When asked by the White House press pool on Tuesday if he had an exit strategy for tensions with Iran — especially if war breaks out — President Donald Trump replied, “You’re not going to need an exit strategy. I don’t do exit strategies.”
Whether he intends to sow confusion or communicate incoherence, the president has managed to bring things to a near boiling point with Iran.
Earlier in the day, Iran had responded to Trump’s latest round of sanctions with defiance, with the country’s president, Hassan Rouhani, saying the White House had become mentally incapacitated.
Abbas Mousavi, the spokesperson for Iran’s Foreign Ministry, tweeted that, with the latest sanctions, the United States had “closed the path to diplomacy.”
“The Trump government is destroying all international mechanisms to preserve peace and global security,” he wrote.
Trump promptly responded with his own volley of tweets, renewing military threats against Iran, saying it didn’t understand that he was being “nice,” and that the United States would respond to “any attack” with “overwhelming force.”
Iran leadership doesn’t understand the words “nice” or “compassion,” they never have. Sadly, the thing they do understand is Strength and Power, and the USA is by far the most powerful Military Force in the world, with 1.5 Trillion Dollars invested over the last two years alone..
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2019
….Iran’s very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality. Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration. No more John Kerry & Obama!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 25, 2019
What he meant by “any attack” is hard to know — it seems entirely plausible that the next thing that explodes in the Middle East will be blamed on Iran.
Trump last week admitted that he was 10 minutes away from bombing Iranian military targets. He had ordered the strike in response to Iran downing an unmanned drone it claims was in its airspace (the United States insists it was in international air space).
The Washington Post reported over the weekend that the United States went ahead with cyber attacks targeting Iran’s missile program, and by Monday, Trump was signing an executive order for a fresh round of sanctions on the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, foreign minister, and high-ranking members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.
Having signed the order, Trump said, “We would love to be able to negotiate a new deal with Iran, but if they don’t want to, that’s fine too.” He also added that a deal could be reached “very quickly.”
Neither Trump nor Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin explained why the sanctions target Iran’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, if the goal is to reach a deal.
From the Iranian perspective, this is what it all might look like: The United States essentially holds a gun to Iran’s head, doesn’t pull the trigger, and applauds itself for compassion. Then, it threatens to sanction Iran’s top diplomat in virtually the same breath that it talks about negotiating a new deal.
“You sanction the foreign minister at the same time that you request talks,” Rouhani said in a televised speech on Tuesday, in which he called sanctions against Khamenei “outrageous and idiotic.”
“Iran is being defiant in light of these latest developments,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, professor of political science at Syracuse University. Boroujerdi said that sanctioning Khamenei went “beyond the red line” for Iran, who now can’t simply try to have normal relations with the United States.
“They’re not just going to accept this. There might be an escalation to try and pressure the Trump administration,” Boroujerdi said.
The Iranian people, he said, can see that Trump doesn’t have a consistent message — one day he wants to negotiate, the next he’s threatening to obliterate the country.
“Thera are a lot of ordinary Iranians that are putting the blame on the White House rather than their own leadership on this issue,” Boroujerdi said, emphasizing the unlikelihood of a popular uprising there.
“There’s not talk or plan of regime change — it’s out of the question and it is wishful thinking on [the Trump administration’s] part that there will be this magic uprising,” he added.
The deal that Trump has continually referred to is another version of the 2015 nuclear deal, agreed upon between the United States, Iran, the United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, and Germany. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) saw Iran curbing its nuclear enrichment program in exchange for sanctions relief.
But one year after those sanctions were lifted, Trump took office, and per his campaign promise, violated the JPCOA and reimposed sanctions back on Iran. He insisted he wanted a new deal that also included Iran giving up parts of its missile program (a crucial element of Iran’s national security) and changing its foreign policy to be in line with U.S. demands and alliances in the Middle East.
These were demands that could not be met without regime change, and so Iran has not complied. It stuck with the terms of the JCOPA and hoped that the European partners in the deal would come up with ways to circumvent U.S. sanctions.
That didn’t happen, and so in May, a year after the United States left the JCPOA, Iran announced that it would no longer be complying with certain elements of the deal — a troubling development for non-proliferation advocates, who cautioned, all the same, that this did not mean that Iran was about to build a nuclear bomb.
A series of tanker attacks in May and June in waters neighboring Iran set the Trump administration down a path of further escalation. Although an international investigation into the attacks in May did not conclude that Iran was responsible, the Trump administration accused Iran anyway. The same thing happened again this month, when, hours after two tankers were attacked in the Gulf of Oman, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a televised statement blaming Iran.
This is an astonishingly fast conclusion to draw, given that 10 months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Trump administration — ignoring U.S. as well as international intelligence — is still reluctant to blame Saudi Arabia for his murder.
Somewhere between Trump’s “maximum pressure” and Iran’s resistance are 80 million Iranians — people who have nothing to to do with Trump’s campaign promises, Hezbollah, or exploding oil tankers.
This is a population that is worried. The oil sanctions, reimpose in November, have seen the country’s oil exports drop to around a third — or less — than what it was last year.
“The cost of everything has skyrocketed — everything from real estate to whatever else you can think of. Not to mention the devaluation of the currency,” said Boroujerdi, adding “the impact is very serious.”
The outcome of this conflict will surely move beyond Iranian borders — something clear to Iran’s friends in the region (Russia, Turkey, Oman, Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan) as well as its foes (Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Israel).
Iran is aware of its position, said Boroujerdi, and can “raise the temperature in the room” by any number of measures, from leaving the JCPOA to leaving the NPT (the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons). But at this point, there’s no way of guessing what kind of timeline we are looking at for any kind of resolution to this crisis.
“We are really descending into unknown territory — I don’t think the situation has ever been this dire for the Iranians,” said Boroujerdi.