Has Trump Changed His Stance on Iran?

January 2, 2020 Updated: January 2, 2020


The Middle East has ratcheted up a notch or two, and Iran is in the middle of it all.

There’s the usual confusion, of course, but Iran has been sending its Hezbollahi killers into Iraq and deploying them against U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies. It all becomes clear if you remind yourself that Hezbollah is an Iranian thing, the foreign arm of the Islamic Republic, whatever its nominal home base.

For many months, Iraqis have fought the local version in the streets of the country. The fighting led Hezbollah to attack a joint U.S.–Iraqi base with missiles, killing an American contractor and several Iraqis, and provoking a forceful U.S. response. Hezbollah reported that 19 of its fighters were killed, and another 35 wounded by the U.S. response. According to local reports, three Iranian officers were killed.

This was the first serious military response to Iran’s campaign to place its top agents in key positions in the Iraqi government, and followed the near-constant refrain from President Donald Trump that he didn’t want war with Iran.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has waged war against the United States since he was named successor to the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1979. Khamenei named Qassem Suleimani as commander of the Iranian foreign legion, at first mostly concentrating his energies on Syria, where the Iranians feared the dictator Bashar Assad might be overthrown. Once Assad had been rescued, and Khamenei concluded that Trump wasn’t prepared for an assault on Iran, Suleimani moved on to Iraq and Lebanon.

Hezbollahis mounted an assault on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, led by well-known Iranian agents, including the killer of several American officers a few years ago. Washington sent a team of Marines, followed by several thousand Army troops, to defend the Americans and local staff.

The latest reports indicate that the Iranian-backed forces have left the immediate area, but remain very close to the embassy. Meanwhile, the Pentagon is pouring armed forces into Iraq, and it remains to be seen if the Iranians are prepared for a head-to-head confrontation with U.S. armed forces.

Will Khamenei stick with his conclusion that Trump doesn’t want armed conflict with the foreign legion, or will he embrace the very unpleasant notion that the U.S. president has changed his mind and is now preparing to strike against the regime itself? The answer has a lot to do with the state of Khamenei’s health, the balance of power inside the Tehran regime, and the real condition of the Iranian economy.

Iran’s national economy is a shambles, and by most any measure, its people are in a mess. Unemployment mounts, mental disease is rampant, and suicide is impossible to measure. As the winter advances, heating oil is hard to come by, inflation—officially around 30 percent—is more than 70 percent, and with the exception of a tiny sliver at the top of the economic ladder, the average family income is 200–300 euros ($223–$334) a month. The tiny sliver is a mere 350,000 or so wealthy people.

The remaining 80 million are struggling to stay alive, and the regime arrests hundreds every week. Without assistance, they will fall deeper into misery. And who would want to send economic aid to a regime that would only spend it to kill the donors and the donors’ friends?

Contrary to the prognostications of so many pundits, economic misery isn’t the primary cause of revolution, not in Iran, not in Venezuela, not in Cuba, not anywhere. Whenever you see one of those charts that measures the value of the local currency, turn the page.

It may well be that Trump has come to understand this, and he’s sending thousands of U.S. troops to combat the Iranians in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Afghanistan. We know the Tehran regime arms the killers in all of those places, and in our own hemisphere as well.

I don’t think the Iranians will have the stomach to fight against an armed force they never thought they could defeat. Nor do I think the paltry few rials paid to the “demonstrators” in Baghdad or Beirut or elsewhere will be sufficient to keep them in battle against us.

We shall see. The Iranian people are surely ready to go. Thus far, the regime has confidently tortured and executed those who stood against it, but, all of a sudden, the White House shows signs of movement. If Trump has concluded that there is no possible deal with this dreadful regime, he may devote his energies to changing it.

That would send a message, as we used to say, to the global alliance that is challenging us. But we’ve waited a long time.

Michael Ledeen is a freedom scholar at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He has served as a consultant to the National Security Council and the departments of State and Defense, and as a special adviser to the secretary of state. He is the author of 35 books, most recently “Field of Fight: How to Win the War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies,” co-authored with retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.