Just what is Donald Trump trying to do vis a vis Iran? Washington’s latest actions seem to aim for military confrontation. There’s the high-profile arrival of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Gulf, the installation of Patriot missile batteries and a plan, revealed by the New York Times on Monday, to dispatch 120,000 troops, if needed.
Despite all this war play, however, the president himself has spoken otherwise, including calling the Times report “fake news.”
It would be easy to dismiss his denial as fake news; it’s not as if Trump is the master of truth-telling. But he has been pretty consistent in his desire not to get the United States entangled in foreign wars. To the contrary, he has sought to bring the troops home from Afghanistan and Syria.
Trump’s clear preference is for a deal with Iran. “We can make a deal, a fair deal…I want them to be strong and great and have a great economy...They should call, [and] if they do, we're open to talk to them …. And they can be very, very strong financially, they have great potential,” he said last week.
Trump reportedly even gave the Iranians a phone number that they could use to call him directly.
So what is all the saber-rattling about?
Making deals is Trump’s comfort zone, and as the telephone offer suggests, he is convinced that he has the skills to make them himself. True, his personal diplomacy with North Korea's Kim Jong-un and China's Xi Jinping haven’t been stunning successes, but no one thinks Trump’s learning curve is that steep.
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John Bolton or Mike Pompeo may have other ideas. And those are worth paying attention to, because Trump has a history of being easily outmaneuvered by his advisers. He wanted to take U.S. troops of out Syria and Afghanistan, and they are still there.
My guess is that the military maneuvers really are fake news, designed to show any countries that are hesitant about observing American sanctions on Iran what they alternative might be. But it’s a dangerous maneuver because a panicked Iran is already engaging in provocative acts, like the attack on Gulf vessels this week. Tehran is rightly worried that there really is a “military option” for America, which means nothing less than regime change. That raises the stakes.
Oh yeah, what about those sanctions?
Dream come trueFrom the White House’s point of view, they are working like a dream. Iranian oil exports have plunged and the situation is only going to get worse now that the U.S. cancelled the waivers it had granted to some countries to continue importing Iranian oil.
The International Monetary Fund last month estimated that Iran’s economy will shrink 6% this year after 3.9% contraction in 2018. The rial has plunged in value and one senior IMF official thinks inflation may climb to more than 40% this year. On May 11, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani said that pressures from current sanctions are harder than what Iran endured during its war with Iraq in the 1980s.
The sanctions are only a year old, but their impact has been magnified by the fact that they came so soon after the last sanctions had been cancelled following implementation of the 2016 nuclear deal. The Iranian economy barely had time to recover before it was struck down again.
Tehran talks bravely about a “resistance economy” to get around the sanctions, but smuggling spare parts into the country or exporting gasoline in jerry cans to Pakistan isn’t going to do much to alleviate the country’s distress. It’ll just earn some big profits for those with the connections and arouse resentment from the rest.
Could an imploding economy bring down the regime?
That seems be the idea, but it’s not that self-evident it will work. Just look at Nicolas Maduro, who has remained in power even though Venezuelans are suffering far more economic distress than Iran has ever known. Maduro faces far more effective and organized opposition than the Iranian regime has even had to contend with.
The secret to Maduro's staying power has been the army's refusal to switch sides, despite the opposition’s best efforts.
In Iran, on the other hand, the army looks like easy pickins’ if a serious opposition ever did coalesce. It is comprised of enlistees and officers whose loyalty to the regime isn’t believed to be terribly strong.
Unfortunately for regime change advocates, the real military power in the country is the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. It is not only ideologically loyal and better equipped than the army, it’s inseparable from the regime. Its top officers serve in the cabinet and parliament, and it controls a vast business empire would go down with the regime in any revolution.
Regime change looks unpromising, but sanctions could squeeze Tehran economically enough to bring it back to the negotiating table. That was how the last nuclear deal was reached and that’s how a new and improved one could be reached this time, too. The realization that the economy was imploding was enough to convince Iran to negotiate.
But faced with a binary choice of regime change/regime survival, as U.S. military maneuvers hint at, Iran will resist mightily and it has the IRGC to help it. The U.S. should let sanctions do their work and send the B-52s back home.