The Trump Administration’s pronouncements on Iran have gyrated at a vertiginous pace in recent days. On Sunday, after a golf game at his club outside Washington, D.C., the President returned to the White House and unleashed his fury on Twitter. “If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran,” he vowed. “Never threaten the United States again!” On Monday, a calmer Trump told reporters that Washington had “no indication that anything’s happened or will happen.” Any provocation would be met with “great force,” he added, yet he would also “certainly negotiate” if Iran called. Then, on Tuesday, the acting Defense Secretary, Pat Shanahan, declared that the (still unspecified) threat from Tehran had been contained. “We’ve put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans,” Shanahan told reporters. “Our posture is for deterrence. I just hope Iran is listening. We’re in the region to address many things, but it is not to go to war.”
A showdown may seem less imminent, but the dangers still lurk. Americans are nervous. The majority now believes that the two nations will go to war within the next few years, a new poll by Reuters/Ipsos reported this week. It’s up eight per cent from a similar poll a year ago. The numbers may reflect the rhetorical drumbeats of war more than a real understanding of the threat on the ground, since the Administration has refused to explain it. Fears may well rise further. On Thursday, the Pentagon reportedly proposed to deploy a military surge of five thousand to ten thousand U.S. troops to the Middle East, as well as more warships and Patriot missiles, to deter Iran. They would join a growing array of American military might—a battleship-carrier strike group led by the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, a bomber task force including B-52s, and marines who specialize in “expeditionary warfare”—now being deployed off the Iranian coast. It’s no longer a slow creep.
“President Trump will insure that we have all the resources necessary to respond in the event that the Islamic Republic of Iran should decide to attack Americans or American interests or some of our great soldiers, sailors, airmen, marines, who are serving in that region, or the diplomats serving in Iraq or elsewhere,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on “Fox & Friends,” on Thursday. “The exact force posture, the President is looking at every day.” The President, Pompeo said, “is determined to change the course of that regime.”
Iran has countered with its own provocative rhetoric. On Monday, the Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, responded to Trump on Twitter. “@realdonaldTrump hopes to achieve what Alexander, Genghis & other aggressors failed to do. Iranians have stood tall for millennia while aggressors all gone,” he wrote. “#EconomicTerrorism & genocidal taunts won’t ‘end Iran.’ #NeverThreatenAnIranian. Try respect—it works!” On Tuesday, President Hassan Rouhani distanced Iran from engagement. “Today’s situation is not suitable for talks. Our choice is resistance only,” he said. And, on Wednesday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei vowed that Iran’s youth “will witness the demise of the enemies of humanity, meaning the degenerate American civilization, and the demise of Israel.” He also publicly criticized his own President and foreign minister—a rarity in Tehran—about how they handled the 2015 nuclear deal, produced after two years of tortuous talks with the world’s six major powers. Iran seems as divided as Washington at a critical time. Meanwhile, Tehran still has its own array of troops and proxy militias across the Middle East; many are positioned in the same arenas as U.S. troops.
The question amid the buildup and rhetorical flames is how to prevent a showdown either soon or a few years down the road, and how to eventually de-escalate. As tensions flared between the two nations, I called on John Limbert, one of the fifty-two diplomats taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after the 1979 revolution. We’ve had a running conversation about the Islamic Republic since I covered his four hundred and forty-four days in captivity. Limbert is a scholar of Iranian politics, history, and culture; he often invokes lines from the great Persian poets—Hafez, Rumi, and Sa’adi—in his elegant Farsi. I asked him how we ended up in yet another Iran crisis—and why Washington and Tehran have still not figured out a way to deal with each other.
“Part of it is that we haven’t engaged much for forty years,” he told me. “We assume the worst about the ‘other,’ and our assumptions become self-fulfilling prophecies.” One of the core unanswered questions in Washington, he noted, is whether Iran’s bad behavior is any different or worse than its targeting of U.S. facilities, personnel, interests, or allies over the past four decades. And are Iran’s recent military moves—reportedly deploying short-range missiles in the Gulf and proxies in Iraq and Syria, or attacking four oil tankers—offensive or defensive? Might Tehran be responding to America’s pledge to cut off all Iranian oil exports, its designation of the entire Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization, and its withdrawal from a nuclear deal that had been endorsed unanimously by the U.N. Security Council?
Before Trump, six U.S. Presidents struggled to read Iran, Limbert noted. Estrangement produced misreading, mixed signals, missed opportunities, and outright blunders. Without formal contact, the state of play often swung between hostile actions and diplomatic overtures. The two governments were perpetually out of synch. The pattern, the former hostage said, reminded him of a line from the twentieth-century Iranian poet Shahriyar: “You came to me at last, O love of my life. But why now?”
The Reagan Administration engaged in a secret arms-for-hostages swap—trading weapons that Iran needed to fight Iraq in their eight-year war, in exchange for Iran’s help freeing Americans seized by Hezbollah, an Iranian proxy in Lebanon. Top U.S. and Iranian officials travelled to each other’s capitals to negotiate. But tensions flared, too. Iran’s allies bombed two U.S. embassies and marine peacekeepers in Beirut, killing hundreds, and Iran’s navy dropped mines in the Persian Gulf. The U.S. Navy shot up Iranian naval vessels and downed a passenger plane, killing hundreds.
In his Inaugural Address, President George H. W. Bush made an offer to Iran. “There are today Americans who are held against their will in foreign lands. . . . Assistance can be shown here and will be long remembered. Good will begets good will. Good faith can be a spiral that endlessly moves on,” he said. President Hashemi Rafsanjani orchestrated the release of the remaining U.S. hostages in Lebanon. Iran later complained that the good will was never reciprocated.
During the Clinton Administration, Iran offered Conoco, an American company, the largest oil contract ever tendered, a move to open a commercial channel with a country still publicly dubbed “the Great Satan.” President Bill Clinton, under congressional pressure, responded by imposing an embargo on all oil imports, trade, and investment. In 1998, President Mohammad Khatami called for a “dialogue among civilizations” to bring down “the wall of mistrust.” Two years later, Clinton lifted sanctions on Iranian carpets, pistachios, and caviar. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright expressed regret for the C.I.A.’s role in the 1953 coup in Iran that had ousted a democratically elected Prime Minister and allowed the Shah to return to the Peacock Throne from temporary exile. Politically, the timing was off on both countries’ overtures.
After the 9/11 attacks, in 2001, the George W. Bush Administration worked closely with Iran on Afghanistan. They even shared intelligence. Tehran was pivotal in convincing its local ally, which had led the fight against the Taliban, to accept the U.S. candidate in a new government. Months later, in his State of the Union address, in 2002, the President labelled Iran as one of three nations in an “axis of evil.” In 2003, after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran offered a “grand bargain” to resolve all differences. The White House did not respond. In 2004, the American and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad were authorized to meet, but nothing came of it. Iran provided war matériel to proxy militias in Iraq that were linked to the deaths of more than six hundred U.S. troops between 2003 and 2011.
In an address during the Persian holiday of Nowruz, in 2009, President Barack Obama said that his Administration “is now committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us and to pursuing constructive ties among the United States, Iran, and the international community.” He achieved the biggest breakthrough of any President, during two years of direct talks that produced the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. The deal limits various parts of Iran’s controversial program for between ten and twenty-five years. It’s still in effect, despite Trump’s withdrawal, a year ago. The other five major powers—Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia—still support it, and Iran has complied, according to more than a dozen reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency. Obama’s calculation was that removing the most dangerous flash point and establishing a diplomatic channel would open the way for talks on other issues: Iran’s missiles, support for extremist movements, human-rights violations, and meddling in the Middle East. Yet he didn’t make further inroads in his last few months in office.
At the U.N. last fall, both Trump and Rouhani signalled, albeit from different positions, that the diplomatic door was still ajar. Rouhani offered talks based on the original nuclear deal; Trump offered talks based on a new and different pact to include all issues between the two nations. Nothing happened. The President has since accelerated his “maximum pressure” campaign. The irony in Trump’s recent Twitter tantrums is that, years ago, he predicted that Obama would be the one to attack Iran. In 2011, he tweeted, “In order to get elected, @BarackObama will start a war with Iran.” In 2012, he wrote, “Now that Obama’s poll numbers are in tailspin—watch for him to launch a strike in Libya or Iran. He is desperate.” On September 16, 2013, he tweeted, “I predict that President Obama will at some point attack Iran in order to save face!” On September 25, 2013, he rubbed it in. “Remember what I previously said—Obama will someday attack Iran in order to show how tough he is.” Instead, two days later, Obama telephoned Rouhani while he was attending the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, in New York. It was the first direct contact between Presidents of their respective countries since the Revolution.
One of the many tragedies in the tortured situation today, Limbert noted, is the two countries’ common history. For all their differences, the United States and the Islamic Republic are both the products of revolutions steeped in religious values that ousted long-standing monarchies. In 1946, President Harry Truman issued an ultimatum to Joseph Stalin that forced the Soviet Union to end its occupation of Iran after the Second World War. It was the first crisis of the then new United Nations. It helped Tehran reassert its sovereignty. For decades afterward, Tehran and Washington remained pillars of each other’s foreign policies.
After the Islamic Revolution, in 1979, relations started off well, too. The country’s first leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, wrote to President Jimmy Carter five days before returning to Tehran from fourteen years in exile, “You will see we are not in any particular animosity with the Americans.” The U.S. continued selling arms to Iran until the takeover of the American Embassy, ten months later, after Washington agreed to take in the ailing former Shah. The revolutionaries feared that the United States intended to restore the monarchy a second time.
Forty years later, relations are still haunted by those ghosts, Limbert told me. “There’s an obliviousness to each other’s history—and to what the other may think,” he said. The current suspicion, distance, and disdain make the prospect of finding an off-ramp in the current crisis seem more remote than ever.