(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks at a Federalist Society luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel, Sept. 10, 2018, in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
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Does Trump’s Tough Talk on Iran Have a Next Step?

Administration officials displayed a Trumpian frankness at a summit on Iran, but where is it leading?

Armin Rosen
October 04, 2018
(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
National Security Adviser John Bolton speaks at a Federalist Society luncheon at the Mayflower Hotel, Sept. 10, 2018, in Washington, D.C.(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

One of the value propositions of a Trump presidency is that the chief executive and his various helpers will say exactly what’s on their minds, regardless of how impolitic or contradictory or flat-out nonsensical their thoughts might be. So it was at United Against Nuclear Iran’s third-annual summit last week, where several of the country’s top foreign policy officials seemed to hold nothing back in discussing the Iranian threat.

“It’s very important that we restore deterrence,” said Brian Hook, the State Department’s special representative on Iran, adding, “We’re accumulating risk in the Middle East by not getting at Iran’s regional activities.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is a towering physical presence and a fast talker, said in his prepared remarks: “The Iranian regime robs its own people to pay for death and destruction abroad.” National Security Adviser John Bolton called the 2015 nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), “the worst diplomatic debacle in American history” and an agreement “based on a flat-out lie, the illusion that the Iranian regime never desired a nuclear weapon.”

This is thrilling, or possibly terrifying stuff, especially on the sidelines of all the global agenda-setting that usually takes place during the week the United Nations General Assembly opens—and especially with Yossi Cohen, the oddly photogenic Mossad director, sitting in the front row. Cohen gave a bombshell-free off-the-record speech and otherwise appeared jarringly normal considering he’s the director of the Mossad as he posed for photos with whatever well-wishers summoned the nerve to approach him. The administration wanted to make it unmistakable that U.S. policy towards Iran had radically and irrevocably shifted, and that the U.S. would now be pursuing what Bolton called “a maximum pressure campaign.”

But to what end? It’s unclear what happens in the long-run now that the U.S. has pulled out of the nuclear deal, or whether there is, in fact, a specific long-run that the administration actually has in mind. Hook, Pompeo, and Bolton gave unsparing speeches of near-Trumpian frankness that were also notable for what they didn’t mention. None of the three explored the possibility of regime change, even in euphemistic terms. Bolton said there would be “hell to pay” if Iran continued down its current path, without really trying to define “hell.” Hook condemned Obama administration diplomacy with Iran, calling the nuclear deal the result of “an experimental foreign policy.” He also discussed the recent attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Iraq and implied that Iran would be held responsible for any further Shiite militia strikes on American targets in the country. “The president says that if this escalation continues it will be met with a swift and decisive response,” Hook said. The U.S. is seeking to isolate the Iranian economy to the greatest degree possible. “Sanctions relief didn’t work,” Hook declared. Echoing Bolton, he said that “our new strategy is one of maximum economic pressure.”

It is possible that the Trump administration is building towards a North Korea-type reversal and that after a few months of aggressive rhetoric and intensive U.S.-enforced sanctions, the president will attempt to use his transcendent negotiating skills to bring a longstanding U.S. enemy to heel. It’s also possible that the current administration believes it can collapse Iran’s economy within the next few years and marshal enough economic and diplomatic pressure to force a transformative change inside the country. With this president, you just don’t know—and last week didn’t necessarily bring us any closer to an answer.

At least the near-term looks stable. The U.S. isn’t facing any urgent choices regarding Iran at this exact moment. The first major test of the administration’s new policy will come on Nov. 4th, the U.S. deadline for ending Iranian oil imports—after that, any company that buys even a single barrel of Iranian crude leaves itself vulnerable to the effects of American sanctions. This policy is in sharp contrast to the Obama administration’s pre-JCPOA enforcement of oil-related sanctions, which only required unspecified dramatic reductions in Iranian imports. If every major U.S.-aligned importer meets the deadline, the administration bolsters its argument for pulling out of the deal and proves that the post-JCPOA landscape isn’t as dangerous for global peace as critics feared it would be. “It is incumbent on every country to join our efforts to change the regime’s lawless behavior,” said Pompeo, more or less declaring that the U.S. is still powerful enough to whip the international community into line (even with ”international community” an increasingly dubious notion and the JCPOA still in place).

So far, the Iranians have been careful not to exceed any of the agreement’s fissile material stockpile limits nearly five months after the U.S. announced its departure from the nuclear deal. “We’ve got the nuclear constraints, however you may value them, on the cheap at the moment,” Brookings Institution Iran expert Suzanne Maloney said during one of the UANI summit’s panel discussions. Maloney explained that the special purpose vehicle—the EU’s financial instrument to facilitate investment in Iran despite U.S. sanctions—was unlikely to change much. “Realistically nobody thinks this will compensate for what was expected to happen under the nuclear deal,” Maloney said. She described the arrangement as “posturing—giving the Iranians the appearance of a political win.”

Near-term stability is more than a lot of observers predicted when Trump announced the U.S. would exit the nuclear deal on May 8th. The U.S.’s unexpectedly strong position could erode as soon as Tehran decides to quit the JCPOA after sanctions wreck its oil exports, or the rising price of oil rescues Iran’s economy despite the Trump administration’s efforts, or the U.S. finds itself in a bitter confrontation with its allies in Europe and Asia over compliance with Iran sanctions. Trump’s “maximum pressure campaign” has proven to be a more plausible way forward than just about anyone expected—but not even the policy’s architects seem sure of where it’s meant to lead.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.