On Iran, Is It Trump Versus His Own Neocons?

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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  1. 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.)”

    Is this something new? Has the Iranian government in the last forty years enjoyed a time when America has not sought either to covertly or overtly undermine and destroy it?

    How has this Iranian regime survived under so much duress from the world’s most significant superpower? Has the US pressure contributed to the creation of a powerful secuity state? Has Iran under US pressure been able to hone its skills in asymmetric warfare? Establish relations with other countries that undermine the US pressure? Survive?

    What do Americans know about Iran–after forty years of looking at the country through an ideological lense?

  2. Like all US wars of the new millennium (Iraq, Syria, etc.) the attempt to start a war with Iran is about money – the Boltons of this world have made a ton of money out of supporting the slaughter of women and children in the MENA from their friends in the arms industry, oil, ‘reconstruction’ etc.

    Iran, for McDonnell Douglas on down to the hordes of slavering Iranian Chalabis waiting in the wings to descend on Iran like a plague of locusts, would be the Big Payday, the Big Kahuna – being involved in bombing/reconstructing/looting the oil of Iran would put Iraq and Syria into the minor leagues.

    And now the US is running its’ wars using entirely migrant/volunteer labour, nobody except the families cares about how many body-bags come home, as Afghanistan shows you can carry on doing this virtually forever. Indeed, having noble warriors being laid to rest in Arlington in not-too-excessive numbers helps increase support for the war.

    The US public, fond of saying with a sniff “No parent should have to bury their child’ has, it seems, a bottomless appetitte for their politicians creating endless wars ‘in the national interest’ to accomplish just that..

    And then there’s plucky crusader state Israel, whose agents were deported from the US for standing on top of vans cheering as they watched the Twin Towers fall – every independent Muslim state crushed is a victory for a state busy selling its’ oppressive authoritarian character through propaganda about the existential muslim enemy… How long before the divergent demographics of an Israel whose population growth is determined by the hard-line religious communities and poor Arab-Israelis launches its last ethnic cleansing to make Israel, finally, a ‘pure’ Jewish state?

    With all of this in mind, starting a war against Iran by taking into account Trump’s instabilty should be fairly easy; just offer him and his family businesses a cut of the war, say, 10% of weapons sales incurred and 10% of the ensuing ‘reconstruction’, plus maybe 1% of Iranian oil revenues following regime change.

    See how quickly the ‘dealmaker’ gets on board then!

  3. This American Administration wishes, and is bent on destroying Iran as a functioning state without the trouble of getting involved in a costly, direct military intervention: to reduce Iranian cities to rubble through fomenting externally financed and induced armed insurgency and chaos a la Syria and Libya. After all “Rubble does not make trouble” and as such Iran will cease to be a headache for the grand alliance of the Sunni rulers in the Middle East, and Israel and the United States.

  4. The U.S. and Israel with the Brits, Saudis and the UAE have created four new military commands to attack Iran ostensibly if the Iranians block oil transports. But two of the commands are active now.

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