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U.S. Pushes Confrontation with Iran: Trump Warns of “Consequences,” Pompeo Likens Leaders to “Mafia”

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President Donald Trump lashed out at Iran Sunday, warning he was prepared to unleash dire “consequences” on Iran if its president threatens the United States again. Trump’s threat came just hours after Rouhani’s speech earlier Sunday, in which the Iranian president warned the U.S. about pursuing a hostile policy against his government. Meanwhile, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a speech Sunday in which he compared Iran’s leaders to a “mafia” and promised unspecified backing for Iranians who are unhappy with their government. Pompeo spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles. “This is not an administration that is pursuing a policy of actually trying to find a way to the negotiating table or striking a new deal,” says Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. “Everything they’re doing right now is only compatible with a policy of confrontation.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: President Donald Trump lashed out at Iran Sunday, warning he was prepared to unleash dire “consequences” on Iran if its president threatens the United States again. In a Sunday evening tweet addressed to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and written in all caps, Trump wrote, ”NEVER, EVER THREATEN THE UNITED STATES AGAIN OR YOU WILL SUFFER CONSEQUENCES THE LIKES OF WHICH FEW THROUGHOUT HISTORY HAVE EVER SUFFERED BEFORE. WE ARE NO LONGER A COUNTRY THAT WILL STAND FOR YOUR DEMENTED WORDS OF VIOLENCE & DEATH. BE CAUTIOUS!” he tweeted.

Trump’s threat came just hours after Rouhani’s speech earlier Sunday, in which the Iranian president warned the U.S. about pursuing a hostile policy against his government.

PRESIDENT HASSAN ROUHANI: [translated] Mr. Trump, don’t play with the lion’s tail. This would only lead to regret. You will forever regret it. … We have been the guarantor of the regional waterway’s security throughout history. Remember, we established the security of oil shipping routes throughout history. Don’t forget this. … You are not in a position to incite the Iranian nation against Iran’s security and interests. The Iranian nation knows its interests and sacrifices to protect it. You are mistaken.

AMY GOODMAN: This comes as the United States has stepped up pressure on Iran, saying it will reimpose sanctions, after Trump decided to withdraw from a 2015 nuclear deal that was crafted by the Obama administration. In a speech Sunday to a largely Iranian-American audience, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo compared Iran’s leaders to a “mafia” and promised unspecified backing for Iranians who are unhappy with their government. Pompeo spoke at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library outside Los Angeles.

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: The level of corruption and wealth among Iranian leaders shows that Iran is run by something that resembles the mafia more than a government. … The regime’s revolutionary goals and willingness to commit violent acts haven’t produced anyone to lead Iran that can be remotely called a moderate or a statesman. Some believe that President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif fit that bill. The truth is, they’re merely polished frontmen for the ayatollah’s international con artistry. Their nuclear deal didn’t make them moderates. It made them wolves in sheep’s clothing. Governments around the world worry that confronting the Islamic republic harms the cause of moderates. But these so-called moderates within the regime are still violent Islamic revolutionaries with an anti-America, anti-West agenda. You only have to take their own words for it.

AMY GOODMAN: Secretary of State Pompeo stopped short of calling for regime change, but members of the Trump administration, including National Security Adviser John Bolton and Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, have ties to the Mujahedeen-e Khalq, or MEK, a group of Iranian exiles who have called for regime change in Iran. The MEK was once on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations, before reinventing itself as a moderate political group.

On Sunday, the National Iranian American Council placed a full-page ad in the Los Angeles Times with an open letter to Pompeo that criticized the Trump administration’s ties to MEK, writing, “Support for violent organizations such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK)—which has used terror to kill Iranians and Americans alike—by key advisors to and Members of the Trump administration raises serious concerns as to whether your administration’s objective is to support the Iranian people’s struggle for democracy and independence or to use their legitimate grievances to destabilize Iran and turn it into a failed state.”

Well, for more, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Trita Parsi, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. His most recent book, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy. His most recent piece for The New York Review of Books headlined “Why Trump’s Hawks Back the MEK Terrorist Cult.”

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Trita.

TRITA PARSI: Thank yo so much for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the—Rouhani’s comments, Pompeo’s speech and now, most recently, President Trump’s threatening tweet against Iran.

TRITA PARSI: Well, I think Pompeo’s speech and the effort that he gave to essentially give the impression that he cares for the Iranian people was quickly negated by this rather unprecedented tweet by Donald Trump, essentially threatening war over Twitter. And I think it reveals that now, beyond any doubt, the Trump administration’s policy is, and, frankly, has always been, escalation and confrontation. Whether that confrontation will take place through a direct military confrontation or whether it will be the Trump administration continuing and intensifying their efforts to destabilize Iran or, as Reuters reported over the weekend, to foment unrest in Iran remains to be seen. But without a doubt, this is not an administration that is pursuing a policy of actually trying to find a new way to the negotiating table or striking a new deal. Everything they’re doing right now is only compatible with a policy of confrontation.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn back to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaking Sunday.

SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO: Right now, the United States is undertaking a diplomatic and financial pressure campaign to cut off the funds that the regime uses to enrich itself and support death and destruction. We have an obligation to put maximum pressure on the regime’s ability to generate and move money, and we will do so. At the center of this campaign is the reimposition of sanction on Iran’s banking and energy sectors. As we’ve explained over the last few weeks, our focus is to work with countries importing Iranian crude oil to get imports as close to zero as possible.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Pompeo. Trita Parsi?

TRITA PARSI: So, I think you will see there’s a lot of what he said, when it comes to criticism of the government in Iran, that a lot of people would agree with, because, at the end of the day, this is a government that has been very repressive politically, it is incompetent in many areas, and its corruption is only increasing over time. But I think there’s a major leap of faith to believe that all of these problems, and the frustration that they generate, will cause people to think that Pompeo, Trump and John Bolton are the answers to Iran’s problems, and while they are undermining democracy in the United States, they would somehow miraculously be the answer to increased democracy in Iran. So, I think this is rhetoric that ultimately is going to fail.

But it is nevertheless indicative of where this administration wants to go with its Iran policy. And I’m very worried that the pattern that we’ve seen before, which is that when the United States escalates, the Iranians escalate, as well—and they have made threats of saying that if they cannot sell oil and they cannot ship oil out of the Strait of Hormuz, then no one can, threatening to close it. This is going to have a devastating effect on the global economic markets, but also it will risk sparking a larger military confrontation, because if the Iranians do this, in response to efforts by Trump to reduce their oil sales to zero, then the U.S. will move in militarily. So this is a very dangerous moment, with very unresponsible people here at the helm in Washington.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about the timing of all of this? You knew last week that Pompeo was preparing to give this address. And I want to ask you who the Iranian-American audience was at the Reagan Library, where he spoke on Sunday. Rouhani made his comments before Pompeo spoke, but clearly knowing about this, and then Trump made his threat late last night.

TRITA PARSI: Yeah, this is an escalation that has been going on and taking place for some time. And I think the timing of it is indicative of the Trump administration being ready to take their escalatory and confrontational policy to the next level. I frankly believe that they would have liked to do this much earlier, but earlier on, as you know, there were members of the Trump administration that were not in line with this thinking and who wanted to stay in the Iran nuclear deal. So it’s taken them a year and a half before they can get to this point. But it seems to me that Trump always wanted to move in this direction.

When it comes to the audience yesterday—I spoke to several people in the audience—it’s a mixture. There’s a lot of people who want to see the United States take a much more belligerent policy. They’re a very small people—group within the Iranian-American community. But they have numbers in Los Angeles, and many of them were in the audience. There were people who were there simply out of curiosity. They did not believe necessarily that their presence would be seen as support for what Pompeo was saying. But I think it’s also important to note that, based on several people I spoke to, as well as footage that came out of there, the majority of the people in the audience were not Iranian Americans. Even though this was presented as an address to the Iranian-American community, the majority of the people in the room were actually non-Iranian Americans.

And, in fact, it goes to a larger point here. If the Trump administration actually was interested in a genuine dialogue with the Iranian-American community, that dialogue should have been initiated before Trump imposed a Muslim ban. It should have been initiated before he pulled out of the nuclear deal. To come now and say that he wants to have dialogue and is interested in hearing what the Iranian-American community has to say simply doesn’t come across as particularly genuine, because he’s already made his major policy moves, and he’s so deep into his policy, it’s very difficult to see that any feedback from the Iranian-American community could influence him to even marginally change that policy.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Trita, can you put this in the context of the Helsinki summit, the meeting that Trump had with President Putin of Russia? We don’t know what they talked about for two hours. But what is Russia’s interest here?

TRITA PARSI: So, as you mention, we don’t know exactly what was being said. But it is a very important part of this puzzle, because the Russians, so far—I wouldn’t say that they’re allies with Iran, but they have aligned interest in some areas. They’ve had it, to a certain extent, in Syria. And, perhaps most importantly, the Russians don’t want to see the United States be able to have more governments in the Middle East that are aligned with Washington. So, in that sense, they do appreciate that Iran is quite opposed to American influence in the Middle East.

But the Russians have more important interests at heart, as well, which is particularly breaking out of their own sanctions that the U.S. have imposed on them, as well as issues such as NATO expansion, Ukraine, etc. So there is a gamble from the Trump administration side in which, essentially, by offering the Russians anything they want on Ukraine and some other issues, that they would get the Iranians—they’d get the Russians to throw the Iranians under the bus. What they may not be as sensitive to is that if that scenario were to take place, it’s not so much Russia throwing Iran under the bus as it is the United States throwing Europe under the bus. And this may also explain why Trump has been so negative in his rhetoric towards the Europeans.

AMY GOODMAN: What he had to say in his very hostile tweet last night towards Iran sounded very similar to, oh, just about a year ago, speaking against North Korea. There are some who are saying this could mean he’s preparing to try to make peace with Iran.

TRITA PARSI: I find that somewhat unlikely, and I’ll explain why. Certainly, on the surface, it does look like that. And if this is some sort of a bizarre negotiation strategy, then, at the end of the day, it is much better if the Trump administration and the Iranians negotiate than to move down a path of confrontation. But I think we have to keep a very important element in mind. In Asia, around North Korea, almost all of America’s allies, and even some of America’s competitors, wanted to see a diplomatic effort between the United States and North Korea, and they desperately wanted to avoid a war between the two countries, precisely because such a war would be nuclear. In the Middle East, you have a very different scenario. America’s close allies in the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia, UAE and Israel, do not favor diplomacy with Iran, have opposed any dialogue between Tehran and Washington, and are on record, for the last 10, 15 years, pushing the United States to go to war with Iran. Former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates said that the Saudis want to fight the Iranians ’til the last American. So, mindful of this, and mindful of the susceptibility of the Trump administration to pressure from these governments, it simply is far less likely that the endgame that Trump has with this tweet is to actually drive things towards the negotiation table.

AMY GOODMAN: And MEK, explain who they are and whether you think they’re clearly—Pompeo is threatening regime change here? And what does that have to do with MEK?

TRITA PARSI: Well, the MEK is a Iranian opposition group that was founded back in the 1960s. It was actually the first opposition group in Iran that started to use violence against the shah’s regime. It actually did enjoy a degree of popularity in Iran in the 1970s. But they were also using terrorism back then, primarily assassinating members of the shah’s government and Americans in Iran. Later on, they were part of the Iranian revolution but had a falling-out with Khomeini. They wanted to execute the American hostages that eventually were released by the Khomeini government. They ended up siding with Saddam Hussein in the Iraq-Iran War and fought alongside Saddam against Iran, which caused them to be seen as traitors in the eyes of most Iranians. And then they ended up essentially becoming Saddam Hussein’s private militia, that he used to do ethnic cleansing against Shiites in the south and Kurds in the north of Iraq.

They always had a rather well-funded machine in Washington, lobbying machine. And even while they were on the terrorist list, they were the only terrorist group, that I can imagine, that actually had offices downtown D.C., despite the fact that they were on the terrorist list. They managed to get out of the terrorist list after a massive lobbying campaign, that arguably was illegal, in 2012.

And they have, essentially, zero support in Iran right now. And that raises the question: Why have members of the Trump administration been so cozy with them? Are they not aware of the fact that this is a group that really has zero chance of taking over Iran? I think they actually do know these things. But there is something the MEK offers that no other opposition group offers. These members of the MEK, several thousand fighters that they have, are trained in both regular warfare as well as in guerrilla warfare. They have massive experience in terrorism, in assassinations, in sabotage—things that are not particularly helpful if your aim is to bring about democratic change in Iran, but actually could be very helpful if your aim is to engage in some form of a military confrontation with Iran or some form of effort to destabilize the country by starting a civil war. For those purposes, the MEK is the only Iranian opposition group that actually can provide the type of qualities that are needed for this thing. And I suspect that that is part of the reason why they are being so cozy with the Trump administration right now, precisely for these purposes.

AMY GOODMAN: Trita Parsi, we want to thank you for being with us, founder and president of the National Iranian American Council. We’ll link to your pieces. Your latest book, Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the direct action against nuclear weapons in the United States. We’ll talk about the Plowshares movement. Stay with us.

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