Will John Bolton Finally Get His War With Iran?

The hawkish national security adviser may be on the verge of achieving his most cherished foreign policy goal.

Photo illustration: Soohee Cho/The Intercept, Getty Images, AP

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U.S. officials this week accused Iran of orchestrating “sabotage” attacks on Saudi tankers near the Persian Gulf, escalating an already tense situation between the two countries. President Trump ramped up his own rhetoric, telling reporters that “it’s going to be a bad problem for Iran if something happens … they’re not going to be happy.” With the notoriously hawkish national security adviser John Bolton whispering in Trump’s ear, are these signs that the administration is putting the U.S. on a path to war? On this week’s Deconstructed, Mehdi Hasan discusses the prospects for another illegal and bloody regime change war in the Middle East with Trita Parsi, author of Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy, and with Rob Malley, President and CEO of the International Crisis Group.

Mehdi Hasan: Hello, it’s Mehdi here. This month we’re taking a minute or so before each show to invite you to become a member of our podcast. This is an era of unprecedented attacks on the freedom of the press from the commander-in-chief. The media is under assault from this president like never before. So now is a time we all need to get behind journalists and media organizations who are trying to do their jobs, report the news, get to the truth. And so I’m asking you all today to become a member and supporter of the Deconstructed community — to give whatever you can, 5, 10, 15, 20 dollars a month. Head to theintercept.com/give.

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Rob Malley: Think of the last U.S. intervention in the Middle East that ended well. And we can go down the list: Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq. The notion of a quick war against Iran is about as fanciful as one can imagine.

[Music interlude.]

MH: Welcome to Deconstructed, I’m Mehdi Hasan. Have we learned no lessons from the invasion of Iraq? Are we really about to do it all again in Iran?

RM: I mean, it’s hard not to be worried. It’s been a slow motion train wreck now basically since President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal.

MH: That’s my guest today Rob Malley, who was director of Middle East policy on President Obama’s National Security Council and who helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal that Donald Trump so brazenly violated last year by pulling out unilaterally. I’m also joined by Iran expert and author Trita Parsi:

Trita Parsi: I think this is the most risky situation we’ve faced at least for a decade now.

MH: So, on today’s show, as tensions mount, are we now on an unavoidable road to war with Iran? Is John Bolton about to get the conflict of his dreams? And is there anything we can all do to stop it?

[Music interlude.]

Donald J. Trump: We’ll see what happens with Iran. If they do anything, it will be a very bad mistake. If they do anything. I’m hearing little stories about Iran. If they do anything, they will suffer greatly. We’ll see what happens with Iran.

MH: “We’ll see what happens with Iran.” The President of the United States speaking in the Oval Office earlier this week while hosting his latest fascist friend, the prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orbán.

Andrea Mitchell:: The Trump Administration threatens to ramp up troops in the Middle East as tensions with Iran reach a boiling point.

Dave Briggs:: President Trump warning Iranians they’ll have a bad problem if they play a role in sabotaging two Saudi oil tankers.

Alisyn Camerota President Trump is warning Iran that it will quote “suffer greatly” if they provoke the U.S.

Dave Briggs: Is the administration preparing for war with Iran?

MH: If you’re not worried about the prospects for another illegal and bloody regime change war in the Middle East, you should be. Because Trump’s hawkish rhetoric on Iran is only part of the problem. Remember, this guy is Trump’s National Security Advisor:

John Bolton: The behavior and the objectives of the regime are not going to change and therefore the only solution is to change the regime itself. And that’s why, before 2019, we here will celebrate in Tehran. Thank you very much.

MH: John Bolton, folks. Giving a paid speech there, back in 2017, to a cultish Iranian opposition group called the MEK, who used to be on the US list of banned terrorist organizations. John Bolton, who’s never met a Middle Eastern country he didn’t want to sanction, bomb or invade. John Bolton, who has been obsessed with Iran for decades now, and with bombing Iran. Literally, that’s what he wrote in a New York Times op-ed back in 2015: “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran” was the headline to that piece. John Bolton, who according to a jaw-dropping exclusive in the New York Times this week headlined: “White House Reviews Military Plans Against Iran, in Echoes of Iraq War,” is now basically in charge of the US government’s Iran strategy.

According to that Times story, quote: “At a meeting of President Trump’s top national security aides last Thursday, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan presented an updated military plan that envisions sending as many as 120,000 troops to the Middle East should Iran attack American forces or accelerate work on nuclear weapons, administration officials said.”

Now, a few things about this report. Number 1: 120,000 troops? That’s a lot of troops. Not enough to invade Iran, a country four times the size of Iraq lest we forget. But enough to start a conflict, wittingly or unwittingly. But are we even paying attention? Shouldn’t this be leading every news bulletin? Shouldn’t all of the Democratic presidential candidates be putting out strong statements saying they’re opposed to a new war in the Middle East, rather than just a handful of them like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard? I mean, where’s the outrage?

Number 2: The Times goes on to point out that Trump may not have even been briefed on this military plan. Think about that — the president’s most senior security and defense officials are planning to send up to 120,000 U.S. troops to one of the most sensitive regions in the world, and the president himself may not even be in the loop. He’s busy tweeting about Sleepy Joe Biden and Crazy Bernie Sanders. God help us all.

Number 3: Why is the ‘paper of record’ — why is the New York Times—echoing, parroting this administration’s hawkish anti-Iran propaganda? Yeah, propaganda. The Times says and I quote, “should Iran…accelerate work on nuclear weapons.” Sorry, you can’t accelerate work on something that doesn’t exist. Iran does not have nuclear weapons and does not have a nuclear weapons program. That’s not my view. That’s the view of both the IAEA, the International Atomic Energy Agency, and the consensus view of the US intelligence community, for the past decade now.

The Times of course was deeply complicit in selling the Bush administration’s lies about Iraq and WMDs. Remember Judith Miller’s BS? Remember Tom Friedman’s nonsense? Does it really want to do the same again now, 16 years later? Just the other day, the New York Times reported quote, “Iran said it would stop complying with parts of the nuclear deal, escalating a confrontation with the U.S.” No mention there that the U.S. is the one that pulled out of the deal, or that Iran is responding to that pullout a year later. Instead the Iranians are the ones accused by the Times of quote ‘escalating’, not the Trump administration.

The U.S. media isn’t great when it comes to covering foreign policy, or standing up to a belligerent president or the military industrial complex. And that’s why it’s always been far too easy for presidents of both parties to sway the American public when it comes to launching pointless and often illegal foreign wars, especially when it’s scary Muslims with big beards on the other end. Come on, we’ve seen this script before. A rogue Middle East nation with secret WMDs, that you can’t trust or negotiate with, and that’s about to attack you, or about to attack Israel, if you don’t attack them first.

Now, to be fair, Iran and the U.S. have been the best of enemies for a long time now. 40 years to be precise. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. And there’s a lot not to like about Iran — from the hostage crisis, to the repressive dictatorship, to the sponsorship of groups that the U.S. government considers to be terrorists, to Tehran’s support for the ruthless and brutal Bashar al Assad regime in Syria.

But the Iranians have a long list of their own legitimate anti-American grievances that are barely ever mentioned in the U.S. media or by U.S. politicians. In 1953, for example, the CIA overthrew a democratically-elected Iranian prime minister in a coup and then backed the repressive dictator, the Shah of Iran, for decades afterwards. In the 1980s, the U.S. supported Iraq’s invasion of Iran and helped Saddam Hussein use poison gas against the Iranians. More than a million people died in that war. In 1988, the U.S. Navy shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing all 290 civilian passengers on board, including 66 children. The United States expressed regret, but never apologized. In fact, this is what President George Bush Sr. said at the time:

George Bush Sr.: I’ll never apologize for the United States of America — ever. I don’t care what the facts are.

MH: In 2002, George Bush Jr. rewarded Iran for helping the US defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan after 9/11 by including Iran, with Iraq and North Korea, in the Axis of Evil:

George Bush Jr.: States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.

MH: We know what happened to Iraq: sanctioned, bombed, invaded, basically destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis killed. And we know what’s happened with North Korea and Kim Jong Un on Trump’s watch:

DJT: And we go back and forth, and then we fell in love, okay? No really. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they’re great letters. We fell in love.

MH: The question is: Why can’t Iran be in the North Korea category, where the U.S. negotiates and does diplomacy, rather than in the Iraq category, where the U.S. smashes and destroys? And the really big question: what’s to stop this administration, Trump, Bolton, Pompeo and co., from constructing a fraudulent casus belli and launching a catastrophic war with Iran between now and November 2020?

That’s what we’re going to discuss today with two people who probably know more about U.S.-Iran relationship than most other folks in Washington D.C..

[Musical interlude.]

MH: Trita Parsi is the founder of the National Iranian American Council, the author of the recent book “Losing an Enemy: Obama, Iran, and the Triumph of Diplomacy” and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University.

And Rob Malley is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group and former Middle East director on President Obama’s National Security Council. He was also a member of the U.S. diplomatic team under Obama that helped negotiate the Iran nuclear deal.

Rob, Trita. Thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

Trita Parsi: Thank you.

Rob Malley: Thank you.

MH: Rob, you have reportedly a military plan involving 120,000 U.S troops. You have the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and a bomber squadron being sent to the region. You have all this hawkish rhetoric from Trump, from Bolton, from Pompeo. You have the designation of the Iranian revolutionary guards as a foreign terrorist organization. How worried should we be? How worried are you that we’re now on a road to war with Iran?

RM: I mean, it’s hard not to be worried. These are all indications of a train wreck that is coming. It’s been a slow motion train wreck now, basically since President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal. But they’ve accumulated step after step after step. And let’s just assume for a second that everything the administration says is true, which is a bold assumption. It’s assuming.

MH: A very bold assumption.

RM: Very bold, yeah. Assuming it’s true, it also makes perfect sense, because Iran has been under such pressure, one would expect that it would react in some way, whether it’s withdrawing from the nuclear deal or doing something in Iraq or doing something in Yemen or trying to interrupt the flow of oil. Because their view is, if our oil can’t be exported, why should Saudi Arabia’s oil be exported? So this was, this was foreseen. And the problem is is that there’s no, there’s no off-ramp. And so when I hear what I’m hearing, and particularly the decision to withdraw nonessential personnel from the U.S. embassy in Iraq, that’s a tell sign. That’s a sign either that they really believe there’s a threat, or that they’re preparing something military, unless it’s a complete manufactured claim, which in this case, again, one can’t exclude.

MH: Which you can’t rule out with most U.S. administrations, especially not this one. Trita, you recently said that given the public focus at home on the Mueller report, on Trump’s taxes, on the general chaos in Washington D.C. and on Capitol Hill, that this is National Security Advisor John Bolton’s quote, “best shot in 20 years at a war with Iran.” Do you really believe that? That we’re closer to an actually military confrontation than we’ve been in two decades?

TP: I think this is the highest most risky situation we’ve faced, at least for a decade now. And I think we have to remind ourselves that Bolton has been pushing for this for a very long time. And the circumstances right now are quite helpful for his objective. You don’t have a real Secretary of Defense at the Pentagon, such as Mattis, that actually did push back against some of these things. You have a president that doesn’t seem to pay a lot of attention to this issue, is preoccupied with other things. Bolton seems to be really in charge of Iran policy. You have a public that is obsessing about tax returns and all of these other things that are not unimportant in any way, shape, or form, but it means that they are distracted. Because when you look at everything that is going on, and as Rob mentioned, you know, pulling nonessential people from the embassy, these are extremely worrisome signs, but this is still not getting the media attention.

MH: Yes.

TP: And the attention of the public that it should be giving these signs.

MH: And I definitely wasn’t to come back to that. Just on the Iranian position, you’ve sat down with senior members of the Iranian government in the past. What is their take? There seems to be mixed messages out of Tehran on this week. You had an advisor to Iranian president Hassan Rouhani tweeting: “You wanted a better deal with Iran? Looks like you’re going to get a war instead.” And he added, “That’s what happens when you listen to the mustache,” referring, of course, to John Bolton and his ridiculous mustache. But then you also have Iran supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei saying “this is not a military confrontation because no war is going to happen. Neither we nor they are seeking war. They know that it’s not their benefit.” So, are the Iranians preparing war, wanting war, or not?

TP: Oh, I think they are preparing for the likelihood that it could happen. But I think, when you scratch the surface and look at these different statements, I think they are going in the same direction. On the one hand, Khamenei is trying to signal to the U.S. that, we know you’re bluffing. We know that you’re not going to do this, and we’re not going to play into it. On the other hand, you have Rouhani’s advisor essentially signaling to Trump, you think what you’re doing is a really clever negotiation strategy. You think that maximum pressure is going to get Iran to capitulate and just throw in the towel. And that’s just not been the case in the past. That’s not been the pattern with Iran. We think you’re serious, but we think you’re being duped by Bolton, who knows very well that maximum strategy is more likely to lead to war. They know there’s a wedge between Trump and Bolton. They’re trying to expand it.

RM: Well recently you had Zarif, the foreign minister, going on Fox News on the Chris Wallace Sunday morning show and the stated premise was the Iranians wanted to talk directly to Donald Trump without going through Mike Pompeo and John Bolton. And the way you do that is to go on Fox News.

TP: Their communication with the North Koreans has convinced them that it is quite useless engaging with the Trump administration right now, even though they regretted that they didn’t say yes to earlier offers that existed. But it’s useless to do so, because even if Trump agrees to something, Pompeo or Bolton will sabotage it. So I think they’re waiting for a situation in which Bolton is out, and at that moment, entertain some form of direct communication with Trump.

MH: Rob, I’ve been trying to sound the alarm bell on Trump and Iran, including on this show, for a while now. And a lot of people, including on the left, say, there’s no way the U.S. is dumb enough or bold enough to take on Iran in an open conflict. And my view has always been, whether or not the U.S. actually wants war, just making war-like noises increases the chances of war. Unwitting war, if not witting conflict. The British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt said this week, quote, “We are very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended on either side.” That’s a real risk, isn’t it?

RM: I think you’re right and your critics are wrong. I mean, let’s assume again it’s accidental and that —

MH: That’s how a lot of wars start.

RM: Particularly here, where you have any chance of communication, where as Trita says, the Iranians are on this position where they, they’ve been really—you know, this is economic warfare, we could say it’s justified or not—but they feel that they are under economic warfare: they cannot export their oil, their inflation rates are skyrocketing, the unemployment is rising. They’re going to have to react in some way to show the United States and others there’s a price to pay. If you’re going to make us pay a price, we’ll make you pay a price. So let’s just assume, and we at Crisis Group have this trigger list, where we look at, everything that could happen that could provoke a confrontation. Let’s suppose what happened the other day. Suppose they attribute it to Iran. They say Iran was responsible for the attack on the Saudis tankers in the Gulf. Suppose the U.S. says, we’re going to respond with a military strike on an installation on the Iranian Navy just to send them a message. They’re not going to be foolish enough to retaliate because they know we have superior firepower. And the Iranians say, we’re going to have to respond in some way too, because we can’t let this go un-responded to. And that’s how the war could start. They don’t talk to each other. And each one is trying to project — they think they know what the other one will do.

MH: There are hot heads on both sides, I think it’s fair to say.

RM: On top of it, indeed.

MH: Isn’t it, I always find it ironic. You hear this, you hear this argument that—actually, I want to play a clip, just of Tom Cotton, Senator Tom Cotton, Republican Senator, former military man, informal advisor to Trump on Iran, crazily hawkish. He said in an interview this week:

Reporter: Could we win a war with Iran?

Tom Cotton: Yes.

Reporter: That didn’t take you a second.

Tom Cotton: Two strikes. The first strike and the last strike.

MH: Two strikes, he says. What I always find amusing about the hawks, the U.S. hawks on Iran, is on the one hand they say, this is a crazy dangerous regime. It’s suicidal. It’s run by mad mullahs with messiah complexes. They want to nuke the world. They want to destroy Israel. On the other hand they say, we can take out a ship, as you mentioned: They won’t retaliate. That makes no sense. You can’t have your cake and eat it.

RM: And let’s just have a little history. Think of the last U.S. intervention in the Middle East that ended well. And we can go down the list: Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria to some extent. Not one of them has ended. Even despite overwhelming superiority, military superiority by the U.S., that’s not what counts. What counts is the fact that they’re there to stay. And they have ways of making the U.S. suffer that the U.S. won’t withstand. So the notion of a quick war against Iran is about as fanciful as one could imagine.

TP: I think, Cotton probably wanted to say that it’s going to be a cakewalk, but he realized that that word has a bit of a connotation.

MH: That’s been copyrighted. That’s been copyrighted by the Iraq hawks, who are still around now as the Iran hawks. Let me say this to you Trita: Is there an argument that the chaos caused by this administration — the sheer recklessness, incompetence, the erratic nature of Trump’s presidency, general unpopularity in the polls — it makes for heightened public skepticism when it comes to an administration making the case for war— could we be at least a little bit relaxed that unlike previous presidents if Trump does make the decision to go to war in a kind of conscious way, not an accidental way as we were just discussing, there will actually be public pushback. There will be pushback from voters who don’t trust him to launch a war. Or are you less confident?

TP: I’m less confident. First of all, yes, there will be public pushback. But there was also a lot of public pushback against the Iraq war. I mean, there were massive protests here in the United States and it didn’t amount to anything, partly because the media played a very critical role in helping convince the American public that the Bush administration was right. Because they were taking allegations, false allegations by the Bush administration, and stating them as facts in their headlines. And we’re seeing a lot of the media doing that right now as well. I mean, the reporting on, we’re sending ships to the Persian Gulf right now in response to Iranian threats. They’re just taking the accusation, the allegation…

MH: Some of them are single sourced. Even the tanker line that Rob mentioned. That’s from one administration official from what I can see.

TP: The one source, exactly. And they’re running it in their headlines, which is what most people read of course. So they’re just constantly getting the image, oh, there is a threat and we are responding to it. We’re not causing it, we’re not the reason why the nuclear deal is where it is, but we’re responding to it. That is terrifying.

MH: The New York Times saying Iran is escalating by pulling out from the deal.

TP: Yeah.

MH: Not mentioning to readers in that piece that I saw that America pulled out of that deal a year ago. I mean maybe it’s the outsider in me that’s saying, I don’t trust the American public that much kind of when it comes to war and piece. Because I get this, you know, there’s this anti-war mentality on the parts of the right that want to spend money at home and don’t waste it on those savages in the Middle East. But on the other hand, we have seen — you mentioned a list of conflicts, Rob — all those times, it’s not hard to get the American public behind an external threat. Especially a brown Muslim-y threat. Iran’s been seen as an enemy for decades now. This did not start on Trump’s watch. It was presidents of right and left that have talked about Iran in that kind of way. And then you look at Trump’s own mentality. So, he’s been tweeting for years. Did you know in 2011-2012, he was tweeting “Obama will attack Iran in order to get reelected.” And we know that everything Trump says, especially about Obama, is projection. So when he says Obama will attack Iran to get reelected, is he really saying that he would attack Iran in order to get reelected? The domestic political considerations there as well between now and 2020. He saw what was happening to his poll numbers when he launched the odd missile at Syria.

RM: Yeah, call me naïve, I think on this one he doesn’t really want to get entangled. It’s one thing to have a few missile strikes. I think there’s two dangers, not that he deliberately wants to create a massive war. I think he thinks something small could be contained, like what happened in Syria. In Iran, it probably can’t be contained, that’s one risk. And the other risk, to Trita’s point, I think right now most Americans would be extremely skeptical about another war with Iran, despite all the enmity towards Iran. If something happened, if tomorrow there were an attack against American troops in Iraq or in Syria, then the whole narrative would change. That’s the risk that we run.

MH: Those numbers would change quickly. The numbers change quickly. That’s the reason we’re worried. And Trita, you wrote recently, you said that: “Bolton wants to provoke Iran into some action that would create a pretext quote, ‘So he could get the war with Iran that he’s been looking for for more than twenty years.’” When we talk about pretext, and, we now know, you know, people said, those of us who marched in 2003, we were called conspiracy theorists. When we said Bush and Blair were looking for an excuse. Now we know that Bush had even talked to Blair about shooting down, having Saddam shoot down planes with UN imagery on them to try to provoke him. We now know all what happened in 2003. When we talk about pretext, is the problem here, of course, is it the Iranians, some of the Iranians quote-on-quote “hardliners” are very happy to provide pretext? In recent days we’ve had recent drone strikes on the Saudi oil infrastructure from Houthi rebels who’ve claimed it — Houthi rebels backed by Iran, as we’re often reminded — we’ve had these tankers that Rob mentioned attacked in the Gulf, which according to some officials in the U.S. government and in the Gulf government and the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, Iran was behind. Are these the kinds of pretexts that you’re worried about?

TP: Well, first of all, I think we have to recognize we live in a rather strange world if a Houthi attack in Saudi Arabia, in the context of Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen —

MH: Just because there’s tens of thousands of Yemens.

TP: — is a pretext for the United States to go to war with Iran. That in itself just says that we have entered into a dimension that I’m not really understanding of. Because, what should be pretext or something that actually could be presented as casus belli is if the Iranians do something against the United States. And the Houthis doing something against the Saudis, which they have been at war with for four years. And most of the attacks, they don’t get any media attention, is, the Saudis bombing Yemen including schools and hospitals, not an oil tanker or anything like that.

MH: With U.S. government support. U.S. is a party in Yemen as much as Iran is.

TP: With the U.S. as much as Iran’s support. So, I think we have to keep that in mind. And I also want to say this. I think the Iranians have a long history of actually have some really bizarre hotheads out there that have created a tremendous amount of damage and really escalated the situation. That, however, is not the Iran that we see today or the last three years. I mean, the discipline in the fact first of all that the United States since Trump came in has been undermining the nuclear deal, later on walked out of the nuclear deal, is now punishing countries that are abiding by the nuclear deal, punishing countries that are abiding by UN security council resolution. Iran is in the bizarre situation in which it is under more sanctions now when it is abiding by an international nuclear agreement then when it was accused of having violated one.

MH: And the American officials are saying it’s explicitly the sanctions are to destroy the Iranian economy.

TP: Yes. So in that context, I think we have to admit that the Iranians have actually shown a tremendous amount of restraint, which we should be very happy about. I think, however, we’ve reached a point in which that restraint has come to an end. Because, if this situation continues as it is right now, I don’t think the Iranians any longer see a positive outcome for them. Up until this point, they thought they could probably just wait Trump out. That’s not the case any longer. So now they’re going to respond. And I think their strategy is that they want to increase the tensions between Trump and Bolton because it will no longer be cost-free for Trump to do all of this bluster if he is actually really close to making a decision about going to war. And the Iranian calculation is that at that point he will walk back from the brink just like he did with North Korea.

MH: Rob, one of the stated rationales behind tougher U.S. sanctions against Iran is not only to change the behavior of the Iranian government to force it, you know, to give away more in some sort of future nuclear deal that Trump thinks he will renegotiate. But also, to push the people of Iran. I mean, they don’t hide this as they go. To push the people of Iran to rise up and overthrow their government without the need for any foreign military intervention. You’ve referred to this view in the past as “magical thinking”. Explain to our listeners what you mean by that.

RM: Again, the track record of sanctions leading to outcomes that we the United States are in favor of is extremely poor. Usually sanctions end up hurting the people we claim we want to help, and helping the people we claim we want to hurt. Because regimes know how to circumvent sanctions. So, you know, who knows what will happen in Iran. But the notion that because of sanctions, this regime is going to be toppled? That does seem like magical thinking. And again, we have been experts at magical thinking throughout the world, not just in the Middle East. But I mean I think what Trita’s saying is exactly correct, which is, the sanctions right now have reached such a level. And they’ve been extremely effective. Let’s not deny it. In terms of the drop in the oil exports by Iran, it exceed what many people thought was possible through the U.S. acting alone. Because they’re prepared to shed any pretense of alliances and of good behavior with countries with which the U.S. has a long history. So that does put the Iranians in this position. I think they have the logic that Trita just mentioned, which is they’re thinking by acting aggressively, we may convince President Trump from walking back from the brink. But their other thinking may be, at some point we are going to have to negotiate with the U.S., but we don’t want to do it with a gun pointed at our head. We want a position of relative strength, hence —

MH: How does that fit what you were doing in the Obama administration? You were Director of Middle East Policy for the NSE. Obama brought in some pretty stringent sanctions on Iran. People forget this. They think, you know, on the right, he’s seen as just some guy who did a deal with Iran and was best friends with the Iranians. He brought in some pretty crippling sanctions on Iran with the same thinking. That we will force them to the table. We will put a quote-on-quote “gun to their head.”

RM: Not quite. I’m not a big fan of sanctions, so I’m not trying to defend everything that was done.

MH: Were you an internal critic of that move when you were in the Obama administration?

RM: Well, I was not in the Obama administration then. When I came, we were negotiating with Iran. So at least I could say I liked what was done by the time I came in. But I’d say this. The sanctions then had a very clear purpose, which the Iranians could with difficulty accept, which is to negotiate the kind of nuclear deal which in the end they negotiated. The problem with these sanctions — the list of twelve demands that Secretary Pompeo has put — they amount to complete surrender to regime change or regime collapse. There is no way, no matter how tough the sanctions are, that an Iranian leader will come and say, you know what, yes, in order to remove these sanctions, I’m going to take these steps. The sanctions in the Obama case were, here’s some sanctions. They’re directed at a very specific objective: restraints on your nuclear program. And that was something that the Iranians could see as a realistic outcome.

MH: And just on the Iranian perspective, in terms of the experience of sanctions and the reaction, explain to some of our listeners, especially here in the U.S. — I don’t want to make sweeping generalizations — but the mindset of the Iranian government and even the Iranian public at large when it comes to, Rob used the phrase, economic warfare, having this blockade, having these sanctions, having this economy crippled. And then having the memories of Iran-Iraq war, and, you know, the military confrontations that they’ve have involving the U.S., which backed Saddam Hussein in that war. What is the mindset there? When you talk about going to war with Iran, it’s not like invading Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with respect to the Iraqis. It’s a much bigger country. It’s not the kind of country that’s going to roll over if you asked for sanctions.

TP: I would add another element to it. I think it’s really important to keep in mind that the Iranian narrative is very much that the last 100 years has been an effort to actually gain Iran’s independence after several decades, centuries actually, of Iranian weakness in which it was being abused and used by more powerful powers. And 1953 is a very important point there. Not because of what the CIA did in throwing off Mosaddegh, the democratically elected prime minister. That’s of course extremely important. But also because it was preceded by a naval blockade by Britain. After Britain had lost in the international court in The Hague, the Iranians had taken the Brits there because they wanted to make sure that they could receive 50 percent of their own oil revenue, instead of Britain taking all of it. They took Britain to The Hague. The Brits lost. And the response was to impose a naval blockade. So this idea of having sanctions imposed on Iran very much comes back to the point that that’s what the outside world does when they don’t want to let Iran actually be an independent state. And here you have a repeat of that in the sense that Iran is actually living up to the nuclear deal. This is not a scenario in which they cheated.

MH: Which is what the IAEA says, it’s what all independent…

TP: Fourteen reports by the IAEA. They actually have lived up to the deal, and yet they’re faced with more sanctions.

MH: Rob, General Anthony Zinni who used to run Central Command said a few years ago, “Like I tell my friends: If you like Iraq and Afghanistan, you’ll love Iran.” What does a war with Iran look like? What’s the fallout from that? How bad could it get?

RM: I think as Anthony Zinni said, it can get much worse than Iraq. It’s a more powerful country. It’s a larger country. It’s a more populous country. It’s a country that has that history of resistance that we just heard from Trita. It’s also a country that has a lot of influence throughout the region, and so the price of the war won’t only be paid on the land of Iran. It could be paid elsewhere, and not just by the United States. I think it really is almost impossible to contemplate and that’s why almost every effort should be made. And there’s a lot we’ve been quite pessimistic on this show, but Congress could act. Public opinion could act. The media could act. Europeans could act. There are many actors.

MH: Do you have confidence in — you just listed a variety of parties.

RM: Not necessarily confidence, but —

MH: Do you have confidence that the media could act? Cause they haven’t acted so well, as Trita pointed out?

RM: Well, the reason I — come back to the point that I don’t think this is a president who is fully on board with the policy that his team has lead him to. And that why I think these pressures can have influence. And I don’t think — this is a crisis and this is a war that may be manufactured, but it is not preordained.

MH: If you were John Bolton, do you think you’re winning right now?

RM: Oh, sure. Right now he is where as Trita says. This is where he would like to be.

MH: Because I didn’t get why we were in North Korea, but I did get the one in Iran. Trita: presidential candidates on the Democratic side. This week we’ve seen Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tulsi Gabbard come out. Obviously, there’s, I think there’s like 77 people running for president. So there’s a fair few more who could come out. Are we going to see the Democrats… you know, the Democrats dropped the ball in 2003, it’s fair to say. I think you had Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry. Some big names there who voted for that ludicrous illegal invasion that lead to so many deaths. This time around, what are we going to see from the Democrats? What would you like to see from the Democrats?

TP: I think it goes back to the point that Rob made earlier on. There is a completely different politics going on in the Democratic party. I mean, someone like Elizabeth Warren signed onto this pledge that she would walk back into the nuclear deal. She didn’t do so despite running for president, she did so precisely because she’s running for president. That tells you where the Democratic voters are today.

MH: Some. I mean, Kamala Harris, Carrie Booker take a slightly more hawkish line —

TP: Some. They certainly have. But I think we have right now six or seven that have already made that pledge. And it’s including some of the leading ones. And I think that tells you that the Democratic voters are at a very different place right now. And I think it’s partly because the Iran deal is no longer about Iran. It’s not even about the nuclear deal. It’s about, what is America? Is America a country that works with other countries and negotiates and resolves problems through diplomacy, multilateral diplomacy? Or is it a bully that goes around and makes threats of war all the time, imposes sanctions in order to get what it wants? That is a very simple choice for a Democratic voter. They don’t want the United States to be the type of a country that Trump is turning it into, and as a result, the Iran deal is the biggest success on the Democratic side. For them to be able to show, this is what our foreign policy is. This is what it should be for America for the long-run.

RM: I think it really is this earthquake in American politics. Back during the Iraq war, Democrats thought their ticket to relevance and survival was to vote for the war. Today I can’t imagine that any Democratic candidate or potential candidate would express anything but utter opposition to war with Iran. So I think that shows how, I mean, it’s sort of the hangover of the war in Iraq. I just think the politics have changed profoundly. And that’s something that I do think gives us some hope that there will be more resistance now then there was in 2003.

MH: We’re going to stop right there because you said “hope.” It’s been very pessimistic and very worried. But I think it’s important to be pessimistic, because I think as you opened the show with Trita, we kind of have been sleepwalking into a lot of this. And people like yourself who kind of focus on this subject, you’ve been talking about this for a while and saying, pay attention. People haven’t been paying attention. Maybe they will now start paying attention push back, led by some of these Democrats. Rob Malley, Trita Parsi, thanks for joining me on Deconstructed.

[Music interlude.]

MH: That was Trita Parsi and Rob Malley. And that’s our show. Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is Zach Young. The show was mixed by Bryan Pugh. Leital Molad is our executive producer. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Betsy Reed is The Intercept’s editor in chief.

And I’m Mehdi Hasan. You can follow me on Twitter @mehdirhasan. If you haven’t already, please do subscribe to the show so you can hear it every week. Go to theintercept.com/deconstructed to subscribe from your podcast platform of choice, iPhone, Android, whatever. If you’re subscribed already, please do leave us a rating or review – it helps people find the show.  And if you want to give us feedback, email us at Podcasts@theintercept.com. Thanks so much! See you next week.

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