Why Trump’s Strategy for Iran Is Likely to Lead to War

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Submitted to VT by Trita Parsi


Trita Parsi

[ Editor’s NoteI was first introduced to Trita Parsi’s work through a new VT contact, a close associate of Dr. Richard N. Frye, America’s foremost Iranologist, and the Aga Khan Professor Emeritus of Iranian Studies at Harvard University.

I was scheduled to go to the New Horizon Conference and wanted to bone up on Iran’s history, so I googled Frye up to buy his The Golden Age of Persia, and then Pars’s Treacherous Alliance, The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran and the US.

It was a classic research project with over 100 interviews of top placed people intimately involved in the subject. Both books were good plane reading on the flight over and back and helped me out on the lecture tour.

Parsi’s books have established him as the “go to” guy on the diplomatic history of the long running Iran-US-Israel geopolitical battles, and a popular columnist for American media. We will be keeping an eye on his commentaries for you all …Jim W. Dean ]

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In Iran last week on a speaking tour after the New Horizon conference, Bandar Abbas – Jim W. Dean Archives

– First published – May 23, 2018

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech on May 21 only reinforced what was already known about Donald Trump’s strategy for Iran: Either the president is ratcheting up the pressure on Tehran to get a “better deal,” which is the official story and the gist of Pompeo’s message, or he is merely pretending to be interested in new negotiations, while putting into place the building blocks for a military assault on Iran.

Yet even if Trump genuinely seeks new negotiations, he is more likely to end up in a war, because the very premise of Pompeo’s speech is false. That’s because more pressure on Iran would not have secured a better nuclear deal in 2015—it would only have led to war, or to a nuclear Iran.

A persistent mythology on the right insists that President Obama botched his own Iran strategy because he lacked the backbone to fully squeeze Tehran. Obama had assembled an impressive sanctions regime that was doing significant damage to Iran’s economy. With the value of its currency cut in half, its oil sales reduced to a trickle, and its GDP contracting by roughly 34 percent, Iran was on its knees, this narrative claims.

All Obama had to do was to tighten the screws a bit more and give it another six months, and the mullahs in Tehran would have surrendered: No more Iranian nuclear program, no more challenges to US primacy in the Middle East, and no more defiance of Israel.

But, alas, Obama opted for compromise instead of forcing a capitulation. Rather than squeeze the country until it broke, he offered to lift the sanctions if Iran agreed to restrict its nuclear program. Tehran smelled Obama’s weakness, this mythology claims, and happily accepted the undeserved lifeline.

The result was the 2015 nuclear agreement, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which granted Iran relief from nuclear-related sanctions in exchange for a large reduction in its stockpile of enriched uranium and its number of centrifuges, as well as periodic intrusive inspections of every element of its nuclear-fuel cycle by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Iran would still be able to enrich uranium, but only to 3.67 percent—well below what’s needed to produce a nuclear weapon.

Now Trump is seeking to reverse this alleged mistake by reimposing sanctions. Then, once the moment is right, he will go back to the negotiating table—this time not to negotiate, however, but to accept Iran’s capitulation. It all sounds so wonderful, simple, and tidy. What could possibly go wrong?

Everything. Indeed, the very premise of the right-wing narrative is wrong: Iran was not about to capitulate, and US leverage over the country was waning—not growing. When Obama first sought to cripple Iran’s economy to force Tehran to submit, Iran responded by doubling down on its nuclear program. When Obama took office in 2009, Iran operated roughly 8,000 centrifuges; by 2013, it had added another 14,000.

Iran had also increased its stockpile of low-enriched uranium eightfold and significantly advanced its nuclear know-how, all of which provided Tehran with counter-leverage. In January 2012, the United States estimated that Iran’s breakout capacity—the time it would take to have enough material for one nuclear bomb—was 12 months. By 2013, that time had shrunk to eight to 12 weeks.

As a result, Iran was outpacing the United States in building leverage. By early 2013, Obama realized that if nothing changed, Washington would soon have only two options: Either accept Iran as a de facto nuclear power, or go to war. Iran would be able to achieve a near-zero breakout capacity before its economy collapsed, so letting the sanctions bite for another six months would only increase the likelihood of war—not the likelihood of Iran’s surrender.

This is why, in March 2013, Obama did the unthinkable. In secret negotiations, he broke with past US policy and offered to accept, given sufficient transparency and limitations, the enrichment of uranium on Iranian soil.

This was Iran’s bottom line: It was willing to endure almost any economic hardship before it gave up enrichment. (Most nations, including some involved in the negotiations leading up to the JCPOA, accept Iran’s right to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty, to which it is a signatory, but this had been a sticking point for US and European Union negotiators.)

Obama knew all along that no nuclear deal would be possible unless he conceded this point. But the plan was to play the enrichment card at the end of the negotiations, since it was the United States’ most valuable concession. Instead, Obama had to play it at the outset. It was this move, not the sanctions policy, that ultimately elicited Iranian flexibility and paved the way for a nuclear deal.

Yet the Obama administration also planted the seeds of the right-wing narrative that Trump is now using. Recognizing that domestic political opposition to a deal with Iran might shoot through the roof if the administration admitted the limits of its sanctions policy—as well as the reality that Tehran had outpaced Washington in the leverage department—the Obama team insisted that sanctions had brought Iran to the table.

It was a formulation that falsely credited sanctions, rather than the US concession on enrichment, for the diplomatic breakthrough and gave the impression that the United States had been operating from a position of strength. In fact, the full details of the secret negotiations with Iran, including the intricacies around the enrichment concession, first came to light through the publication of my book Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.

By using language that insisted the United States was operating from a position of overwhelming strength, the Obama administration helped to give birth to a persistent question: If the sanctions were so successful in forcing Iran to the negotiating table, why didn’t the administration continue the sanctions until Iran capitulated fully? In response, Obama had to gently walk back his claims.

“Iran is not going to simply dismantle its program because we demand it to do so,” he admitted on April 2, 2015. “That’s not how the world works, and that’s not what history shows us. Iran has shown no willingness to eliminate those aspects of their program that they maintain are for peaceful purposes, even in the face of unprecedented sanctions.”

Other officials, speaking privately, put it more bluntly. “The Iranians simply won’t capitulate,” even if faced with war, a senior Obama official said during a closed briefing at the White House that I attended in July 2015. “Because they’re Iranians,” he added after a brief pause.

But the damage had already been done, and the right-wing mythology started to take hold. Today, it constitutes the basis for Pompeo’s speech and Trump’s Plan B.

But even if the Trump team manages to rebuild the sanctions coalition against Iran—which remains unlikely, given the strong support for the JCPOA by the European Union as well as by Russia and China, all signatories to the agreement—it is difficult to imagine Trump succeeding where Obama failed: that is, by overwhelming Iran with pressure that would force it to surrender rather than expand its nuclear program.

When Obama realized the limits of sanctions and pressure, he avoided war by going to the negotiating table. There’s little indication that Trump is capable of the same courage and prudence.

Indeed, with Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State and John Bolton as national security adviser—both anti-Iran hard-liners—Trump’s strategy seems designed to fail. Instead of a Plan B aimed at securing Iran’s capitulation, it appears designed to pave the way for Plan C: war.

Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, is the author, most recently, of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy (Yale University Press, June 2017)


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  1. The only thing the US could realistically do is bomb and I doubt that it will be a costless operation. It will serve to unite the Iranian people. The topology of Iran makes Afghanistan seem flat by comparison and any thought of a ground invasion is delusional. It would be answered by a protracted and costly guerrilla campaign. You could not see any US vassal rushing to join in except perhaps the idiots in London. Bombing Iran will probably start a low intensity conflict that could last many years.

  2. first off..the idea that tRUMP has any idea what is going on…well…that isnt ever going to be the case….he just is told what to say and that becomes his policy.

    the fact that american media in lock step with israel will never educate the people is the real issue.

    all these far right war mongers know their ambition runs through israel and its lackey media….so they never worry about their true intent being exposed.

    but…what makes everyone so confident that all they need do is announce a war… bomb Iran till they decide to stop and that will be the extent of things?

    surely they will inflict pain..but Iran through its proxies have the means to level tel aviv and Iran alone can attack every amercan military base in the middle east ….and who knows what else..plus…the wild cards of russia and china…..will the american people sit still for another war when the soldiers come home dead in the 1000’s….?

    the old saying applies here about how easy it is to start a war…but ending it is a far different matter.

    i dont see any reason to assume if attacked ANYTHING will be held back in a response.

  3. Let me guess why they do this, for a new war for Rothschild´s Israhell ? That is the reason why Drumpf had to set up his war cabinett w warmongers. Since 1898 we see the same scenario over and over again and they think they do it cleverly.

  4. HRC=not important, however ridiculous Pompeous orders to Iran and perhaps joking Bolton’s
    orders to N.K. to de-nuke like Lybia, as if North Koreans forgot what had happened to Gaddafi,
    they both seem ardently to commence the war on those 2 countries. When we add the US puppets’
    debasing Venezuelan Pres. elections and calls for immediate sanctions or forceful removal of
    Pres. Maduro, when we add that SAA might finally respond w. force to the latest US bombing
    of Syrian Army units in the N.Eastern part of their country, when the additional thousands of
    US & NATO troops, currently conveyed there, stand impatiently on the border between Baltic States
    and Russia/Belorussia, well where to send tomahawks and boots first, would be the question? And
    I am not omitting Ukra & NATO “final” push to extinguish independent Donetsk& Luhansk republics
    planned, when R.F. will engage in the World soccer Bacchanalia! Will ex-waitress Nicky remind us
    that US had to slap those errants as she promised it already to Russia?

  5. The rest of the world must begin to show some guts and courage and tell the bully U.S. to SHOVE IT. Frankly some one should have bombed the invader U.S. out of Syria long ago. They are a criminal invader there with zero permission. Give them a taste of their own medicine for a change. Boycott the U.S. The bigger they are the harder they fall. Do not buy or sell anything to this bunch of gangsters and criminals. The U.S. is bankrupt fiscally and morally going the way of Rome. Help them to destroy themselves. This would be a favor to the planet and future generations.

    • The U.S. and Israel are basically Mafia or Mob gangsters of the world today. They worship onlyone God, MONEY and two countries U.S. and Israel. So far as they are concerned the rest can go to H.
      Remember the Mafia dictum to its victims: “You might as well cooperate because we are going to kill you anyway.” This is what both these gangster criminals follow. So you gain nothing by giving in to these unindicted international war criminals of the planet Israel and the United States. Fight them and boycott them NOW because if you don’t they will kill you when you are not looking. They have no scruples or conscience or morals. They care nothing about any human life other than their own. These are dishonest liars, cheaters, con artists, draft dodgers, cowards of the planet including the cowardly four star generals who stood down and did nothing to defend the U.S. on 9/11/01. All should be sitting in a jail cell for life but instead are retired on lavish undeserved pensions.

  6. For all the money finding its way into the Clinton Foundation that arguably set the agenda by contributors for designated US foreign relations on HRH becoming President, Iran stands out by comparison in my humble opinion as one outstanding single issue both bought and paid for by Trump donors to his presidential campaign. Hence his unbending attitude towards Iran. He doesn’t have the intelligence or that delicately nuanced ability to read between the lines – let alone read the lines. It sounds like a plan for the ejection of a troublesome resident by a clique of New York/New Jersey slumlords. Petty, local, parish-pump bs writ large by small-minded pro-Israeli bigots and NeoCon warmongers. When you look for common sense in Washington you might get close by seeing someone scratching their arse.

    • HRC or Hilary Rodham Clinton and not – despite her fanciful notions about herself – HRH, Her Royal Highness! Forgive my lack of decorum Hilary and find it in your innate and wonderful sense of Noblesse Oblige to forgive me. Your rambunctious varlet, etc.

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