Can Create Chaos, but You’d Better Have a Plan’

By Roland Niles
DER SPIEGEL: Secretary Panetta, late last month, U.S. President Donald Trump called off a military strike against Iran at the very last minute — according to him, just 10 minutes before the missiles were to be launched. Have you ever seen something like that before?
Panetta: No, I haven’t. Generally, when you’re discussing that kind of military operation, there is a great deal of time spent in the National Security Council discussing the different options and the consequences of each option. There is normally a great deal of consideration about the pros and cons of conducting such a military strike. If it is done according to that process, the president early on reaches a decision as to whether he will proceed with a mission or not. In my experience, once a president has made the decision to proceed with a mission, he goes forward with it.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump claimed that he learned just 10 minutes before the strike was to take place that 150 people would likely lose their lives. Do you think this account is accurate?
Panetta: If that’s what happened, then it’s a dysfunctional process. I cannot imagine that the Defense Department would have plans for going after certain targets that did not include what the casualties would be if you struck those targets. That should have taken place early on in the discussion. If that discussion was bypassed and it was only 10 minutes before the strike that the president was made aware of the number of casualties, then something is terribly wrong with the decisionmaking process in the White House.
DER SPIEGEL: Meanwhile, since the resignation of Jim Mattis at the end of last year, the Defense Department has only been led by an acting secretary without Senate confirmation. How much does this affect the president’s ability to react to crises or make important decisions involving the military?
Panetta: It further weakens the process that should take place in determining whether or not military action should occur. If you’re only dealing with an acting secretary, by the very nature of that title, that secretary is in a weakened position — not only in dealing with the military, but also in dealing with the White House. The feeling is that he is just there temporarily rather than being there in a permanent position, having been confirmed by the Senate. It really does undermine the authority of Defense Department leadership.
DER SPIEGEL: How dangerous is the situation in the Gulf right now? Is war a real possibility?
Panetta: It is a dangerous situation. I think there’s no question that tensions are increasing on both sides. The United States is ratcheting up sanctions while Iran is obviously willing to not only take down drones, but also to conduct attacks on tankers in the Strait of Hormuz. And the danger, of course, is that the more these tensions increase, the greater is the possibility of a miscalculation, misjudgment or human error on one side or the other that could result in military confrontation.
DER SPIEGEL: What would happen if the U.S. were to strike targets in Iran? Even if such strikes were limited, would a larger conflict become inevitable?
Panetta: That was always our estimation when I was at the Department of Defense — that if you struck targets in Iran, missile sites or installations or other targets, that Iran would literally respond, either by firing missiles at our military bases in the Gulf or having missiles fired towards Israel. They have a pretty effective missile system.
DER SPIEGEL: Many people believe that militias allied with Iran would attack U.S. facilities or American allies in other countries as well. Is that a realistic scenario?
Panetta: I think Iran would use several approaches. They have the capability of directing proxies like Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen and others to conduct attacks in other parts of the region. So they really have a number of options for retaliation. It isn’t going to be a situation where the United States could simply bomb targets and walk away without paying a price.
DER SPIEGEL: With his strategy of “maximum pressure,” Trump is still trying to force Iran to the negotiating table. Do you think it will work?
Panetta: I have concerns about the president’s maximum pressure tactics on a number of fronts. He’s used maximum pressure on North Korea and we still don’t have any plan for denuclearization. He’s used maximum pressure on trade with these tariffs, and we still have not resolved those trade issues. He’s used maximum pressure with Iran, but I don’t know that he has ever determined what the longterm strategy is going to be with regard to these kinds of tactics. You can use maximum pressure, you can create chaos, but you’d damned well better have a plan to resolve the issue. And I don’t think he thinks that far ahead.
DER SPIEGEL: What is the Iranian approach at the moment?
Panetta: I think they are thinking that they’re dealing with a very unpredictable and uncertain president who is not quite sure what path to take to try to resolve these issues. The fact that the president says the main objective is to prevent Iran from getting a nuclear weapon, and yet, at the same time, is the same person who tore up the Iran agreement, which was the only viable plan for trying to restrain Iran from proceeding with a nuclear weapon, creates enough distress on the part of Iran that they’re not sure — even if they sat down and negotiated with the president — that he would keep his word.
DER SPIEGEL: What about advisers close to the president like National Security Advisor Bolton or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo? Do you think they have a plan for resolving this situation?
Panetta: I would hope so, because they’re in the position to be thinking about that. At the same time, I think they’re trying to feel their way with the president, in terms of just exactly what he wants to do. I assume they supported a military strike and it probably took them by surprise that the president decided not to go through with it.
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DER SPIEGEL: What is the best path to get out of this mess?
Panetta: I think the best approach for the United States would obviously be to make sure that we have sufficient military strength in the region in the event we are called upon to defend our forces there. Secondly, it is absolutely essential that we keep the Strait of Hormuz open, with a third of the oil in the world passing through the straight. Not only our national security, but the economy of the world is dependent on that. Thirdly, because there is so little trust between the United States and Iran, the better approach to try to open up a diplomatic channel would be to use our allies Germany, Great Britain, France and, yes, Russia and China, all of which are partners to the Iran agreement.
DER SPIEGEL: There has been plenty of criticism of Trump’s Iran policy. But he did get a lot of positive feedback for his decision to call off the strike, including from Democrats.
Panetta: In two-and-a-half years, it’s probably the one thing he has got right.
DER SPIEGEL: Trump’s decision reflects widespread public opinion in the U.S.: Many Americans seem to be opposed to any kind of overseas military involvement. Is that an accurate description of the general mood in the U.S.?
Panetta: I think the general notion is to try to avoid becoming involved in a Middle East war that is not justified in terms of our national security. I think the Iraq experience still is something that impacts American public opinion — there is a feeling that that war was not necessary. If it’s a war created more by the parties, by their inability to resolve issues, I think there would be a lot of concern about that kind of conflict. If, on the other hand, our national security was truly called into question and Iran suddenly started attacking our military bases in the region and killing Americans, I don’t think there’s any question that this country would be unified in fighting back.

The White House will meet Iran “without condition”, “on condition” that Iran behaves

The Next Century Foundation’s senior member in Iraq, Stafford Clarry, writes on his view in regard to the ongoing war or no war crisis between the USA and Iran:

Everyday Iranians are suffering the severe consequences of US-imposed sanctions, not terribly unlike what everyday Iraqis suffered during 13 years (1990 to 2003) of UN-authorized sanctions that were arguably much more severe. The UN sanctions on Iraq shut down oil exports completely (to zero) and prohibited all UN Member States from trading anything and everything with Iraq, with the sole exceptions of food and medicine. Thirteen(13) years!

The Iranian leadership will not suffer personal hardship due to US sanctions; indeed, they may thrive economically. The Iraqi leadership did not suffer personal hardship due to UN sanctions; indeed, they continued to build palaces.

It’s hard to imagine where “maximum pressure” on Iran is going given the results so far of “maximum (limited) pressure” on North Korea, China, Venezuela, and even the Palestinians.

One way of looking at it: Active dominates Passive – actively bad dominates passively good, actively good dominates passively bad. But where’s the dominant action when “maximum pressure” meets “maximum resistance”?

To move the situation forward, the White House has offered to meet and converse with Iran without preconditions, on the condition “when the Iranians can prove that they want to behave like a normal nation”.

A seasoned NYT analyst and regular columnist warns, “Just remember: The Iranians are great negotiators with a bad hand and [the White House is] a terrible negotiator with a good hand.”

Where is all this going when one side, apparently, deftly plays defensive offense?

The Washington Post
20 June 2019
The U.S. should strive for a stable Iran. Instead, it is suffocating it.
By Ardeshir Zahedi and Ali Vaez
Ardeshir Zahedi is Iran’s former foreign minister (1966-1971) and ambassador to England (1962-1966) and United States (1960-1962 and 1973-1979). Ali Vaez is the International Crisis Group’s Iran project director, based in Washington.
We belong to two very different generations of Iranians. One of us served in senior official positions in the pro-Western monarchy that ruled Iran prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution; the other is a child of that revolution. One presided over the golden age of Iran-U.S. relations; the other was subject to years of state-sponsored anti-American indoctrination. Yet, despite these differences, we share a sense of belonging to both countries and grave concerns about the collision course they are on.
The Trump administration seems to believe it can achieve what has eluded its predecessors for four decades: fundamental change in Tehran. It has resorted to a time-worn set of tools to attain this objective: strangling the Iranian economy through sanctions, destabilizing Iran by supporting dissidents and secessionists, and launching an information war against the leadership in Tehran. It appears convinced that exercising what it calls “maximum pressure” will cause Iranian capitulation or regime collapse.
The Iranian people, meanwhile, strive for democracy as they have for more than a century, amid growing discontent over endemic corruption, repression and environmental degradation. They deserve a government that respects their rights, preserves their dignity, and offers them peace and a chance at prosperity. Washington’s belligerence, however, could once again bring their democratic struggle to grief. This is for several reasons.
First, the Trump administration has very little credibility as the would-be standard-bearer of positive change. Its rhetoric promising to “crush” Iran or usher in “the official end of Iran” through military action belies its professed distinction between the leadership and the Iranian people.
The administration’s list of public missteps toward the Iranian people is as long as it is regrettable. It includes preventing almost all Iranians from visiting the United States; misstating the historic name of the Persian Gulf; failing to express sympathy with Iranians after terrorist attacks by the Islamic State and separatist groups; and, perhaps most consequentially, withdrawing from the nuclear deal that remains popular in Iran and to which many there had pinned their hopes for a better life.
These mistakes have helped transform top-down anti-Americanism in Iran into a bottom-up phenomenon. Nothing spurs a rally-around-the-flag effect among 83 million Iranians more than humiliation and threats of foreign aggression.
How can Iranians buy into the administration’s professions of positive intent when Washington selectively decries their leaders’ corruption and human rights violations while overlooking the same behavior among U.S. allies? Why didn’t President Trump ask his North Korean or Russian counterparts to fundamentally reorient their policies before he would engage them in fruitless pageantry?
The administration’s Iran policy is not a strategy. It is a pressure tactic wrapped in bellicosity folded inside a chimera. It is bereft of a viable vision and based on the naive assumption that overthrowing the Islamic republic will miraculously lead to a pluralistic and pro-American order. That previous U.S.-sponsored regime change in the region has ushered in failed states or worse autocracies seems to be an afterthought.
Even when the administration seems to vie for rapprochement, it is unconvincingly inconsistent. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says, “We are prepared to engage in a conversation [with Iran] with no preconditions,” but in the same news conference , he goes on to say that would happen only “when the Iranians can prove that they want to behave like a normal nation.” This kind of double-speak and condescension does not instill trust.
The suffocating sanctions that the United States is slapping unilaterally on Iran have pushed the country into a deep inflationary recession, impoverishing its middle class and enriching state-affiliated actors, especially men with guns and experience in circumventing restrictions. This could lead to one of two outcomes: a weakened Iranian society, in which making ends meet will overshadow any quest for liberty; or a blind, desperate revolt that ends either in a brutal crackdown or a bloody civil war.
Either scenario will leave behind a broken, radicalized and militarized Iran, perhaps entrenching the Islamic republic’s most hard-line elements. How does that temper Iran’s behavior? How is that in the United States’ interest?
Bullying and crude threats will achieve little beyond entangling the United States and the region in another senseless war while deepening the two countries’ 40-year estrangement. The United States should strive for an Iran that is stable with a strong middle class and highly educated youths connected to the moderating influence of the outside world. The Iranian people want to restore the friendship between Iran and the United States, two countries that enjoyed 123 years of cordial ties before 1979. But the path to their hearts and minds is not through sanctions and military intervention.
It is not too late for this administration to cease demonizing and threatening Iran, and step aside from its maximalist demands. One of Iran’s most renowned poets, Rumi, offers a better way forward: “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”