War Stories

Showdown Over Iran

The stage is set for a dramatic confrontation at this year’s U.N. General Assembly.

Hassan Rouhani and Donald Trump.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Kevin Hagen/Getty Images; Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

President Trump will be fighting with European allies at this week’s session of the United Nations General Assembly—a clash guaranteed by the fact that it’s his turn to chair the Security Council’s meeting on nonproliferation. Some of the issues will seem technical, but they boil down to this: The Europeans want to keep the Iranian nuclear deal alive, along with the lifting of sanctions that was part of that deal; Trump, who has pulled out of the deal and reimposed sanctions, wants to topple the Iranian government.

U.S. sanctions alone would give Trump little leverage, since the United States does little business with Iran. But Trump is also imposing “secondary sanctions”—meaning that any country trading with Iran will be barred from doing transactions with U.S. financial institutions.

This is serious, and unusual. Trump stopped short of that step even during the height of his “maximum pressure” campaign against North Korea. Nor has he—or any previous president—penalized countries that do business with Cuba. Iran’s economy has been in decline for a while; the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei permitted President Hassan Rouhani to sign the nuclear deal in the hopes that the lifting of sanctions would elevate living standards. Trump’s reimposition of those sanctions, which go into effect Nov. 5, has deflated those hopes.

Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and national security adviser John Bolton—who all opposed the nuclear deal when the “P5+1 nations” (the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, plus Germany) signed it in 2015—calculate that these economic problems will foment rebellion against the Iranian regime.

Tensions along these lines intensified during the weekend, when an attack on an Iranian military parade in the southern city of Ahvaz killed at least 25 people. ISIS and an Arab separatist group both separately claimed credit for the attack. Khamenei claimed that the terrorists were paid by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, noting that those two countries are allies of the United States. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard blamed the United States and Israel directly and warned of retribution.

Whether or not these accusations are true, politically aware Iranians wouldn’t have to be overly paranoid to believe them. First, their views are deeply shaped by the 1953 CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew Mohammad Mosaddeq, the country’s popularly elected leader, and installed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, propping him up for the next quarter century.

Second, on Saturday, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, told the audience at a conference called the Iran Uprising Summit, that “revolution” was precisely the purpose of the administration’s sanctions. “I don’t know when we’re going to overthrow them,” Giuliani said, referring to the ruling mullahs. “It could be in a few days, months, a couple of years. But it’s going to happen.”

Giuliani was not speaking on behalf of the administration. Pompeo has denied that regime change is U.S. policy. But he too has spoken before similar groups in just more slightly veiled terms.

Close followers of Iranian politics say that Tehran’s rulers are planted more firmly in power than some passionate critics believe. They also say that, if the rulers were overthrown, the democratic street protesters aren’t likely to be their successors. The new leaders would probably hail from the army, probably the Revolutionary Guard, and they would impose still-heavier crackdowns and would be inclined to resume enriching uranium.

This is the irony—or tragedy—of Trump’s campaign. International inspectors have reported, several times, that Iran is fully abiding by the terms of the Iran deal. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis urged Trump to stay in the deal precisely for that reason, as did Rex Tillerson when he was secretary of state and Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster when he was national security adviser.

Trump, Pompeo, Bolton, and many Republican legislators have complained that the deal put no restrictions on Iran’s development of ballistic missiles or its support of terrorist movements or its military deployments in Syria. The European leaders who signed the deal, as well as President Obama at the time, have replied that they focused strictly on Iran’s nuclear program because that posed the most immediate threat. Meanwhile, sanctions that had been imposed on Iran for those other deeds—the missiles and the support of terrorists—remained, and still do remain, in place.

European leaders have suggested that, rather than throw out the nuclear deal, the countries that signed it should try to negotiate a follow-on accord that supplements its terms. There is precedent for this in the annals of U.S.-Soviet arms-control treaties. The 1974 Vladivostok accord added limits to the 1972 Strategic Arms Limitation Talks Agreement without scrapping the earlier deal. The 1979 SALT II treaty went still further, again without killing SALT I. The Additional Protocol plugged some loopholes in the Non-Proliferation Treaty without requiring the scuttling of the NPT.

Neither Trump nor his top aides have evinced the slightest interest in this approach. Trump has said he would like to negotiate an all-new deal, covering all the disagreements with Iran. But no one believes that this is either likely or sincere.

Meanwhile, some of the European countries are frantically searching for a way to keep the deal in place—which would mean keeping Trump’s secondary sanctions at bay. The Financial Times reports that France, Britain, and Germany are exploring ways to facilitate oil imports from Iran without going through U.S. financial networks. China, the largest purchaser of Iranian oil, could start making purchases with its own currency.

However, analysts say that global finances are so interconnected that it would be hard for any country or large firm to operate entirely outside of the U.S. banking system and that any attempt to evade U.S. sanctions would be made at considerable risk.

If Iran truly does get closed out of the world economy, would its leaders—either the ones in power now or their successors—drop out of the deal too and resume the nuclear weapons program? It’s hard to say. Some in the Trump administration, notably Bolton, could well be awaiting just such a move, in order to justify a U.S. pre-emptive strike on Iran’s enrichment and storage facilities.

Such an attack could trigger all sorts of eruptions in the Middle East and beyond—and wouldn’t necessarily preclude Iran’s reconstructing its nuclear program a few years hence. (Nearly all of Iran’s political factions took pride in that program.)

Then again, Trump has never been a fan of stability; he welcomes eruptions. This week at the U.N., the earthquake could start rumbling.