Weeks of increasing tensions between President Trump and Iran – that began with claims that the Islamic Republic was planning attacks on U.S. forces or allies – was further aggravated by Washington’s deployment of an American aircraft carrier group, B-52 bombers and 1,500 American soldiers to the Middle East region. This was followed by Trump declaring a national emergency over worsening relations with Iran, allowing him to bypass Congress to sell $8 billion worth of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.
On the president’s recent visit to Japan, Trump indicated he was open to talks with Iranian leaders, prompting Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to offer to act as a mediator. But Iranian leaders were likely to see Trump’s softer rhetoric as insincere, after his administration’s imposition of aggressive U.S. economic sanctions and a military build-up in the region.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Paul Pillar, nonresident senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Center for Security Studies, who served in several senior positions with the CIA and the National Intelligence Council. Here, he explains why Trump’s increased sanctions and military threats against Iran have strengthened hardliners and weakened moderates in Tehran’s government.
PAUL PILLAR: It’s quite clear that we got into this situation of tension and of war scare because of the Trump administration’s policies, which is not to say that Iran today is not part of this tense dynamic. It certainly is. And they’re doing their own things. But rather, in a sense that we got into this situation of tension and perceived crisis because of the direction of the Trump administration policy. You know, before all this started, the Iranian regime was still abiding rather scrupulously in fact, to its obligations under that nuclear accord, as was repeatedly certified by the inspections of the international inspectors in the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency). And what we see now with the Iranians just over the last month, you know, making some statements about “Well, they probably will start exceeding the limits that were placed on them under that agreement.” That is all a direct response to what the Trump administration has done.
Now we sometimes lose sight of how reactive it is and how much it’s a response because this delay of a year. The Iranians are clearly trying to outwait Trump. They have their hopes placed on regime change in Washington come January, 2021. They are committed to this nuclear agreement. They are committed to trying to build on that to address other issues and so they don’t want to junk it. But we’ve had a whole year ago by in which they’re basically getting nothing of what they thought they were bargaining for. And in fact, you’ve got an administration that has gone well beyond that in trying to wreck the Iranian economy. Not to mention all the military saber rattling.
BETWEEN THE LINES: Paul Pillar, one of the results of the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign is that hardliners in Tehran have been strengthened while moderates have been weakened. What’s the danger ahead as things ratchet up?
PAUL PILLAR: Well, it’s already happening. And clearly the political position of those who were most involved in negotiating the nuclear agreement, that is to say President (Hassan) Rouhani and Foreign Minister (Mohammad Javad) Zarif have been significantly weakened. And we see that reflected somewhat in some of Rouhani’s own rhetoric. He’s had to sound more hardline because he has to as a matter of political survival.
And you also see it in statements from the Supreme Leader (Ali) Khamenei – he took a position all along as this agreement was being negotiated in which he basically told Rouhani, “Well, go to it. Try to negotiate something. But I want to make it clear to the Iranian public and everyone else that this isn’t my project. Basically, don’t blame me if it goes wrong.” Well now he’s saying, you know, “I told you so, you couldn’t trust those perfidious Americans. You know, I wasn’t out front on this one to begin with.”
None of that’s good from the standpoint of U.S. interests. I think the dynamic that we have here, and it’s been the dynamic for some time, but we’re really seeing it in spades over the last couple of years. The best friend that the hardliners in Tehran have is hardliners in Washington and vice versa. They play against each other and, each one does things that makes the hardliners on the other side have self-fulfilling prophecies.
To be more specific, Scott, about looking ahead in the future. I would worry that those in the hardline camp in Iran, would start thinking seriously and would start winning the arguments on this about making a nuclear weapon. You know, we do know, and this is all part of the past history that went into the need to negotiate this nuclear agreement that in the past, the Iranians had worked on a bomb. That work stopped almost 15 years ago.
But when you have all these threats of application of military force and we’re going to change your regime, everything coming out of Washington today that strengthens the argument of those in Tehran who say, “Yes, we need a nuclear weapon.” And in making that argument, they will be very quick to point to other examples. They’ll say, “Well, look what happened to (Iraq’s) Saddam Hussein, who didn’t have a nuke. Look what happened to (Libya’s Moammar) Gaddafi who gave up his unconventional weapons programs and he didn’t have a nuke. But look what Kim Jong Un in North Korea is enjoying now. He’s got this relationship with Trump. Trump is treating him with respect and kid gloves. And the big difference is Kim does have a nuke.”
You know, if you are in regime circles in Tehran, it’d be pretty hard to argue against that line of argument.
Paul Pillar’s most recent book is titled, “Why America Misunderstands the World: National Experience and Roots of Misperception.”