Since day one of his presidency, a major focus of Donald Trump’s foreign policy has been “confronting” Iran, aggressively reversing the Obama administration’s course of engagement and diplomacy.
As a candidate, Trump was a vocal critic of Obama’s hallmark foreign policy achievement – the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) – which the current president has dubbed “the worst deal ever.”
To the dismay of many longtime American allies, Trump swiftly withdrew the United States from the agreement and reimposed unilateral sanctions against Tehran in November of 2018 with the stated goal of destroying Iran’s economy to the point where it’s increasingly desperate citizens would have little choice but rise up and overthrow the regime.
But in defiance of the Trump administration, every other party to the JCPOA remains committed to the deal, and by the admission of the president’s own intelligence agencies, Iran remains in compliance with its terms. And with some help from the remaining signatories, Iran seems poised to weather the storm of U.S. sanctions without capitulating to American demands.
Last week, the U.S. organized a major international conference in Warsaw, Poland focused on countering the “threat” Iran poses to the Middle East and the world.
Though most European countries, displeased with the new American posturing on the issue, only sent low-level representatives, the U.S., Israel, and the Gulf states used the conference as an opportunity to try to put their mutual adversary under the international spotlight.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to directly advocate for “war with Iran” before walking the statement back. His remarks were preceded by another apparent direct threat issued earlier in the week by U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, who told the Iranian government on the fortieth anniversary of the Islamic Revolution that they would not “have many more anniversaries to enjoy.”
With tensions continuing to escalate, The Globe Post spoke to Trita Parsi, a leading scholar on Iranian-American affairs, about the evolving situation and the possibility of a new major war in the Middle East.
Q. I’d like to just start off by getting your reaction to what happened in Poland last week. The Trump administration organized what it considered to be a major international conference in Warsaw about Middle East security and of course the focus of it was on Iran. Perhaps Israel and some of the Gulf states also considered it a major conference. But most European countries apparently did not, sending only lower-level representatives. So for you, what were some of your major takeaways from what happened last week in Warsaw.
Parsi: Well I think first of all we have to remind ourselves this is not the first time that the United States has tried to create a united Iran coalition. This has been tried on numerous occasions. Perhaps one of the first big ones was the Madrid Conference in 1991. The interesting thing is that even if some form of a coalition was formed the actual objective of really succeeding in containing Iran has always failed. Iran has simply been too powerful even when it was weak to be completely excluded from the region and it had enough spoiler capacity to really undermine U.S. policy in the region.
The difference between Madrid and Warsaw, however, could not be any starker. Madrid happened at the moment of America’s unipolar victory and position – it was the most powerful country in the world and probably the most powerful country that was ever seen. Yet under those circumstances, it failed.
At Warsaw, it was very clear that the United States was very far from that position of power and that position of popularity. Most of the countries in Europe boycotted this. The ones that showed up showed up at lower levels because they wanted to signal their disagreement with the very premise of this. And they ended up sparring with U.S. officials not only there but later on in Munich as well. So if the U.S. couldn’t succeed with this at the height of its power and at a moment when Iran was weak, it is not surprising to see that this could not succeed now when the U.S. is much weaker and Iran’s regional position is far stronger than it was back in the 1990s.
But even though it was clearly a failure for the Trump administration – if measured against their public objective, which is to create that anti-Iran coalition or isolate Iran – it does not mean that it lacks utility. It certainly had a tremendous amount of utility particularly for the Israeli prime minister, who got quite a lot of mileage out of that conference. And we can go into that in greater detail if you wish.
Q. I would like to do that later on, but for now, I’d like to focus on what you had mentioned with the isolation of the United States and Israel and the displeasure that many European countries took with this. Obviously, the United States pulled out of the JCPOA pretty quickly into the Trump administration. But every other signatory to it, of course, remains. And in November the Trump administration reimposed unilateral sanctions against Iran.
But now there’s been talk of European countries getting together and forming a “special purpose vehicle” as a kind of mechanism for trying to work around these U.S. sanctions and continue to do business with Iran. So to what extent do you think that those efforts are working and providing some kind of economic lifeline to Iran now that the country is once again under the tight grip of U.S. sanctions?
Parsi: Well, it is without a doubt a significant political development. It does not, however, yet seem to be a significant economic development. It is significant that the Europeans are going to these lengths to essentially oppose the United States and create alternative financial transaction systems in order to be able to sustain the JCPOA and reduce their dependence on the United States.
But the extent to which this mechanism truly can be effective in the sense of really providing an alternative way for trade with Iran remains to be seen. But most people I spoke to believe that it will take a very long time if we will get to the point in which it really will have the volume that the Iranians are requesting. And you can see the Iranians are already quite disappointed at what has been done so far in this regard. But the political signal is very, very significant.
“They want to get these sanctions to really undermine the lives of ordinary Iranians to the point that they will conclude that they have to take up arms or take to the streets and overthrow their government.”
Q. I think when we talk about sanctions, particularly when sanctions are discussed at a lot of think tanks here in [Washington] D.C., it’s often in very abstract terms. I think we’re seeing that again right now with the current situation in Venezuela. So, just to take a broader look at this, could you speak a little bit to the very real and human toll that sanctions do have on the actual people of Iran?
Sanctions are absolutely devastating for the economy and for average people, particularly those who – because they are private citizens and don’t have these government connections – don’t have the same capacity to find workarounds and be able to circumvent these sanctions. We’ve seen how the sanctions in the past during the Obama years created medical shortages in Iran. We’ve seen how sanctions have, in the case of Iran, completely destroyed the economy.
The State Department’s own report after the Iraq war concluded that one of the reasons why it was so difficult to govern Iraq after the invasion was because the sanctions had destroyed so much of that society. The economy in Iraq had shrunk to a mear $16 billion and one of the consequences of that was that average Iraqis no longer sent their girls to school because – what was the value of an education when there were absolutely no jobs available for them in an economy that had become so restricted at the Iraqi one?
Well, you can imagine yourself, if sanctions then lead to a lower literacy rate amongst women, how on earth is that actually conducive for moving a country towards democracy? The track record is very clear. Sanctions, particularly these broad-based embargoes, actually undermine a country’s ability to be able to move towards democracy.
I think it’s also important to recognize that these are not necessarily side effects of sanctions. When you listen to Secretary [Mike] Pompeo himself, it’s very clear. He says they want to get these sanctions to really undermine the lives of ordinary Iranians to the point that they will conclude that they have to take up arms or take to the streets and overthrow their government. They’re essentially trying to induce regime change by making the population so miserable that the population has no choice but to go out on the streets and try to do another revolution.
US strategy on #Iran:
Sanctions have made the lives of ordinary Iranians much worse and Pompeo hopes that would make Iranians rise up against the regime and change its behavior.pic.twitter.com/eLQ6osAIVk
— Negar Mortazavi (@NegarMortazavi) February 14, 2019
Q. Buried deep in the Congressional Research Service report on the expected consequences of this latest round of sanctions is that they expect the sanctions will have a harming impact on moderate elements politically in Iran. Of course, these were the elements that had advocated for the nuclear agreement in the first place and now America has turned around and in a sense betrayed those people in Iran. I know this is something that we hit on in our last conversation but for people who don’t know about that dynamic, could you speak to that a little bit more as well?
Parsi: On that point, there is really clearly not much of a debate. The Iranians right now – the moderates and those who are favoriting the JCPOA are on the defensive. Their population has, by and large, turned against the JCPOA. A majority still supports it in the sense that they don’t believe that Iran shouldn’t have done this, but they are no longer optimistic that the deal will bring the benefits that it was supposed to.
This can probably get even worse within the next year or so as the sanctions continue to impoverish ordinary Iranians. And the conclusion that we should be very careful that the ordinary Iranians don’t draw, although it seems like many of them already have, is that diplomacy with the West actually does not pay off and that Iran is better off pursuing a policy of military resistance against the West in the region essentially and a much more aggressive foreign policy than they even have now because that is the only thing that will pay off.
It would be a tremendous disaster for U.S. national interests if that is the conclusion they draw. But I fear that that is the most likely conclusion that they will draw mindful of how the Trump administration has treated Iran and how it has treated North Korea, who has nuclear weapons and have tested them and has the delivery systems, very, very differently.
“John Bolton has been arguing for a military confrontation with Iran for more than two decades. This is his best shot at achieving that long term dream of his.”
Q. We’ve hit on isolation of the United States and Israel from many European countries, but the Trump administration is also once again finding itself somewhat isolated from its own intelligence agencies, who have been very clear in their assessment that Iran remains in compliance with the JCPOA and is not taking steps to renew its nuclear program. And yesterday, the Israeli military intelligence agency also released a report that concluded much of the same. So the Trump and Netanyahu administrations, in trying to paint this picture of Iran as this great threat, are really finding themselves out on a limb here, aren’t they?
Parsi: Oh absolutely. I mean with the exception of Saudi Arabia, Israel – and in that case not even the entire Israeli government but only the political elements around Netanyahu – and the UAE, those are the only countries that actually really sign on to this. And they have their own reasons to do so. The Israelis and the Saudis want the United States to return to the Middle East militarily, provide them with the security umbrella, and take the position of the hegemon in the Middle East, which is something the American public clearly has moved against.
From their perspective, that is what provides them with security and helps ensure that their regional rivals are cornered and contained by having the United States tilt the scales in favor of Israel and Saudi Arabia with its own military might – something the Israelis and the Saudis cannot do on their own. So I can understand why Netanyahu would want to do this, I can understand why the Saudi leadership who really wants everyone else to solve their problems all the time would prefer this. I do not understand why an American administration would go along with something that so clearly is violating U.S. national interest even though it might be balancing the national interests of some U.S. allies.
Before the Israeli prime minister's office tried to make it disappear down the memory hole, my colleague @TravisMannon grabbed the original video of @netanyahu saying that the goal of the #WarsawSummit was indeed promoting "war with Iran" https://t.co/95CNb6Ji6h pic.twitter.com/1Dtcr1MqYq
— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) February 13, 2019
Q. In recent weeks, there also seems to have been a pretty major escalation of rhetoric. National Security Adviser John Bolton issued a pretty direct threat earlier last week on the fortieth anniversary of the Iranian revolution. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared to directly advocate for a war with Iran before kind of walking that back a little bit and saying there was a mistranslation and there is some confusion there.
But if regime change at all costs is indeed the policy of the Trump administration and if these renewed sanctions are not effective in bringing that out, I suppose it only follows then that the administration would want to start to set the groundwork for some kind of military intervention. So, this is something that obviously people have been worrying about since Trump first took office, but at this point where we stand right now, how seriously do you think we need to start worrying about a war as an actual possibility in the not so distant future?
Parsi: I think it is more dangerous to underestimate the risk of war than to overestimate it. And even though I personally am not left with the impression that Trump himself really wants war, he has nevertheless surrounded himself with advisers who clearly have a track record of launching a war. Mindful of the fact that as isolationist as Trump may be – or at least says things that go against the idea of another war in the region, Trump’s instincts are secondary. Trump’s impulses are primary.
And people like Bolton are in a perfect position to manipulate Trump’s impulses and, as a result, do harbor quite a possibility and opportunity for them to start this war. Now, of course, there’s going to be resistance in the US military and the resistance in the US intelligence services. So it’s not necessarily going to be extremely easy, but it is nevertheless a very worrisome situation because John Bolton has been arguing for a military confrontation with Iran for more than two decades. This is his best shot at achieving that long term dream of his.”
“The bottom line is Netanyahu’s desire of the United States to go to war with Iran is now beyond debate.”
Q. The Washington Times ran an article on Monday quoting anonymous senior Trump administration officials who tried to demonstrate a link between al-Qaeda and the Iranian regime. And of course, in the lead up to the Iraq war, similar claims were made about Saddam Hussein’s regime that were later widely debunked. But before we get to the potential kind of legal motivations for making a connection like that, first of all what is your reaction to those claims just in terms of their veracity?
Every independent assessment of this has reached the same conclusion which is that that is simply nonsense. The Iranians have been at war with al-Qaeda for quite some time and there has been efforts by al-Qaeda to have tactical understandings would be wrong. But even those have not been held up.
Iran was just attacked by an al-Qaeda offshoot last week killing more than 27 people in a bus suicide bombing. So the idea that there actually is a collaboration between them is flat out ridiculous. That’s the way it’s been received by most people in the expat community. But it is again reflective of a desperate desire of Bolton and Pompeo to start this war and use any type of a pretext in order to get that war.
Q. In terms of pretext, the Authorization of Use of Military Force from 2001 explicitly gives the president the permission to use force against the perpetrators of 9/11 and any “associated forces.”The Washington Times article I just alluded to drew a direct connection between trying to drum up these supposed connections between Iran and al-Qaeda and the legal backing that President Trump would need if he indeed decided to make some sort of military strike. Does that seem to you to be a coherent rationale for making these claims, as you say, that are really based only on very tenuous evidence?
Parsi: If the truly were convincing evidence about this, then there’d be a much, much bigger story than anything we’ve seen so far. So the desire of some of these individuals in pushing the United States towards a military confrontation is very, very clear because it’s been there for quite some time.
Q. Before I let you go, I just want to circle back to something that I alluded to earlier. It was the Netanyahu statement that was then tweeted out in English – a translated version of it – where he appeared to directly advocate for a war with Iran but then kind of walked it back. What was your assessment of that?
Parsi: Well let’s go over what actually happened. He said something in Hebrew in an interview with an Israeli paper. The word that he used at first could both mean “combat” or “war.” It was not a newspaper with no Hebrew that first carried the story it was the Jerusalem Post. Netanyahu’s own Twitter account had that translation on Prime Minister’s account for about 10 hours and then they changed it to “combat.” But then in another interview, done just minutes later with the AP, he uses another word that more clearly indicates that his intent was “war” and not “combat.”
The bottom line is Netanyahu’s desire of the United States to go to war with Iran is now beyond debate. That’s been very, very well established. To give him this undue benefit of the doubt, mindful of that history, is really quite fascinating, particularly for the fact that we’re not talking about an Arab outlet that mistranslated it. We’re talking about Israel’s largest newspaper who carried that translation with the word “war.” And then later on the Prime Minister’s own Twitter account carrying that same translation.
So I do believe that he actually meant that and then later on, because of a realization that this probably could reflect poorly or that it could actually create unnecessary problems, was willing to walk it back. But I think that the broader implication of this is that Netanyahu is constantly moving the boundaries and it’s to essentially normalize the idea of war with Iran.
More on the Subject
After withdrawing from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement in May, Donald Trump’s administration re-imposed oil and banking sanctions on Tehran on November 5.
The goal of the new round of sanctions – leaders in Washington say – is to wreak havoc on Iran’s economy in hopes of forcing Iranian leaders to renegotiate the nuclear agreement and ultimately accept terms that are more favorable to the United States.
While experts say that the sanctions will take a major toll on ordinary Iranian people, there is a broad consensus that Iran’s economy will likely be able to cope with the sanctions enough to avoid capitulating to Trump’s demands.