Trump Sanctions Iran’s Supreme Leader, but to What End?

With the flourish of his pen on Monday, President Trump imposed sweeping sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, as well as everyone in Khamenei’s office or appointed by him. It was a point of high drama in the escalating brinksmanship between the United States and the Islamic Republic. It was the closest that Trump has come to formally calling for a regime change. “The Supreme Leader of Iran is one who ultimately is responsible for the hostile conduct of the regime,” the President told reporters. “These measures represent a strong and proportionate response to Iran’s increasingly provocative actions.” Usually, the United States will sanction a head of state—such as Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi, and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro—as a signal that the leader is no longer deemed legitimate. In other words, Washington believes that a leader has to go.

Trump was opaque, even puzzling, about his intentions, however. “America is a peace-loving nation,” he said. “We do not seek conflict with Iran or any other country. I look forward to the day when sanctions can be finally lifted and Iran can become a peaceful, prosperous, and productive nation. That can go very quickly; it can be tomorrow. It can also be in years from now. So, I look forward to discussing whatever I have to discuss with anybody that wants to speak. In the meantime, who knows what’s going to happen.”

The new executive order also targeted the Revolutionary Guard commanders involved in shooting down a sophisticated U.S. drone last week. The Trump Administration intends later this week to impose sanctions on the U.S.-educated Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who was the chief interlocutor during the two years of negotiations that led to the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. Zarif once quipped that he and the former Secretary of State John Kerry spent more time with each other during that period than they spent with their wives. As Iran’s top diplomat, Zarif regularly travels to New York to attend U.N. sessions. He was here in April and had been expected to return next month.

At a White House press conference, the Treasury Secretary, Steven Mnuchin, vowed that the new sanctions will “lock up literally billions of dollars more of assets.” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who was visiting Saudi Arabia on Monday, charged that Khamenei’s office “has enriched itself at the expense of the Iranian people. It sits atop a vast network of tyranny and corruption.” The new sanctions, Pompeo said, will deprive the Iranian leadership of the resources it uses to “spread terror and oppress the Iranian people.”

Ironically, the punitive new measure may not have major economic impact—at least not to the degree that the Administration advertised. “It’s a lot of hype, but it doesn’t mean much economically. It’s unlikely to have a damaging effect” on Iran beyond the sanctions that have already been imposed, Elizabeth Rosenberg, a former Treasury sanctions specialist who is now at the Center for a New American Security, told me. “It’s in the realm of the symbolic.” The sanctions are “a sideshow to a threat of military escalation and all-out conflict,” she said. They fuel a narrative focussed on Iran rather than the United States—and the fact that Trump blinked when he called off a retaliatory military strike last Thursday.

Former Treasury officials also claim that Trump did not need to sign a new executive order—beyond the hype and media attention it produced. The authority to sanction either entities or officials affiliated with the Iranian government has existed since 2012, when the Obama Administration issued an executive order, Kate Bauer, a former Treasury official who is now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said. “It’s clear that this Administration wants to send a message,” Bauer said. “This is a response to the recent escalation and the shooting down of the drone.”

The main impact of the new sanctions may be political—diminishing rather than encouraging diplomacy or deëscalation. Pompeo said that Tehran “knows how to reach us,” if it decides to “meet our diplomacy with diplomacy.” But Tehran immediately rejected talks. At the United Nations, the Iranian Ambassador Majid Takht-Ravanchi told reporters that Tehran would not succumb to pressure. “Nobody in a clear mind can accept to have a dialogue with somebody that is threatening you with more sanctions. So, as long as this threat is there, there is no way that Iran and the U.S. can start a dialogue,” he told reporters, before a closed-door session on tensions in the energy-rich Gulf. In a tweet, Zarif said that Trump’s advisers and allies “despise diplomacy and thirst for war.” Other Iranian officials condemned the new sanctions as “economic terrorism.”

Trump’s decision, a year ago, to unilaterally reimpose other sanctions—splitting with the five major powers who also brokered the nuclear deal—has battered Iran’s economy. In April, Washington vowed to sanction five nations that remain major importers of Iranian oil if they didn’t cease all purchases; the move cut off Tehran’s main source of revenue. Iran’s oil sales today are about a sixth of what they were in 2016. Inflation has exceeded fifty per cent in some months, with the price of basic necessities skyrocketing. The I.M.F. projects a six-per-cent economic contraction for Iran in 2019. Yet the Iranian economy is still far from crippled. The Islamic Republic has not witnessed the kind of economic protests that erupted nationwide in late 2017 and early 2018, Western diplomats in Tehran have told me

Sanctioning Iran’s supreme leader and his entourage could even backfire, some experts suggest. The Trump Administration’s goal is to get Tehran to make concessions on its missile development, regional interventions, and human-rights record, as well as its nuclear program. But “these sanctions will make discussions toward a new treaty very, very difficult,” Adnan Mazarei, a former deputy director of the I.M.F.’s Middle East program who is now at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, told me. “They send a bad political signal. The recent events—especially shooting down a U.S. drone—make Iran feel more comfortable and self-confident from a domestic perspective. It could say, ‘We won the last round and maybe we can talk now.’ ” No longer, Mazarei said. Tehran has boasted that it shot down the Global Hawk drone, one of the most sophisticated surveillance aircraft in the U.S. arsenal, with a homemade rocket. On Monday, the chief of Iran’s navy, Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi, warned that his forces could shoot down more U.S. aircraft flying in the Gulf, “and the enemy knows it.”

Over all, sanctions are an imperfect tool, former Treasury specialists told me. They can work—but they may take years, even decades. North Korea has been sanctioned to the hilt, but Trump’s negotiations with Kim Jong Un have yet to reduce his nuclear program, which is far more sophisticated than Iran’s. Iran is still more than a year from the ability to produce a bomb, whereas Pyongyang is estimated to have between twenty and sixty bombs. Sanctions to get Rhodesia’s white minority government to the negotiating table to end the country’s civil war took almost fifteen years. Sanctions are also most effective when the world unites behind punitive economic measures, as the U.N. did in invoking sanctions on Iran four times between 2006 and 2010. Today, the deepest split in U.S. relations with its transatlantic allies is over Iran policy.

As prospects of diplomacy dimmed on Monday, Trump signaled his willingness to deploy military force. “I think a lot of restraint has been shown by us,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “A lot of restraint. And that doesn’t mean we’re going to show it in the future.”

The Increasing Unfitness of Donald Trump

The West Wing has come to resemble the dankest realms of Twitter, in which everyone is racked with paranoia and everyone despises everyone else.

What made the Emperor Nero tick, Suetonius writes in “Lives of the Caesars,” was “a longing for immortality and undying fame, though it was ill-regulated.”

.. Many Romans were convinced that Nero was mentally unbalanced and that he had burned much of the imperial capital to the ground just to make room for the construction of the Domus Aurea, a gold-leaf-and-marble palace that stretched from the Palatine to the Esquiline Hill.

.. Chaotic, corrupt, incurious, infantile, grandiose, and obsessed with gaudy real estate, Donald Trump is of a Neronic temperament.

He has always craved attention.

.. Future scholars will sift through Trump’s digital proclamations the way we now read the chroniclers of Nero’s Rome—to understand how an unhinged emperor can make a mockery of republican institutions

.. He was post-Freudian. (“It makes me feel so good to hit ‘sleazebags’ back—much better than seeing a psychiatrist (which I never have!).”)

.. In due course, Trump perfected his unique voice: the cockeyed neologisms and the fractured syntax, the emphatic punctuation, the Don Rickles-era exclamations (“Sad!” “Doesn’t have a clue!” “Dummy!”).

.. Then he started dabbling in conspiracy fantasies: China’s climate “hoax,” President Obama’s Kenyan birth, “deep-state” enemies trying to do him in.

.. “Stop Being Trump’s Twitter Fool,” Jack Shafer, of Politico, advised, just after the election. Trump’s volleys were merely a shrewd diversion from serious matters.

.. “you’d expect that people would have figured out when Donald Trump is yanking their chain and pay him the same mind they do phone calls tagged ‘Out of Area’ by caller ID.”

.. Sean Spicer, the President’s first press secretary, insisted otherwise. Trump, he pointed out, “is the President of the United States,” and so his tweets are “considered official statements by the President of the United States.”

.. Trump’s tweets are most valuable as a record of his inner life: his obsessions, his rages, his guilty conscience.

.. he set a White House record with a sixteen-tweet day.

.. took credit for a year without an American air crash,

.. he continued to offer respect bordering on servility to the likes of Vladimir Putin.

.. One of his signature phrases—“fake news”—has been adopted by autocrats from Bashar al-Assad, of Syria, to Nicolás Maduro, of Venezuela. To the astonishment of our traditional allies, Trump humiliates and weakens a country he pretends to lead.

.. He surrounds himself with aides who are either wildly incompetent or utterly defeated in their attempts to domesticate the mulish and bizarre object of their attention.

.. There is no loyalty or deliberation in the White House, only a savage “Lord of the Flies” sort of chaos. Each day is at once preposterous, poisonous, and dangerous.

.. And so the West Wing in the era of Trump has come to resemble the dankest realms of Twitter itself: a set of small rooms and cramped hallways in which everyone is racked with paranoia and everyone despises everyone else.

.. Trump has reacted to Wolff’s book in the manner of a wounded despot

.. Nero had hoped to last long enough on the throne to re-brand the month of April “Neroneus” and the city of Rome “Neropolis.” He did not succeed.

.. The President sees one West Wing satrap and Cabinet official after another finding a distance from him. “Where is my Roy Cohn?” he asked his aides angrily

.. He is unfit to hold any public office, much less the highest in the land.

.. The President of the United States has become a leading security threat to the United States

Trump Presser Fallout

1. The President of the United States cannot control himself. I know, this isn’t really news, but good grief, it is hard to imagine a president who does more damage to himself by not being able to handle his own temper. Even if he 100 percent believed the things he said today, he ought to have enough sense than to say them publicly. If I worked for this administration, I would send my resume out tonight — if not out of a sense of self-respect, then out of a sense of self-preservation. Trump’s temperament is going to bring his presidency crashing down. It has already started.

2. Trump is openly trying to legitimize people who should never be legitimized. Look at this exchange from today’s press conference

.. Now, let me be clear: there really are very fine people who are opposed to taking down Confederate statues. I know some of them. Their kind would not have gone anywhere near that far-right event in Charlottesville.

Among the far-right groups engaged in organizing the march were the

  • clubs of the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer,
  • the neo-Confederate League of the South,
  • the National Policy Institute [Richard Spencer’s think tank],
  • and the National Socialist Movement.

Other groups involved in the rally were

  • the Ku Klux Klan,
  • the Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights,
  • the 3 Percenters,
  • the Traditionalist Workers Party,
  • Identity Evropa,
  • the Oath Keepers,
  • Vanguard America,
  • the American Guard,
  • the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia,
  • the New York Light Foot Militia,
  • the Virginia Minutemen Militia,
  • the Nationalist Front,
  • the Rise Above Movement,
  • True Cascadia,
  • and Anti-Communist Action.

Prominent far-right figures in attendance included

  • Richard B. Spencer,
  • Baked Alaska,
  • Augustus Invictus [an occultist, by the way — RD],
  • David Duke,
  • Nathan Damigo,
  • Matthew Heimbach,
  • Faith Goldy,
  • Mike Enoch,
  • League of the South founder Michael Hill,
  • AltRight.com editor Daniel Friberg,
  • former Business Insider CTO Pax Dickinson,
  • Daily Stormer writers Johnny Monoxide,
  • self-described “white activist” and organizer Jason Kessler, and
  • radio host Christopher Cantwell.

.. Who among this crew is a “very fine” person? The rally was called “Unite The Right,” so named by organizers because they wanted to bring together all the far-right groups. If you went down to that protest this weekend and marched alongside neo-Nazis and Ku Klux Klansmen, you deserve to be condemned in the strongest possible terms.

3. Trump was right about the role of the antifa provocateurs, and he was right about this:

It is perfectly legitimate to raise the question of where this ends. Once the anti-Confederate crusaders remove all those statues, they’re going to turn on the Founding Fathers who owned slaves. Why wouldn’t they? And on what principle will they be stopped?

..  Christine Emba in the Washington Post. “It’s privileged status, not history, that’s being protected.” If this is a war on symbols of “privileged status,” it can never end.

.. Trump’s point is perfectly legitimate, and an important one. But the aftermath of Charlottesville is not the time or the context in which to discuss it. It is also perfectly legitimate to discuss the role of violent antifa provocateurs — but not when you are the President of the United States, and you are under fire for being unable to straightforwardly condemn neo-Nazis and Klansmen. 

.. The Left is emboldened now, and fired up. Trump is an accelerant. They will get nastier and more confrontational.

.. People on the Right — ordinary people, not far-right activists or people who identify with the far right in any way — will become angrier and more afraid of what the Left in power means for them.

.. watch the reaction to Mark Lilla’s book The Once And Future Liberal, which exhorts the left to abandon identity politics so they can start winning elections.) The radicalized Left will overreach, and we will see even angrier, more conservative Republicans elected to Congress.

.. 5. The Left — including in the media — will now despise all Trump voters equally, without qualification.

.. The liberal journalist Chris Arnade has been doing incredible work actually traveling the country and visiting Trump voters among the down and out. He’s made the point over and over again that a lot of people voted for Trump not because they’re bigots, but because they are in desperate straits, and have concluded that they have been forgotten by elites.

6. Trump has definitively made his brand pure poison. Anybody who stands by him going forward is going to suffer for it. Look at this:

7. The nation is at an extraordinarily weak moment. Nearly two out of three Americans disapprove of the president. That’s bad news for any president, but in Trump’s case, it’s worse, because he’s so polarizing. If this country were to face a serious crisis — a war, in the worst case — do you really see the nation uniting around Donald Trump? If I were an enemy of America, I would see this as an opportunity.

UPDATE: Here is a link to a 22-minute VICE report on the weekend’s events in Charlottesville.  Warning: it is not safe for work, because of language. But you need to see it if you have time. These far-right provocateurs are demonic. At the end, Christopher Cantwell, one of the leaders (and a heavily armed dude from New Hampshire) tells the reporter that the killing of the female protester by the fascist kid driving a car was justified — and that by the time they’re done, there will be a lot more dead. Watch it. It’s chilling.