At the 2017 U.N. General Assembly, President Trump asked French President Emmanuel Macron to relay a private message to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Trump wanted to meet, in secret, with the Iranian leader, according to Western and Iranian officials. Macron called Rouhani and asked if he was interested. The Iranian leader and members of his delegation were astonished. Trump had just given a blistering speech in front of more than a hundred world leaders declaring that Iran was a corrupt dictatorship whose leaders had turned a wealthy country “into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos.” He had called on “the entire world to join us in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction.” From the U.N. pulpit, Trump warned Tehran’s revolutionary leaders, “Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever.” Rouhani rebuffed the overture. He told Macron that he had had enough problems at home after taking a telephone call from President Obama, in 2013—and Obama hadn’t publicly insulted him. “We said, ‘Are you joking?’” the foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, told me.
A year later, the three leaders were again at the United Nations. At the end of his meeting with Trump, Macron said that he was scheduled to see Rouhani later that day. Did Trump want him to relay another message? “No,” Trump reportedly replied. “They have to suffer more first.”
In the past month, the Trump Administration has been “dramatically accelerating”—in the words of the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo—its efforts to inflict more pain on Iran. On April 8th, in an unprecedented step, Trump designated Iran’s Revolutionary Guards a terrorist organization. No leader of any nation has ever designated another country’s standing Army as a terrorist organization—not even George W. Bush before the invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in 2003. The move was all the more striking because the United States and Iran are not at war—yet.
Iran’s parliament responded in kind, passing legislation that designated the U.S. Central Command—or centcom, the military branch that runs operations in the Middle East and South Asia—as a terrorist organization. In a show of support, Iranian legislators also wore uniforms of the Revolutionary Guard into parliament.
This week, the Administration extended its “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran. The White House announced that it would sanction any country or company—even longtime allies—that buys Iranian oil. The five largest importers of Iranian oil are China, India, Japan, South Korea, and Turkey. In the past, Washington has granted waivers as long as imports from Iran at least decreased. No longer. The U.S. goal is to eliminate all Iranian oil sales, a move designed to cripple the country economically. Since Trump announced that he would re-impose sanctions, last May, Iran has lost at least ten billion dollars—around thirty million dollars a day—in oil revenues, the State Department claimed this week. No past punitive U.S. or international sanctions—applied during the 1979-1982 hostage crisis, the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, or by the U.N. between 2006 and 2016—totally cut off Iran’s exports.
“We will continue to apply maximum pressure on the Iranian regime until its leaders change their destructive behavior, respect the rights of the Iranian people, and return to the negotiating table,” Pompeo said, on Monday. Trump, who last year abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal brokered by six major powers, has demanded that Tehran negotiate a new and bigger pact that also covers Iran’s missiles, support for extremist movements, intervention in the Middle East, and human-rights abuses.
On Wednesday, Iran dismissed the U.S. threat but expressed concern that escalating tensions could trigger a military confrontation. “President Trump believes that by pushing us, by imposing economic pressure on us, we will sell our dignity. Not gonna happen,” Zarif said, at the Asia Society, in New York, on Wednesday. “We don’t look at history in terms of two-, four-, and six-year terms as usually people do over there—the members of Congress or in the Administration or in the Senate. We look at history in millennia. And our dignity is not up for sale.”
The matching terrorist designations by both countries have fuelled speculation in Washington’s foreign-policy community, and among elected officials of both parties, about intentional or accidental military conflict. Last month, Senator Richard Durbin, of Illinois, and Senator Tom Udall, of New Mexico, warned in a Washington Post op-ed of the similarities between the U.S. language against Iran today and the rhetoric about Iraq under Saddam Hussein.
“Sixteen years after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, we are again barrelling toward another unnecessary conflict in the Middle East based on faulty and misleading logic,” they wrote. “The Trump administration’s Iran policy, built on the ashes of the failed Iraq strategy, is pushing us to take military action aimed at regime change in Tehran. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past, and Congress must act urgently to ensure that.”
In New York, on Wednesday, Zarif said that he did not believe President Trump wants a war with Iran, but said that others in the Administration—as well as countries with influence at the White House—did. “It is not a crisis yet, but it is a dangerous situation. Accidents, plotted accidents, are possible,” Zarif said. “The plot is to push Iran into taking action. And then use that.” He charged that “the B-Team,” after their initials—the national-security adviser, John Bolton; the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; the Saudi crownprince, Mohammed bin Salman; and the U.A.E. crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed—wanted some kind of military showdown between the United States and Iran. “I wouldn’t discount the B-team plotting an accident anywhere in the region, particularly as we get closer to the [2020 U.S.] election,” Zarif said. “The B-Team wants regime change at the very least. They want the disintegration of Iran, as their objective.”
Zarif’s comments underscored a widely held view among diplomats and analysts in Washington that Trump, Bolton, and Pompeo ultimately differ in their goals on Iran—and on how far they are willing to go to achieve them. The President campaigned against another war in the region—citing the trillions of dollars spent in the lengthy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Senior Western diplomats who are engaged with the White House believe that, despite his inflammatory language, the President still does not want to deploy troops to fight Iran. Shortly after Bolton was appointed last year, a Western envoy recalled hearing Trump say to him, with teasing seriousness, “You’re not going to bring me into a war, are you?“ The President also said publicly that he was willing to meet Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Bolton, however, has long advocated regime change—and the use of military force to achieve it. In 2015, he wrote an op-ed in the Times titled “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.” “The inconvenient truth is that only military action like Israel’s 1981 attack on Saddam Hussein’s Osirak reactor in Iraq or its 2007 destruction of a Syrian reactor, designed and built by North Korea, can accomplish what is required,” he wrote. “Time is terribly short, but a strike can still succeed.” (Iran was actually then well into negotiations with the six major powers about the nuclear deal that was signed three months later.)
Before going to the White House, Bolton was also a longtime supporter of the Mujahideen-e-Khalq (M.E.K.), or People’s Warriors, an exiled group that advocates overthrowing the Iranian government. The M.E.K. was on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations until 2012 and was long allied with Saddam Hussein. Bolton was a keynote speaker at its annual conference, in Paris, for eight years. At its 2017 annual conference, he vowed that their rally on the fortieth anniversary of the revolution, this past February, would be held in Tehran.
Pompeo also called for regime change when he was in Congress, representing Kansas. Since becoming Secretary of State, he has claimed that the Administration is instead seeking to change the regime’s “behavior.” But, last May, he outlined a list of twelve demands for Iran so sweeping that they were widely perceived as a call for regime change. At a closed-door meeting with a group of Iranian-Americans in Dallas, last week, Pompeo reportedly said, “Our best interest is a non-revolutionary set of leaders leading Iran.” Yet he also said,this week, that the United States does not support the M.E.K.
Iran’s reciprocal threats have escalated the risks of confrontation. After the United States issued its global ban on importing Iranian oil, Tehran threatened to close the Strait of Hormuz, through which up to thirty per cent of seaborne global oil trade flows. Zarif vowed that Iran would flout the U.S. ban on oil sales. “We will continue to use the Strait of Hormuz as a safe transit passage for the sale of our oil,” Zarif said, on Wednesday. “But if the United States takes the crazy measure of trying to prevent us from doing that, then it should be prepared for the consequences.”
In his speech at the Asia Society, Zarif did hold out one possibility for talks with the United States. For the first time, he offered publicly to arrange a swap of American and Iranian prisoners held in each country’s jails. There are at least six Americans, dual-nationals or U.S. permanent residents, imprisoned in Iran, with another two out on bail. Iran has not said how many of its citizens are being held in U.S. prisons, but a review of publicized cases indicates that there may be more than a dozen Iranians or dual-nationals charged, indicted, or convicted. Iran made the offer privately last year. But the Trump Administration had not shown an interest in pursuing it until recently, and only after pressure from families of detainees, according to U.S. sources familiar with the overture.
“I put this offer on the table publicly now,” Zarif said. “Exchange them. All these people that are in prison inside the United States, on extradition requests from the United States, we believe their charges are phony. The United States believes the charges against these people in Iran are phony. Why? Let’s not discuss that. Let’s have an exchange. I’m ready to do it. And I have authority to do it. We informed the government of the United States six months ago that we are ready. Not a response yet.”
Under the Trump Administration, the prospects of dialogue with the Islamic Republic on detainees, diplomatic détente, or any other subject seems more remote than ever—and the risk of escalating tensions is ever higher.
Robin Wright has been a contributing writer to The New Yorker since 1988. She is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”
Robin Wright, The New Yorker