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 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 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.


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.


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.

Three Visits and the Battle for the Iran Deal

There were three high-level foreign visits to the U.S. east coast this week, each with significant implications for the future of the Iran Deal (a.k.a. JCPOA). First, French President Emmanuel Macron came to DC for the first state visit of the Trump Presidency. Next, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a trip to New York, where he made the rounds at various think tanks and media outlets ahead of meetings at the United Nations. Finally, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrived in Washington, DC, this morning to meet with top American defense officials on issues related to Iran and Syria. It is worthwhile to examine each of these visits and their potential implications for the fate of the Iran Deal.

The Meetings 

Emmanuel Macron’s state visit was by far the most high-profile of the three dignitaries this week. As multiple outlets reported, finding a way to “save” the Iran Deal was at the top of Macron’s policy agenda. President Trump, of course, has made his distaste for the deal in its present form well known. He has set a deadline of May 12 for the United States’ European partners to find a way to fix the flaws he sees in the agreement, namely the sunset clauses, inspection restrictions, and failure to adequately confront Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional behavior. If Europe fails to address these issues to Trump’s satisfaction, Trump has said he will formally withdraw the United States from the agreement, paving the way for the reimposition of harsh economic sanctions.

Macron arrived in Washington armed with a proposal for a “new, bigger” Iran Deal. This was potentially clever branding given the American President’s affinity for all things “new” and “big.” Details are sparse at the moment, but the main idea is that the deal will add three new “pillars” targeted at Trump’s stated areas of concern. Macron hopes that this enhanced deal will be sufficient to placate the American President and prevent a collapse of the existing version.

Collapse is still very much on the table, as demonstrated by the second prominent foreign visitor this week, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Zarif came to New York several days ago and participated in a whirlwind tour of the think tank and media circuit ahead of a planned meeting at the United Nations. In his public appearances, Zarif made clear that should the United States withdraw from the deal next month, Iran will likely reciprocate. “There won’t be any deal for Iran to stay in,” Zarif told the Associated Press. Other high-ranking Iranian officials echoed Zarif’s comments, including President Hassan Rouhani, who warned of “severe consequences”  following a U.S. exit. More concerning is that those consequences may go beyond the dissolution of the JCPOA. Ali Shamkhani, Secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said this week that Iran might also consider withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the U.S. scraps the Iran Deal.

The final important visit this week is the one getting the least attention, but it may end up being the most significant. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman arrived in DC this morning to meet with several high-ranking Trump administration officials. Liberman is among the most hawkish members of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet, especially on Iran. In 2017, he called the Iran Deal an “attempt to avoid reality,” claiming that it has done nothing to moderate Iranian behavior and is yielding worse results than with North Korea. In 2013, before the final agreement was signed, Liberman, then serving as Foreign Minister for Netanyahu, appeared to advocate for military action against Iran over a diplomatic approach: “You know…my philosophy in my private life and my political life: if you want to shoot, shoot; don’t talk.”

Liberman will be meeting with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis as well as National Security Advisor John Bolton, both of whom share Liberman’s hawkish views on Iran. Liberman is sure to pressure both of them for stronger American action against Iran, both on the deal and in other regional conflicts in Syria and Yemen. While Mattis has so far proven reluctant to entirely repudiate the Iran Deal to the point where he believes the United States should abandon it altogether, Bolton has shown no such lack of courage in his convictions. The National Security Advisor has kept a low profile in his first few weeks on the job — at the very least, he has yet to get the United States into another war — but this is a man who for years has been publicly calling for direct military action against Iran. Liberman is sure to find a sympathetic ear during their meeting.

Analyzing the Outcome

What these three visits will ultimately achieve depends on who will have the most influence in shaping Trump’s outlook when decision time arrives in a few weeks. The consensus around DC seems to be that Macron enjoys a particularly chummy relationship with Trump. Given the near total lack of coherent strategy of this administration, policy analysts and pundits observing these visits have been reduced to trying to read the tea leaves of body language and tone of voice to try to figure out which way Trump may be leaning, with some suggesting that Macron’s “bromance” with Trump may push the American President to reconsider his previous position.

Public displays of affection between the two leaders notwithstanding, Macron is leaving DC still very much at the bottom of an uphill battle. Regardless of whether or not Trump liked his proposal for an enhanced deal, Macron will have to get his European partners, specifically Great Britain and Germany, to go along with it as well. Germany recently made its position perfectly clear: it favors keeping the deal as is and is unwilling to renegotiate. And lest anyone think that German Chancellor Angela Merkel will budge from that position to placate Donald Trump, it’s worth remembering that Trump’s relationship with Merkel is far less cordial than it is with Macron. Significantly, the French President all but admitted defeat earlier today. Following his address to Congress this afternoon, Macron told the press he believes that Trump is still likely to take the U.S. out of the deal.

One glaring omission from the discussion surrounding the French proposal is what the Iranians think of all this. Right now, the effort is framed purely as a European — and really, just a French — initiative, the assumption being that if Macron can get Trump to agree to a more comprehensive framework, then the deal will be saved.

Zarif’s visit to New York this week had a much different feel than Macron’s glitzy affair in DC. The Iranian Foreign Minister obviously does not have the option of personally meeting with administration officials, let alone being feted at a state dinner, so he was forced to take an alternative approach. In making the media rounds, Zarif sought to argue Iran’s case in the public forum in the hope that his message might find its way to key decision makers via the airwaves.

Zarif adopted a defiant tone in his appearances, repeatedly emphasizing that Iran’s position on the existing deal has not changed in light of recent developments. The Iranians expect full implementation of the text as written by all parties. Going a step further, Zarif accused the U.S. of not holding up its end of the bargain. In an interview with Al-Monitor, the Foreign Minister said, “The Trump administration was never in the JCPOA. They made sure over the last 15 months that Iran would not benefit from the economic dividends of the JCPOA, and so whatever they do in three weeks would not be a major break from the past.” Zarif went on to say that Iran’s decision on whether or not to continue with the deal will depend on its national interests and what course of action best advances them.

By bending over backward to flatter and please Trump without so much as a nod to Iranian interests, Europe is sending a strong signal to Tehran that it will not risk a conflagration with the United States on this issue. If broad-based economic sanctions are back on the table, and Europe is not willing to protect businesses seeking to do business with Iran, then Iran might not see any benefit to continuing to adhere to the strict terms of the agreement. This appears to be how things are playing out right now.

Finally, there are the Israelis. Liberman’s visit will not be as publicized as the other two have been. He is unlikely him to make any major media appearances while he’s in town. As of the moment, his only scheduled public appearance is a discussion at the right-wing/neoconservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) on Friday, where he’s unlikely to face much pushback from a sympathetic moderator and a mostly like-minded audience.

As with so much of the Trump administration, the real action is taking place behind the scenes. Liberman cleverly planned his visit on the tail end of Macron and Zarif’s. More importantly, he is prioritizing private meetings with two of Trump’s most influential advisors over splashy media spectacles. The danger of Liberman’s trip lies not so much in the substance of the discussion but in its aftermath. The Israelis, like the rest of the world, are fully aware at this point of Trump’s proclivity to agree with the last thing anyone has said to him. Bolton will surely convey the Israeli Defense Minister’s concerns to Trump in his next meeting with the President. He will continue to pressure the President over the coming weeks toward exiting the deal, stressing the need to take a harsher line with the Iranians. Liberman and Netanyahu are betting that having these voices repeating their message on loop for a few weeks will have a far greater impact when Trump finally makes his decision in May than any other interaction with the President, no matter how glitzy or glamorous.

The End of the Iran Deal and the Road to War

As of the start of this week, John Bolton is the National Security Advisor to the President of the United States. Soon, Mike Pompeo will be confirmed as the new Secretary of State, further homogenizing the ideological center of gravity inside the Trump cabinet along hard-right, neoconservative lines. But this is not the time to dissect the meaning of these appointments — we’ve done that already. Now, we must consider the consequences.

There are a lot of bad things that can happen from here, but from my perspective, the most significant and most easily foreseeable consequence is that the United States is almost certainly going to withdraw from the Iran Deal next month. President Trump gave his European allies until May 12 to fix what he says are the fundamental problems with the deal, namely the sunset clauses, the restrictions on inspections of military sites in Iran, and issues related to Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for terrorist groups. Never mind that Iran’s ballistic missiles and regional activities were never meant to be part of the deal in the first place, Trump says these issues must be addressed for the deal to remain in effect. If Europe fails to provide a solution to the President’s liking, Trump has said that he will withdraw the United States from the deal, paving the way for the reimposition of sanctions against Iran.

The European signatories to the agreement — Great Britain, France, and Germany — have supposedly been scrambling to try to come up with a solution that will please Trump and keep the United States in the deal a bit longer. According to recent reports, their proposal amounts to a “list of persons and entities that [they] believe should be targeted” due to their roles in Iran’s ballistic missile program and support for the Assad regime in Syria’s civil war. This is a half measure that, if anything, is more likely to doom the deal than to save it.

In truth, there is probably nothing they can do to satisfy Trump. The fact that this deal was the signature foreign policy achievement of Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, was probably sufficient on its own to condemn the deal to death in Trump’s head long ago. Slapping a few designations on select individuals or entities isn’t going to placate that level of disdain. Furthermore, the timing of this effort indicates a lack of European insight into the significance of the ideological shift taking place within the administration right now. With Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster out, who do the Europeans think will be physically present to be the last person to put a word in Donald Trump’s ear to argue in favor of saving the deal? Ivanka?

By attempting to appease Trump, the Europeans are placing both their own relations with Iran as well as continued Iranian compliance with the deal at risk. Europe’s apparent willingness to kowtow to Trump’s demand for more punitive terms sends a strong message to Tehran that the EU won’t risk defying the United States to help Iran, no matter what the actual text of the agreement reads.

Given this, what incentive do the Iranians have to stay in the deal after the United States leaves? The answer, increasingly, is not much. I’ve been saying for months that Iran’s continued adherence to the terms of the deal will depend on Europe’s willingness to defy Trump’s attempts to kill it. This was ostensibly the only way that Iran could realize the economic benefits that were supposed to be their reward for compliance. With Europe now signaling its intention to administer more sanctions, lackluster though they may be, Iranian officials are speaking out more forcefully about the possibility of abandoning the deal when the United States does. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, Chairman of the Iranian Parliament Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, said that Iran will “definitely not remain in the JCPOA” if the United States re-imposes sanctions on Iran. Iran’s chief nuclear official, Ali Akbar Salehi, said that Iran would need only four days to ramp up uranium enrichment to 20% — above the limit set by the deal, but below the 80-90% needed for weapons capability — at its Fordow facility (the next day, his spokesman, Behrouz Kamalvandi, knocked that estimate down to two days). For his part, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said in a speech Monday that while other parties are “instigating Iran” to break its commitment to the agreement, Iran would not be the first to withdraw from the deal. He notably did not promise to keep Iran in the deal even if the United States leaves.

The reimposition of sanctions and a return to enrichment may just be the start. These decisions could trigger a series of reprisals that eventually lead to military conflict.

As of this week, Syria seems like the probable starting point for further conflagration. Other regional actors are already doing their part to fan the flames war. Israel’s airstrike against a Syrian airbase last week has heightened tensions in an already volatile arena. Seven Iranian military personnel were killed in the Israeli strike. Iranian military officials were quick to issue warnings about serious repercussions should Israel attack again, which Israeli officials quickly countered with threats of their own. At the same time, the United States and Russia have been trading warnings over a possible American military response to an alleged chemical weapons attack conducted by the Syrian regime last weekend.

Iran and Russia appear to be taking steps to solidify their alliance in Syria ahead of a possible escalation by the United States and/or Israel. Alexander Lavrentiev, Vladamir Putin’s special representative for Syria, made an unexpected trip to Iran this week to meet with Ali Shamkhani, the Chairman of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, where the two discussed issues related to American and Israeli military interventions in the Syrian conflict.

This is the part where I’m supposed to warn against taking any rash action, citing the law of unforeseen consequences and so on, but the sad truth is that no one really seems to be listening anymore. We should probably all start bracing ourselves for the worst. World Wars have started over less.