- In recent weeks tensions have grown between Iran and the US, with the US deploying an aircraft carrier and bombers to the Gulf region in response to perceived Iranian aggression.
- But experts argue that rather than preparing for war Trump is applying the same “maximum pressure” tactics on Iran as he used to bring North Korea to the negotiating table.
- “The Trump strategy is predicated on the idea that doubling down 150% on Iran is the way to bring Iran to the table,” Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank told Business Insider.
- Observers are divided over whether the president’s strong-arm tactics with Iran will be successful.
- Iranian president Hasan Rouhani remarked Thursday of the US that: “In the morning they send their carrier, at night they give us telephone numbers.”
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
In recent days, fears have grown that escalating tensions between Iran and the US could erupt into a military conflict.
The US has increased its military presence in the Persian Gulf, accusing Iran of deploying missiles which could be used to target US forces in the region, and has evacuated US personnel from its embassy in the Iraqi capital Baghdad.
Critics have focused on Trump’s hawkish national security adviser John Bolton, who has been accused of seeking to coax the president into forcing the regime change in Iran that he has long advocated.
But some observers are taking a different view, and see in Trump’s treatment of Iran not as a build-up to conflict, but rather the application of strong-arm negotiating tactics.
Reports indicate that Trump is frustrated with Bolton for his excessively uncompromising treatment of Iran, but the president has over the last two years slowly increased pressure on the country, tearing up the Iran deal brokered between the Obama administration and Tehran, and imposing tough sanctions on the country.
In May, the US imposed fresh sanctions on Iran, targeting steel, aluminium and copper exports. The president has vowed to renegotiate a bigger, better deal with Iran, to curb its nuclear ambitions and what he claims is its malign influence in the region.
Observers point to a similar pattern in his treatment of another state where the US is determined to neutralise a nuclear threat: North Korea.
With North Korea, Trump initially threatened the “total destruction” of the state following a series of missile tests by Pyongyang in 2017, then when North Korea agreed to denuclearization talks the president stepped back from threats of military action, and lavished praise on its leader, Kim Jong Un.
With Iran maximum pressure is again being used as leverage to bring Tehran to the negotiating table, they claim. Trump on Thursday tweeted: “I’m sure that Iran will want to talk soon,” and according to multiple reports has told advisers that he wants a diplomatic solution to the current crisis.
“He is trying to rerun the North Korea thing, to be as extreme as he can be up until the point of military action,” Thomas Wright, a Brookings Institution fellow told the New Yorker in an article published Friday.
Wright, however, pointed to a key and terrifying difference: “His advisers then were worried he was going to war, so there was no danger of them pulling him in, whereas, in this case, his adviser wants to drag him in.”
During the presidential election campaign in 2016 Trump sold himself to the electorate as the dealmaker in chief, and observers say he has long prized his ability to face-down opponents and haggle out agreements.
“I think this is a president that is looking for transactional outcomes and this is a president that would like to be able to demonstrate he can achieve negotiations on very tough issues where his predecessors have failed,” Sanam Vakil, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, told Business Insider.
She said that Iran was well aware of the parallels with North Korea: “I would also add that the Iranians have been very carefully watching North Korea and the negotiations to see if this is a model that would fit in their playbook in this way.”
However, Vakil warned that the administration’s “zero sum” approach of ratcheting up the threats was unlikely to result in a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran.
“The Trump strategy is predicated on the idea that doubling down 150% on Iran is the way to bring Iran to the table. I think that is a reflection of their limited understanding of the Islamic Republic, their worldview. So I don’t see backing Iran into a corner with zero sum objectives as being the right strategy,” she said,
According to Vakil, Tehran would expect to see a sign of possible concessions from the US before agreeing to talk, and for bellicose rhetoric to be ratcheted down.
Other observers though point out that Iran is more susceptible to economic pressure than North Korea, with its economy hit hard by recent US sanctions to restrict it selling oil on international markets.
“Maximum pressure has been much more effective against Iran than North Korea,” Gary Samore, a professor at Brandeis University and former Obama administration official told the Atlantic.
This is “mainly because Iran is much more vulnerable to trade and financial sanctions than North Korea and because China is quietly doing enough to keep North Korea alive for fear that Kim [Jong] Un will do something desperate if economic pain [gets] too intense,” Samore said.
Iran’s leaders have thus far shown little willingness to reopen negotiations with the US unless it reenters the Obama administration-brokered nuclear agreement, and President Hasan Rouhani in remarks Thursday gave his own summary of US policy.
“In the morning they send their carrier, at night they give us telephone numbers. But we have enough numbers from the Americans,” he remarked.
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