How Iran’s Supreme Leader Is Outmatching Trump

The United States appears to be backing down in a test of wills that Iran expert Reuel Marc Gerecht calls the most “important moment since the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.”

Iranian youth march with portraits of the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran on Feb. 11. Rouzbeh Fouladi/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Iranian youth march with portraits of the country’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei during a ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution in Tehran on Feb. 11. Rouzbeh Fouladi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Reuel Marc Gerecht is a former CIA case officer and an expert on Iran who is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Gerecht, a Persian speaker who tends toward hard-line views on Iran, has devoted much of his career to studying the internal political dynamics of the country, including the rule of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in the 30 years since his ascension to power in 1989. Gerecht spoke to Foreign Policy about his concerns following last week’s major attack on Saudi oil facilities, which U.S. and Saudi officials believe was sponsored or orchestrated by Iran. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.  

Foreign Policy: Is this attack an act of aggression by Iran made in response to Tehran’s perception of U.S. weakness? 

Reuel Marc Gerecht: Oh, sure. The Iranians always gradually escalate. They have been escalating for some time, and each and every time we have done nothing, so they’re upping the ante. Militarily, obviously. The attack on the Saudi oil facilities was pretty bloody bold. And they are upping the ante more gradually on the nuclear front. Going for the oil facilities actually does give them satisfaction on two different fronts, which they find very appealing. One, it raises the middle finger at the United States. And two, it hits the Saudis, whom they loathe.

FP: How do you think the attack was orchestrated? Did it come from their sophisticated, well-developed proxy network in the region? Until now there has been only speculation that the attack came directly from Iran.

RMG: It’s the Iranian way to use proxies to give them some operationally thin deniability. They just want a little bit of a fig leaf, and so the various Shiite forces allow them that. It is possible this was a direct assault, if so it’s a particular test of both [U.S. President] Donald Trump and MbS [Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman]. The drones they’re using can have substantial distance, and if they’re using cruise missiles I suspect they probably launched them from Iran. Obviously there must be some assessment, and they [intelligence analysts and investigators] are probably going back over tapes looking at, I’m sure, records of radar to determine where these things really came from. Obviously it exposed a severe weakness in Saudi air defenses. If the Americans don’t respond to it, it will be very serious. I have to say, the president has already thrown away freedom of navigation as an understood casus belli for the U.S. Navy [since Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps shot down a U.S. drone in June, and Trump aborted a planned U.S. strike in retaliation]. That has now been tossed. So if we are now allowing the Iranians to attack at will, it’s throwing out the window an understanding we’ve had since the 1950s that the United States would defend Saudi oil. 

And I have to say I’m very impressed by the Iranian choice of targets, because it is defining for us.

FP: By defining you mean the supreme leader sees this as an ultimate test for whether the United States is going to back down again? 

RMG: Yeah. And I have to say given some of the comments by Secretary [of State Mike] Pompeo it does look like we’re going to back down.

FP: Pompeo called it an “act of war.”

RMG: But then further on down he said he was going to go to the Saudis to consult and try to build a coalition. It didn’t sound terribly reassuring, and I think when translated into Persian it’s not going to be very intimidating. 

FP: Trump did announce additional sanctions.

RMG: What do you do if you’re not going to do anything? You use sanctions.

FP: This appears to be a sudden, very dramatic escalation of a long-brewing conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia. How do you explain that?

RMG: Some people tend to look at the supreme leader as if he’s cautious player, but the truth about Khamenei is he loves to push the envelope. … And if we don’t do anything, he’s going to escalate it further, both militarily and nuclear, out of the sheer pleasure—the frisson of sticking it to the United States. It seems as if the United Arab Emirates have already turned tail, they want out. I don’t think MbS has it in him to stay the distance—even he, of supreme hubris, can’t take on the Islamic Republic without the United States. The European response was typical: They called for more negotiations. I think they’re going to keep dialing it up. And we’ll see if the president can hold firm or weaken further.

FP: In the end, is there any coherence to Trump’s Iran policy? 

RMG: Since they [the administration] didn’t give sanctions relief even though the president expressed some sympathy for that option to [French President Emmanuel] Macron [during the recent G-7 summit], there is at least a consistency still on the use of sanctions. Trump hasn’t betrayed that consistency yet. 

FP: Sanctions to what end?

RMG: The president doesn’t really articulate a view for the use of sanctions beyond that they are supposed to bring him a new opportunity to cut a deal. Is that conceivable? I suppose it is, but I don’t think it’s likely. I think what is more likely is that the supreme leader is going to engage the president in a machtpolitik game. He’s quite a serious devotee of that. People don’t give him nearly enough credit: I think he is the most successful Middle Eastern leader since World War II. He’s supremely skilled, supremely talented.

FP: And he’s outmatching Trump?

RMG: I would say at this time on a scorecard the supreme leader is certainly ahead on points. The only factor the supreme leader has to worry about is internal stability. That’s the great check on Iranian actions.

But now with [former National Security Advisor] John [Bolton] gone—If you read the Persian press there’s absolutely no one they feared more than Bolton—the fear factor, the concern that the Americans might actually let loose against them, has gone down significantly, I think. 

FP: How much of what is going on now an attempt by the supreme leader to appease hard-liners within the Iranian regime? 

RMG: Almost none of it. This is all him. He’s loving this moment.

FP: Why are you so sure of that?

RMG: Because I’ve read him forever. It’s quite clear that he truly enjoys this.

FP: How important is it for the United States to respond in the right way now?

RMG: It’s a very big moment. I would say it really will determine whether the United States has essentially renounced any responsibility for the Persian Gulf. Strategically, I cannot think of a more important moment since the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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