America’s policy of maximum pressure on Iran continues, with the U.S. Department of the Treasury announcing new sanctions on eight Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Commanders. That directive was tweeted during a luncheon event on Iran at the Center for the National Interest, which was moderated by Geoffrey Kemp, the Senior Director of Regional Security Programs at CFTNI who also served in the White House during the first Reagan administration as Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs on the National Security Council Staff. The discussion focused on the ongoing crisis, Iran and America’s interests, and whether war could be avoided.
“[Donald] Trump’s approach is self-defeating,” declared panelist Kenneth Pollack, Resident Scholar for Middle Eastern Political-Military Affairs at the American Enterprise Institute, and both a former Director for Near East and South Asian Affairs and a former Director for Persian Gulf Affairs at the National Security Council. Pollack explained that the hardliners keep claiming vindication, noting that they had warned that the United States might tear up the Iran deal. Pollack emphasized that Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei started in the moderate camp but has drifted steadily toward a hardline position.
At the time of the Iran Deal in 2015, there was a debate between “the pragmatists led by Rouhani” and “the hardliners led by the IRGC.” Those in favor of a deal thought of Iran’s problems are largely economic. President Hassan Rouhani believed that because the Iran Deal would allow Tehran to trade with the world again, it would fix Iran’s economic problems and remove the danger of war. This would secure the regime from external threats from America but also appeal to the Iranian people, thus making a revolt against the regime less likely.
However, the hardliners argued that Washington could not be trusted and that Tehran was walking into a trap. “They said look this agreement is not gonna be worth the paper it is written on. The Americans will never honor it, they will never lift all the sanctions. They will cheat, they will refuse to honor it, and they will eventually walk away from it.”
The second panelist, Paul Pillar, a former Chief of Analysis at the CIA's Counterterrorist Center and a contributing editor to The National Interest, warned that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s list of twelve demands to Iran was effectively an ultimatum that no independent country could ever adopt. According to Pillar, “It never was realistic that Iran would just sit there and take what was being dished out to them indefinitely, even though they did that for a year.”
Pillar lamented that “If the U.S. was still adhering to the terms of the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], so would Iran—as it had been even a year after America’s withdrawal.” Indeed, up until recently, the United Nations, the Congressional Research Service, and the International Atomic Energy Agency certified Iran had been compliant with the nuclear deal. But America’s withdrawal, new U.S. sanctions, rising tensions, and a game of tit-for-tat escalations have raised the possibility of an armed conflict with no off-ramp.
Pollack stated that Washington’s actions were counterproductive to America’s interests in securing a new, better nuclear deal. He cautioned, “Trump’s statements are not helpful in the context of Iranian politics.” Pillar agreed and said that America’s actions have benefited Iranian hardliners and the IRGC. Both scholars noted that Iranians are now understandably even less trustful of Washington and loathe to negotiate any new deal since the old one was abandoned. The about-face from the attempted détente under President Barack Obama has vindicated the hardliners in many Iranian eyes.
“I do believe that Trump’s goal is to get a better JCPOA,” said Pollack. “That was always going to be hard” but now it is “highly unlikely.” The Iranian people, he suggested, have also become increasingly perturbed because they have not witnessed the kind of economic prosperity promised under the Iran Deal. Furthermore, many are angry at America’s sweeping reimposition of sanctions. While Iranians may be disaffected with their own regime, they are nationalists and place much of the blame for the current state of affairs on the United States.
Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of The National Interest, questioned whether recent events suggested, “the regime is, in fact, on a roll and that Trump, far from undermining the regime, has strengthened it.” Heilbrunn pointed to the extent which the hardliners are validated due to U.S. pressure and the lack of incentives for Tehran to return to the table. He further asked if some in Tehran thought Trump might be gone by the end of 2020: “Why shouldn’t Iran simply hold out [for a new U.S. president] and exploit the situation rather than try to reach some kind of modus vivendi with the United States?”
Pillar disagreed. He responded that the economic pressures are stark and that European promises of a mechanism to work around U.S. sanctions have been inefficacious. Pillar insisted that sanctions instituted by Trump “had hurt a lot.” He added, “I don’t see how, whether you are a hardliner or a pragmatist in Tehran you can come up with much credibility at all about ‘well, we can make it through the next year.’”
Barbara Slavin of the Atlantic Council echoed Heilbrunn’s question about the possibility of Iran waiting out Trump. Slavin, who has been to Iran nine times, warned that U.S. incoherence was making it hard for anyone to understand Washington’s aim. She questioned whether President Donald Trump has a clear-cut goal, asking “Do we really know what they [the Trump administration] want?”
Slavin pointed out that, “If we look at the various demands put forward at various times by different individuals in the administration, it seems the real goal is to simply weaken Iran. It is not to get a new deal or to get a better deal.”
Pillar agreed with the general thrust of Slavin’s argument, but said it depends on who is talking in the administration. He was worried that current American policy was based too much on domestic politics and “the anti-Obama stuff” that led Trump’s gut reaction to oppose the Iran Deal. Furthermore, Pillar said it would be important to watch National Security Adviser John Bolton, who was on the record of being in favor of war and forced regime change in Iran. Such interventionists think things could only get better, but the danger such hawks don’t consider is whether a more nationalistic and hostile regime could arise in place of the current one.
Pollack said that he was “very dubious … that they are going to make any kind of meaningful gesture towards the United States.” He believed they were waiting for 2020 and hoping for a new, less-hostile U.S. president. “My read of [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei, over the course of history, is that this is not a guy who likes to take bold steps.” Pollack emphasized that talking to the United States would be a huge step and, therefore, unlikely.
Continuing on the theme of 2020, Doyle McManus of the Los Angeles Times was interested to know what the Democratic candidates could be doing or saying that would help to resolve the Iran crisis. McManus asserted that those candidates “so far haven’t said much beyond we should avoid getting into dumb wars and we should rejoin the JCPOA.” He queried whether the candidates should send any signals to Iran about whether to hope they will defeat Trump in 2020.
Pillar responded that it was good that several candidates support returning to the Iran Deal, but that this alone is insufficient. He argued that the candidates should make it clear that the only real solution to the crisis is a diplomatic one and that necessarily involves rejoining the Iran Deal as a starting point. From there, other steps would need to be taken as the process would be ongoing.
George Beebe, Vice President and Director of Studies at the Center for the National Interest, quoted President Dwight Eisenhower’s axiom that “when you can’t solve a problem, what you need to do is enlarge it.” Beebe wondered “how enlarging this problem might provide a means to an off-ramp from the crisis that we’ve put ourselves in?” He also noted the importance of getting any new deal through the Senate to show the seriousness of America’s commitment. Such action might be more persuasive to the Iranians and would be a step towards Washington overcoming the credibility gap it has created for itself.
Pollack concurred with the need to enlarge the problem. “The right way to have handled this would have been to create a security architecture for the Persian Gulf.” This way, issues could be tackled together instead of separately, allowing players to address difference countries’ real and legitimate grievances.
Finally, the panelists believed another problem was whether the Iranians might accidentally misread America’s unclear redlines and push too far, resulting in a conflict. Pillar noted that Iran appeared to be leaving the door open to diplomacy because they only partially withdrew from the JCPOA and deliberately only damaged oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, instead of sinking them. Pollack noted that, conversely, the Iranians may see Trump as weak and therefore take military actions they think are meant to deter but would cause a forceful response.