On Iran, Is It Trump Versus His Own Neocons?

Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump (Department of State via Flickr)Mike Pompeo and Donald Trump (Department of State via Flickr)

by Trita Parsi

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement of the creation of a new Iran Action Group at the White House–almost exactly on the anniversary of the CIA-led coup against Iran’s elected Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 no less–was as usual short on substance but heavy on on accusations and demands. Yet, it may still be quite significant precisely because of the growing fissures within the Trump administration in regards to Iran policy.

Hawks on Iran were caught off guard when Donald Trump announced last month that he would be willing to meet with Iran’s leaders “any time they want to” and without preconditions. The Israeli intelligence community–who otherwise have claimed authorship of Trump’s Iran policy–were “struck dumb for two days” amid fears that Trump might abandon the pressure strategy and instead seek to mend ties with Tehran. Steadfast supporters of kinetic action against Iran, such as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), nervously took to twitter to warn Trump that he should be ready “to be taken to the cleaners” unless he approached the Iranians from a position of strength.

Trump’s surprise provided some insight into the fissures within his administration regarding Iran policy. Trump, who mindful of his fondness for summits and his desire to be seen as a deal maker probably does want to meet with the Iranians, appears rather alone in favoring a pivot to diplomacy. Here, he certainly does not have backing from John Bolton, Mike Pompeo or Brian Hook, who all the offer of negotiations as yet another instrument of pressure, rather than a genuine offer.

This group has already walked back Trump’s offer for dialogue with Iran without preconditions. And John Bolton famously wrote in a memo to Trump that as the US would increase the pressure on Iran, it should also consider “rhetorically leaving that possibility open in order to demonstrate Iran’s actual underlying intention to develop deliverable nuclear weapon.”

Against this background, one purpose the new Iran Action Group may serve is to escalate matters with Iran to the point in which any pivot to diplomacy by Trump may be rendered impossible.

Proponents of confrontation with Iran such as FDD have already once seen their pressure policy (which was designed to be irreversible) be dialed down by a President who pivoted to negotiations. This happened in 2013 under Obama, and led to many bitter public exchanges between FDD’s leadership and Obama officials. After all, the Obama administration worked closely with FDD to sanction Iran. Once Obama pivoted to diplomacy, however, FDD fell out of favor. Hawks on North Korea must have felt similarly frustrated when Trump suddenly shifted to talk to Kim Jung Un rather than threatening him with nuclear strikes.

Moreover, what has been clear from Trump’s Iran policy thus far is that much of it is rarely publicly acknowledged. But we know now per the reporting of Reuters that the Trump administration has been destabilizing Iran and that the goal with its pressure policy is to “foment unrest in Iran.” (It remains to be seen whether the US also has directly provided funding to entities involved in the unrest in Iran.)

The Iran Action group will likely lead and intensify efforts to foment unrest in Iran, further creating tensions with the EU, who view the destabilization of Iran as a direct national security threat to Europe.

Despite the absence of substance in Pompeo’s press conference, this move is yet another escalatory step by neoconservatives in the Trump administration, who are deliberately moving the US closer to war with Iran, despite Trump’s offer for talks. Trump has in the past shown himself quite capable of replacing advisors and officials who cross purpose with him. But on Iran, a pivot to diplomacy would not only cause a break with senior members of his inner circle, but also with the Prime Minister of Israel and the King of Saudi Arabia.

The neoconservatives in the White House and outside proponents of war with Iran have Trump in a corner and they want to keep him there. The Iran Action Group seems aimed at achieving just that.

Trita Parsi is the president of the National Iranian American Council and author of Losing an Enemy – Obama, Iran and the Triumph of Diplomacy.

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9 Comments

  1. Trista

    How many times have I told you. Instead of concentrating on US policy, think of Ayatollahs instead. You are a very educated person, and really you should concentrate on helping to unite Iranians abroad, to form a comprehensive front against the horrid Ayatollahs.

    But alas, as you come across that you are more interested in picking on the US, people think that you are pro-mullah, which you are not.

    Like most Iranians, you want to protect your country against anyone. You should defend Iran against the Ayatollahs. What you are doing only serves the Ayatollahs.

    Picking on what Pompeo said is fine, but ultimately it only helps the mullahs.

    We all need to be careful what we are doing when we criticise others. Be careful not to be helping this horrid regime, no matter how justified your criticism may be.

    But hey, people will have a bone to pick with me.

  2. Trump wants to negotiate with Iran, so he can claim I won against a people who invented deal making. He never goes to war with Iran. All those hawkish advisors are METRSAK part of his negotiation tactics. Islamic Republic should negotiate with him and start buying American cars and let him to build a Trump tower in Tehran. That will be the best strategy preventing a war with US.

  3. I doubt if Trump is bright enough know what he’s doing from one day to another. You don’t shred a tough to produce agreement and the next day ask to talk with the people who invested years into that agreement.
    Likud is in charge and they write the scripts. Obviously on a couple of occasions he wasn’t handed a script so he was rambling as usual.

  4. Ali, You have to say the right thing without considering that it would be on benefit of whom!
    It is a principle of honesty that you are inviting the author to deviate from! Doesn’t it contradict with the AM (AhuraMazda) teaches that you claim to favor?!

  5. FDD, stands for “Foundation to Destroy the Democracies” in action as the deeds talk. Funded by a Pro-Israelite group of Jewish billionaires and in effect a ‘War Marketing Agency’ for US public in favor of Israel.
    From their wikipedia page; (ThinkProgress concluded, “Most of the major donors are active philanthropists to ‘pro-Israel’ causes both in the U.S. and internationally. With the disclosure of its donor rolls, it becomes increasingly apparent that FDD’s advocacy of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East, its hawkish stance against Iran, and its defense of right-wing Israeli policy is consistent with its donors’ interests in ‘pro-Israel’ advocacy”.)

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