- Narges Bajoghliprofessor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University.
President-elect Joe Biden has said he will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal once in office, but his attempts at reviving diplomatic relations between the United States and Iran could be complicated by President Donald Trump, who is reportedly considering bombing Iran’s main nuclear site in the final weeks of his presidency. The New York Times reports Trump’s advisers have attempted to dissuade the president, warning that a strike could escalate into a broader conflict, but officials tell the newspaper that Trump may still be looking for ways to attack Iran or Iranian assets. We speak with Narges Bajoghli, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we turn now to look at the U.S. relationship with Iran in the twilight of Donald Trump’s presidency.
The New York Times reported this week President Trump had inquired about bombing Iran’s main nuclear site in the coming weeks. Trump raised the issue at a meeting last Thursday with Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, top military officials, including Christopher Miller, the new acting defense secretary. The Times reports the advisers attempted to dissuade the president, warning a strike could escalate into a broader conflict. But officials told the Times that Trump may still be looking for ways to attack Iran or Iranian assets before his term ends.
Thursday’s meeting was held a day after international inspectors reported Iran’s low-enriched uranium stockpile is growing again, following Trump’s abandonment of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran now has more than 12 times the amount of enriched uranium permitted under the deal. President-elect Joe Biden has said he will rejoin the Iran nuclear deal once in office. On Wednesday, Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Iran would fully comply with the deal if Biden lifts sanctions.
Well, for more, we’re joined by Narges Bajoghli, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, author of Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic.
When you read that piece in the Times, Professor Bajoghli, that President Trump is weighing bombing Iran before he leaves office, your response?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: So, I found that piece to be — you know, it raises a ton of questions for me. It was interesting, because the next day after that Times report, Fox News actually reported that it wasn’t Trump who requested those plans, but it was actually Robert O’Brien, his national security adviser, who requested it from his staff. So, it seems to be that right now we don’t actually know the full story.
What we do know is that President Trump is actually the first president in decades who hasn’t started a new war, and he has run on the fact that he does not — you know, he’s against these wars, these foreign interventions in the Middle East. What he’s going to do in the next two months is unclear so far, especially given his loss and how he’s responding to it, for the presidential election.
Yet we also know that at the same time that these reports are coming out, Secretary Pompeo and his State Department are continuing to implement new sanctions on Iran on a weekly basis — the State Department, as well as the Department of Treasury. They just put on new sanctions two days ago. There seems to be reports that they will be designating the Houthis in Yemen as foreign terrorist organizations. They are, of course, closely aligned with Iran. There are also many reports of the harsh sanctions against Syria and Iran, which are targeted against those countries but are a part of the larger maximum-pressure campaign of the Trump administration vis-à-vis Iran.
And just this week, Iran — the Iranian government confirmed that there were cyberattacks against the Iranian national gas company. As the cold weather is starting to set in in Iran for the winter, there are now worries across Iran that these cyberattacks might be meant to cause maximum harm in a short period of time and to further sort of — on top of the pandemic and the increased sanctions on Iran’s economy, which are hurting people, are things that the Trump administration is trying to do to further increase pressure on the Iranian people and, by extension, on the Iranian regime.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Narges Bajoghli, if you could talk about how you expect things might change under a Biden-Harris administration, not just with respect to the nuclear agreement, but even with respect — sorry, to the nuclear agreement, whether you think either the U.S. or Iran will want to negotiate the terms of that agreement before the U.S. rejoins, and whether the agreement will only be negotiated, as I think some in Iran have suggested, only after presidential elections in Iran are due to be held next year in the middle of the year?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: So, yes, there are presidential elections coming up in Iran in the summer of 2021. So, there is a very short time period and window left at this moment between when the Biden administration comes into office, is sworn in, and the presidential elections in Iran. One of the things that are uncertain at the moment is who will win those presidential elections in Iran, whether it will continue to be folks from the moderate reformist side of the table who have been wanting to engage with the West, or whether it will be more hardliners who have taken a very harsh stance against the JCPOA, the Iran deal, and especially the ways in which the Trump administration pulled out and the sanctions that have been put back in place. So, actually, what the Biden administration does in these next few months is very key to determining what local politics might look like on a national level in Iran and who might be the president sort of coming in.
As it stands today, within this past week, both President Rouhani of Iran, the Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and the Speaker of Parliament Ghalibaf have all made statements that have indicated their openness to reengaging with the United States on a certain level. Zarif, just two days ago, came out and said that if the Biden administration comes back to U.N. Resolution 2231, that they will come back to their — that Iran will come back to its promises in the JCPOA. So, compliance for compliance is what the Iranians are arguing for.
As far as a new deal or something that would be more than the JCPOA, that is something that so far Iran is saying that it will not consider as long as these sanctions are on and as long as the United States does not go back to its promises in the JCPOA. We also don’t know who will be within the foreign policy team in the Biden administration quite yet, and so it’s difficult to say what the Biden-Harris team will do going forward, until it becomes a little bit clearer who they bring in for their foreign policy, and especially their Iran team.
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s very interesting that at the same time President Trump might be threatening war with Iran — and some might say it’s already war when you have the level of sanctions he has imposed on Iran at a time of the COVID devastation, perhaps not ravaging Iran as much as it’s ravaging the United States because he hasn’t gotten a handle on it — but when you have him threatening war, yet at the same time saying that he would pull thousands of troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, which has shaken the national security establishment, Democrat and Republican, in the United States. Can you make sense of this?
NARGES BAJOGHLI: Yeah, you know, I appreciate that question, Amy, because, actually, I think it’s really important to understand that the maximum pressure from the Trump administration towards Iran is something — I mean, even Secretary Pompeo, just yesterday, came out with a very large statement that he released where he was defending maximum pressure, where, by all means, it’s failed to get to the policies that they were trying to get to. But regardless, maximum pressure has devastated Iran’s economy. Especially, it’s driving the middle class towards poverty. It has also, in addition to sanctions, involved a whole slew of cyberattacks, as well as media warfare, disinformation campaigns, funding for different opposition groups.
So, this is pretty much a war, by any means, against Iran. It hasn’t gone into hot confrontation with Iran directly yet, although there is confrontation in different areas, in Syria and Iraq and within Yemen and Saudi Arabia. And so, this really is a multipronged attack against Iran. Iran is also, at the same time — it’s true that the pandemic is ravaging the United States, but it’s also ravaging Iran. And in the midst of all of this, more and more sanctions are being put on the country.
So, these different narratives that are coming out about troop reduction in Afghanistan and in Iraq, and then the potential for at least plans being drawn up, whether they will be executed or not, for attacking Iran, I think part of the way to make sense of this is that there are folks within the Trump administration, from Secretary Pompeo to Elliott Abrams, who’s the special representative for Venezuela and Iran, and Netanyahu, who are really hoping for ways to have an excuse to further weaken Iran, because they see this as one of the last opportunities before the Biden administration comes in.
All of these different stories that we’re going to see coming out between now and January 20th, I think we have to keep an eye towards part of them also being an attempt to push at Iran in different ways and to see whether it will react in such a way that it will warrant an American attack or not. I mean, the Trump administration has said that their red line is the killing of an American. So we have to see if these different ways in which Iran is being pressured, both in battlefields across the region, as well as in cyberattacks and others, whether these will be baits that the Iranians will take or not.
On the other hand, Iran has indicated, both from the Revolutionary Guards as well as within the government itself, that they understand that they are being pushed in this way, and that they are saying that they will continue to remain patient until the Biden administration comes in. So, right now — but in this entire sort of atmosphere, what is really dangerous, I think, is that there is a lot of potential for miscalculation on different parts of playing fields. And this is something that we have to really wait and see what will happen in the next two months and whether it will be something that will drag into something that’s hotter.
AMY GOODMAN: Narges Bajoghli, we want to thank you so much for being with us, professor of Middle East studies at Johns Hopkins University, author of Iran Reframed: Anxieties of Power in the Islamic Republic.
Next up, has the Biden honeymoon stopped before it even started? Up next. Stay with us.