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Trump is going to have to decide what he wants from Iran

It’s a good thing that President Donald Trump thought twice about hitting Iran late last week.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
It’s a good thing that President Donald Trump thought twice about hitting Iran late last week.

What comes after President Trump’s almost-attack on Iran to retaliate for the downing of a U.S. surveillance drone?

Maybe diplomacy. Leaders on both sides appear to be casting around for an acceptable formula to start talking.

It’s a good thing that Trump thought twice about hitting Iran late last week. Even though the United States and Iran probably would have contained the conflict, hotheads on both sides and lots of weapons in a confined area make for a bad combination. Things could easily spin out of control.

Trump made himself the humanitarian hero of this drama by declaring that a projected 150 Iranian deaths would be disproportionate. Fair enough. But there are enough questions about how we got within minutes of a military strike on Iran to make heads spin, both here and in Tehran.


Why didn’t the possible death toll come up earlier? Did the president finally have to choose between his own excessive rhetoric and the views of his hawkish advisers on one side, and his distaste for another war?  The U.S. did conduct a cyberattack on Iranian targets, and Trump says more sanctions are coming. It would be foolish to think that the danger of armed conflict has passed.

But there also has been another theme coming from the White House – Trump’s support for making “Iran great again,” his expression of appreciation that Iran did not target a manned aircraft, his repeated declarations that he wants to talk to the Iranians.

In Tehran, there’s a good chance Trump comes out of this looking wobbly. Iranian officials of course have paid attention to Trump’s North Korea policy, too. This all suggests that Iran will try to keep the pressure up (while trying to keep it from going too high), to see if Trump really wants to talk and what kind of deal they could get.

Much is unclear on the Iranian side, as well. Perhaps, as the New York Times reported, the Iranians did send a message saying a tactical commander overreacted in shooting down the drone. There is still some doubt about who was responsible for attacks on a couple of ships in the Persian Gulf – the U.S. rush to accuse Iran notwithstanding — but it is not unreasonable to think Iran was behind them.

After initially hunkering down as Trump dramatically increased pressure, Iran appears to have concluded that it needs to try to force the issue. Sanctions are hitting hard, and although it’s unlikely the Islamic Republic will collapse, Iran expert Suzanne Maloney at the Brookings Institution says Iranian leaders have concluded they can’t sit back and wait Trump out.

If that’s true, then the point of putting Persian Gulf shipping at risk is to cause economic jitters and force up the global price of oil – at least causing more uncertainty at a point when Trump has just launched his re-election campaign. That strategy has worked in the past, but is seeming less successful now because of changes in energy markets, including increased U.S. production and a shift to renewables.

Iran has been quite public about its plans to ditch part of the nuclear agreement – which of course Trump did last year.

Trump will face sharp domestic criticism whatever policy he follows on Iran. In fact, BBC diplomatic correspondent Jonathan Marcus raises the possibility that Iran might be pursuing a “regime change” policy of its own – causing Trump enough grief that it damages his re-election chances.

Ayatollah Khamenei publicly has ruled out new talks with the United States, but several experts don’t buy it.


Maloney points out that Iran has been talking to possible intermediaries, there have been public calls in Iran for talks without conditions, and that officials have floated the possibility of exploring prisoner exchanges as a start.

Writing in Politico this weekend, Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations argues that the whole point of Iran’s recent actions is to restart talks. To do so, it needs to come in not as a supplicant, and shooting down a drone without incurring a military response provides cover.

A summit, à la Trump’s meetings with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, would be a surprise. But lower-level talks or negotiations carried out through an intermediary such as Oman are possible.

Takeyh says Iran is confident that if its diplomats get in the same room, they expect outside pressure for a deal to pile up on the Americans. Maloney believes that starting small on direct bilateral issues might pay off. Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser, sets out her own blueprint to restart negotiations here.

Trump is going to have to decide what he wants. Regime change in Tehran – with the risk of war? A substantially reworked nuclear deal? Or headlines and a tweaked deal that has his name on it rather than President Obama’s?

The mere fact that talks are going on tends to make armed conflict less likely. That’s probably enough; anything else could be beyond reach. Trump has surrounded himself with people who aren’t much interested in negotiating, unless it ends in something that would look to Tehran like surrender. And the president, as he has shown once again, isn’t the type to actually craft a careful long-range policy and then implement it.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Alex Schieferdecker on 06/24/2019 - 09:25 am.

    The idea that Trump has any idea about what he “wants” from Iran is obviously absurd.

    It’s like asking what my cat wants from tensions with the plumber.

  2. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/24/2019 - 09:59 am.

    Just like Trump “renegotiated NAFTA” he wants to renegotiate JCPOA, and have his name associated with it.

    His standard negotiating technique ? Lots of threats, ultimately settling for little or nothing new other than praise for Trump.

    Now we are supposed to believe this administration that acts of war would be justified for shooting down a drone (a sport that is currently a favorite topic of US anti-government prepper sites) when the location of the drone could very easily have been in the airspace of Iran. Was Trump the merciful, compassionate one? Or perhaps there was firm evidence that the drone was shot down in Iran’s air space? Provocation is a two way street.

    The pervasive proven dishonesty and self-dealing of this administration (along with the lies leading up to the Iraq war) makes it virtually impossible for the creation of unity of intent with reputable allies and so makes it far more likely the US will be acting alone in any action or reaction. It’s a big difference from having the active support of allies to having the grudging acquiescence of arm-twisted former allies.

    The problem with negotiating with Trump, because Trump is where every negotiation has to funnel down to in this administration, is that there is no final agreement. Just ask our “allies”, Mexico and Canada, as to what the USMCA agreement has done. And Trump has very handily proven that treaties and agreements can be withdrawn at the whim of this President or the next.

    It becomes a very shaky international system of agreements when they have no permanent binding effect.

    Trump may have found this a very advantageous arrangement as a landlord/licensing agent, where he could take advantage of every twist and turn of fortune, but it makes for an unsettled world. Note that trade and business are suffering from the same uncertainty.

  3. Submitted by richard owens on 06/24/2019 - 10:05 am.

    What a fine kettle of fish we’ve gotten out of this petulant, barely literate holder of the nuclear football.

    If we get out of this without Armageddon, no American President should ever be allowed to run roughshod over the law, our allies, our treaties, our trade rules or our immigration procedures ever again.

    I can’t believe Republicans actually approve of this man’s wild spending, endless lies and breaking everything so he can “fix” it alone.

    Recent news has reminded us that there is a phenomena similar to this where we find physicians or nurses actually killing patients so they can be heroes “trying to save them”.

    This is no less heinous.

  4. Submitted by joe smith on 06/24/2019 - 10:50 am.

    What America wants from Iran is simple, quit being a sponsor of terror around the World. Be a country that represents what the people want (jobs, safety, education for their children) not what the radical Mullah’s want. We’ve ignored them for too long (hell, we even paid them 150 Billion in cash to do a deal they had no plans to comply with) it is time to tighten economic screws again. The Trump Administration has crushed their economy and they’ve lost 2/3 of their oil export money (used not to help their people but to sponsor terror).
    I love the Lefties who claim we are to blame for resent bad behavior by being “too mean” to Iran. Being their buddy didn’t work for President Carter thru Obama. Enough is enough. Economic sanctions plus strategic strikes every time they violate World norms. Their people are begging for a change and trying to ignore what their leaders are doing to the region and World is a tried and failed policy.

    • Submitted by RB Holbrook on 06/24/2019 - 11:07 am.

      There is so much wrong with your comment that I scarcely know where to begin.

      “What America wants from Iran is simple, quit being a sponsor of terror around the World.”

      Do we make that demand of other countries? How about Trump’s BFF in Pyongyang?

      “Be a country that represents what the people want (jobs, safety, education for their children) not what the radical Mullah’s want.”

      We’re dictating what kind of government other countries have? Why don’t we start with our “allies” first?

      “We’ve ignored them for too long (hell, we even paid them 150 Billion in cash to do a deal they had no plans to comply with) it is time to tighten economic screws again.”

      Not the old “pallets of cash” again!

      “The Trump Administration has crushed their economy and they’ve lost 2/3 of their oil export money (used not to help their people but to sponsor terror).”

      Source for your 2/3 figure? No, since you advanced the number, it’s not on me to find support for it.

      “I love the Lefties”

      God bless you, we love you, too!

      “. . . who claim we are to blame for resent bad behavior by being “too mean” to Iran.”

      We should ignore the past? A country that refuses to tear down monuments to treason because it is someone’s “heritage” should ignore more recent affronts to their nation?

      “Being their buddy didn’t work for President Carter thru Obama. Enough is enough.”

      Do “buddies” maintain economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation on their buddies? Asking for a friend.

      “Economic sanctions plus strategic strikes every time they violate World norms.”

      First, I think you mean “tactical” strikes, unless you’re calling for all out war. Second, what you want is in itself a major violation of international norms.

      “Their people are begging for a change and trying to ignore what their leaders are doing to the region and World is a tried and failed policy.”

      The people of Iran want change, but they don’t want it imposed by outsiders. Iran has a long history, and a more recent history of domination by foreign economic interests, and foreign powers enabling and supporting a brutal regime. Trying to force change because we want it is a sure recipe for failure.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 06/24/2019 - 12:15 pm.

      Have you heard of North Korea or Saudi Arabia?

      We’re exchanging love letter with both, our President and son-in-law are in deep financially wrapped up with Saudi Arabia and selling nuclear technology and other advanced weapons to a world sponsor of radical Islam who happened to be the main source of attackers on 911.

      “Economic sanctions plus strategic strikes every time they violate World norms”

      You have an odd idea about world norms.

    • Submitted by Brian Gandt on 06/26/2019 - 10:17 am.

      “Be a country that represents what the people want”.

      We may want to start by sweeping our own porch on that one.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Wagner on 06/24/2019 - 03:29 pm.

    Well Mark, the phrase that comes to mind is, can’t have rationale conversations with irrational people, no Trump is not rationale in any sense of the word. Seems some folks think that only Iran can be called a terrorist organization, Guess you look at the definition and since we control it, we define it. Suspect the USA probably fits into the category of supporting terrorist organizations more than once. Can we say Mujahadeen?. Maybe we should look back into our Central American experiences? Guess some folks just can’t believe that America has ever been on the wrong side. Even Iraq, ~ 1/2 M dead, and folks are saying hey lets have a repeat performance of that misguided adventure in Iran, why, because evidently we are not happy with their “self determination”, No problem supporting the 50K dead and counting in Yemen, as the song goes “We have god on our side”.

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