July 19, 2019 | The Washington Post

What Trump can expect from Iran’s supreme leader

July 19, 2019 | The Washington Post

What Trump can expect from Iran’s supreme leader

Iran’s seizure of two oil tankers — one British-owned, the other British-flagged — in the Strait of Hormuz on Friday dramatically raised the stakes in what had already been a week of escalating tensions. On Thursday, Iran said it commandeered an oil tanker of unspecified origin and 12 crew members. The same day, the U.S. military said it had shot down an Iranian drone. The day before, the Pentagon announced that it was sending 500 more troops to Saudi Arabia, adding to the 2,000 already in the region as a show of force toward Iran. The day before that, news reports focused on Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s denial of U.S. assertions that Tehran was ready to negotiate over its missile program.

No doubt Zarif — and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani — will be prominent in the coming days addressing the seizure of the tankers on Friday, almost certainly retaliation for Britain’s detaining of an Iranian oil tanker near Gibraltar earlier this month for allegedly breaching E.U. sanctions. Zarif and Rouhani are the public faces of the Islamic republic, but make no mistake: Little of consequence regarding Iran’s presence on the world stage happens without the say-so of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Iran’s constitution specifically gives him ultimate power over the country’s foreign and security policy, making him the decider on just about every issue of note.

To anticipate how Khamenei might behave in his battle of wills with President Trump and with the West generally, it might be useful to recall what the supreme leader has done in the past.

Khamenei’s signal trait is his willingness to push the envelope when dealing with his foes. Tehran has backed terrorism in Europe and Latin America against Iranian dissidents and Jews, whom he loathes as agents of a global conspiracy. A planned bombing in June 2018, thwarted by French security officials, could have killed scores of people, including prominent Americans, at an Iranian oppositionist rally outside Paris. These actions were almost certainly greenlighted personally by Khamenei, even though significant diplomatic interests militated against such violence.

It was Khamenei who would have approved the provision of weaponry and logistical and intelligence support to radical Iraqi Shiites attacking U.S. personnel during the Iraq War. Iran’s drive for nuclear weapons, which remained clandestine before its revelation by an opposition group in 2002, occurred under the leadership of Khamenei, who took office in 1989. The starting and stopping and restarting of Iran’s uranium-enrichment program in response to events over the past 20 years would be entirely dependent on Khamenei’s approval.

So, too, the development of atomic-bomb triggers, which we now know from the nuclear archives stolen last year by the Israelis, continued after 2003, when the Central Intelligence Agency had thought such work stopped. The Iranian decision to split the nuclear program in 2003, when the United States was gearing up for the invasion of Iraq, into public, internationally monitored and clandestine parts, would have been debated in the Supreme National Security Council. But the final vote would have been Khamenei’s.

Iran’s recent increase in uranium enrichment in response to Trump’s abandonment of the nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration might have been announced by Zarif, but the decision would come only from on high.

But for all his aggressiveness on the international front, the successor to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini isn’t foolhardy. Iran’s usual method is to weave some deniability into its aggressive operations — enough to satisfy U.S. administrations that would prefer not to get into a shooting war with the mullahs.

With Trump’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the punishing reimposition of U.S. sanctions, Khamenei is defaulting to his natural state: escalating contempt for the West. Iran is slowly increasing the number of centrifuges enriching uranium, and is threatening to raise the purity toward 20 percent — a large step toward weapons-grade purity. Panicking the Europeans into putting pressure on Washington to relax sanctions offers some hope to Khamenei.

The same confrontational but wily mind-set is likely to lead to more Revolutionary Guard speed boats being unleashed against non-U.S.-flagged shipping in the Strait of Hormuz. The seizures of the oil tankers with British connections on Friday may just be the beginning of a new and more dangerous chapter in Khamenei’s battle with the West.

Diplomacy with Trump probably isn’t off the table — Khamenei’s loathing of U.S. presidents is general-purpose, not focused on particular individuals, and the Iranians have often back-channeled if not openly engaged the White House. The key for Khamenei will be U.S. concessions before any talks take place.

The supreme leader is accustomed to seeing the West blink first. It happened when Barack Obama, alarmed by increasing uranium enrichment, offered significant concessions. Trump’s decision to stand down in the Persian Gulf after the downing of the U.S. drone in June has fortified the impression of an irresolute America. In the weeks and months to come, expect Khamenei to find new ways to test the president’s mettle.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Iranian-targets officer in the CIA, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.


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