August 8, 2018 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1410

The U.S.-Iran Confrontation – Possible Developments In Advance Of The November Sanctions

August 8, 2018 | By A. Savyon and Yigal Carmon*
Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1410


An examination of developments that can be expected in the Iran-U.S. confrontation requires first an understanding of the policy of U.S. President Donald Trump, both in general and in how this policy is reflected in his approach to Iran.

Trump's Policy

President Trump's political rivals both within and outside the U.S. have called his policy inconsistent, contradictory, and impulsive. However, beyond the legitimate political criticism, it is possible to distinguish the clear lines and defined aims of a consistent policy, the elements of which are:

  1. Refusal to accept the status quo inherited from his predecessors (including refusal to accept the existence of the Iranian regime itself, or at least its activity in the region and internationally);

  2. Readiness to engage in open confrontation, both politically and economically;

  3. Seeking to change the inherited situation by means of negotiations, to come about as a result of economic and political pressure, not military means;

  4. Offering countries with which he is in conflict a choice between arriving at a new understanding by means of negotiations, or via severe conflict that can spill over to other areas – even if this is not at the initiative of the U.S. It should be emphasized that in all stages of negotiation, Trump appears to be striving not for maximum gain, but for partial achievements with reciprocal concessions – for example, with Europe, Canada, and China.

These policy lines apply to all countries with which Trump is in conflict – either economic, such as Europe or China, or those  that constitute a military threat such as North Korea, Russia, and Iran – with the aim of changing the situation. One limitation of this political approach is that it does not suit all countries, for various reasons.

  • Europe and Canada, which share a political culture with the U.S, and are also in a weaker position vis-à-vis it, are willing to negotiate new understandings, and even to arrive at reciprocal concessions with it. In contrast,

  • China, which considers itself strong enough to clash with the U.S., has not yet put out political feelers regarding negotiations on changing economic relations with the U.S. Additionally:

  • Russia, with whose president Trump seeks to come to a new understanding, inter alia to enlist it for comprehensively confronting the real global threat – that is, China – feels confident enough, despite its weakness, to refrain from complying with pressure from Trump, who needs it as a partner. It should be noted that Trump has warned that if things do not work out that way, "I'll be the worst enemy he's [i.e. Putin's] ever had."

  • North Korea, although a totalitarian state with an extremist ideology, is not opposed to negotiations. For years it has been leveraging negotiations with American administrations to become stronger, by various deceitful means. This is because its political culture does not preclude negotiating with an enemy or even receiving aid from it while deceiving it.

The Case Of Iran

In the matter of Iran, President Trump is seeking fundamental change – not only withdrawing from the JCPOA, and as a result rescinding Iran's nuclear state status, but also changing the anti-West and anti-U.S. regime of the Islamic Revolution established nearly four decades ago. Although the Trump administration argues that all it wants is for Iran to change how the regime of the ayatollahs is acting regionally and internationally, this anti-West and anti-U.S. behavior is the most fundamental element of its identity, and changing it means changing the regime itself. Additionally, anti-Iranian regime statements by U.S. administration officials reflect a basic refusal to accept the Iranian regime itself.

Although according to the principle of his policy, as set out above – that is, a new understanding or a conflict – Trump and his administration are calling for meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rohani, it is also clear to his administration that such a meeting, under pressure about which Trump openly speaks, as part of negotiations, will constitute the Islamic Republic of Iran's surrender to the demands of the U.S.

The Iranian Response

The Development Of Internal Political Conflict In Iran On The Question Of "To Meet Or Not To Meet"

The question of "to meet or not to meet" has become a new focus of the protracted conflict between Iran's two camps, the ideological and the pragmatic/reformist. Although President Trump's aim is strategic – to bring about a change in the inherited Iran situation – with his policy of combining economic and political pressure, and even threats, with an invitation to meet and negotiate, he has already racked up the tactical achievement of exacerbating the internal dispute within Iran. Elements belonging to the ideological camp, such as officials of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the Iranian daily Kayhan, regularly – and now even more vehemently – accuse the pragmatic Rohani government of seeking to meet with the U.S. for talks. They consider the trips to Washington by Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah as a sign that meetings are in the works to deal with the issue of Iran. Other signs that concern them are reports by Western and Iranian media on the need for a U.S.-Iran hotline, and for the appointment of an American representative acceptable to the Iranian leadership for negotiations.[1]  

It should be noted that statements by Iranian officials, primarily representatives of the Rohani government, as well as an August 3, 2018 report in the Kuwaiti daily Al-Jarida, show that negotiations are already beginning to form, with messages being transferred from Iran to the U.S. via the Omani foreign minister. The main thrust of the messages, the Al-Jarida report said, were seven Iranian conditions for negotiation: The U.S. must return to the JCPOA and meet all its conditions; it must stop the military threats; it must stop its activity to bring down the Iranian regime; it must stop fomenting disputes between Iran and the Arab countries; it must stop the new economic sanctions; it must stop the economic pressure; and it must stop pressuring European companies not to resume operations in Iran.[2] In exchange, Iran has offered, according to the report, to cooperate with the U.S. in finding a solution for the crises in Yemen and Syria and to coordinate with it on the issues of Iraq and Afghanistan. The message, it said, was conveyed by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif in early June 2018 to the Omani go-between, who delivered it to the Americans on his last visit to Washington. The report also noted that the Americans, for their part, had proposed a preliminary meeting between the Iranian foreign minister and the U.S. secretary of state in Singapore, on the margins of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) summit in late July 2018, and a meeting between the two countries' presidents on the margins of the UN General Assembly in September, without referring to the list of Iranian conditions. It also stated that there were disputes among members of Iran's Supreme National Security Committee when Trump's proposal for direct negotiations was discussed.

As for the position of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei regarding meeting/negotiating with the U.S., he did not explicitly prohibit meeting with American representatives. In a July 21, 2018 speech, he only  noted that such talks with the U.S. were "useless." Moreover, he phrased his statements such that they in effect permitted President Rohani and Foreign Minister Zarif to conduct talks with the American administration with the aim of lifting the harsh sanctions that threaten the Iranian regime., July 21, 2018.

Under these circumstances, when it began to appear that a political move of negotiation with the U.S. was an option, IRGC officials immediately fired off statements against the U.S. president and against the option of open talks with the U.S. and its supporters. This was because as far as the members of the ideological-revolutionary camp are concerned, meeting openly with Trump would constitute an American triumph over Iran and even the end of the Islamic Revolution – one of whose main values is hostility to the "Great Satan," the U.S. Indeed, as far as revolutionary Iran is concerned, talks can be held, but only under the most limited of conditions: They can only be low level and secret, in order to find ad hoc solutions to specific issues (such as the nuclear issue or special time-limited agreements such as those during the era of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war permitting U.S. aircraft to cross the border into Iranian airspace), and if they reach a higher level, they can only take place after the U.S. accepts the demands of revolutionary Iran in advance, as was the case in its nuclear talks with the Obama administration. At that time, Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif and Secretary of State John Kerry met only after President Obama had provided a written guarantee that the U.S. recognized Iran's right to enrich uranium. It was this official commitment, constituting acceptance of Iran's position in advance, that made possible a secret channel for negotiations on the Iranian nuclear dossier.[3]

However, even at the height of the talks, Supreme Leader Khamenei refused to let President Rohani meet openly with the U.S. president or sign any mutual agreement, since that would imply recognition of a world order headed by the U.S. For revolutionary Iran, the JCPOA – characterized by Iranian officials as a "victory" – means that Iran is equal in status to the U.S., a global superpower, and that Iran has successfully defeated the U.S. without accepting the world order and the diplomatic protocol that generally mandates that international agreements be preceded by meetings at the highest level. In fact, even simple gestures such as Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif's handshake with his counterpart Kerry, and their public walk along the banks of Lake Geneva, sparked harsh criticism from the ideological camp and a warning from Khamenei).[4]

IRGC commander Ali Jaafari's reply to Trump's July 31, 2018 proposal to meet with Rohani without preconditions reflects this ideological stance. Jaafari said: "Mr. Trump... The Iranian people will not allow its leaders to negotiate with the Great Satan. You will take to your grave your wish that Iranian leaders will ask to meet you or ask the people for permission to meet with you. You will never see that day. You will remain in your Black Palace with your delusional [wish] to meet with Iranian officials. Know that this wish will remain with you until the end of your term in office, and that the American presidents that follow you will not see it [fulfilled]..."[5]

It is salient here that Jaafari chose to ignore the indirect permission given by Khamenei for dialogue with the U.S., evoking the authority of the people, not the authority of the Supreme Leader – who did not explicitly forbid it. His mention of the authority of the people over that of the Supreme Leader should be viewed as a direct challenge to Khamenei, who did not openly and vehemently ban talks with the U.S., and as an attempt to force the IRGC position on the Supreme Leader in the name of the Iranian people.

Trump's proposal for a meeting evoked a similar reaction from the IRGC mouthpiece Basirat. In a July 25, 2018 article titled "The Price of Capitulation to America," it stated that under the current circumstances, and in light of the ramping up of the sanctions, Iranian politicians have two options: capitulation to the U.S. conditions, or resistance. It added: "Some people [referring to members of the Rohani government and reformists who call for talks with the U.S.] propose to capitulate, since they believe that the price of capitulation is lower than the price of resistance... [But] according to the Quran, the price of capitulation is high. One loses one's identity and undergoes a change in ideology and faith. Under the current circumstances, America is seeking out the smallest opportunity to deliver a blow to the Iranian regime... It is clear that America is opposed to Iran's identity [as a revolutionary state], and that its goal is to strip Iran of its identity."[6]

IRGC Officials Launch Campaign Of Threats Against U.S. And Trump

On July 26, 2018, IRGC Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani said in a major speech: " Let me tell you, Mr. Trump the gambler... Let me tell you... Know that we are near you, in places that don't come to your mind. We are near you in places that you can't even imagine. We are a nation of martyrdom. We are the nation of Imam Hussein. Ask around. We have endured many hardships. Come, we are waiting for you. We are the real men on the scene, as far as you are concerned. You know that a war would mean the loss of all your capabilities. You may start the war, but we will be the ones to determine its end. Therefore, you must not offend the Iranian nation. You must not offend our president. You must realize what you are saying."[7]

To view this clip on MEMRI TV, click here or below

On July 24, Iranian chief of staff Mohammed Bagheri told the Fars news agency: "America's control centers are now within the range of Iran's defense capabilities [i.e. its missiles]... If Trump implements his threats against Iran, he will endanger all his interests and those of his supporters, given the presence of the Islamic Republic's [forces] in the region."[8]

IRGC commander Jaafari said on July 25 at the unveiling of 10 Sukhoi fighter planes: "If the gambler Trump hears of the current capability of the IRGC, which includes the resolve of the young revolutionary experts, and part of which we have seen in the aerospace and flight of the IRGC today that can appear at a range of 2,000 km, Trump will never make these mistakes, and he will believe that [Iran] can easily respond to a threat of an oil [embargo]."[9]

Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Rezai tweeted: "Trump told Rohani to beware. It is you [Trump], who has over 50,000 troops within range of Iran's fire and is stupidly threatening Iran. It is you who should beware."[10]

Assessment: In Advance Of The November Sanctions

The Pressure Of The November Sanctions Will Force The Iranian Regime Into A Strategic Decision: Negotiations Or Confrontation

The manifestations of the conflict, as reviewed above, are likely to strongly escalate in advance of a significant second wave of sanctions to come in November 2018 that will force Iran into a strategic decision: to give in to President Trump's demand for renewed negotiations on the JCPOA and to change its regional and international activity, or to enter into a violent conflict that, at least in the initial stage, will not be aimed directly at the U.S. but will likely end up that way.  

The Domestic Level – Violent Suppression Of Public Protests

It is expected that the regime will engage in a massive operation of violent suppression of popular protests. This will come in response to the anticipated increase in the anti-regime riots and economic and political protests that are already widespread across Iran, occurring almost daily, that include slogans such as "Death to the Dictator [Khamenei]," "Bread, bread," and "The Enemy Is Not In America, But Here." The IRGC and Basij spokesmen have already declared that they are ready for such an operation.[11] That operation will likely involve the elimination of pragmatic and reformist elements that advocate negotiating with the U.S., in the guise of fighting "economic corruption."[12] The regime may also act harshly against dual U.S.-Iran citizens in the country; some of them have already been arrested and imprisoned.

The IRGC is also likely to take this opportunity to seize control from the Rohani government. Hints to that effect have already been voiced by IRGC officials, who announced that they are ready to act on the economic level. Basij commander Gholam-Hossein Gheibparvar said that "the people expect the government to handle this war with all its might and the Basij is ready to extend any assistance requested by those in charge [in the government]. With such assistance, it will be possible to more effectively solve the state's problems."[13]

On July 31, IRGC commander Jaafari urged Rohani to take measures to stop the plunge of the Iranian rial and to regulate its exchange rate, adding ominously: "Everyone is waiting for Rohani's revolutionary decisions in order to overcome the economic crisis."[14]

The Regional Level – Escalating Aid To And Activation Of Terrorist Organizations And Shi'ite Militias In The Region

The Iranian regime will step up its assistance to the terrorist organizations and Shi'ite militias it sponsors: the Houthis in Yemen, the Shi'ite militias in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, Hizbullah, and the Palestinian terror organizations, and will attempt to activate them all on various fronts.

The August 6 statements by top IRGC official Gen. Naser Sha'bani are notable: He is the first Iranian official to acknowledge that Iran had ordered the pro-Iran Shi'ite Ansar Allah militia (the Houthis) to attack Saudi tankers and that the order had been carried out. It is also notable that the Fars news agency, which published his statements, later removed that sentence from its report (MEMRI has in its possession a copy of the statements prior to the deletion). He said: "We told the Yemenis to attack the two Saudi tankers, and they attacked. Hizbullah in Lebanon and Ansar Allah in Yemen are our homeland depth. The enemy is so vulnerable that we can entangle it from across the border. Obviously, we are not insisting on a struggle with Saudi Arabia on the other side of the border."[15]  

The International Level – Continued Futile Efforts Aimed At Europe And Other Countries To Help Iran Withstand The U.S. Sanctions

Although it is apparently clear to Iran that neither the European countries nor other countries will save it from the U.S., and will not significantly compensate it, Iran will continue its efforts, even if futile, to obtain such help, as long as Europe and other countries continue to recognize the JCPOA. This is in order to preserve the JCPOA and the nuclear state status that it confers upon Iran. This position was reflected in statements by Atomic Energy Organization of Iran spokesman Behrouz Kamalvandi, when he said that Iran will not withdraw from the JCPOA because it was endorsed by the UN Security Council: "The agreement is valid because it is a Security Council resolution."[16] Kamalvandi's statements attest yet again that the Iranian regime will never, under any circumstances, leave the JCPOA, which is for it an historic achievement because it gives it nuclear state status – as explained in numerous MEMRI reports.[17]

* A. Savyon is Director of the MEMRI Iran Media Project; Y. Carmon is President of MEMRI.


[1] Conspicuous in his calls for negotiations with the U.S. is Majlis National Security Committee member Hashmatollah Falahat-Pisheh, who said on July 25, 2018 that "the Americans have always asked to negotiate with Iran, but talks with America are currently not on the Iranian agenda, because Iran has seen that the Americans have not fulfilled their obligations. [But] that does not mean that the lack of talks with Iran will go on forever." Asr-e Iran (Iran), July 25, 2018. On July 31, he said: "As long as there is no U.S.-Iran hotline,the interests of Tehran and Washington are at the mercy of manipulation by others who benefit from the increasing crisis between Iran and America. Talks must not become a taboo issue in Iran-U.S. relations." ISNA (Iran), July 31, 2018.

[2] In a July 30, 2018 tweet, Rohani advisor Hamid Abu Talbi listed similar conditions for negotiation with the U.S.: the Iranian nation's right to respect, a decrease in hostility, and a resumption of the JCPOA., July 30, 2018.

[5] Tasnim (Iran), July 31, 2018.

[6] Basirat (Iran), July 25, 2018.

[7] Sepah News (Iran), July 26, 2018.

[8] Fars (Iran), July 24, 2018.

[9] Tasnim (Iran), July 25, 2018.

[10] Tasnim (Iran), July 23, 2018.

[11] Khamenei's representative in the IRGC, Abdallah Haji Sadeqi, informed Ayatollahs Makarem Shirazi, Nouri Hamdani, and Safi Golpaygani that the IRGC and the Basij are ready for any eventuality (popular protests), and are willing to help the government address corruption in Iran., August 6, 2018.

[12] Justice Ministry spokesman Mohsen Ejei said at a meeting with senior judges that the ministry is preparing to address the issue of economic corruption, according to the guidelines set out by Supreme Leader Khamenei and President Rohani, and is investing considerable resources in this. He added that 45 individuals are currently in custody as part of this campaign. Fararu (Iran), August 6, 2018. Khamenei's instructions, issued in the wake of a meeting with Rohani and his associates on the subject of dealing severely with economic corruption cases so as to eliminate this phenomenon, were posted on his website ( on August 5, 2018. 

[13] ISNA (Iran), August 1, 2018.

[14] Tasnim (Iran), July 21, 2018.

[16] Mashreq (Iran), August 6, 2018.

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