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Why an expert thinks we're as close to war with Iran as we've been in 25 years

Hint: Trump isn’t helping.

TEHRAN, IRAN - APRIL 19: (----EDITORIAL USE ONLY  MANDATORY CREDIT - IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER PRESS OFFICE / HANDOUT" - NO MARKETING NO ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS - DISTRIBUTED AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS----) Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei addresses the Iranian Army members as part of the National Army Day, in Tehran, Iran on April 19, 2017.   (Photo by Supreme Leader Press Office / Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei addresses the Iranian Army members as part of the National Army Day, in Tehran, Iran, on April 19, 2017.
Anadolu; Photo by Supreme Leader Press Office/Handout/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Donald Trump has made a habit of bashing Iran.

In an October speech, he called Iran a “dictatorship” of “murderous” leaders, accusing them of spreading “death, destruction, and chaos all over the globe.” He also decertified the Iran nuclear deal, calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States ever entered into.” And as a final insult to Iranians, Trump recently referred to the Persian Gulf as the “Arabian Gulf,” a needless gaffe that state TV in Iran quickly exploited.

These moves may have played well with Trump’s base, but have they actually advanced America’s interests? Or have they just bolstered the Iranian regime?

Suzanne Maloney is the deputy director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution and an expert on Iran. In this interview, we discuss the irony of Trump’s hostile approach to Iran, the consequences of his decision to decertify the nuclear deal, and whether his actions have been a gift to hardliners in Iran.

Our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sean Illing

How have US-Iranian relations changed since Trump took office?

Suzanne Maloney

I think it's clear that this administration is pursuing a much more combative policy toward Iran than President Barack Obama, who tried earnestly to engage with adversaries, particularly Iran. Iranians by and large were supportive of any American efforts that promised to increase their access to the international community, to improve their economy, and to resume Iran's status as a more normal state rather than the pariah status that it had degenerated to under the leadership of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

So the Obama administration was trying to create some degree of normalcy in the diplomatic relationship and to treat the Iranian regime with a degree of respect that it never received from previous administrations. This stands in stark contrast to what the Trump administration has embarked upon.

People underestimate how seriously and personally Iranians took Trump’s travel ban. After the ban was narrowed due to the first legal challenge, the new visa restrictions disproportionally impacted Iranians because there was a larger community of people in Iran coming to the United States through these programs. So that was seen as unabashedly hostile and completely unjustified.

Sean Illing

What were the political consequences in Iran of Trump’s decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal last month?

Suzanne Maloney

The irony is that it hasn't really produced an upheaval either in US policy toward Iran or within the Iranian political sector, but it certainly has hardened views about the capacity of any broader relationship with the United States. But to be honest, it was clear even during the Obama administration that there was very little consensus around that issue within Tehran and, if anything, Iranian leaders were hostile to the idea of any broadening relationship.

But I think we're all waiting and watching because there are a couple of key milestones that will occur, particularly in January with the deadline for the next round of sanctions waivers. If the Trump administration fails to uphold those, then we are in a whole new terrain in which the nuclear deal is in direct jeopardy. The Iranians will have a case to argue that the United States is no longer in compliance.

Sean Illing

And if the Trump administration upholds the waivers?

Suzanne Maloney

Then we remain in this kind of uneasy standoff and the possibility of a greater confrontation with Iran will increase, as will the potential for greater turmoil in the region.

Sean Illing

Has Trump’s hostility to Iran bolstered the regime’s domestic popularity?

Suzanne Maloney

I'm a bit of an outlier on this. I don't necessarily see a clear strengthening of the regime. What I do see is a narrowing of the prospects for further diplomatic engagement between the United States and Iran and the intensification or the escalation of the possibility of a direct conflict between the two governments.

Sean Illing

It’s hard to make sense of domestic politics in Iran if you don’t understand who the moderates are and who the hardliners are. What do these factions look like in Iran?

Suzanne Maloney

We have tended to look at the Iranian government as composed of good guys and bad guys, and there's some degree of accuracy to this in the sense that there are figures who are more interested in rehabilitating Iran's relationship with the international community. There are certainly factions of the political system that favor greater respect for human rights, greater social freedoms, more constructive relationships with neighbors, and there are factions that are hostile to those things.

But I think it's problematic to dichotomize the Iranian system in that way. There is a reasonably strong consensus within the system that everyone who is able to play a political role in Iran today supports the continuation of the Islamic Republic and supports some version of the system which has been ruling since 1979. That doesn’t mean that there aren't factions and political actors who have a vision of Iran evolving in a more positive direction, but what they believe and how they imagine that future unfolding is complicated.

Fundamentally, President Hassan Rouhani, who leans in a more moderate direction, is committed to sustaining the Islamic Republic. I think that there's a misconception that somehow moderates have a different view of core Iranian security interests and thus far I don't think there's any real evidence for that.

Sean Illing

Speaking of President Rouhani, he took a big risk when he signed off on the nuclear deal with the US. The hardliners opposed it and argued that the Americans couldn’t be trusted. Trump’s actions seem to have confirmed that narrative. Have the moderate forces in Iran been undermined as a result?

Suzanne Maloney

I think that the process of diplomatic cooperation between the United States and Iran has certainly been undermined by Trump. That's an obvious statement.

But Rouhani's position thus far doesn't appear to be substantially weakened. He's come under criticism for appearing to advocate too strenuously for greater engagement between Iran and Washington and the broader international community, but in effect the system as a whole signed off on the nuclear deal.

There simply wouldn't have been an Iranian agreement to the deal until and unless the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was satisfied, which meant that there was something of a consensus when the deal was signed. The broader security bureaucracy was basically satisfied with the deal.

Iran isn't a one-party state, and there is a huge amount of political discourse and debate within Iran. So there was plenty of criticism of different aspects of the deal, but in the immediate weeks and days after the deal was concluded in July 2015, the leadership of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards came out in support of it. So this was never strictly a Rouhani deal.

As such, if the Iranians are going to walk away from it, they can't really pin this on the moderates. This was a consensus decision on the part of the regime and if they walk away I think that will also be a consensus decision.

Sean Illing

We’ve got the situation between the US and Iran, which is obviously strained, and at the same time tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, the other major power in the region, are also flaring up. How do you see all of this playing out in the next few years?

Suzanne Maloney

I think Iran has good reason to feel threatened right now by the actions of the Saudis and by the appearance of some collusion between the Saudis, the United States, and even the Israelis. One thing we know about the Iranian security bureaucracy is that they believe the best defense is a good offense.

So I don't expect to see an Iran that is backing down. I do think what we've seen is a certain degree of judiciousness. The Iranians know that if they appear to be overly provocative, they might lose some of the traction that they have built up in terms of restoring both diplomatic and business relationships with Europe and the rest of the world. So they're proceeding relatively carefully.

But I think we are probably at the highest point in my 25-year career of watching Iran and the United States of potential conflict between the two countries, and I think the possibility of that playing out in an unpredictable fashion is uncomfortably high. Neither side wants to precipitate a clash, but they’re both deeply engaged in unstable situations and there isn't the greatest degree of policy coherence on either side right now.

That’s obviously a dangerous situation.

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