If Donald Trump pushes Iran too hard he will end up alienating ordinary Iranians and leave the Iranian government with no negotiating room domestically.
US President Donald Trump's hostile tweet to Iran’s leaders should not be viewed with too much concern. Considering his style, it may even be a call to negotiations. On Monday he warned Iran not to threaten the United States otherwise there would be “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have seen”.
President Trump is not as impulsive as he appears. He has been waiting for this moment for a long time. He wanted a direct reaction from Iran, and he got it: “Mr. Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail,” said the Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani. “War with Iran would be the mother of all wars,” he said.
Trump had already prompted Rouhani on several occasions, the first reportedly at the UN General Assembly last September, and the second at the NATO summit earlier this month where he said he was “certain” the Iranians would call him to make a deal boasting that the economic and political pressure is “collapsing” the Iranian economy.
The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo speaking recently at an event for Iranian-Americans in California renewed the call and last week there was a new invitation to Iran from President Trump during a speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars where he said they were “ready” to make a deal, just not the deal done by the previous administration.
The hardline Iranian Tasnim News Agency immediately responded by saying that Trumped walked back his “hawkish” rhetoric and is now ready to make a deal.
Destroy to build
It was clear from the outset that the US President wanted his own signature on a new deal with Iran in the style of his self-proclaimed success of the North Korean counter-bullying tactics.
He unilaterally opted out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), increased American sanctions on Iran and put in place a package of economic, political and psychological pressures to bring Iran to its knees.
The additional sanctions brought economic hardship to Iranians. International investors and major companies opted out of provisional trade deals with Iran. The value of Iran’s currency plummeted, and rising prices have become unbearable for ordinary people. Demonstrations and strikes ensued across Iran.
Iran filed a lawsuit against the United States at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) alleging that Washington’s decision in May to impose sanctions violates a 1955 treaty between the two countries. On Wednesday the ICJ president sent an urgent communication to the US Secretary of State warning Washington not to take any action in contradiction of the pending decisions of the court.
Yet Trump’s pressure continued and he created a hawkish anti-Iran cabinet, recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and fortified US relationships with two arch-enemies of Iran, namely Israel and Saudi Arabia.
The Congress began seeking ways to use the US Persian language news programs of Voice of America and Radio Farda to open a new front in the Trump administration’s confrontation with Tehran.
The Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG) is also launching a new 24/7 Farsi-language Service which “would span not only television, but radio, digital, and social media format, to increase pressure on Iran,” boasted Secretary Pompeo.
A new deal is the only acceptable way forward
To take a positive view, we could assume that all these preparations were to corner Iran to hold direct talks – but President Trump might have over-played his hand.
First, he claimed he was confronting the Iranian regime to help the people of Iran, but in effect he has devastated people’s lives through sanctions, a move that might backfire with regards to his status among ordinary Iranians.
Pompeo’s speech titled “Supporting Iranian Voices” stressed that “ordinary Iranians inside of Iran and around the globe can know that America stands with them.” Many Iranians rebuked this statement by saying that the US travel ban contradicts those claims.
Pompeo’s speech was at the same time riddled with insults and accusations against Iranian officials. He called the Iranian Chief of Judiciary “a thieving thug” and accused the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, of high corruption, tax evasion and embezzlement. Iran officially objected to the speech via the Swiss embassy in Tehran.
Twitter exchanges by Iranians reveal many may indeed be suffering the hardships of US sanctions, or regard the Iranian establishment as corrupt and repressive. But despite that, a majority do not want war and do not approve of the United States meddling or engineering regime change. Some have created the hashtag #StopMeddlingInIran towards that end.
The second problem is that President Trump may be underestimating Iran’s potential to threaten the security and movement of oil in the Strait of Hormuz and the Red Sea, and the significant impact that can have on oil prices.
Iran’s infamous commander of its Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, said Thursday that the Red Sea, a critical waterway linking the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean basin, was “no longer secure” with US military assets stationed in the area. He had a message for President Trump in the same speech: “You may start the war but we will finish it,” he said.
The third problem is that the US President might have pushed the clerical establishment too far. With direct insults on the supreme leader, and sanctions targeting hardliners, many have started talking about war.
So, President Rouhani may find it impossible to justify direct negotiations and that is why Iran rejected bi-lateral talks.
The fact is that direct talks between the US and Iran are the best solution. But if President Trump really wants those talks and a new deal, he must soften his tone and take a conciliatory step towards Iran.
President Rouhani too must realise that if he wants the survival of the Islamic Republic he has little choice but to hold those direct talks.
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