This Doesn’t Help

INSTEX was already dead in the water, but this week it took another blow when the German ambassador tapped to oversee its implementation suddenly resigned. INSTEX, which stands for Instrument Supporting Trade Exchanges, is the financial special purpose vehicle the European Union set up to help facilitate trade with Iran outside the scope of U.S. sanctions.

Bernd Erbel, Germany’s former ambassador to Iran, resigned from his position following the publication of an explosive report from the German tabloid Bild. The article quoted past statements Erbel made about Iran while appearing on an internet radio show hosted by a Holocaust denier.

Erbel’s statements consisted mostly of boilerplate leftist critiques of Israel’s origins. For example, Erbel observed that the Jewish State was founded “at the expense of another people,” i.e., the Palestinians, and that those people lost their homes as a result of Israel’s creation. He went on to say that the Palestinians “are the victims of our [Germany’s] victims.”

Erbel dipped into slightly more troubled waters with other statements, including one in which he called Israel a “foreign body” in the Middle East. He also made several comments about Hezbollah’s 2006 war with Israel, observing that Hezbollah’s ability to resist the Israeli invasion was an important psychological development for the region because it demonstrated that there are forces capable of opposing Israel militarily. Hezbollah is not considered a terrorist organization in Germany, and its political wing operates openly there.

It’s likely that most of the outrage surrounding Erbel’s interview stems from the show’s host, Ken Jebsen. Bild describes Jebsen as an anti-Semite and conspiracy theorist, which, judging by some of his past comments, is a fair characterization. In 2011, the Jerusalem Post reported on a long, rambling email authored by Jebsen in which he questioned the veracity of the Holocaust, writing, “I know who invented the Holocaust as PR.” He also made comments alluding to a conspiracy theory that posits the September 11, 2001 attack was an inside job, calling the destruction of the Twin Towers a “warm demolition.” Jebsen was fired from his position in public broadcasting shortly after these comments came to light.

The purpose of this post is not to debate whether or not Erbel deserved to lose his job. Both his words and his choices indicate at the very least a strong anti-Israel bias. He’s clearly anti-Zionist, although whether or not he has crossed the line into anti-Semitism would likely depend on one’s interpretations of the term. We’ll never know whether his views would have affected his ability to run INSTEX, but this is a question that ultimately doesn’t require an answer. Erbel is out, and he won’t be coming back.

More interesting than the scandal itself is how certain factions in Israel and Iran have reacted to it, or, more accurately in this case, how they haven’t.

On the surface, the details of this story seem to fit neatly within the paranoid molds of the Israeli right-wing and Iranian hardliner worldviews. Despite their opposing views on virtually every subject, there are two things on which these groups can agree: First, they both despise the Iran Deal. And second, there is always some sort of international conspiracy or cabal working clandestinely to undermine their agenda.

I’ll come back to the first point in a minute, but first, let’s consider how hypothetically each could have exploited the Erbel resignation to score a few cheap political points.

On the Israeli side, right-wing politicians and Iran hawks could have portrayed Erbel-Gate as yet another example of a European politician harboring virulently anti-Israel views. On the Iranian side, hardliners might have interpreted Erbel’s dismissal as a validation of their long-held belief that Israel secretly controls Western Iran policy.

Somewhat surprisingly, however, this is not what happened. This story hasn’t made much of an impact in either Iranian or Israeli media. Other than a few smaller matter-of-fact news items (several different outlets published the same short dispatch in the Persian papers), there hasn’t been much discussion or debate about the incident. It has not produced the levels of scandalous outrage and hysteria-inducing headlines that one might have expected, and prominent politicians have mostly been silent on the matter.

Which brings us back to the Iran Deal. One way to interpret the relative quiet is that both the Israeli right and the Iranian hardliners no longer feel politically threatened by INSTEX as a mechanism for producing the types of economic benefits promised to Iran under the JCPOA. If they did, there would likely be have been a much more vociferous outcry in response to last week’s events. Instead, Europe’s continuous failure to live up to its lofty promises to neutralize American sanctions and provide meaningful sanctions relief has gone on for so long now that the Iranian and Israeli factions that oppose the deal no longer see the value in continuing to highlight its setbacks.

INSTEX will surely receive a new figurehead in the coming weeks who will take up the banner of its implementation. This micro-scandal probably won’t even register as a footnote when the final history of the JCPOA gets written, but it’s precisely this apathy, rather than anger, that signals the JCPOA’s demise may be near.

Sanctions Incoherence

The Trump Administration continued its sanctions campaign against senior Iranian officials last week. This time, the target was Foreign Minister Javad Zarif.

Personally sanctioning the chief diplomat of a foreign country might seem like a drastic and shocking step, but this wasn’t a surprise. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin signaled the administration’s intent to sanction Zarif before the Foreign Minister’s highly-restricted trip to New York for UN meetings in mid-July. Even as the administration was making overtures to the Foreign Minister to visit the White House for what everyone, including Zarif, understood would be a cheap photo-op, the decision to levy sanctions against him had already been made.

It’s worth noting at the outset that individualized sanctions against another nation’s Foreign Minister are entirely pointless from a technical standpoint. It’s unclear whether or not the administration understands this. Virtually no serious Iran or sanctions expert thinks that these measures will have any meaningful impact on Zarif’s finances or behavior. The same was true when the administration placed sanctions on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Given that, we can skip the part of the discussion where we discuss the financial impact of these sanctions and instead focus on the symbolism.

From the administration’s point of view, these sanctions are primarily about humiliation. By directly and publicly insulting Iran’s top diplomat, the administration is broadcasting its uninterest in any kind of negotiations process with Iran’s diplomatic corps. This isn’t a guess. As an unnamed official told journalists in a background call in the wake of the sanctions announcement last week, “If we do have an official contact with Iran, we would want to have contact with somebody who is a significant decision-maker.”

This idea that the foreign minister doesn’t play a meaningful role in Iranian decision making has a long history in U.S.-Iran diplomacy (or lack thereof). Opponents of engagement with Iran often make vague references to power distribution within the Islamic Republic as the reason negotiations with its officials — and particularly those serving within the elected branch of government — can’t be trusted. These critics point to the Supreme Leader’s ultimate authority as justification for doubting any Iranian commitments that do not come directly from him.

To some extent, this is a valid concern, but it’s also a gross oversimplification of a complex and multifaceted Iranian political structure. This isn’t the time or place for an Iranian civics lesson, but dismissing an entire faction of the Iranian government because it doesn’t fit some preconceived notion of Iranian authority is willfully ignorant at best, and deliberately so at worst. And herein lies the pure incoherence of the Trump approach to Iran: If the reason for sanctioning the Foreign Minister stems from his lack of real authority on any matters of value, then why did the administration also sanction Ayatollah Khamenei back June?

An exasperated Zarif pointed out the absurdity of the American position in a speech earlier this week. “America cannot claim it wants to negotiate [with Iran],” Zarif said. “It is America who has left the negotiation table. It is America who has sanctioned the foreign minister of the country it wants to negotiate with. It is America who has sanctioned the highest figure in the Islamic Republic, meaning the Supreme Leader. Who does it want to negotiate with?”

Whatever the justification, the result is the same. The United States has, by now, systematically eliminated all potential Iranian negotiating partners. In the process, they’ve also eradicated any remaining hope of rebuilding trust or goodwill. Of course, that has not stopped administration officials, as well as the President himself, from continuing to profess a commitment to the diplomatic process. But if they think they’re deceiving anyone as to their real intentions, they’re only fooling themselves.

These contradictions reside comfortably in the administration psyche, but that’s only because the consequences of cognitive dissonance are relatively benign. Meanwhile, the effects of the actual U.S. sanctions — the ones targeting the economy — are wreaking havoc on the lives of everyday Iranians.

The only way any of this makes sense is if you accept the fact that the Trump administration’s strategy — to the extent there is one — was never to engage in good faith. It’s better to think of it as a hodgepodge of conflicting actions and demands, all vaguely based around the abstract ideas of pain and humiliation until they finally bend the knee.

Capitulation remains the point.

Capitulation is the Point

Brace yourself for the next few weeks of headlines asking variants of the question: “Can Donald Trump Strike a Deal with Iran?”

Here’s your short answer: No.

I could probably end this post here, but the renewed discussion of the possibility of U.S.-Iran negotiations provides an opportune moment to remind everyone of the actual intent of Trump’s Iran strategy, as well as offer a refresher on some of the past dynamics of U.S.-Iran negotiations.

Speculation about what negotiations between Trump and Iran could produce is nothing new. Ever since Trump pulled the United States out of the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) back in May 2018, there has been a steady stream of articles, blog posts, and Tweets from the expert commentariat pontificating about the potential for a Trump Iran Deal.

Here’s Politico’s Nahal Toosi writing about how “Trump has been attempting to start negotiations with Iran for months,” noting his “letters to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, an attempt to use Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as an emissary to Tehran, and public comments expressing his desire to talk.”

Here’s Sina Toosi, a National Iranian American Council (NIAC) research associate, hinting at a Trump policy shift toward Iran opening up the possibility of negotiations.

Here’s Karim Sadjadpour, a senior fellow in the Middle East program at the Carnegie Endowment, recommending that Trump should “[keep] the door of diplomacy open.”

Here’s Zalmay Khalilzad, the former American ambassador to the United Nations, writing credulously about Trump’s alleged willingness to reenter into negotiations with Iran, even after he withdrew the United States from the JCPOA and reimposed sanctions.

Here’s Suzanne Maloney, Brookings’ Iran point person, declaring back in August 2018 that the “barrage of threats and appeals” Trump levels at Iran merely “betray his exasperation that Iranian leaders have yet to take him up on the offer [to negotiate].”

Here’s Sanam Vakil, a research fellow at Chatham House, who took the time to conduct a poll of 75 diplomats to assess their views on a hypothetical “Art of a New Iran Deal,” some of whom, shockingly, think it’s a realistic possibility.

The list goes on.

Don’t be fooled by recent reports that Trump is looking to open a backchannel for negotiations with Iranian officials. The actual goal of this administration’s Iran strategy has never been about achieving some kind of grand bargain or strategic endgame. It is and has been about one thing: capitulation.

It’s important to note that capitulation is not the same thing as regime change, nor is it regime collapse, though many in the administration would welcome either outcome. Instead, capitulation is better understood as a specific type of narrative development, the next plot point in a long-running story of conflict between the United States and Iran. Capitulation, in this context, represents a public admission of defeat, a concession of one’s weakness in the face of the opponent’s strength. Following capitulation, subsequent interactions between the two parties are no longer negotiations between equals, but rather the defeated supplicating to the victor.

This desire to achieve dominance over one’s opponent motivates nearly all of Trump’s actions toward Iran (perhaps toward everyone). From the punitive sanctions to the threats of military action, Trump’s goal is to get the Iranian regime to admit the reality of its situation and come crawling back to the negotiating table from a position of declared weakness. The collapse or destruction of the regime would be an acceptable byproduct of this process, but it’s not necessarily a requirement. Far more important in this administration’s eyes is the appearance that they have somehow “won” something from the Iranians and humbled them in the process.

Compare this mindset with the previous administration’s approach to Iran. A lot was made of the Obama administration’s attempts at narrative spin in 2013, which suggested that the election of the moderate Hassan Rouhani as President of Iran in June of that year had created a diplomatic opening for talks. This allegedly helped convince Iran skeptics at home that diplomacy might achieve results.* But this narrative was also useful for the Iranians, who were able to portray their decision to pursue negotiations with the Americans as a positive result of Rouhani’s “charm offensive” instead of a desperate response to the building pressure of economic sanctions. Similarly, once knowledge of the talks became public, the personal relationship that developed between Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif over multiple rounds of negotiations helped resolve differences through a dialogue of mutual respect and laid a foundation for future developments.

The Trump administration, by contrast, has no interest in developing a sense of goodwill or mutual respect, nor do any of its officials — many of whom are still eager for war — have the personality or temperament to build rapport with their Iranian counterparts. (This is probably the reason they’ve outsourced this task to Rand Paul, which shows just how unserious an effort this is.) In the unlikely event that any talks do take place between the Trump administration and Iran, they will almost certainly fail. Iran has stuck to its position that the United States must first drop sanctions and return to the JCPOA as a precondition for resuming negotiations. They have been similarly steadfast in their rejections of the possibility of a more comprehensive deal that includes limitations on its strategic interests, including its ballistic missile program. Any suggestions to the contrary have been met with forceful rebukes from Iranian officials.

Trump is likely hoping that the pain of sanctions along with the constant threat of war might force Iran to concede, but Iran’s history of resilience in the face of international pressure suggests this may be in vain. In its relatively short history, the Islamic Republic has already endured a brutal eight-year war with Iraq, as well as multiple rounds of punishing economic sanctions without acknowledging defeat. It seems unlikely that they’ll suddenly do so in the face of Trump’s bullying. As long as Trump needs to win and Iran refuses to lose, the prospect of substantive negotiations between Washington and Tehran will remain purely hypothetical fodder the expert and pundit cohort.

The only scenario in which I could see this dynamic shifting would be if war were to break out, in which case all bets are off. Given some of the people in this administration, this isn’t out of the realm of possibility. It’s terrifying to think that the only thing holding Trump back at the moment might be Tucker Carlson.

For now, at least, this story is at an impasse.

————

*In truth, Obama’s efforts to open negotiations with the Iranians began months earlier while the hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was still in office. A small “crisis” resulted from the disclosure of this fact. Many members of the DC foreign policy establishment, which Obama and his advisors dismissively referred to as “the blob,” interpreted the administration’s portrayal of events as duplicitous. In hindsight, however, there may have been more truth to this argument than contemporaneous media accounts suggested. I went to a talk in DC a few weeks back featuring an Obama administration official who had participated in both the Ahmadinejad and Rouhani-era talks. I asked him about his experience with the Ahmadinejad officials versus the Rouhani contingent, and whether he believed that they could have successfully negotiated the same deal with the former group. He said that he did not think that the discussions with the Ahmadinejad group would have progressed much beyond the initial phases, and noted that there was a significant difference in tone between the two groups. I suspect many of the accusations that Obama officials had been “misleading” in their portrayal of the narrative was a result of the antipathy many in the DC foreign policy establishment held for the administration.

Iran is Done Waiting on Europe

On Wednesday, Iranian officials announced plans to begin enriching uranium beyond levels specified by the Iran nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This move is the latest in a series of decisions by Iran to reduce its commitments to the agreement it had been voluntarily following since Donald Trump’s decision withdraw the United States from it back in May 2018.

Until recently, Tehran had signaled a willingness to continue to abide by its commitments to the agreement as long as Europe was able to provide Iran with the tangible economic benefits it had sought in exchange for scaling back its nuclear program. Shortly after Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal, the EU tried to quell Iranian anger by announcing that it would begin building a “Special Purpose Vehicle” (SPV) that would enable European companies to conduct trade with Iran by bypassing the U.S. financial system.

Instead of swift action, however, months of delays ensued. Iran waited anxiously for details of how this financial mechanism would guarantee the economic rewards it sought for its continued compliance with the JCPOA. At the same time, ordinary Iranians continued to bear the brunt of intensifying American economic sanctions increasingly aimed more at fomenting unrest via broad societal degradation than exerting targeted influence over Iranian leaders and decision makers. Critical medicine imports have dried up, while unemployment and inflation have skyrocketed. European officials’ meek reassurances about their continued commitment to the principles of the JCPOA did little to quell mounting Iranian skepticism that the EU took seriously its pledge to undermine the United States’ determination to strangle the Iranian economy to death.

By the time the SPV finally debuted this past week, it was already too late. To say that there was a lack of excitement surrounding the debut of INSTEX — which stands for “Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges” — would be an understatement. Its appearance had already been overshadowed by the rising tensions between Iran and the United States, which, in addition to an ongoing war of words, has recently begun dipping into the realm of military action. What was likely initially envisioned as a moment of triumph came and went as a sidenote news item; merely an opportunity to publish a photo of besuited officials sitting around a large wooden table, all of them pledging their commitment to helping one another in the most sterile of diplomatic language.

 

Screen Shot 2019-07-05 at 4.19.00 PM
The European External Action Service (EEAS) website announcement for the INSTEX debut, replete with the requisite picture.

 

Inside Iran, the mood was more pessimistic, perhaps even openly hostile. To many, the timing of the announcement seemed like a desperation play, a hastily arranged photo-op meant to quell rising Iranian anger. This ultimately proved counterproductive and only added to a growing sense of distrust surrounding the Europeans’ intentions. The hardline paper Kayhan published several op-eds denouncing INSTEX. One characterized it as a “void” package, while another called it the “latest European deception.”

Nor was it only the hardliners who are wary about INSTEX’s potential. Seyyed Abas Mousavi, the Foreign Ministry Spokesman, wrote in a tweet last week, “No one in the government has hope for INSTEX.” President Hassan Rouhani, likewise, dismissed INSTEX as merely a “symbolic” gesture and an “empty” mechanism.

Taken as a whole, Iran’s lackluster response to INSTEX’s debut demonstrates the degree to which Iranian foreign policy is solidifying around a path of active resistance. Gone are the days of Iran politely fulfilling its JCPOA obligations while waiting for Europe to fulfill its promises. Now, Iran is taking matters into its own hands. In addition to the gradual extension of its nuclear capabilities beyond the limits defined by the JCPOA, Iran also appears to be attempting to clandestinely sell its oil in defiance of a United States embargo. Meanwhile, Iran’s support for foreign military, resistance, and terrorist organizations continues unabated.

Europe has squandered its supply of Iranian goodwill and will need more than words to win it back. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mousavi summed up Iranian sentiment last week when, in response to a French warning not to violate the terms of the JCPOA, he said, “As long as you [France] remain committed to implementing your JCPOA undertakings, we will remain committed as well, and will carry out our commitments exactly like you.” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif followed up this statement with a snippy tweet, reaffirming that Iran is committed to the JCPOA “as long as E3/EU implement THEIR economic commitments.”

European leaders now face a difficult choice: do they want to risk defying the United States in the hopes of placating the Iranians, or do they want to roll the dice and force Iran to continue down the path of mutual escalation with the United States?

The British seizure of an oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar may be an early indication which way at least one [for now] member state is leaning. The only question is where the rest stand.

Welcome to the War

What does a war with Iran look like? Is it American boots storming through the streets of Isfahan? Is it bombs dropping over Tehran? Maybe it’s a murky proxy war fought on the fringes of Iranian territory? Or perhaps Tanker War Part 2: Electic Boogaloo? These are questions worth asking after last week’s events.

But first, in case you’ve been living in media-free bliss, on Thursday of last week, two oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman suffered mysterious explosions in their hulls. Not long after, United States Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held a news conference in which he accused Iran of attacking the ships. Pompeo presented no hard evidence during the news conference, although he did reference a video that he said confirmed the Iranians’ responsibility. Several hours later, seemingly in response to a public uproar over the absence of said evidence, the United States Central Command (CENTCOM) released the video. The grainy footage showed an IRGC boat pulling up alongside one of the damaged tankers to remove what Pompeo and the U.S. military claimed was an unexploded mine. In the administration’s view, this was clearly intended as smoking-gun proof of Iran’s responsibility for the attacks.

Iranian officials immediately and vociferously denied responsibility and denounced the accusations. Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif wrote in a tweet, “Suspicious doesn’t even begin to describe what likely transpired this morning,” highlighting the fact that one of the attacks was against a Japan-owned tanker at the same time that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was meeting with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran. The Japanese operator of one of the victimized ships, citing testimony from the crewmembers, said that the boat had been struck by a “flying object,” which further cast doubt on the theory that a sea mine had been the cause of the explosion.

The United Kingdom and, predictably, Saudi Arabia and Israel backed the American claims of Iranian responsibility. In a statement, the UK Foreign Office wrote, “It is almost certain that a branch of the Iranian military — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps — attacked the two tankers on 13 June. No other state or non-state actor could plausibly have been responsible.” The rest of the world, meanwhile, remains unconvinced. Several EU member states have publicly questioned the American narrative, requesting more evidence and urging all involved to exercise “maximum restraint.” 

As ever, it’s difficult to sort fact from fiction at this point. Neither the U.S. nor Iran has presented any definitive proof of guilt or innocence. In fairness, the burden of proof should reasonably fall more on the accuser than the accused, but that’s rarely how things work in practice in the realm of international relations. The CENTCOM video is ambiguous, at best. Bellingcat offered analysis that suggested that the boat was, in fact, Iranian, but stopped short of affirming that the activity portrayed the blurry footage was a mine removal operation. Pointing out what should have already been obvious, they noted that a video showing Iran removing a mine is not proof that Iran put it there in the first place. Setting aside the tragic history of the United States’ record in making the case for war the Middle East, the idiosyncrasies of more recent American accusations of Iranian guilt offer more than enough reason to be skeptical now. It’s probably safe to assume at this point that the only thing this video has and will accomplish is to reaffirm preexisting biases.

But make no mistake: the Iran-U.S. war is already underway, and it’s only likely to get worse from here. At this stage, however, progress cannot be measured in blood, treasure, or territory. The real war, right now, is for control of the narrative.

It’s this battle within a battle that will ultimately define this conflict and shape its future course. The Trump Administration — and, more specifically, the hawk contingent led by National Security Advisor John Bolton and Mike Pompeo — is attempting to paint Iran as a saboteur crippling the world oil market more out of spite than strategic necessity. It’s a simple enough story to understand, and it reinforces many of the biases everyday Americans — that is, people who don’t pay close attention to Iranian or Middle Eastern politics — harbor about the Islamic Republic: duplicitous, vengeful, and ideologically driven to the point of self-harm. In this telling, Iran, furious at the United States’ efforts to curtail its regional influence by eliminating its oil trade revenues, lashes out at international tankers off its coastline, thereby disrupting shipping lanes and, by extension, the global oil supply. It’s a “If I can’t get mine, you can’t have yours” mentality adopted as a guiding military philosophy.

The Iranian version of events is more reactive but still entirely in-character. Per usual, Tehran is indulging its instinct toward conspiracy theorizing, albeit slightly more subtly than in crises past. Foreign Minister Zarif’s Twitter statement in the wake of the attacks is a perfect encapsulation of this mentality. It suggests, without expressly stating anything, that the attack against a Japanese tanker at the same time that Iran’s Supreme Leader is meeting with the Japanese Prime Minister in the highest-profile diplomatic visit to Tehran in years is a bit too convenient to be taken at face value. To be fair, he has a point: of all the boats in the water, why take a pot shot at the Japanese one just to add an extra dose of insult to a guest? It’s not particularly Iranian behavior.

What makes this scenario more difficult to accept is that Iran already has a plan in motion to retaliate against U.S. sanctions by gradually suspending its commitments to the Iran Nuclear Deal (JCPOA). Today, the spokesman for Iran’s Atomic Energy Agency, Behrouz Kamalvandi, announced that Iran will be taking additional steps to restart its uranium enrichment program and that it will surpass the limits set on its stockpiles by the JCPOA within ten days. This follows Iran’s announcement from the first week of May — several days before the first set of tanker attacks — that it would be reducing its commitments under the JCPOA in response to U.S. actions.

Kamalvandi also warned that starting from July 7 Iran could resume enriching uranium up to the 20% level, placing it a step closer to weapons-grade enrichment levels. These actions are designed to put pressure on Europe to provide Iran with tangible benefits to remaining in compliance with the JCPOA. Moreover, this strategy allows the Iranians to maintain the moral high ground with the United States while also denying them a pretext for war by highlighting that it was the Trump administration and not Tehran that first violated the agreement. It also has no ostensibly offensive component beyond the implied threat of future development of nuclear weapons, which remains a distant and, at least for now, unlikely possibility.

Even so, the nuclear program provides the Iranians with far more leverage than a few randomized tanker explosions ever could, so it’s difficult to understand what strategic value Iran would see in the latter. Realistically, the only thing the tanker attacks seem to be accomplishing is escalating the calls for military action against Iran. In that way, those who are making the case for war may already be winning it.

Back in Action

Oh, hello there. It’s lovely to see you all again. Apologies for my extended absence from this site. It’s been just over a year since I last posted here. I don’t want to bore you with the details about why I suddenly and without warning abandoned this project, but suffice it to say it involved personal circumstances that made continuing my extracurricular writing on these topics hard to sustain. To those of you who relied on me for periodic updates on Iran, all I can say is I’m sorry. I hope you’ll give me another chance as I once again delve into the murky and exciting world of Iranian and Middle Eastern analysis. There’s more of a need for it now than ever before, and given the current state of affairs, there isn’t time to spare.

To get back into the swing of things, let’s lay out three baseline assumptions about the current state of affairs:

  1. John Bolton, President Trump’s National Security Advisor, wants war with Iran. He’s made no secret of this. It is, by now, his entire political raison d’etre. If the Islamic Republic is still standing when he leaves his post, his tenure, by his own established metrics, can only be considered a massive failure.
  2. Mohammad Bin Salman, the Crown Prince and de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia, and Benjamin Netanyahu, the Prime Minister of Israel, also want war with Iran, but have no interest in fighting it themselves, preferring instead that Trump do the dirty work of regime change on their behalf. Neither Israel (too small) nor Saudi Arabia (too inept) has the military resources to topple the Iranian government by themselves, and working together, despite their shared interests, is still not a realistic option for either country.
  3. President Trump, meanwhile, is conflicted. He loves a good feud, but his resolve to make important decisions with potentially serious consequences is questionable at best. One day, Trump is asking Iran’s leaders to call him, the next, he’s threatening to “end” them. It’s anybody’s guess what tomorrow will bring.

The reality that emerges from the combination of these three factors is one of uncertainty and tension. It’s a frightening situation, for sure, and a single spark could ignite a raging fire.

Given the risk, it is understandable that Iran has been in the headlines of the Western press a lot lately. Unfortunately, as is so often the case when the prospect of war appears on the American horizon, the various stories and analyses about the coming conflict are woefully unbalanced. Like Iraq in the runup to the 2003 invasion of that country, the Iranian perspective has been excised from consideration in the planning for a potential conflict. In essence, Iran has been effectively removed from the public debate that will shape its future.

The media, and particularly mainstream Western publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post, highlight the urgent need for a more thorough examination of the Iranian perspective. Last week, in an article titled, “White House Reviews Military Plans Against Iran, in Echoes of Iraq War,” the New York Times appeared to take for granted the Trump administration’s claims that the intelligence surrounding a heightened risk of an attack from Iran was real and credible. The article included a litany of anonymous proclamations about the Iranian threat from omnipresent “American officials,” but presented no hard evidence to substantiate their claims. Subsequent reporting would reveal the dubious provenance of alleged Iranian attack plans, of which even our closest allies, including the British general in charge of fighting ISIS in Iraq, were highly skeptical. 

More troublingly, other than a vague reference to a statement by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to “walk away from parts of the 2015 nuclear deal,” the article did not quote a single Iranian source or official, nor did it seek additional input from regional or country experts.

With that information gap in mind, I thought it would be useful in my return to the blogosphere to attempt to clarify the Iranian perspective by answering three key questions about how they are handling their current predicament. First, what is Iran saying in response to the White House? Second, how is Iran taking action? And third, how is the situation likely to evolve (or devolve) from here?

What is Iran saying? 

Iran’s messaging during this period of crisis has been the epitome of consistency in the face of the Trump administration’s vacillation. The tone often depends on the affiliations of the speaker, running from the colorful bellicosity of IRGC officers to the more constrained diplomatic rhetoric of elected officials, but the substance is always more or less the same. The Iranian position is built on two pillars. First, in response to Bolton’s provocations, Iranian officials are steadfastly emphasizing that Iran has no interest or intention of initiating armed conflict with the United States. Second, they are categorically rejecting Trump’s offers to negotiate.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei articulated this dual-track approach in a speech last week where he said, “Negotiation is poison…even more so with the current administration,” before declaring, “No war is going to be waged.” Other Iranian officials, including Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and President Hassan Rouhani, have made similar statements about the non-viability of negotiations with the United States under its current leadership, indicating a lack of daylight between the positions of the elected and unelected power centers in the Iranian government. Referencing the 2015 nuclear deal (JCPOA), Zarif and Rouhani have repeatedly emphasized that it was the United States, led by President Trump, that decided to walk away from the deal in 2018, and that any return to negotiations must be predicated on the United States’ return to its original commitments under the accord. Given how embarrassing it would be for Trump to essentially admit defeat and do a public about-face on this topic, this is not a realistic possibility, and hence, not a real point of contention within Iran.

In the Iranian press, both reformist and hardline publications have been championing Iranian resistance to American pressure while highlighting the failure of the Trump administration, and John Bolton in particular, to provoke a war with Iran. Last week, following Trump’s intimation that he’s not fully committed to going to war with Iran, several Iranian dailies, including reformist Arman-e Emrooz and hardline Javan, ran headlines speculating that Bolton’s failure to convince Trump might be an indication of Bolton’s imminent departure. This is probably wishful thinking on their part, but it demonstrates the degree to which the Iranian press, and, by extension, the Iranian people, are aware of the present discord within the White House.

How is Iran taking action? 

Militarily, Iran has not made any obvious move toward increased aggression. While it continues to fund and supply proxy groups, including Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen, and a number of Shiite militias in Iraq, Iran has so far made no effort to mobilize its conventional forces in preparation for an attack on U.S. forces. Notably, Iran is also expanding its effort to strengthen military ties with Russia, with whom it continues to support the Syrian government of Bashar Al-Assad. Iran and Russia recently announced plans to hold a major military exercise in the Caspian Sea in the coming year.

Economically, Iran has been seeking ways to subvert the United States’ “maximum pressure” sanctions campaign while ramping up what it calls its “resistance economy.” The Iranian economy is clearly under duress as a result of these sanctions. The Iranian toman has dropped significantly against the dollar, and unemployment has risen since the resumption of sanctions. Medicine and other vital goods are becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. At the same time, Iran has been busy taking steps to insulate itself from further effects of U.S. pressure. They have begun reinforcing political and trade relationships with neighbors and regional partners. Iran has also been reaching out diplomatically to major global economic players, including China and India, in an effort to buck newly imposed U.S. oil sanctions. According to Bourse & Bazaar, this effort may already have yielded dividends from the Chinese. A few days ago, a Chinese oil tanker loaded with Iranian oil departed from an Iranian port on the same day as the Iranian Foreign Minister was in Beijing for diplomatic talks.

Iran’s most aggressive and direct response to the United States has been in the nuclear realm, where it has taken initial steps toward suspending some of its commitments to the JCPOA. In a fact sheet released on May 8, the Iranian government cited the U.S. abandonment of the deal as the motivation for its actions, as well as Europe’s failure to provide Iran with any tangible economic benefits of the deal due to their inability to effectively counter U.S. economic sanctions. In its ultimatum, the Iranian government gave the Europeans sixty days to demonstrate their commitment to the deal before taking further action, specifying the need for progress on both oil exports and banking transactions. This includes the much-hyped but not-yet-fully-implemented special purpose vehicle designed to facilitate trade with Iran by circumventing the American financial system. If Europe fails, Iran has already announced that in the first phase of its response, it will suspend its voluntary compliance with restrictions on the maintenance of enriched uranium and heavy water stockpiles. In the second phase, Iran plans to remove limitations on uranium enrichment levels and resume its modernization program at the Arak heavy water reactor.

What could happen next? 

Prefacing my comments here with a cautionary note that nothing when it comes to Iran is ever guaranteed, I suspect that Iran will stay the course for the next few weeks as it attempts to solidify its oil trade relationships with its biggest purchasers. They will welcome the reduction in tensions that comes from Trump’s waffling on the threats made by Bolton since it will give them time to solidify trade relationships with key partners. Meanwhile, Iran will be extra sensitive to the consequences of its military pursuits in the region, including the operations of proxy forces in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. They will continue to support these organizations but will be sure to distance themselves from anything that could be construed as an Iranian attack on U.S. forces and thus, a justification for American intervention.

The Iranians, like everyone else in the world, can read a calendar. They are undoubtedly aware of the upcoming Presidential election in 2020 and what that means for Trump. Similarly, they are also likely attuned to the American public’s present distaste for Middle Eastern wars of adventure. They know that the prospect of flag-draped coffins returning from Iran will not play well with Trump’s supporters, many of whom cheered his isolationist rhetoric during the 2016 campaign, and may be banking on Trump’s desire to secure reelection over Bolton’s desire to fulfill a lifelong dream of war with Iran.

I expect that if a conflict does break out, any American action will be limited in scope. To prevent casualties, Trump will likely avoid a boots-on-the-ground-style invasion, instead opting for airstrikes against specific Iranian targets, probably related to the military or nuclear program. In response, Iran might try to increase its attacks on American targets in Syria and Iraq through its proxy forces, which will allow them to exact a degree of retaliation while maintaining a claim to the moral high ground on the international stage. The risk, of course, is once violence enters the equation, the situation could quickly spiral out of control, eventually escalating to a full-blown regional, or even global, conflict.

At the moment, no one, save for Bolton and his acolytes, wants this, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. No matter how careful the Iranians are in the coming weeks and months, they may not be able to control for an impulsive President with an ultra-hawk national security advisor continually whispering the sweet nothings of war in his ear. If Trump finally decides that war is what he wants, war will find its way to Iran.

Recommended Reading: State Department Briefing Edition

A lot has already been written in the wake of Donald Trump’s announcement yesterday that he would be withdrawing the United States from the Iran Deal. Commentators from across the political spectrum have been breaking down the decision from every conceivable angle, speculating about its motivations, meaning, and consequences. Some cheered the move, many more did not.

There will be time to dwell on these issues in the coming weeks, but for now, if you’re going to read anything about this decision — other than my blog, of course — let it be this transcript of a State Department background briefing session held shortly after Trump’s announcement.

Ostensibly, the purpose of this briefing session was to “put a little more meat on the bones” about the administration’s reasoning behind taking this action and what the next steps are. It quickly became clear, however, that they really haven’t put much thought into either of those questions.

The two “Senior State Department Officials” conducting the briefing (their names are embargoed in the transcript since the event was on background) began by discussing the two “wind down” periods, essentially grace periods between the announcement and the reimposition of sanctions, meant to allow companies to divest themselves of their interests in Iran. The first will last 90 days, the second six months. The officials also announced that they would be redesignating “all of the individuals that were delisted pursuant to the JCPOA,” which according to them amounted to approximately 600 people.

Things got interesting after the moderator opened the floor for questions. I’ll say this for the State Department press corps: they are considerably better reporters than their counterparts over at the White House. From the start, it was clear that the State correspondents do not have a chummy relationship with the individuals briefing them, nor do they consider State officials their esteemed colleagues with whom they work closely on a daily basis.

Immediately, the reporters began pressuring the two officials for more information about the administration’s intentions. They asked whether the administration is prepared to levy secondary sanctions against European companies that do not comply with the United States’ demands to withdraw their investments from Iran. This is an important point because as one reporter pointed out, in the absence of any American economic ties to Iran, the only leverage the United States has is preventing other nations from investing in the Iranian economy. One might assume, then, that the administration had thought to reach an understanding with its European partners about how it would address this point once sanctions are reimposed. Nope:

QUESTION: So wait, just – so the United States has basically no economic relationships right now with the Iranians, right? So there is no power of U.S. sanctions to prevent – in preventing U.S. economic activity. The only power that U.S. sanctions have is in preventing European and other economic activity, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Secondary sanctions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The secondary sanctions, correct.

QUESTION: Why get out of the deal until you know for sure that Europe is going to go along with that secondary sanction activity or whether you’re – they’ll fight you? Because if they fight you, you’re going to be in a worse situation vis-a-vis Iran than you are now and than you are previously, right? So you don’t actually know – you’re saying that the President’s going to start this global coalition, but you don’t actually know whether even your closest allies are going to be part of that coalition, right?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: The President made clear on January 12th that he was giving a certain number of months to try to – for – try to get a supplemental agreement with the E3. We didn’t get there. We got close. We made a – we had movement, a ton of good progress, which will not be wasted, but we didn’t get there. So he was clear January 12th that if we don’t get this supplemental, he’s withdrawing the United States from the JCPOA, and that’s what he did. That being said, you could even see that President Macron tweeted only a few minutes after the President finished his statement that France is eager to be part of an effort – I forget the exact words, but part of an effort on a broader deal that addresses the nuclear file but also —

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Syria, Yemen.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: — Syria, Yemen, and others. So you already see – you already see from President Macron a willingness to work on a broader deal; you see from the Saudis have also issued a statement supporting our withdrawal; the Israelis did as well. No one is saying this is going to be easy, right, but the President made clear his intention on January 12th. He made good on that – on that promise.

QUESTION: You don’t know right now whether you’re going to be in a better place or in a worse place; is that what you’re saying?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, we think we’re going to be in a better place.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, we know we’re —

QUESTION: But you don’t know.

Sensing the growing hostility in the room, the officials tried to fall back on some of the talking points from Trump’s speech, even citing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “Iran Lied” presentation from last week. The reporters, to put it mildly, did not indulge this line of reasoning:

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: We know we’re going to be in a better place because we don’t think that the current JCP – the JCPOA, as it is now, adequately protects U.S. national security. So —

QUESTION: Because?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Because it allowed Iran to enrich after sunsets, after those restrictions melted away —

QUESTION: In seven years.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yes.

QUESTION: And even then, not enriching to a level where they could build a nuclear weapon.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Listen, after – after the Israelis revealed what they were able to find —

QUESTION: All old stuff, all old – before.

A few questions later, a reporter again attempted to clarify where the United States stood with its European partners, explicitly trying to get at what the administration’s plan B is if the JCPOA is no longer on the table. Once again, it did not go well:

QUESTION: But, I mean, [the Europeans] tell us that they want to stay in the deal as is. And so again, it’s all – this is all sort of fairly surprising that you guys are doing something so dramatic that affects your closest allies in a dramatic way. They see this deal as essential to their national security and you have no Plan B, you have no idea whether they will stay in the deal, whether they will defend the deal, whether they will fight you on the deal, whether they are going to go off with Iran against you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I mean, I think we have some idea because the President and President Macron, when he was here for the state visit, talked in their press availability about – President Macron called it a four-pillar new deal. What he tweeted today seemed to me – I think there were four pillars in what he tweeted today – seemed to me, again, to echo his desire for a broad new four-pillar deal.

QUESTION: But one of the pillars was keeping the JCPOA, which he made certain to emphasize repeatedly.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Right, but he tweeted today something that seemed to indicate to me a French willingness to work with us.

QUESTION: So you guys have a positive tweet out of it. That’s amazing.

Seriously, go read the rest of it.