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Trump throws Iran fake bait while sanctions loom

Atta Kenare, AFP | A man glances at a newspaper in Tehran on July 31, 2018, days before the start of US sanctions.

US President Donald Trump’s Iran policy has veered from pulling out of multilateral deals and making bellicose tweets to a shock offer of talks with Tehran, none of which are particularly effective, as Iranians brace for the start of US sanctions.

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Just days before Washington re-imposes a first lot of sanctions against Tehran on August 6th, following the US pullout from the Iran nuclear deal, the sabre rattling is reaching boiling point -- in cyberspace and, more alarmingly, the real world.

Iran launched naval exercises in the Gulf this week, according to Washington, moving up the timing of the annual drills, which usually happen in the spring season. On August 3rd, dozens of mostly small attack boats were spotted in the Strait of Hormuz, a narrow waterway linking the Persian Gulf to the Arabian Sea, through which 20 percent of the world’s oil trade moves.

The exercises sparked another Twitter fuss, with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif making a dig at a US Central Command (CENTCOM) tweet announcing, "We are aware of the increase in #Iran naval operations within the Arabian Gulf, Strait of #Hormuz and Gulf of Oman."

Zarif, on a visit to Singapore for the ASEAN summit, couldn’t stop himself from riposting: “US Navy can’t seem to find its way around our waters. Perhaps because it hasn’t figured out its name: Persian Gulf, as it's been called for 2,000 yrs longer than US has existed.

The latest Washington v. Tehran war of tweets follows Donald Trump’s all-caps Twitter rant last month that Iran should “never, ever threaten the United States again or you will suffer consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered before.”

But Trump’s Iran strategy -- or, some would say, lack thereof -- is not winning the US much ground inside or outside Iran, according to several analysts. As the clock ticks towards the Monday, August 6 re-imposition of US sanctions, Iranians are suffering a crippling summer of discontent while Washington’s allies in Europe and elsewhere are increasingly turning into helpless spectators of a show veering sharply between tragedy and farce.

To talk or not to talk to Trump

The US policy inconsistencies peaked with Trump’s shock declaration on Monday, July 30, that he was willing to meet Iran’s leadership for talks “without preconditions”. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, however, later clarified that the talks offer was “with preconditions”, increasing the jumble emanating from Washington these days.

Iran predictably declined the offer, with or without preconditions. The official Iranian response stressed that Tehran preferred to stick with the multilateral 2015 nuclear deal – called the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) – as Iranian officials such as Ali Akbar Nategh Nouri, a senior cleric and member of the influential Expediency Council, warned that the Trump overture “could be a test for us”.

Analysts meanwhile scrambled to decode the Trump turnaround with many wondering if the US president was trying to “pull a North Korea on Iran”. Policy hawks, such as Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the controversial, Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, hailed “a well-timed offer made as the leaders of the Islamic Republic are facing increasingly severe economic and social crises".

The offer was viewed as such a shocker in international diplomatic circles that senior US officials had to reassure their Israeli counterparts that there was “no change” in the Trump administration’s “tough policies toward Iran”, according to the Times of Israel.

Trump ‘shocker’ follows Bolton’s ‘script’

But Trump was merely following a script, according to James M. Dorsey of the Singapore-based S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. The “script” was written by John Bolton last year -- before he was appointed US National Security Advisor -- and published in the conservative magazine, National Review, after Bolton failed to hand it over personally to the president, Dorsey noted in a blog post.

Bolton’s “Iran nonpaper” -- which Trump has so far been following to the letter -- offers detailed advice on how the US should manage the pullout of the Iran nuclear deal. Under the subsection, “Greatly expanded diplomatic campaign post-announcement”, Bolton chalks out a strategy to build international support after the US withdrawal from the JCPOA. “Iran is not likely to seek further negotiations once the JCPOA is abrogated, but the Administration may wish to consider rhetorically leaving that possibility open,” he noted.

If the Bolton argument is to be followed, Trump’s call for talks with Iran was not genuine and was designed as an attempt to gain the diplomatic high ground by exposing Iran as a country that’s unwilling to negotiate.

Another goal, repeatedly extensively by hawks in Trump’s close circles, is to destabilise the Iranian regime by encouraging domestic dissent over the economic and social situation in the country, with regime change as the ultimate aim.

On both counts, though, Trump’s Iran policies are likely to backfire.

Wooing opposition groups, from monarchists to Marxists, in exile

While protests over the currency drop and increasing economic woes have broken out in several Iranian cities, the population is unlikely to fall behind the Trump administration to topple the regime. The US president’s anti-Iran tweets are routinely met with #ShutUpTrump and #StopMeddlingInIran responses by Iranians on Twitter.

“Even though there is widespread anger in the country about lack of economic progress; the leaderless and unorganised opposition forces in Iran are unlikely to knowingly cooperate with the US to topple the Iranian establishment. They know that any such move would be brutally dealt with by Iran's security forces,” noted Massoumeh Torfeh of the London School of Economics in an Al Jazeera column.

While the 2015 Iran nuclear deal strengthened Iran’s centrist President Hassan Rouhani’s position in the Islamic republic, Trump’s pullout and bellicose rhetoric have boosted the hardliners, forcing the moderates to echo the anti-US rhetoric of the Iranian clerical and security establishment.

Opposition and civil society groups inside Iran are also unlikely to follow Washington’s call for regime change due to the close connection between key Trump’s advisors and the MEK (Mujahideen-e-Khalq), a cultish, Marxist group that was once designated a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU, and widely reviled in Iran.

In late June, when Trump’s personal lawyer Rudi Giuliani called for regime change in Iran at rally by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), an umbrella coalition largely controlled by the MEK, the former New York mayor was roundly criticised by Iranians.

The wait-and-watch game

While Trump’s close circle woos marginal Iranian opposition groups in exile, ranging from Marxists to monarchists, conditions are worsening for ordinary citizens inside Iran, who are trapped between regime hardliners -- who were always against negotiating with the West -- and ineffectual moderates who have failed to ease their economic suffering.

Trump’s overture to hold talks with Iran just days before the first tranche of US sanctions kicks in Monday was aimed to put Rouhani between a rock and hard place.

But the Iranian president was never about to take Trump at his word – at least not publicly.

On the diplomatic front, Iran could maintain secret backdoor channels to the US, which Tehran tends to prefer, but which is not Trump’s style.

In recent days, attention was fixed in Iran policy circles on the Omani foreign minister’s travel plans after Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullahmet with Pompeo in Washington earlier this week before traveling to Tehran on Friday.

Oman, which has good ties with both Washington and Tehran, has served as a facilitator of previous talks between the US and Iran.

"It is not impossible that the Omanis could intervene right now, they can play the role of facilitators -- as they did in 2011-2012, laying the groundwork for the negotiations of the 2015 nuclear agreement. At that time, they guaranteed secrecy, offered meeting venues and passed on messages,” explained François Nicoullaud, a former French ambassador to Iran, in an interview with FRANCE 24.

But if the Bolton memo is to be believed, the backdoor channels may well be just another stalling measure by Washington to string Tehran along while the Trump administration reaches out to opposition groups inside and outside Iran.

For the moment though, Iran is not about to jump on any hasty, ill-conceived offer from the Trump administration. "The Iranians are playing the wait-and-watch game until the crucial [US] midterm elections [in November] and hope that Trump will be impeached,” said Nicoullaud.

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