Eight months after U.S. President Donald Trump announced the U.S. decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal and restore economic sanctions on Tehran, both sides continue to hang tough. Trump has recently told journalists that Iran is in trouble and will eventually return to the negotiating table on his terms. Iranian leaders, meanwhile, continue their verbal attacks on America and its president, and make it clear they are opposed to any dialogue so long as the sanctions continue.
There’s no doubt that the sanctions are affecting Iran’s economy, and the situation could get worse in the coming year. The U.S. administration seeks to create public pressure on the Iranian regime so that it will enter negotiations prepared to compromise on a series of issues, primarily its nuclear and missile programs.
The United States is convening an international conference in Poland next month on the subject of the Middle East. According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one purpose of the conference is to build a coalition of Middle Eastern countries that could respond to the many threats to the region — including, he implied, the Iranian threat.
At the same time, it was recently made known that U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton asked the Pentagon a few months ago to prepare a plan for military action against Iran. Although this request was linked to the shooting at the U.S. Embassy compound in Baghdad and at the consulate in Basra by Shi’ite militants that the administration linked to Iran, American security sources expressed concern that Bolton, known for his tough positions on Iran, could sway Trump into launching a military action against it.
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On the other hand, outgoing Defense Secretary James Matiss had made it clear that the current moves against Iran, as well as the sanctions, were a diplomatic campaign with no military aspects. Trump has also chosen to ignore comments by top advisers, including Bolton, who promised that U.S. troops would remain in Syria until the last Iranians left. The exit of the American forces, which has already begun, is being interpreted by many as a disengagement from the Middle East, about which Trump has said many times that the United States has invested a great deal of money and lives and gotten nothing in return.
The picture emerging on this issue, as on others, is of a variety of opinions, some contradictory, among senior U.S. officials regarding the use of military force. But there are no differences of opinion between the president and his advisers ever the need to make Iran change its policies.
Thus 2019 began with rising tensions between the United States and Iran. The main question is whether Iran’s economic situation in the coming year will deteriorate to the point that it will begin a dialogue with the American administration from a clear point of weakness — and, in that situation, whether Trump will settle for the public achievement of a summit with the Iranian president, even if it means yielding on some of his demands.
The alternative is Iran’s continued opposition to a dialogue with the American president, who, in Tehran’s opinion, is interested in regime change, not just a change in policy. Another possibility is escalation, with Iran going back to pursuing its nuclear program, perhaps even more quickly than in the past. In such a case, the American administration will indeed have to consider whether to threaten with a military option.
Sima Shine, a senior research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies, was a deputy director general in Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs, deputy head of the National Security Council for Strategic Affairs and was head of the research division in the Mossad’s intelligence division.