Khamenei’s Hostility with Trump: Provoking his way out of conflict?

  • + Iran under Khamenei decided to send oil to Venezuela in its dire need.
  • + Iran violates numerous economic Trump-imposed sanctions. 
  • + Trump’s non-reaction is a reaction in itself.
Source: Al Jazeera

Why is Khamenei on edge with Trump?

Answer: Khamenei is ready to take Iran back from Trump’s wrath.

The history of the relationship between Iran and the U.S. is long and troublesome, and far precedes Ali Khamenei’s and Donald Trump’s position as leaders of their nation. However, since Trump’s election in 2016 as President of the United States (POTUS), the relationship between the two nations has become aggravated on both parts. Trump’s increasing economic intervention in Iran in the form of economic sanctions is a key point of Khamenei’s irritation with Trump for more reasons than one. 

Firstly, Khamenei’s identity as the Iranian Supreme Leader since 1989 portrays him as a Muslim, conservative leader, who sees Islam as a tool against imperialism, seeing it as a means to prevent the Westernization of Iran. This was the case up until 1979, where the Iranian Revolution broke out against the Shah of the time. Many were furious with the Westernization – or more specifically –  American influence on the nation. Khamenei’s involvement in the revolution, during which he too was arrested and tortured various times, suggests a strong distaste for Western, i.e., American intervention in Iranian matters.

In addition, given the current geo-political situation in Iran and the U.S., both nations and state leaders are on edge. The COVID-19 pandemic is a strain on the nations’ economy. However, the pre-existing economic sanctions barring Iran from much of international trade is particularly hard on Iran. Trump’s unwillingness to lessen these crippling sanctions are in Khamenei’s eyes a demonstration of the US, and by extension, Trump’s imperialist tendencies. The similarities between Venezuela’s situation and that of Iran have put the two nations in the same boat, with Venezuela suffering arguably even more under U.S. imposed sanctions. These economic sanctions on Venezuela have only become stronger under Trump, as with Iran.

Meanwhile, Trump’s potential re-election in November of 2020 poses an opportunity for Iran under Khamenei to deviate from the norm and apply some pressure. These factors all combined together are the perfect chance for Khamenei to take charge and begin fighting back against the US with more aggression than in the past few days.

What does Khameini want?

Answer: To rid Iran of the US’s shackles on the international levels

Khamenei’s country is in a state of desperation. Iran has oil but needs a friend and cash, and fast. Venezuela has gold but needs oil. This is an opportunistic solution here, as both nations are shunned from the international trading community, both are desperate for an ally and both need to find a way to boost their economies – stat. Petrol is a major natural resource in Iran’s portfolio, highly lucrative as long as they can export it. As both nations are hindered from making use of their petrol, this is a situation that can be used to spark a relationship between the two.

Not only this, but the U.S.’s crippling and dramatic involvement in Venezuela is another factor that will contribute to Khamenei’s distaste for Trump. An opportunity to show Trump the bird is one that will not be lost by Khamenei. In building a relationship between Iran and Venezuela that will end up countering Trump’s deeper economic sanctions on Iran, Khamenei can do just that and even influence the 2020 General Elections in the U.S. out of Trump’s favour.

This tactic has been used before, when 52 people were held captive in the US embassy in Tehran for 444 days, as long as it took to keep President Jimmy Carter from getting re-elected. Joe Biden is Trump’s opposition in these elections. Biden is likely to take a much softer stance on Iran; which Khamenei and the nation would greatly benefit from.

What does Trump want?

Answer: To ensure re-election come November 2020 and make Iran docile. 

Naturally, re-election is a priority. In the months leading up to the November 2020 General Elections, optics were key. As such, every move in both domestic matters and foreign policy will be carefully calculated with his campaign weighing heavily on his mind. His hard-line, ‘maximum pressure’ attitude on Iran has won him many points across the nation. However, given the promise he made on his previous campaign to presidency; to bring U.S. troops back home, any more efforts dedicated to Iran in numbers will be seen as a misstep by the majority of the population. Given the COVID-19 pandemic and the timing in the election cycle, Trump will think more carefully about any decisions involving troops abroad.

Additionally, Trump is known to be a leader with an ego to feed; he demands acknowledgement, while he demands the U.S.’s higher power status to be recognized. In short, Trump almost needs everyone to conform to the rules of his game to feel at ease. Iran and Venezuela’s blatant disregard for Trump’s personal efforts to side-line them is a blow to his ego. Making up for this will be seen in the months to come, whether it is in the form of proxy or will directly be felt by the two challengers.

As Iran is arguably a superpower of the region and given its history with its neighbours, it is a strategically important nation for the US. Iran is also the only viable threat to Israel, unlikely or not, seen as having a trigger-happy Khamenei in Trump’s eyes. Israel is a nation that is not only an ally to the US but also an important nation for the Trump family’s business. Ensuring Israel feels Trump and by extension, the US’ support is not only important for the administration but also his personal financial empire.

Meanwhile, preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear power is another concern, recently a concern accelerated under Trump’s administration with the US stepping out from the Iran Nuclear Program Deal built by the previous Obama administration. To an outsider, such a move is clearly counterproductive for Trump if one assumes the pretext that prevention of nuclear arms is the goal. However, Trump appears to be looking at a bigger picture than just the nuclear aspect in his “maximum pressure” policy; bringing the country down to its knees to compliance. 

What is Trump doing?

Answer: Nothing that we can see.

So far, nothing, which is significant in itself. The crippling economic sanctions are still in place from both Iran and Venezuela, but no more have been slapped on since their provocation. Economic sanctions remain to be among the last moves Trump has in his game that are non-military. The US government has imposed sanctions on the relevant tankers involved in the shipment from Iran to Venezuela, and is considering imposing further sanctions on other tankers as retribution. No further one’s being imposed on the nation as a whole suggest either a decision to take a step back and calculate carefully before moving, or the decision to simply turn a blind eye in an out-of-sight, out-of-mind effort.

In an unusual move for Trump, he didn’t even tweet out or address the matter personally in a press conference or any other form, demonstrating unusual restraint even on a minimal scale in the form of threats, under an otherwise “maximum pressure” approach. This indicates an awareness and even indirect recognition of Iran’s force, however, suppressed it may be by the US’s sheer size, and Khamenei’s increasing willingness to make use of it. 

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Iran won this round, while you remain relatively unaffected.

As of yet Khamenei is finding himself on a winning streak in the struggle between Trump and him. Venezuela, too, is finding itself in new waters, having gotten away with such a violation of imposed sanctions in the reception of Iranian petrol. The highly provocative flaunt of confidence is not only in deception of international sanctions, but also directly in opposition of Trump and what his administration stands for.

In response to a US threat along the lines of ‘if you proceed, we shoot’, Iran’s ‘if you shoot, we shoot back’ demonstrated a strength that has not been seen for long against the US – the world’s military superpower nonetheless. This challenge that resulted in no further reaction from the US is a clear win for Iran.

If you are in some way involved with Iran and Venezuela – deepest condolences for your economic and social struggles, particularly in this pandemic. It does appear however that Iran may have won an inch closer to steps in regaining its status as an international exporting power. If you’re in Venezuela, this petrol should give the country the jump-start it needs in rebuilding its petrol industry and economy.  

As of yet, no reaction was clear. However, given Trump’s ego and tendency to attempt to show who is boss, it may be that retaliation is coming soon in other forms than the norm. Soleimani’s death was a big step against Iran for the US – it could also be that Trump sees this as a natural rebuttal in a minor form, and will let this one go given the upcoming election and perhaps, more pressing matters domestically with Black Lives Matter and COVID-19.

Johanna Katherina Jakobi

Research and Analysis Intern