Escalation: Trump vs. Iran

Escalation: Trump vs. Iran

The US and Iran are headed down a dangerous path.

On April 22, President Donald Trump tightened the screws on Iran's economy by announcing that China, Japan, India, South Korea, Turkey, and others would no longer be granted exemptions from US sanctions to continue buying Iranian oil, the country's most important export.

On May 5, US National Security Advisor John Bolton announced the deployment of a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to "indications and warnings" that Iran threatened US forces.

Iran then announced this week that it would mark Wednesday's one-year anniversary of Trump's decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal by ending compliance with two provisions of that agreement.

In particular, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani warned that if the five other countries who signed that agreement—France, Germany, the UK, China, and Russia—don't act within 60 days to help Iran weather the economic storm created by US sanctions, Iran will ignore the deal's limits on uranium enrichment, setting it on the path, once again, to acquire a nuclear weapon.

A few things to keep in mind as you follow the progression of this story:


  • Trump has avoided aggressive military action, because he knows it has undermined the popularity of past presidents. He's made plenty of threats—against North Korea, Venezuela, and Iran, for example—but he's avoided ambitious commitments that come with high risk and long-term costs.
  • The president's national security advisor does not share his reluctance to use military force. John Bolton has been calling for regime change in Iran for more than a decade, and he authored a New York Times op-ed in 2015 under the headline "To Stop Iran's Bomb, Bomb Iran."
  • Trump may be suspicious of Bolton. A piece in Wednesday's Washington Post reported that anonymous "administration officials and White House advisers" claim that Trump has complained aloud that Bolton is pushing him toward military action in Venezuela. If nothing else, this story suggests that some in the White House are worried about Bolton's influence–on Venezuela, if not Iran. On Thursday, Trump said this to describe his relationship with Bolton: "John has strong views on things… I actually temper John, which is pretty amazing. Isn't it?
  • Iran's economy is in real trouble. Its leaders may feel they have little to lose by pushing the Europeans to provide an economic lifeline by threatening the nuclear deal. Trump's decision to reimpose sanctions has pushed the country into a deepening recession. GDP is projected to fall 6 percent this year, according to the IMF, making it one of the toughest periods since the Iranian Revolution in 1979. Its currency has lost nearly 60 percent of its value since sanctions were reimposed. Price inflation topped 30 percent last year and will rise even more quickly this year.
  • Europeans will do little to help Iran. The UK, France, and Germany have made clear they believe Iran has kept its end of the nuclear deal and that Trump was wrong to withdraw from it. In January, they created a payments system to help maintain trade in non-sanctioned food, pharmaceutical products and consumer goods with Iran. But Europe is struggling to convince companies more worried about losing access to US consumers than Iranian markets to keep operating there. And they warn they can't continue to abide by terms of the nuclear deal if Iran renounces important parts of it.

The bottom line: Tensions are rising quickly, and for now there is little ground on which the US, Iranian, and European governments can compromise.

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Ian Bremmer and Bill Maher discussed the global leadership of the United States compared to that of China on a recent episode of Real Time. "The level of corruption in China, the level of corruption in China, even the buildings and the rails you talk about - the average building the Chinese build lasts for 20, 25 years. In the United States, it lasts for 40 to 50. There's a reason why we are still the world's most powerful country," Ian argued. "I'm just saying China's not eating our lunch - that's all."

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Ian Bremmer's Quick Take:

Hi, everybody, Ian Bremmer here, kicking off your beautiful spring week from New York City. A little Quick Take. I thought I'd talk today about Russia, going to be in the news this week. Putin doesn't like it when they're out of the news for too long, certainly plenty going on between the US and Russia right now.

I'd say, first of all, to start off, the relationship is in the toilet. We know this. It is the worst it's been since the early '80s. That was true even under Trump. Trump and Putin personally had a pretty good relationship, but Trump wasn't able to get anything really done for the Russians, because both the Republicans in Congress, key members of cabinet under Trump, massive amount of constraints on what Trump could actually do, whether it's trying to bring Russia back into the G7 or recognize Crimea as a part of Russia, or remove or reduce sanctions. None of that actually got done. In fact, the relationship deteriorated over the four years.

But now we've got Biden and the focus is of course, more on human rights. The focus is more on climate change, which means that Russia as a massive energy exporter and particularly in terms of their influence on Eastern Europe and Western Europe on the downstream for gas delivery, for example, something that Biden is much more focused on. So a lot more pressure on the Russians, and the Russians don't care. Their willingness to hit back and show that the Americans are not willing to take any significant risks to constrain the Russians is also fairly significant. And this is playing out in a number of ways.

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Pakistani radicals vs French cartoons: It's been a tumultuous week in Lahore, Pakistan's second largest city. After widespread protests broke out across the Muslim world late last year after Paris defended French publications' rights to publish satirical images of the Prophet Mohammad, the radical Pakistani Islamist group Tehrik-i-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), gave Pakistan's government until April 20 to expel the French ambassador, when it had planned nationwide demonstrations. When Prime Minister Imran Khan refused to meet their demands, more violence erupted across the country and authorities arrested the TLP leader — prompting TLP supporters to hit back by kidnapping six state security personnel in Lahore this past weekend. Authorities have now banned the TLP outright and are bracing for more violence in the coming days. France, meanwhile, has urged all of its citizens to leave Pakistan.

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