This demand for a wider negotiation makes sense for several reasons: It’s a way to get the United States and Iran back to the table to discuss de-escalation of the current confrontation. But it’s also a way to force Iran to address a reality that’s clear to analysts in the United States, Europe and the Middle East: Tehran’s behavior is a source of constant friction in the region; real stability and security won’t be possible until Iran backs off.
The Democrats’ stance is important because the U.S.-Iran standoff has now entered a dangerous phase of escalation and brinkmanship. The United States is waging what amounts to economic warfare to pressure Iran into making concessions. Iran has made graduated military moves to increase the cost for the United States — shooting down a drone and, this week, blowing through the JCPOA caps on the enrichment of uranium.
Iran’s leadership, in simple terms, is running a squeeze play. It knows President Trump doesn’t want a war as he heads toward an election year. And Tehran is hoping that the Democrats and Europeans pressure Trump to preserve the old status quo without making it pay a price.
In political terms, the Iranians are hoping that disdain for Trump will be so strong on Democratic debate stages and in European foreign ministries that Tehran will get a pass. But, frankly, that’s a bet that nobody should want Tehran to win.
Iran (like Russia, China and other adversaries) sees the contest for political support in “information space” as the opening theater of battle in modern conflict. Tehran wants to use the asymmetry of this battleground to its advantage: The United States is an open society; public opinion flows freely, and if there is one thing Republicans and Democrats agree on, it’s that they don’t want another war in the Middle East.
Tehran counts on this political pressure to temper the president’s rhetoric. Iranians, from the ruling elite to traders in the bazaar, read Trump’s comments in May in Japan as a sign of the president’s pliability. “I think we’ll make a deal,” Trump said. “We’re not looking for regime change. I just want to make that clear. We’re looking for no nuclear weapons.”
Trump seems to be counting on his “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions to clamp the Iranian economy so tight that the hard-liners give ground in any negotiation. This strategy has two big problems: It puts the United States’ European allies in the middle between Tehran and Washington, and it assumes that the Iranian people will compel the regime to make concessions.
As a closed society, Iran has the seeming advantage that it can suppress both dissent and Western reporting about it. The danger for such closed nations is that strangling dissent can eventually create a domestic pressure cooker. When public anger finally explodes, it can rock society. Look at the millions in the streets of Hong Kong over the past month to protest Beijing’s policies, or the protesters in Russia who forced withdrawal of the arrest of a Russian journalist.
There are tiny glimmers of dissent visible behind the Iranian veil. Few publications have regular dispatches from Tehran, but the Financial Times’ correspondent there reported recently, “The economy is contracting and an army of unemployed young people think they have no future in their homeland. The hopelessness is alarming.”
The political danger for Tehran was summarized well in a July 8 speech by former president Mohammad Khatami: “If people lose faith in reform, gradually the overthrowing mentality will take hold and, God forbid, they might succeed.”
Democrats could take the high ground in this debate if they made a simple point: We oppose Trump’s Iran policy and favor a return to the JCPOA. But we also oppose Iran’s destabilizing actions in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen.
It’s the right policy, and it’s also useful leverage in this crisis. A harder line on the American left would usefully turn the tables.