john bolton
Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr

Iran and America are entering an intense face-off phase now that the NSC’s John Bolton is no longer around to push for bombing Tehran.

President Trump is hoping American pressure and the ongoing trash-talking between the U.S. and Iran can lead to the eventual smoking of a peace pipe.

Wars of words can sometimes lead to shooting wars, or they can raise the stakes so high that negotiations and lowered tensions can follow. Which will it be with Iran? Talks or continued terror? Or both?

Upcoming U.N. General Assembly sideline huddles or principal meetings might take place, especially now that Bolton can no longer undermine the U.S. president’s photo-ops and off-the-cuff concessions. With Bolton gone, the White House’s “bad cop, worse cop” act is over. Trump’s instincts and near absolute power in foreign policy now take over on Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, and North Korea.

The North Korean ruler formerly known as “little rocket man” has shown that a nuclear high-stakes strategy can lead to historic summits and a Singapore junket. President Trump is using a similar approach with Iran, with his White House previously putting Tehran on notice that there will be “hell to pay” for Iran’s repression and foreign meddling. Pressure, Trump hopes, can lead to summiteering.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani followed Kim Jong-un’s initial playbook, saying last year that Trump had a “Nazi disposition.” Not as subtle or as cutting as Kim’s 2017 “dotard” comment, but the effect is the same. Bombs and rockets may break American bones, but names will never hurt Trump. He’s heard it all. He’s said it all.

What happens now is critical. Does the Iranian-American dialogue rekindle? Or does it fail to find a face-saving forum, allowing tensions to escalate? Trump is applying maximum pressure—both rhetorically and in real terms with deep and crippling economic sanctions. Iran’s President Rouhani calls this action “economic terrorism.”

Religion may seem to be the driving force behind Tehran’s policies. Iran’s Shiite-led theocracy looks like it’s calling the shots, looking both to proselytize abroad while defending against a rising and virulent strain of Saudi-backed Wahhabism.

What is really happening in Iran’s foreign policy, however, is the cold and calculated policy of building bloodthirsty friends and allies. Iran’s cynical countermoves to Saudi Arabia helped co-create the world’s greatest humanitarian crisis in Yemen. Iran’s leadership disregards its own citizens in favor of an out of control, well-armed militia—the terrorist-classified Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which dominates the country’s domestic economy and politics. The IRGC is hellbent on broadening its influence at home and abroad.

The result? An Iranian leadership that neglects the evolving needs of its youthful populace. Instead, the system feeds the egos and finances of the most extreme, fanatic, violent, and totalitarian tendencies of this uncontrollable armed branch. The IRGC has a symbiotic relationship with the Mullahs, who are often under its thumb and in its pocket. It is an unholy alliance. that uses Allah and earthly religious authority to pursue extreme and violent foreign policies, oppress domestic opposition, and justify the most cynical, corrupt, and offensive policies imaginable.

Iran has locked arms with the butcher of Damascus and worked with a Russian accommodationist to keep Syria from switching sides or overthrowing its dictator. Rather than finding a way to promote democratic—or, at least, humanitarian—solutions, it has helped destroy the country to save a relationship.

Persians are peeved. Instead of using the small financial and political windfall that came with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) negotiated by the Obama administration and agreed to by China, Russia, and the European Union, the Iranian leadership fell victim instead to its military and intelligence services to deliver weapons and personnel across the region. The IRGC expanded its regional reach and expended manpower to fight alongside Syrian troops, bolster Lebanese Hezbollah leaders, and launch Yemeni rocket assaults.Tehran did its utmost—successfully—to push American critics and skeptical policymakers to drop out of the JCPOA. Instead of taking care of things back home, Iran hewed to the letter of the agreement but upped its impossible-to-ignore foreign adventures. Iran’s leadership is co-opted by an irrepressible IRGC with an insatiable appetite for power and regional expansion.

Now that the United States is no longer honoring the JCPOA, additional pressure is mounting on the Tehran regime to manage multiple problems. Over committed to Yemen, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, Iran’s assets are stretched thin. The increased pressure on their forces and resources is coming from a more assertive Saudi Arabia, a focused Israel, a vocal USA, and an unreliable Russia.

Iran’s increasingly youthful populace is fed up with consumer and basic shortages, religious strictures, empty rhetoric, and global isolation. They abhor a state that rewards the unremarkable while punishing those with great potential.

All in all, you have the makings for a rapid enough descent into Iranian dissent to please even John Bolton.

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).