President Donald Trump has stoked a crisis with Iran that has sparked fears of war as his administration continues to escalate the situation with wishy-washy objectives — and Iranian leaders are calling his bluff.
Over the past few weeks, Trump threatened to “end” Iran, and his administration has ramped up the US military’s presence in the Middle East in response to unspecified threats against US forces in the region from Iran. The US has also issued new sanctions against Iran that hope to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons. Experts dispute whether Iran, which is not a nuclear power, intends to develop such weapons.
Critics of Trump’s actions — including lawmakers who’ve been briefed on intelligence on the situation — have said there’s truth to the notion that Iran poses a threat to US interests and perhaps even its troops in the region, but they contend the threats are largely a product of the president’s inept policies.
Those who hold this view, such as Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, point to Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the Iran nuclear deal and his designation of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization.
Both of these moves were highly controversial, against the advice of numerous experts, and put the US at odds with its traditional allies.
Proponents of Trump’s policy say it’s working — particularly the sanctions — and pushing Iran into a corner that could even lead to regime change down the line. But if that’s true, Iranian leaders are determined to appear unmoved by Trump’s maximum-pressure campaign and have shown tenuous signs of relenting.
‘Negotiation has no benefit’
Amid the recent tensions with Iran, Trump has gone back and forth between bombastic, apocalyptic threats and proposing that the two countries sit down and talk things out.
Iran is not interested in dialogue, however, with its supreme leader on Wednesday stating “negotiation has no benefit and carries harm.” Iranian leaders have said that no talks can be held until the US changes its behavior.
Meanwhile, in response to the US military’s show of force in the Middle East, Iran is flexing its military muscles. Iran in recent weeks also announced it’s no longer complying with portions of the Iran nuclear deal as its supreme leader warned it would not take long for the country to develop weapons-grade uranium.
Both countries have said they don’t want war, but there are widespread concerns that a military confrontation is still on the horizon.
On Wednesday, Trump’s national security advisor John Bolton accused Iran’s elite revolutionary guards of having attacked fours ships in the Persian Gulf. Bolton said the US wouldn’t have a military response to the attacks, according to the Wall Street Journal.
As Murphy put it in a recent conversation with INSIDER, the Trump administration’s “actions are not bringing Iran to the negotiating table, nor do they seem to be making Iran more reticent about military action or provocative behavior.”
The Connecticut senator added, “All it takes is for one Shia militia to knock up against US forces outside Baghdad and we might be spiraling into conflict.”
‘Iran could easily take advantage of this opening, and create a direct path for a nuclear weapon’
Some experts feel Trump is leaning on his North Korea playbook in his approach to Iran — ramping up tensions with the hope of squeezing a US adversary into capitulation — and warn it’s neither applicable to the situation nor particularly effective.
“It seems Trump is willing to engage Iran and repeat the North Korean mirage of diplomacy without real content. In Iran, however, the idea is much worse,” Jon Wolfsthal, who served as the nuclear expert for the National Security Council under former President Barack Obama, told INSIDER.
“North Korea had nuclear weapons when Trump entered office and had no constraints on its program. That is the case today,” Wolfsthal went on to say. “With Iran, they had no nuclear weapons and were bound by the most intrusive inspection system ever adopted and accepted severe constraints on their nuclear program and potential. Trump violated the Iran nuclear deal and risks all of that.”
Wolfsthal said it now appears that Trump will be willing to “accept much less” as “long as it looks good for his Twitter account,” adding, “Iran could easily take advantage of this opening, and create a direct path for a nuclear weapon.”
Trump has said his goal is not regime change in Iran but preventing it from obtaining nuclear weapons — precisely what the Iran nuclear deal was designed to do.
‘Doomed to fail’
Aaron David Miller, who played a key role in shaping US policy on the Middle East for years while serving as an adviser to six secretaries of state, told INSIDER that if Trump’s goal is truly to ensure Iran is not a nuclear power then something along the lines of the Iran nuclear deal — formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — might be his best bet.
“What’s the objective with Iran? You eerily have to go back to accepting the reality that the best the administration could do, and they’d have to give a lot to get this, would be an improved JCPOA,” Miller said.
Miller added that if the Trump administration’s goal is to sit down and negotiate an outcome “more favorable to the US” than the JCPOA then its strategy is “doomed to fail” in the same way the North Korea talks have been destined for failure given North Korean leader Kim Jong Un never intended to fully denuclearize.
“At first glance it appears that Trump is pursuing a page out of his North Korean playbook, but on further examination you’d have to ask yourself whether or not that playbook is succeeding — even in the president’s mind — and whether it’s applicable to Iran,” Miller said.
‘Middle East wars don’t happen by accident’
With an election year looming, Miller also said it seems “less likely” Trump will negotiate with the Iranians because he’d be “more likely” to end up in a situation identical to that with North Korea: blunted sanctions with Tehran unwilling to acquiesce to the Trump administration’s demands.
North Korea also recently conducted missile tests that top Trump advisers say violated UN resolutions.
Though the president himself has broken with his advisers and downplayed the missile tests, these actions from the rogue state are emblematic of the lack of progress made with North Korea despite two summits with Trump and Kim meant to urge it toward denuclearization.
If Trump tried to negotiate with Iran, he could find himself in a similarly embarrassing situation.
Miller, who worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations, said that the situation with Iran is also much harder to predict given the odds of a conflict is “much, much higher” than with North Korea due to an array of factors including that the latter is already an established nuclear power.
“Middle East wars don’t happen by accident,” Miller said, adding that a chance military engagement on a smaller scale is far more probable.