As the White House forges ahead with a "maximum pressure" sanctions policy against Iran, threats of war and regime change were bound to follow. In a not-so-subtle all-caps tweet late on July 22, U.S. President Donald Trump warned Iran it "will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before" if it continues to threaten the United States. U.S. national security adviser John Bolton echoed Trump's doomsday threat the next morning, saying Iran "will pay a price like few countries have ever paid before." U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meanwhile took lead on the regime change angle. In a July 22 speech to a largely Iranian-American audience in Los Angeles, Pompeo railed against the "hypocritical holy men who amassed vast sums of wealth while allowing their people to suffer." He accompanied those remarks with tweets in Farsi addressed to the Iranian people expressing American solidarity with them against "40 years of tyranny."
As long as the Trump administration can neutralize a military crisis over North Korea, it will have more room to escalate military pressure on Iran. Stratfor said in its 2018 Third-Quarter Forecast that in walking away from the Iran nuclear deal and reinstating hard-hitting sanctions, the White House is hoping against all odds to foment enough economic frustration in Iran to set regime change in motion. While regime change remains a long shot, Iran is facing a higher risk of confrontation with the United States as it comes under internal pressure to walk back its commitments on the nuclear deal.
Reviewing the Trump Playbook on Iran
The combative rhetoric fits neatly with the White House's Iran strategy to date. Similar to its handling of North Korea, the Trump administration, now stacked with Iran hawks, believes that in a best-case scenario a maximum pressure campaign — one that involves ditching the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, snapping back all sanctions against Iran and denying waivers to Iran's trading partners while threatening military action — could eventually drive the Iranian government back to the negotiating table to rewrite the nuclear deal. Short of that highly dubious outcome, at least during the Trump presidency, the White House has been remarkably open about its intent to use a combination of economic turmoil, propaganda efforts and potentially covert activity in collaboration with Israel and Saudi Arabia to create the conditions for regime change from the ground up.
The latter outcome, too, appears far-fetched. The Iranian economy is already under enormous strain, and that pain will be compounded when sanctions snap back in August and November. From the point of view of the White House, widespread protests early in the year in poorer parts of rural Iran, along with more recent demonstrations in Tehran among the merchant class, were signs of revolutionary potential. But it remains to be seen whether the forces behind those protests can converge into a mass movement, especially as U.S. bellicosity provides the regime with ample fuel to rally its people against enemy forces and justify a rising tide of crackdowns.
By design, Trump's Iran policy does not leave space for nuance in dealing with Iran's leadership. This in turn leaves little room for negotiation, at least with the current U.S. administration. Even though Iranian President Hassan Rouhani belongs to a more pragmatic faction and has a proven record of engaging with the West and pushing back against his conservative opponents, the White House's move to remanufacture a confrontation with Tehran has weakened Rouhani's position while favoring his hard-line rivals. While conservative media in Iran routinely seeks to discredit their moderate president, the same hard-line media outlets have been praising Rouhani ever since he more recently joined in their threats to block oil exports through the Strait of Hormuz. One such outlet even referred to Rouhani as the "Lord of the Strait" and Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Quds Force, warmly embraced the president in a recent letter as "the same Dr. Rouhani whom we knew and know, and who must be." Rouhani is at the same time facing heavy pressure in parliament over the deteriorating state of the economy and could be forced to rebalance his Cabinet soon with members of the conservative camp as his political capital continues to decline.
Weighing the War Threat
Whether the war rhetoric will translate into military conflict will depend on several factors:
Rouhani's political weakening and growing reliance on the IRGC to rebuild covert channels to circumvent sanctions risks steering Iran toward riskier behavior. The IRGC's navy, for example, could harass U.S. or allied military vessels, tankers carrying Saudi or Emirati crude oil, Saudi or Emirati offshore production platforms, or Iraqi or Kuwaiti loading platforms. Iranian cyber activity against regional economic targets is also more likely in this threat environment. The threat to close the Strait of Hormuz — and cripple the roughly 30 percent of seaborne trade and 18 million barrels of oil that transit the strait daily — is a loaded one. Not only would Iran be shooting itself economically in the foot by paralyzing its own energy trade, such a move would guarantee U.S. military action. Iran's Kharg oil terminal, which exports 95 percent of Iran's oil, would likely come under attack by U.S. and allied forces in such an extreme scenario.
On the nuclear front, Iran has been cautious so far in expanding its enrichment capacity within the bounds of the JCPOA while trying to maintain its economic channels with Europe. But as European options remain limited in the face of U.S. secondary sanctions, Iran could take formal steps to withdraw from the nuclear deal as well as the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty while ramping up parts of its nuclear program. The risk associated with all options is that they could invite a credible U.S. military response at a time when the United States is in tight collaboration with both Israel and Saudi Arabia, and all are bent on applying maximum pressure on Iran. Where the Iranian leadership tries to draw the line between pushing back against the U.S.-led pressure campaign and avoiding a clear path to war will depend heavily on the political balance and degree of policy coherence in Tehran and how much risk the leadership is willing to tolerate in the remaining years of the Trump administration.
Between Iran and North Korea, the Trump administration has plenty to deal with.
The United States has the ability to surge military assets into the Persian Gulf and credibly threaten a military reaction to hostile acts by Iran. The main arrestor to a U.S. military response in dealing with Iran in the coming months stems from Washington's troubled negotiating track with North Korea. The White House's move to engage in diplomacy with North Korea has given space to China, South Korea and Russia to reestablish economic channels with Pyongyang, thereby complicating any attempt to return to maximum pressure tactics. U.S.-North Korean talks have predictably hit a logjam as Pyongyang tries to secure firmer political concessions and as the White House pursues a basic blueprint on denuclearization. While the current jam does not portend a collapse of the negotiating track just yet, it does expose just how raw North Korea remains on the Trump foreign policy agenda — at the same time as the administration attempts to ramp up its confrontation with Iran. The White House's fear of a spike in oil prices, the limitations on Saudi Arabia in balancing the oil market and the growing trade war threat to the global economy are additional constraining factors that could influence the pace of U.S. military threats against Iran.
Russia will also intersect with the U.S.-Iran escalation. As Trump expends heavy political capital in trying to keep talks alive with Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin is also trying to leverage his influence in the Middle East to steer Trump toward a broader bargain. To that end, Putin has recently tossed up a proposal in which Russia would attempt to contain Iranian military activity in southwest Syria and provide a buffer to Israel on its northern frontier. The plan is riddled with complications, including limits on Russia's ability to control Iranian actions on the ground. When the U.S.-Russia negotiation inevitably stalls, Russia can just easily pivot back to its spoiler role and further complicate U.S. and allied efforts in Syria. Russia could also float sales of advanced air defense system to Iran in its time of need to try and undermine U.S.-led military threats against Iran.