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Does Trump Have America on a Path to War with Iran?

The Trump administration hates the Iran nuclear deal—and it looks increasingly like one way or the other, the Obama-era detente may be toast. Conflict could follow.

by Mike Pearl
Jul 24 2017, 4:00am

Left Image: Donald Trump being angry at Iran in 2015. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) Right Image: Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in Tehran last month. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

On Thursday, the New York Times editorial board opined that war with Iran is the "last thing the United States needs," criticizing Donald Trump for a "drumbeat of provocative words, outright threats and actions," against the Islamic Republic. The president's most recent update on Barack Obama and John Kerry's 2015 Iran nuclear deal, last Monday, left the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as it's formally known, in place. But is the project on the verge of dissolving—and what does that mean, exactly, for relations between the two countries?

"If we were talking a week ago, I wouldn't have told you it's as likely as it seems now," Emily Hawthorne, Middle East analyst at the military intelligence firm Stratfor, said to me in an interview Wednesday. If the plan did collapse, she suggested, it would likely be because the United States wanted to shred it. As Hawthorne put it, "Clearly, [Trump's] thinking about it."

"That doesn't mean we're going to see the JCPOA go up in smoke," she continued. Perhaps more important, the dissolution of the nuclear deal is obviously not the same thing as a declaration of war.

Still, if you enjoy the status quo (by which I mean, "the US not being at war with Iran,"), here are five reasons to be a bit concerned—if not downright worried.

1. Trump has to keep praising Iran every 90 days, and he fucking hates it

Last week, President Trump did something he has to do every three months: He told Congress Iran is not violating the terms of the deal. Trump had previously done this once before, but it's clearly not a part of the job that he relishes, like pretending to drive trucks, or signing memos while being photographed. A Trump official told reporters that members of his team "judge that Iran is unquestionably in default of the spirit," of the deal. But international inspectors keep making it abundantly clear that Iran is basically behaving itself.

Trump simply has no love for Iran. You'll recall that the 45th president said he would renegotiate the nuclear deal during his 2016 campaign, and then assembled a team of advisors who have voiced hostility towards Iran. Among them is Secretary of Defense James "Mad Dog" Mattis, a guy who has claimed that Iran pals around with ISIS. So Trump last week paired the praise with admonition in the form of economic sanctions against over a dozen Iran-linked entities, including groups and individuals as far away as China.

2. Iran keeps provoking the United States

For their part, Iran's political leaders are not exactly thrilled about the new sanctions. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last week they might be a literal violation of the nuclear agreement. The reasoning here is that the US is supposed to be normalizing trade, and sanctioning Iran for behaviors that, to be clear, aren't covered by the deal, hurts Tehran. The actions that upset Trump so much include recent use of ballistic missiles against targets in Syria, and support for alleged terrorists groups like Hezbollah. Iran also has a bad habit of illegally detaining foreign nationals, including American citizens.

So is Iran going to cool it in the name of peace? "We have no reason to believe that Iran is going to stop ballistic missile activity, [or] that it's going to stop apprehending foreign nationals," Hawthorne told me. The country's freshly re-elected president Hassan Rouhani isn't a fiery nationalist like former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Instead, he's a free-trade-loving, Emmanuel Macron-style moderate—or as close as you can get to that in Tehran. But he's increasingly in conflict with Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the guy who actually runs shit in the country.

So it was out of Rouhani's hands last week when Revolutionary Guard commander Mohammad Ali Jafari said, "If the United States wants to pursue sanctions against Iran's defenses and the Guards, then it has to move its regional bases to a distance of about 1,000 km (620 miles) around Iran and be aware that it would pay a high price for any miscalculations."

Oh, there's "no way" the US is going to do move its bases, according to Hawthorne.

3. Trump wants a 'better deal,' but that may not exist, and Iran probably won't cooperate

"If the US pulled out, we're looking at having to put together a whole new agreement," Hawthorne said.

That's what conservative thinkers like Mark Dubowitz want. Basically, these folks say, Iran must be completely brought to heel, effectively forced to be a lapdog. The current agreement, which Trump thinks is the "worst deal ever," begins to expire in about eight years. A new deal would theoretically last longer or—in a fantasy world—be permanent. In that scenario, the UN might be allowed to sniff around more often, instead of relying on remote tools, like electronically monitored seals on equipment— and perhaps even have the power to issue minor punishments, since the current deal is more all-or-nothing: Iran is complying, or it isn't. Multinational institutions might also one day be able to ding Iran for non-nuclear related offenses like supporting Hezbollah.

"A better deal in the eyes of the current administration is unlikely to be something that Iran would agree to," Hawthorne suspects. So it may be that the only advantage to pulling out of the deal is that the US could levy all the burdensome sanctions it wants to make Iran suffer. And before the deal, Iran did suffer enormously, with sanctions causing currency inflation, medicine shortages, and damage to the national automotive industry.

4. Iran sees hope for stability in global capital—petroleum in particular

After the nuclear deal, Rouhani—who loves him some capitalism—started making the case for Iran as a potential international investment opportunity, and US allies are taking the bait. The German Economic Minister Brigitte Zypries met with Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif last month in Berlin and said the German insurance company Hermes wants to insure investments in the Iranian energy sector. Then, earlier this month, French energy company Total signed an agreement that will cover a natural gas installation in the Persian Gulf. "Total has been very clear that it intends to do more." Hawthorne told me.

In theory, international entanglements make it harder for the US to attack Iran in the future without pissing off (or directly harming) allies or their businesses. Hawthorne told me Iran wants "as many international deals as possible," so that it becomes "immensely complicated for the Trump administration—or any administration—to unilaterally change up the playing field for any partner investing in Iran."

So far, Iran's best card to play on the economic front is its vast oil reserves. The problem is that the country's energy sector suffered under sanctions in the early 2010s, and fossil fuels are starting to be regarded in some circles—OK, a lot of circles, even business ones—as a bad long-term investment anyway. Also, last year, the World Trade Organization began to express concern that economic protectionism was on the rise, and growth in the global trade of goods pretty much stopped. Then a protectionist named Donald Trump was elected president of the world's largest economy. All of this may not bode well for propping up Iran's oil economy with foreign investment.

5. Iran still wants nuclear weapons

Despite Iran's newfound emphasis on international business, there is a distinct possibility that without the Obama/Kerry deal, Iran would just resume its nuclear program. According to foreign minister Zarif, Iran is "completely ready" to get cooking again if the US ever shreds the agreement. Yes, Iran surrendered the vast majority of its weapons-grade (or nearly weapons-grade) uranium to Russia in 2015 (it went to Russia, so definitely nothing to worry about there), but Iran may still have enough centrifuges to (eventually) manufacture the uranium it needs for for a bomb.

Once armed, Iran's military hawks could have a field day if they wanted. As we just saw, Iran is using ballistic missiles against its enemies in Syria, something it hasn't done since the Iran-Iraq War three decades ago. And according to Georgetown University security scholar Colin Kahl, a nuclear-armed Iran might feel emboldened to provide arms to its allies, and generally fester chaos any time its interests were opposed. That means trouble in places that put the US and Iran in direct conflict with one another like Syria, Yemen, Israel/Palestine, and Iraq.

In the meantime, according to Hawthorne, Iran is "abiding by the terms of the deal as they understand it. That deal very specifically does not include any real restrictions on ballistic missile activity, on human rights activity, and on all these other things." In other words, Tehran is not behaving, like Lisa Simpson. They're "behaving," like her brother Bart—not getting busted, but not being very nice, either.

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