The US stance on Iran has understandably been center stage in both Iranian and international media over the last few days — and President Donald Trump’s last-minute decision not to take military action has of course been of particular interest.
The current tensions arose after Iran’s Revolutionary Guards shot down a US drone on June 20. Iranian officials claim the action constituted a breach of air space regulations and that the US had illegally entered Iranian airspace, both of which the US rejects. Iranian state media broadcast footage of the downed drone, reiterating the claim that the drone flight had violated Iranian airspace.
IranWire spoke to Dr. Mehrzad Broujerdi, professor in political science at Syracuse University in New York, about the recent events and about whether Iran is willing to negotiate with the United States, despite the Supreme Leader's insistence that such talks are out of the question.
In your opinion, why did Iran shoot down a US drone when the tensions are so high between the two countries?
My guess is that Iran wants to gain an advantage in its negotiations with the US, and therefore wants to create more chaos. They want to inflate tensions but keep it one step away from war. So I think its decision to abandon some of its duties linked to the JCPOA [the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action] and its activities in the Persian Gulf are all to pursue that goal. Iran wants to make it more costly for the US to invade Iran and wishes to create disagreement between the US and EU countries, and also inside the ruling class in America. This is a dangerous game, especially considering the four decades of animosity between the two countries, the presidency and impulsive behavior of Mr. Trump, and the Revolutionary Guards gaining more power. One cannot ignore the possibility of war.
What’s your analysis of Mr. Trump’s initial reaction?
Mr. Trump tries to say that this was nothing serious, in order to avoid going to war with Iran. But incidents like this mean the opinions of people like [National Security Advisor] John Bolton and [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo will gain more support, and this is extreme behavior to punish Iran. I know that the United States Central Command [CENTCOM] has been planning different strategies that review the US’ course of action and any possible reactions from Iran. So we can definitely expect a retaliation sometime soon, like the shooting down of an Iranian drone or military action against an Iranian boat. [The US will use] the excuse that Iran’s attack was too close to American assets.
You say that Iran wants to negotiate with the US, but the Supreme Leader has explicitly rejected such an idea.
No one should take the public speeches of the Leader serious. If they did not really want to negotiate, we would not see delegations from Oman, Japan, Switzerland, Germany, and Iraq going to Iran to convey US officials’ messages. So, in my opinion, the question is not whether Iran wants to negotiate or not. The question is: do they want to maintain the status quo? Mr. Bijan Namdar Zanganeh, the oil minister, recently gave an interesting speech. A few weeks ago, he said that Americans have developed a devilish maturity and that Iran can’t sell any more crude oil. This is very important coming from someone with the longest record of being a minister in the Iranian government.
I think Iran is interested in negotiating, but it has some conditions. They want the US to stop its verbal attacks against them, so Iran will improve its position and restore its image in the region. Until the situation changes, they won’t come to the negotiating table. We have already seen a similar dialect shift with respect to North Korea.
Why do you think Trump changed his mind and decided not to launch a strike against Iran? His tone has been softer at times, leading some people to speculate that there have been secret negotiations between the two countries. Do you think this is possible?
There is a possibility that there have been secret negotiations, but there is another possible scenario as well. This week Mr. Trump launched his election campaign and he clearly knows that war with Iran will have a great impact on his campaign. This is not something that he likes, which he indicated when he said shooting down the drone was accidental — this is not reasonable and no one considered it to be accidental. But it shows his intention to avoid conflict with Iran and its potential impact on his election campaign. However, there is a question of how long can proceed in this way. Unfortunately, he is a president who behaves impulsively, who makes decisions on impulse and who is lazy about reading security reports thoroughly. So there is a chance that one day he will get bored and annoyed by Iran’s actions, and will decide to retaliate.
But won’t his fans and potential voters blame him for not responding to Iran?
His fans and Trump himself face a dilemma right now. On one hand, they need to show that they are strong against Iran and angry at the Iranians. On the other hand, Mr. Trump does not want to start another war. His voters are more concerned with issues like the economy and immigration and don’t show much sensitivity to Iranian affairs. Currently, Mr. Trump is benefiting from the good health of the economy. Historically, US presidents have had a better chance of reelection if the economic situation is good and stable. Getting involved in starting a war with Iran could have a huge impact on the economy and his chance of getting reelected. I think he absolutely knows this, but it does not mean the US won’t retaliate at a lower level. Because if Iran continues attacking drones and boats, Trump’s failure to respond will be considered to be a weakness, and that is not something that Mr. Trump can live with.