- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Iran faces “obliteration” if it ever again launches attacks on the U.S. military, President Trump warned Tuesday, trading new threats and insults with leaders in Tehran as the prospect of a diplomatic solution to the soaring tensions between the two nations seems to be fading.

While the president stressed that he remains ready to talk, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said the Trump administration’s most recent round of economic sanctions shuts the door to negotiations. Some regional analysts argued that Washington and Tehran are drifting further away from a nonviolent resolution to the crisis.

Matching and even raising the ante on Mr. Trump’s rhetoric, Mr. Rouhani described the White House as “mentally retarded,” underscoring how heated and nasty the dialogue between the two sides has become.

With the region on edge and both sides on high alert, acting Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper — on the job only since Monday — arrived in Brussels for a key meeting seeking support from other NATO leaders. One of Mr. Esper’s central missions is to persuade European leaders to change course and back the U.S. strategy of isolation and crippling economic sanctions against Iran.

Lawmakers in Washington said it’s difficult for a temporary Pentagon chief to bring the necessary gravitas to such high-level talks.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Esper also will face questions from skeptical European allies about whether the U.S. is still considering military strikes on Iran. The president said he was ready to authorize such strikes last week after Iran shot down an American military surveillance drone but ultimately called off the attack after he was told that 150 Iranians would be killed.

Iran shot down the drone just days after a second series of limpet mine attacks on civilian oil tankers in the Gulf of Oman.

“This is not Iran versus the United States …,” Mr. Esper told reporters on the flight to Brussels to meet with fellow NATO defense ministers. “This is the reason why we need to internationalize this issue and have our allies and partners work with us to get Iran to come back to the negotiating table and talk about the way ahead.”

Mr. Esper said discussions about creating a maritime coalition to secure freedom of navigation in the Persian Gulf are in the early stages. It’s too early to start counting ships and allies that have agreed to participate, he said, according to The Associated Press.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, speaking to reporters in Brussels, said he did not see a formal role for the Western military alliance in the U.S.-Iran standoff. “The important thing now is to reduce tensions,” he said.

Desperation in Iran

Analysts said Iran is reacting with increasing desperation to an American economic pressure campaign as Mr. Trump reimposes sanctions that were lifted in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that he has repudiated. Mr. Trump struck another nerve this week after announcing that new sanctions will be levied directly on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and his top military aides.

Despite backing off last week, Mr. Trump made clear Tuesday that military action is by no means off the table.

Iran’s very ignorant and insulting statement, put out today, only shows that they do not understand reality,” Mr. Trump said in a Twitter post. “Any attack by Iran on anything American will be met with great and overwhelming force. In some areas, overwhelming will mean obliteration.”

The president was responding to comments by Mr. Rouhani, who dismissed the sanctions on Ayatollah Khamenei as “outrageous and idiotic.”

Mr. Rouhani, long considered a more moderate voice in the Islamic republic’s theocratic regime and a strong supporter of the 2015 deal, cast the White House’s approach as erratic and senseless.

“The White House is afflicted by mental retardation and does not know what to do,” he said during a televised address in which he declared that the latest sanctions greatly diminish the chances for diplomacy.

Indeed, some regional analysts say that despite Mr. Trump’s stated desire for talks, it is growing increasingly difficult for the two sides to budge from their positions and find a diplomatic opening. They argue that Iran, feeling increasingly isolated and suffering from the weight of sanctions and a global embargo on its oil exports, could decide that its only option is to lash out.

The administration “should know this rudimentary fact about Iranian political psyche, which is they don’t acquiesce when their interlocutors brazenly threaten or disrespect them,” said Mehrzad Boroujerdi, a political science professor at Syracuse University who specializes in Middle Eastern politics and studies Iran extensively.

“Instead, the Iranians will hit back verbally and, if needed, escalate strategically to circumvent the imposed situation,” he said.

In addition to the drone attack and limpet mine explosions, Iran has said it will dramatically increase its stockpiles of uranium and could ramp up enrichment to near weapons-grade levels — moves that could deal a death blow to the 2015 nuclear pact.

Tehran has threatened to begin disregarding the terms of a multinational Obama-era deal to limit its nuclear weapons program, and European powers, China and Russia have made little progress in placating Tehran.

No exit strategy

Despite those provocations, Mr. Trump sounded confident in his handling of the crisis.

Asked by reporters at the White House whether he had an exit strategy for war with Iran, Mr. Trump replied with a grin: “You’re not going to need an exit strategy. I don’t need exit strategies.

“When they’re ready [to talk], they’ll have to let us know,” Mr. Trump said. “Whatever they want to do, I’m ready. They should talk to us decently.”

Hawkish National Security Adviser John R. Bolton, meeting Tuesday in Jerusalem with Israeli and Russian counterparts, said Washington remains open to serious bilateral talks and “all that Iran needs to do is walk through that open door.”

However, Mr. Bolton added, “There is simply no evidence that Iran has made the strategic decision to renounce nuclear weapons.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Esper, a former Raytheon executive who served as secretary of the Army until this week, will have to answer tough questions from NATO defense ministers about the U.S. approach toward Iran.

In Washington, lawmakers say American clout is diminished by having an acting secretary in the role.

The U.S. has not had a permanent defense secretary in six months. Former Boeing executive Patrick M. Shanahan took over as acting Pentagon chief on Jan. 1 after the resignation of James Mattis, but he never reached Senate confirmation. Citing personal family matters, he withdrew from the process last week.

With the Iran crisis escalating, lawmakers say, it’s imperative that the White House move quickly to fill key slots.

“We should have started this process two months ago, and then we wouldn’t be sitting around waiting,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James M. Inhofe, Oklahoma Republican, told reporters Tuesday. “It’s very damaging to have all of these people in an acting basis.”

Mr. Trump said last week that he intends to nominate Mr. Esper to the permanent post. It’s unclear when that formal nomination will take place.

• Lauren Meier contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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