With U.S. sanctions set to begin, where next for Trump's Iran strategy

AFP-JIJI, Reuters, AP

A wave of U.S. sanctions kicks in against Iran on Tuesday, cementing Washington’s hard line against Tehran after President Donald Trump pulled out of the 2015 nuclear pact.

Already facing broad economic fallout as their currency implodes, Iranians are wondering how the next phase of the crisis in U.S. relations will play out — and what, exactly, America’s long-term strategy is toward their country.

At least for now, the U.S. is fixated on bringing as much diplomatic and economic pressure to Iran as possible — though it is not clear where things are headed, or if there is an increased risk of conflict.

The U.S. walked out of the 2015 nuclear deal in May and is bringing back “maximum pressure” sanctions for most sectors on Aug. 6, and the energy sector on Nov. 4.

As Tuesday, the Iran government can no longer buy U.S. bank notes and broad sanctions will be slapped on Iranian industries, including its rug exports.

After months of fierce rhetoric, Trump surprised observers last week when he offered to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani “any time” — and without preconditions.

The dramatic about-face, which Secretary of State Mike Pompeo quickly tamped down, came just days after the enigmatic U.S. president and Rouhani traded barbs.

Trump at one point unleashed a Twitter tirade in which he blasted, using all caps, Rouhani’s “DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE.”

He was responding to a July 22 warning from Rouhani that the U.S. should not “play with the lion’s tail” and warned that any conflict with Iran would be the “mother of all wars.”

Trump’s offer for dialogue came after Pompeo seemed to suggest support for a change in Iran leadership, telling an audience of Iranian expats in California that the regime had been a “nightmare.”

And John Bolton, the president’s national security adviser, is a well-known Iran hawk who has advocated for regime change.

“For Bolton and others, pressure is an end in and of itself,” Suzanne Maloney, deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, said.

For the administration, “if it leads to a wholesale capitulation fine, if it leads to regime change, even better,” she added.

Trump’s pressure campaign appears to have had some results.

For instance, U.S. officials in recent years have accused both the regular Iranian Navy and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps of routinely harassing American warships in the Gulf.

But this year, to the surprise of some military officials, there have been no such incidents.

If Iran senses “American steel they back down, if they perceive American mush they push forward — and right now they perceive steel,” said Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington think tank that lobbied for a renegotiation of the Iran nuclear deal.

Dubowitz, who noted that Iran has tested fewer missiles of late, said Trump’s rhetoric and position on Iran actually lowers the risk of escalation toward conflict.

“He’s assuming that if he talks tough, that will bolster the credibility of American military power,” Dubowitz said.

Both Trump and Rouhani are due to address the United Nations General Assembly in New York next month.

It’s not inconceivable a meeting on the sidelines could occur then — Tehran will be looking anxiously to a November deadline for oil buyers to stop purchasing Iranian crude.

Over the weekend, Trump once again floated the idea of meeting, tweeting “I will meet, or not meet, it doesn’t matter — it is up to them!”

“Iran, and its economy, is going very bad, and fast!” he said in the same missive.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said July 27 there was no policy that had been put in place with the goal of collapsing or changing the Iranian regime.

“We need them to change their behavior on a number of threats they can pose with their military, with their secret services, with their surrogates and with their proxies,” Mattis told Pentagon reporters.

Experts see a number of possible outcomes for the current U.S. policy toward Iran.

Sanctions and diplomatic pressure could pile enough pressure on the regime that it comes to the negotiating table — something Trump has advocated for.

The financial crisis in Iran could worsen to the point that mass protests make it impossible for the regime to hold on to power — though economic pressures risk galvanizing growing anti-American sentiment and support for hard-liners.

Or the regime could start to address what America calls its “malign influence” in the region, including its support to Syrian President Bashar Assad and threats to shut down the strategic Strait of Hormuz, a vital shipping lane for international oil supplies.

“I think (the Trump administration) would be pleased with any one of those end states,” Dubowitz said.

Sporadic protests broke out in several cities in Iran for a fifth night on Saturday, a day after demonstrators attacked a Shiite seminary, according to Iranian news agencies and social media.

Hundreds rallied in cities including Tehran, Karaj, Shiraz, and Qom, according to videos posted on social media, to protest against high inflation, caused in part by a collapse in the rial currency over fears of the reimposition of crippling sanctions.

The protests have often begun with slogans against the high cost of living and alleged financial corruption but quickly turned into anti-government rallies.

Footage posted online showed dozens of marchers in central Tehran chanting, “Death to the dictator,” referring to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Another video showed heavy police presence and road blocks in the city of Karaj, west of Tehran, which has been the scene of daily protests. The videos could not be authenticated.

Late on Friday, riot police intervened to disperse about 500 people chanting slogans against the government in the town of Eshtehard, 100 km (60 miles) west of Tehran, Some protesters threw rocks and bricks and damaged a Shiite Muslim seminary, the semi-official news agency Fars reported.

Fars also reported Saturday that a man taking part in a protest in the northern province of Alborz was fatally shot on Friday.

The report said a protest was taking place in Karaj, 50 kilometers (30 miles) west of Tehran, when someone fired from a car. There were no additional details.

The U.S. State Department said on its Persian-language Twitter account: “While it is ultimately up to the #people_of_Iran to determine their country’s path, #America supports the voice of the Iranian people, which has been ignored for a long time.”