President Donald Trump doesn’t want conflict. Ayatollah Khamenei doesn’t want economic collapse. Yet that is where things are headed.
Put yourself in the shoes of Iran’s 80-year-old supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His regime is beset by nearly 50 percent inflation, a collapsed currency, persistent labor strikes, and an irrepressible women’s-rights movement. Epic floods recently killed more than 75 people and caused nearly $3 billion in damage. A locust plague is threatening 300,000 hectares—$9 billion worth—of farming land. “Things have never been this bad” is a refrain commonly heard from Iran these days.
Beyond its borders, Iran is spending several billion dollars annually to arm and finance regional allies—including Syria’s Assad regime, Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militias, and the Houthis of Yemen—that offer little financial return on that investment. Direct flights between Tehran and Caracas have resumed so Iran can prop up the embattled Maduro regime.
Against this backdrop, a U.S. president whom Khamenei has described as “mentally retarded”—Donald Trump—is pursuing a relentless economic-pressure campaign seemingly intended to force either Iran’s capitulation or its collapse. First, in May 2018, Trump unilaterally pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. In April 2019, the State Department officially designated Iran’s most powerful political and economic institution—the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—a terrorist organization, further rendering that group an international pariah. And now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced that no countries will be granted further exemptions to import Iranian oil, an attempt to choke the lifeblood of Iran’s economy.