Just weeks before the U.S. presidential election, Trump Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced a range of new unilateral sanctions and restrictions against Iranian officials and entities on Sept. 21. This came after The Trump administration’s attempt to re-impose UN sanctions against Iran, which had been lifted under the Iran nuclear deal, failed to gain support from members of the UN Security Council. Nations on the Security Council rejected the sanctions because the Trump regime pulled out of the international nuclear agreement with Tehran in May 2018 and no longer has any legal authority to trigger those snapback sanctions.
The president’s executive order put in place a new arms embargo on Iran to replace a U.N. ban set to expire in October. Trump’s move to increase economic pressure on Iran has increased tensions, and risks military confrontation in the final days of the November election campaign.
Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Trita Parsi, co-founder and executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Here, he talks about growing concern that the Trump regime may be trying to provoke a dangerous military confrontation with Iran in order to gain partisan advantage in the November election.
TRITA PARSI: The United States, in the Trump administration, is claiming that it has the ability to trigger U.N. sanctions on Iran, a mechanism that is called “snapback” that existed within the Iran nuclear deal. But the United States left the nuclear deal – the Trump administration did two years ago — and as a result, has essentially lost the ability to be able to trigger those sanctions. That is the view of the vast majority of the states in the Security Council, that the U.S. is no longer a party to the deal and as a result cannot snap back sanctions. The Trump administration doesn’t seem to care what other countries believe and has gone out and said that these sanctions have now been snapped back and that the U.S. will enforce them. And forcing those sanctions means that the United States would be intercepting Iranian vessels or non-Iranian vessels that it accuses of having gone to Iran or coming from Iran.
This has happened already on a few occasions, but they’ve all happened far away from Iranian waters. If the Trump administration actually starts doing this interception of these ships very near Iranian waters — meaning that the Iranian Navy will have an ability to strike back — there’s a very significant likelihood that there will be a military confrontation somewhere in the Persian Gulf or the Strait of Hormuz between the United States and Iran. I think that faction led by Pompeo have long wanted to do this. But the election seems to be giving him an opportunity since they have presented this in such a way that any such military confrontation would be seen as illegal and a defensive move by the United States. And I fear that this Pompeo faction is trying to convince Trump that if the election situation gets really bad, if they then do this provocation vis-a-vis Iran and ended up getting some form of a military confrontation, it could serve him in the elections as an October surprise that could really upend the way things are going for him with the election.
SCOTT HARRIS: Trita, you note that the United States people have rallied around the nation’s president whenever there’s an external threat or a conflict. Given that public opinion around the United States launching new wars, particularly in the Middle East is at a very low point, if Trump thinks provoking a war with Iran will get him over the finish line to help him win re-election, is he mistaken in that? I mean, if people saw this as a transparent effort to assist Trump in his re-election, you would hope that the American people would reject the rally around the flag scenario.
TRITA PARSI: Absolutely. And I think that’s part of the reason why it’s important to talk about this now, particularly mindful of the fact that Pompeo’s hints about this have been quite explicit. But I think we also have to recognize that it is a bit of a human nature to do that type of rallying around the flag, particularly if you end up having American casualties. Even when COVID broke out, even though it was clear from the beginning that the Trump administration was not handling it particularly well, the initial numbers show that actually his popularity and support went up. And this is not long lasting, of course, but this is why we talk about October surprise. Well, if it’s enough to bring him over the finishing line in the elections, the longer term negative effect is of far less importance to him.
SCOTT HARRIS: Right. Well, finally, I just wanted to ask you this. What, if anything, can we, as U.S. citizens do right now to prevent such a dangerous conflict from erupting — whether deliberate or accidental — a conflict between the U.S. and Iran that could easily escalate into a bloody and very costly war?
TRITA PARSI: Well, I think one of it is exactly what you’re doing right now. The more we talk about the risk of these things and point out that there’s unfortunately a potential path that they may choose, the more people are aware of this, the less likely it is that the administration would calculate that this would work. It feels very bad having to say all of these things, because I mean, under normal circumstances, one would think this is not the way governments act. Unfortunately, right now it is.
Just take a look what happened today. A new set of sanctions designations were put on Iran. Usually these things are just announced with a press release, nothing more. This time around, there was a press conference with Pompeo, (Secretary of Treasury Steven) Mnuchin, (Secretary of Commerce Wilbur) Ross, the UN ambassador (Kelly Craft), (Robert) O’Brien, the national security advisor, and the secretary of defense (Mark Esper), all giving essentially two-minute speeches that are just repeats of each other’s talking points.
It was clearly done for political reasons to get maximum impact, to generate more support from whatever constituents see it is that the Trump administration is trying to please with this kind of obsession they have with Iran. We’re in quite a lot of a bizarre scenario, would call it a bit of a twilight zone when it comes to all of this. And within that, unfortunately this scenario of an October surprise is not an unlikely one. I’m not saying it’s going to happen 100 percent, but, we have enough signs to say that we should be careful that this could be happening.
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