The Trump administration has a penchant for implementing policies that trip over one another and there is perhaps no better example of that than the hardline stance on Iran.
One issue with the ill-advised decision to pull out of the JCPOA is that it was done under false pretenses. If the overarching point is to curtail Tehran’s regional influence by attempting to cut off funding to the Quds, well then you could always just say that upfront or, put differently, be honest with the public.
But explaining why America cares enough about Iran’s activities in Syria, Iraq and Yemen to risk scrapping a deal designed to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions isn’t easy because, simply put, most Americans don’t care one way or another about the extent to which Iraq, Syria and Yemen are Iranian client states.
So, the path of least resistance when it comes to marshaling voter support for a momentous decision on the nuclear deal was to simply pretend like Iran wasn’t complying with the terms. Benjamin Netanyahu was more than happy to assist in that effort by cobbling together a laughably blunt presentation called “Iran lied” and delivering it on television less than two weeks ahead of Trump’s decision to exit the deal.
Importantly, none of that is to say that Israel doesn’t have a series of legitimate concerns when it comes to the threat posed by Iran and Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia’s concerns are less legitimate because, let’s face it, their animosity towards Tehran is rooted in an eternal sectarian conflict that has no hope of being resolved, ever, irrespective of what Washington does or doesn’t do and frankly, the U.S. has no business whatsoever taking sides in a religious struggle.
The point here is that this has very little to do with nuclear weapons and even less to do with America’s national security. Iran isn’t going to invade the U.S. mainland and it’s not Shia extremists that are attacking Western capitals.
But again, it does have everything to do with national security for Israel, and to the extent the Pentagon and the CIA want to use renewed sanctions on Iranian crude to cripple Tehran’s capacity to threaten America’s Mideast allies with conventional weapons, then someone in the administration just needs to come out and say that. If the American public can’t get behind it, well then that’s either an indication that voters aren’t willing to do enough research to make an informed decision or it’s an indication that after doing that research, they’ve come to the conclusion that crippling the Quds and Hezbollah isn’t worth jeopardizing a deal aimed at curbing Tehran’s ability to obtain nuclear weapons.
Effectively, the Trump administration is selling a plan to halt the spread of Iranian influence as a plan to punish Iran for nuclear ambition. The problem with that, again, is that it isn’t at all clear that Tehran has much in the way of nuclear ambition and to the extent they do aspire to obtain a bomb, they seemingly aren’t trying as hard as they were before the JCPOA. That, in turn, means that exiting the deal is probably a bad idea because it risks a scenario where an irritated Iran begins to pursue nuclear weapons again, putting the entire world at risk and leaving Israel and the Saudis no better off than they were before in terms of security.
As discussed at length on Friday evening, cutting off the flow of U.S. dollars to Qassem Soleimani (the mastermind of Iran’s regional activities) is impossible. Here’s a passage from a Washington Post article about the infamous kidnapped Qatari falconry party that purportedly helped spark the Qatar embargo last year, which serves as a true testament to Soleimani’s creativity when it comes to using his pull in the region to raise funds:
But the conversations and text messages obtained by The Post paint a more complex portrait. They show senior Qatari diplomats appearing to sign off on a series of side payments ranging from $5 million to $50 million to Iranian and Iraqi officials and paramilitary leaders, with $25 million earmarked for a Kata’ib Hezbollah boss and $50 million set aside for “Qassem,” an apparent reference to Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and a key participant in the hostage deal.
Apparently, Soleimani got twice as much in ransom money as Kata’ib Hezbollah, even though Kata’ib Hezbollah carried out the actual kidnapping (on Soleimani’s orders, of course).
That underscores the futility of Trump’s move to exit the nuclear deal. It won’t achieve anything in terms of curtailing the Quds, but it will risk prompting Iran to restart their nuclear program and, less importantly, it will drive up oil prices.
Oh, and it will further isolate America from its European allies. On Friday evening, for instance, the world learned that finance and foreign ministers of the U.K., France and Germany were rebuffed by Mike Pompeo and Steve Mnuchin, who are denying sanctions waivers.
It’s against this backdrop that Hassan Rouhani took the opportunity to lampoon the Trump administration for how isolated America now is on the world stage. He cited Europe’s consternation with the decision to pull out of the JCPOA and, amusingly, he also cited the now famous Trump baby balloon that greeted the President on his trip to the U.K.
Here’s what Rouhani said in live remarks carried on state TV Saturday:
Today, we are in conditions in which the United States is more isolated than ever over the sanctions issue. America’s illegal actions … have even isolated it among its own allies as we just saw.
The “as we just saw” bit was an apparent reference to the protests in Britain and the above-mentioned balloon. He continued:
The government pledges to the people that there will be no problems for the country in terms of energy, transportation, basic goods and production.
That’s obviously debatable. Iran is desperately attempting to fend off a worsening currency crisis, and as Bloomberg wrote earlier this month, it’s not working. To wit, from an article dated July 2:
The Iranian central bank’s efforts to stem the rial’s decline and stamp out the currency black market have backfired, undercutting President Hassan Rouhani’s case that he can parry the U.S. war on the Iranian economy.
Rather than choking off the illegal transactions, the introduction of a fixed exchange rate in April has encouraged some traders to profiteer by charging higher black market prices for goods they imported with dollars bought at the lower official rate, officials say.
So in the end, the people who are going to end up suffering from this farce are of course the same people who always end up suffering: everyday citizens, both in the U.S. (where rising prices at the pump threaten to negate the impact of the tax cuts) and in Iran (where the currency collapse threatens stability).
Meanwhile, the whole world gets a little less safe as Tehran ponders whether to restart its nuclear program to spite Washington or whether to trust that Rouhani can maintain stable enough relationships with the rest of the world to avoid a situation where Iran once again becomes a pariah state.