U.S. and Iran trade insults, threats
President Trump imposed new sanctions on Iran this week, just days after he abruptly called off a military strike meant to punish the country for shooting down an unmanned U.S. military surveillance drone over the Persian Gulf. American jets were reportedly headed for Iranian targets, including radar and missile batteries, when Trump canceled the mission. The president said he made the decision after learning that the attack could kill up to 150 Iranians, deciding that it was a disproportionate response. “They’re human beings,” he said. “I didn’t want to kill 150 people.” Instead, the U.S. launched cyberattacks at Iranian missile-control systems, followed by a new round of sanctions. The measures specifically target Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, barring him and his associates from accessing the international financial system.
Trump said he was still willing to renegotiate the 2015 international nuclear deal—under which Tehran curbed its nuclear program in return for sanctions relief—that he pulled the U.S. out of last year. But Trump said he will never allow the regime to develop nuclear weapons. Iran’s leaders reacted with outrage to the latest sanctions. “The Iranian nation will not budge and will not withdraw because of the insults,” said Khamenei, while President Hassan Rouhani said he couldn’t negotiate with an administration “afflicted by mental retardation.” Trump responded by appearing to draw a red line for Tehran. “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force,” he said. “In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.”
What the editorials said
Iran’s furious response to the new sanctions “is an excellent sign that they were the way to go,” said the New York Post. With Iran’s economy collapsing under the weight of U.S. sanctions, the country’s leaders are desperate to change the diplomatic equation in their favor. A U.S. military strike, the mullahs seem to think, might earn them some international sympathy. But Trump is patiently sticking with his maximum-pressure strategy. He can afford to wait. Iran’s leaders can’t. That’s why they’ll eventually come back to the negotiating table.
The U.S. shouldn’t be in this situation, said The Boston Globe. “Our long-troubled relationship with Iran was in a manageable place” before Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Obama-era nuclear deal. He complained that the pact’s restrictions on Iran’s atomic program weren’t permanent. But it kept Iran from getting a nuke in the short term and laid the foundation for further détente. It was certainly better than brinkmanship. “Instead of bending Iran to his will,” Trump has moved our nation “uncomfortably close” to another calamitous Middle East war.
What the columnists said
Does Trump even know what his Iran policy is? asked David Graham in TheAtlantic.com. Last week, the president played the dove, dramatically calling off military strikes and even suggesting that the drone might have been downed by a rogue Iranian officer acting “loose and stupid.” A few days later, our president was back to being a hawk. It’s impossible for Iran to try to read Trump when “no policy lasts longer than the life span of a tweet.” That raises the risk that Tehran “will miscalculate and set off an escalating conflict.”
There’s a method to Trump’s madness, said Walter Russell Mead in The Wall Street Journal. The president’s tweets are for show. Meanwhile, he is “steadily and consistently tightening the screws on Iran.” Trump may not play by the establishment’s rules of diplomacy, which value “restraint, predictability, and responsibility.” But he knows the Iranian regime is weaker than the international foreign policy establishment believes, and he wants a nuclear deal that reflects that. His gamble is that Iran “will choose retreat over war.”
Nobody should assume Iran is on the verge of capitulation, said Robin Wright in NewYorker.com. “North Korea has been sanctioned to the hilt” and it still hasn’t abandoned its nuclear program. Punishing Khamenei and his inner circle will have little additional impact on the already heavily sanctioned Iranian economy. It’s just as likely to empower hard-liners opposed to diplomacy. The message is also confusing. The U.S. typically only sanctions a head of state when Washington believes that leader—like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein—“has to go.” Yet, the Trump administration keeps insisting that regime change is not the goal. What is the endgame here?
Cover illustration by Fred Harper.
Cover photos from AP, Newscom (2) ■