What’s Iran up to? It’s not as mysterious as it looks.
The Tehran government has been pummeled by the Trump administration’s economic sanctions, with greater impact than almost anyone expected. Oil exports, the country’s main source of income, have plummeted by an estimated 80%. The International Monetary Fund forecasts that Iran’s economy will shrink 6% this year, with inflation over 30%.
Those numbers spell an economy in crisis — and a potential threat to the stability of the regime.
It’s an asymmetrical struggle; in the global economy, the U.S. holds most of the cards. So the Iranians have struck back with the weapons at their command: a threat to stockpile low-enriched uranium — the stuff used in reactors, not bombs — beyond a limit set in the 2015 nuclear accord. Plus, according to the White House, sabotage attacks against oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.
The Iranians deny responsibility for the tanker explosions, but U.S. officials insist the evidence is solid. If we had a less mendacious president, the White House would get the benefit of the doubt. Since we don’t, even some of America’s closest allies aren’t convinced.
What the Iranians want is clear; they’ve been talking about it for months. They want Europe, Russia and China to help them revive their oil exports. That was the central bargain in the nuclear deal: If Tehran dismantled its nuclear program, international sanctions would come off.
But President Trump renounced the deal and reimposed tight U.S. sanctions, including choking off Iran’s oil sales. It’s not surprising that Tehran is threatening to abandon its nuclear strictures.
The tanker attacks caused damage but no injuries. They appeared aimed at getting the world’s attention, and they succeeded. Iranian officials had warned for months that if they were blocked from shipping the country’s oil, others might face unspecific “consequences.”
The message to Washington, Iran-watchers say, was this: If you push the regime toward collapse, it won’t surrender. It will go down fighting.
“Iran wants to show that this confrontation is heading in a dangerous direction,” Karim Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace told me. “They will continue to resist. They want to test Trump’s resolve. They want to compel him to reconsider his strategy. But they may also be prepared to negotiate.”
Trump seems to think so too. In an interview with Time magazine on Monday, the president dismissed the tanker attacks as “very minor” and suggested that they didn’t require a military response.
“We want to get [Iran] back to the [negotiating] table,” he said. “I’m not looking to hurt that country, but they can’t have a nuclear weapon. It’s that simple.”
Trump’s soothing words also reflected an odd reality: While Iran’s goals are clear, U.S. goals are not.
The president has said all he wants is a new and tougher nuclear agreement to replace the one President Obama negotiated in 2015, not regime change.
But Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo has listed 12 sweeping demands that go far beyond Trump’s nuclear agenda, including an end to Iranian support for proxy forces in the Middle East and drastic changes in Tehran’s domestic and foreign policies.
John Bolton, the president’s national security advisor, openly advocated overthrowing the Tehran government before he joined Trump’s staff last year. He no longer calls for regime change in public, but he’s still the most assertive voice in the administration.
In any case, no rapprochement is possible if the two governments aren’t talking to each other. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, publicly rejected an effort by Japan’s prime minister to open a communication channel last week, saying Trump could not be trusted.
That’s where the current standoff could present an opportunity. At least in the short run, both countries have an interest in de-escalating hostilities before they slide into war.
“The goal isn’t a full-scale peace agreement; it’s simply to prevent a catastrophe,” said John W. Limbert, who was taken hostage with other diplomats at the U.S. Embassy by Iranian militants during the country’s 1979 revolution. “It’s basic diplomacy. You find someone with credibility who can meet with the Iranians in private, and you set up a meeting in Oman or Geneva or New York.”
What won’t work, Iran-watchers say, is the kind of high-visibility meeting Trump seems to want, like his two summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Both faceoffs garnered global headlines but no apparent progress toward denuclearization.
Khameni’s legitimacy derives in large part from his hostility to the United States. Plus he hasn’t left the country in 30 years. He’s unlikely to break that isolation to sit down with Trump.
And even if the two leaders find a way to talk through subordinates, they’ll still be on a collision course.
Trump and his aides believe economic sanctions will force Iran to make concessions; Khamenei and his lieutenants want the sanctions to go. Hard-liners on both sides will play a dangerous game of chicken to see who blinks first. The chances of a miscalculation remain high.
Both Trump and Khamenei have said they don’t want war. If they want to prove their worth as statesmen, this would be a good time to do it.