By Edward Carney
On Wednesday, various headlines in Western media credited White House National Security Advisor John Bolton with ramping up the administration’s rhetoric regarding the Islamic Republic of Iran, just two days after President Donald Trump reassured international audiences that he was not pursuing regime change and only expected Tehran to give up all nuclear ambitions via a more satisfying agreement than the one Trump withdrew from last year.
For his part, Bolton has long advocated for regime change in Iran, repeatedly telling gatherings of dissidents and supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran that this should be “the declared policy of the United States.” Owing to Trump’s selection of notoriously hawkish personalities as both National Security Advisor and Secretary of State, it has frequently been suggested that the expectation of regime change is lurking underneath the administration’s declared policy of “maximum pressure.”
However, the USA Today provided a different explanation for the administration’s makeup and, more specifically, for the apparent mismatch in recent statements by Bolton and Trump. The article quoted Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as saying that the contrasting statements may be part of “a well-orchestrated campaign,” that includes a geopolitical version of the “good cop, bad cop” routine, with Bolton and Pompeo in the latter role.
This reflects upon something that Trump himself said while criticizing mainstream media coverage of his Iran policy. Despite rebuking outlets like the New York Times for overstating the scope of the White House’s plans for military containment of Iranian threats, the president credited such reporting with keeping the Iranian regime confused as to his administration’s actual intentions. This, he added, “might very well be a good thing.”
But even as Trump accused the press of speculating carelessly about his perspective on military deployment, the administration did order new deployments for the express purpose of discouraging Iran from further escalation. It was reported last week that 900 new military personnel would be taking up positions in the Middle East, while the deployments of 600 more would be extended. This came after Bolton announced that a US aircraft carrier group and a bomber task force had already been directed to counter Iranian threats.
Despite the president’s shift in focus toward optimism about future relations and a prospective future deal with the existing Iranian leadership, there has been little to no sign of disagreement between Trump and his foreign policy advisors over these assertive measures or the threat intelligence that helped to justify them. Indeed, Trump himself sought to downplay accounts of divided opinion on Wednesday, tweeting that “there is no infighting whatsoever” and that although “different opinions are expressed,” the president alone makes “a decisive and final decision.”
The recent military deployments were ostensibly the product of this decision-making process, as were the public talking points regarding the threat of Iranian attack. Trump affirmed the reality of that threat after the relevant intelligence emerged early in May. But on Wednesday, it was Bolton who largely assumed the responsibility of emphasizing that Iranian threats were still real and ongoing. His comments to this effect, during a visit to United Arab Emirates, yielded the headlines concerning contrary trends in administration talking points. But there has so far been no indication that the president would dispute his National Security Advisor’s account of the situation.
That account included the statement that Iran “almost certainly” carried out attacks earlier in May on four tankers that were anchored in Emirati waters. Two of the ships in question belonged to the UAE, while another bore the flag of Saudi Arabia, and the fourth that of Norway. Although no one was reported injured in the sabotage attacks, subsequent investigations apparently linked them to underwater mines known to be used by the Islamic Republic. In this sense, the incident may be regarded as a warning about potential future attacks in the event that provocations are not contained or the Iranian regime follows through on its oft-repeated threats to close the Strait of Hormuz.
The Associated Press quoted Bolton as saying, “The point is to make it very clear to Iran and its surrogates that these kinds of action risk a very strong response from the United States.” In his further remarks, he noted that the tanker attacks had been preceded by an unsuccessful and formerly un-reported attack on the Saudi port of Yanbu. Additionally, the US and its allies had also publicly assigned partial blame to the Islamic Republic for drone strikes carried out by the Yemeni Houthi rebel group against an oil pipeline and an airport in Saudi Arabia.
The near-overlap of these multiple attacks arguably helps to justify Bolton’s persistent warnings about the seriousness of Iranian threats to American assets and interests. And these warnings were backed up, with reference to the same attacks and underlying intelligence, by General Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Various questions have been raised about the intelligence that emerged at the beginning of May, about which only vague details have been shared. It purportedly showed that missiles were being loaded more openly onto the decks of vessels controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and that the IRGC’s foreign proxies had been instructed to prepare for conflict with the United States. But not all observers were convinced that these constituted new threats or significant increases in provocation by the Islamic Republic.
Speaking at the Brookings Institution on Wednesday, Dunford undermined this skepticism by highlighting the unique coordination that revealed first by the intelligence and later by the actual attacks and attempted attacks that have been credited to Iran in whole or in part. “Malign activity and threats to our forces by the Iranians were not new, but a more widespread, almost campaign-like perspective for the Iranians was what we were dealing with,” he explained, referring to those who had assessed the initial intelligence disclosures.
Dunford went on to say that “people can question the veracity of the intelligence,” but their doubts ought to be diminished by the volume of threats that have been plainly realized since it first emerged. He pointed directly to the tanker, pipeline, and airport attacks as well as the firing of rockets into Baghdad’s Green Zone by Iran-backed militants, and noted that “all of that activity has taken place since the third, fourth, and the fifth [of May].”
Meanwhile, even as Trump plays “good cop” with the regime’s leadership, the threat of Iranian military provocation and terrorism continues to be reaffirmed by public statements from Iranian officials and officers in the IRGC. On Tuesday, the leader of that hardline paramilitary praised the Islamic Republic for supposedly becoming “an absolute power of the region.” This has allowed Tehran to “empty the enemy’s capacity for war,” Major General Hossein Salami said. He then added, “You see the decline and crash of the enemies’ speech,” although it was not clear whether he was referring to Bolton’s warnings of a potential American military response or to Trump’s declared belief that Iran wants to make a deal with its “enemies.”
Also on Tuesday, IRGC spokesman General Ramazan Sharif stated that the Guards do not fear any possible war with the US, which he suggested had failed to grow its power in the Middle East. At the same time, Iran’s Foreign Ministry rejected Trump’s latest appeals for dialogue, while President Hassan Rouhani suggested that such dialogue could take place, but only after the US first removes the existing economic sanctions and “fulfills its commitments.”
But for the Trump administration, or at least for the president himself, these sorts of statements point to the emerging effectiveness of those very sanctions. The White House has long insisted upon its own confidence that such economic and diplomatic measures could convince the Iranian leadership to adopt wide-ranging reforms and, in the words of Secretary of State Pompeo, “behave like a normal country.”
In the meantime, Trump appears to also be embracing the short-term effects of the military deployments, and his Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan claimed on Wednesday that the assertive posture had already succeeded in deterring attacks upon Americans in Iraq. Yet, economic pressure still remains the centerpiece of the administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy, as Pompeo can be expected to convey to Iran’s erstwhile European partners while he tours that region in the coming days.
The cumulative effects of sanctions enforcement and political pressure on close US allies has contributed to a situation in which the Islamic Republic’s crude oil exports are estimated to have fallen to only 400,000 barrels per day. Just over one year ago, before President Trump withdrew the US from the Iran nuclear deal, these exports had reportedly recovered to 2.5 million barrels per day. The subsequent sharp decline has been evident in various aspects of the Iranian economy, including in the collapse of the national currency, the rial.
While watching these trends, the White House no doubt expects them to convince Iran to draw back from its current aggressive posture, both because the regime cannot afford to sustain its military endeavors and because it needs to negotiate in order to evade economic catastrophe and/or renewed public revolt.