WASHINGTON D.C. — The standoff between the Trump administration and Iran took another dangerous lurch after the White House imposed new sanctions, including on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and the country’s President accused the US on Tuesday of suffering a “mental disability.”
The exchanges demonstrated that despite President Donald Trump’s decision to call off a “cocked and loaded” military strike on Iran last week, the confrontation could simply be headed down a slower path to war.
The administration cranked up economic pressure that is already devastating Iran’s economy with the new sanctions also targeting Iran’s top military brass and its top diplomat in a manner that casts new doubt over the sincerity of its offer a talks with the Islamic Republic.
“These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions,” Trump said. “We will continue to increase pressure on Tehran until the regime abandons its dangerous activities.”
The new sanctions, partly to avenge the drone that Iran shot down, also appeared to be designed to replenish Trump’s reputation for toughness after he halted airstrikes 10 minutes before they were due to begin last week.
His team, which insists it is not bent on regime change, reasons it can damage Iran’s economy badly enough that it will be so desperate it will agree to all of Washington’s demands. Alternatively, if Iran’s clerical government collapses from within, so much the better. There’s little outward sign of that happening so far, though, despite the effectiveness of US sanctions in crushing the economy.
Either huge bet relies on a debatable view of how Iran will see its interests, and may underplay its sense of national pride and lessons of history.
There’s little disagreement among US allies that Iran is a malignant regional actor, supports terrorism and poses a threat with its missile program. But supporters of the deal the Obama administration negotiated reasoned it was still worth putting a freeze on its nuclear program for a decade or more.
Trump’s critics fear that the relentless US battering may leave the Iranians little incentive to return to a diplomatic process they accuse the President of betraying by exiting the agreement.
His supporters argue, meanwhile, that Iran’s recently provocative behavior is proof that the sanctions policy is working and predict eventually Tehran will have no choice but to talk on terms favorable to the US. But President Hassan Rouhani Tuesday accused the White House of “suffering from a mental disability.”
“You say you really want to hold talks with us but at the same time you’re saying that you want to boycott and sanction our foreign minister, so you’re lying,” Rouhani said.
Early Tuesday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said on Twitter that the latest sanctions will result in “closing (the) channel of diplomacy forever,” according to Iranian state-run television Press TV.
Future flash points
The most alarming scenarios for what happens next could unfold if Iran refuses Trump’s offer of talks — which is not accompanied by any kind of economic or diplomatic carrot.
“(US pressure) will not force the Iranians to come to the table,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said.
“What it will do is lead the Iranians to do more things to shoot down drones or attack tankers. We will ratchet up sanctions like we did again today,” he added. “They will respond, and one of these days, one of us — more likely Iran — will go too far and we will feel compelled to respond militarily.”
Iran cannot match US military might. But it can hurt the US. Attacks on tankers, like those it has denied conducting in recent weeks, could hike the price of oil and harm the global economy.
Proxies of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria could threaten American troops. US bases and allies are vulnerable to Iranian missile attacks. If Iran decides to return to enriching uranium to levels anywhere near weapons grade, the crisis could burst open.
“What the IRGC is going to do, if past is prologue … they are going to lash out in asymmetric ways as they have in the past,” said retired Maj. Gen. James Spider Marks, a CNN national security commentator.
Despite this environment, Trump is insisting that he wants talks with Iranian leaders without preconditions.
“I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us, a lot of restraint. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future. But I felt that we want to give this a chance, give it a good chance,” Trump told reporters Monday.
Iran doesn’t see the US offer, such as it is, as a “good chance.” While sanctions are seen as an alternative to war in Washington, the distinction is not obvious in Tehran.
“We consider war and sanctions as two sides of the same coin,” Hesameddin Ashena, an adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, said on Monday.
From Iran’s point of view, Trump has already imposed conditions on any dialogue, by exiting the nuclear deal with which Tehran was complying, according to US intelligence agencies. The US has also laid out preconditions for a final agreement, which many analysts regard as a fantasy.
“There is no politician in Iran right now that can afford to engage in yet another negotiation with the US in which the US does not deliver on what it promises,” Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, said.
The US decision to sanction Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who helped negotiate the nuclear deal, hardly seems designed to encourage Iran to come back to the table.
‘Make Iran Great Again’
Trump’s rhetoric, while apparently was designed to open the way to the kind of talks that he brokered with another sworn US foe — Kim Jong Un of North Korea — may not be helping either.
“If Iran wants to become a wealthy nation again, become a prosperous nation, let’s call it ‘Make Iran Great Again’ … it’s OK with me,” Trump said Saturday.
The notion that the Persian civilization, which dates back more than two millennia, would rely on any American president, least of all Trump, to make it great would come across as offensive to many Iranian ears and is likely to be counterproductive.
Trump’s view that a country’s greatness equates with wealth — also evident in his policies toward the Palestinians and North Korea — may be a treacherous misconception, and may play into Iranian perceptions of the US as a ravenous colonial power.
It could also lead the President to miscalculate if he overlooks other national motives — like a sense of national destiny — that could shape Iranian behavior.
And caving to US pressure would force the clerics in Tehran to repudiate the principles of the revolution, which are rooted in hostility to the US and are existential to the regime’s survival.