Tensions rise between leaders in Tehran, Washington


Clockwise from left: Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP; Markus Schreiber | AP; Gage Skidmore | Flickr

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei talks to students in Tehran on Wednesday, May 22, 2019; U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at a news conference in Berlin, Germany, Friday, May 31, 2019; current National Security Adviser John Bolton speaking at the 2017 Conservative Political Action Conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran continue to rise as the White House announced that it will send an additional 1,500 troops to the Middle East, and President Donald Trump tweeted about “the official end of Iran” if the two countries were to go to war.

The Trump administration has said — though it hasn’t yet presented any hard proof — that Iran poses a threat because the country is getting ready for an attack of some sort against American forces and because of mysterious attacks earlier this month on four oil tankers belonging to U.S. allies — two Saudi Arabian, one Emirati and one Norwegian.

A missile was also fired at the American embassy in Baghdad earlier this month, with the U.S. suspecting Iranian-backed militias.

In response, the U.S. sent the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier strike group and additional forces to the Persian Gulf.  

Former President Barack Obama negotiated a deal with Iran in 2015 that lifted economic sanctions in exchange for Iran agreeing not to build any nuclear weapons. Last year, Trump not only withdrew from that deal, but also added additional restrictions, such as penalties for countries that continue to trade with Iran.

Trump is typically considered more of an isolationist with regard to foreign policy, and he recently told reporters during a visit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that his goal is not regime change. However, his national security adviser, John Bolton, has been pushing for regime change in the Middle East and beyond for decades.

In a 2015 op-ed in the New York Times entitled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran,” for example, Bolton wrote: “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required. Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.”

Bolton announced Thursday that he may present evidence of Iranian involvement in the Gulf attacks to the UN Security Council next week.

According to DePaul political science professor Scott Hibbard, who specializes in American foreign policy, Bolton “never saw a war he didn’t like.”

“If you look at their words, at their actions, one can only conclude that the goal here is regime change,” Hibbard said.

The caveat, he said, is that different people within the Trump administration have been saying conflicting things regarding Iran.

On Thursday, May 30, Bolton told reporters in London that he doesn’t think the threat from Iran is over, but that he does think the U.S.’s “quick response and deployment and other steps that we took did serve as a deterrent.”

On the other hand, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo traveled to Switzerland and Germany last week, countries which both have friendly relationships with Iran and that have expressed interest in staying within the terms of the nuclear deal. There has been speculation that he might pursue back-channel communications with Iran.

Trump, meanwhile, has told reporters that he hopes the U.S. isn’t on a path to war, even as he has tweeted about the U.S.’s ability to defeat Iran.

Iranian leaders have said there will be no negotiations with the U.S. One reason for this, according to Saeid Golkar, non-resident senior fellow on Iran policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, is partly because of a cultural difference between Iran and the U.S. Iran, he said, wants to preserve its honor by having private negotiations to avoid being perceived as weak. Golkar also said he doesn’t think Trump wants regime change, but rather wants new negotiations with Iran “just for show.”

“President Trump, because of his character, wants open negotiations [in order] to strengthen his 2020 campaign,” he told the DePaulia.

As long as a new agreement isn’t reached, the Trump administration seems intent on imposing economic sanctions on Iran.

These sanctions have been devastating, particularly on working people, because the country is having an increasingly hard time selling its oil, Hibbard said.

Iran had already been facing economic issues before the Trump administration’s sanctions. More than 3 million people, or about 12 percent of the population, are unemployed.

“You’re taking a middle-income country with a serious unemployment problem and making it worse,” said David Faris, a professor of political science at Roosevelt University.

Golkar thinks Iran is waiting until the 2020 U.S. presidential election to see if new negotiations are needed or even possible. He said most Democratic presidential candidates support some sort of nuclear deal with the country, but negotiations may still end up being more difficult than they were for the Obama administration.

Oil exports and national income are dropping, inflation is rising and economic hardships are mounting, and the Iranian rial lost more than 60 percent of its value in the last year.

Some commentators have suggested the Trump administration wants Iran’s economic situation to grow so dire that the Iranian people demand a change in government.

Faris doesn’t believe this would work.

“The regime seems immune from the presence of popular protests,” he said.

Though it’s possible that Iranians would demand a change in leadership because of economic issues, it’s also possible that they would simply blame Trump, and subsequently the U.S., for their hardships, he wrote in his article.

In a May 23 article on the website The Conversation, University of Notre Dame peace studies professor David Cortright wrote, “[This idea] reflects the long-discredited theory that sanctioned populations will direct their frustrations and anger at national leaders and demand a change in policy or the regime. Sanctions have never worked for this purpose.”

As far as a possible war with Iran, many experts agree that it wouldn’t make sense for the U.S., particularly because there is no imminent threat to America’s national security. It would also likely be deadly.

“Going to war with Iran doesn’t make a lot of sense from an American foreign policy perspective,” Hibbard said. “It does from a hardline Saudi Arabian or Israeli perspective.”

Those countries are staunch U.S. allies who have both been vocal in their opposition to the 2015 nuclear deal. Both are concerned about Iran becoming a stronger power in the region, and the Trump administration’s Middle East foreign policy has largely followed their lead with moves such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and air support for the Saudi-led coalition in the Yemen civil war.

“In many respects, this was a very good deal — it avoided a nuclear-armed Iran,” Hibbard said. “What it didn’t do was put Iran back in its cage.”

Yet Iran doesn’t appear to be a strong threat to the U.S. in the short term, experts said.

“I’m not sure what the threat from Iran is right now,” Faris said. “I’d be hard-pressed to tell you why one group of people is a threat to U.S. national security.”

Hibbard said it’s possible that Trump’s perception of a threat comes from Bolton and Pompeo, who have had a hawkish stance toward Iran since their time in the Bush administration.

Obama’s approach also sought to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, but it had another intent as well.

“What Obama wanted to do was engage Iranian society and bring them back to the community of nations,” Hibbard said.

“I don’t think Trump has any view toward foreign policy,” Golkar said. “What he says is based on who he talked to last. He’s a very moody man.”