David Ignatius: "I Worry That The Situation In Iran Is Going Well Beyond What Trump Imagined"

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Washington Post columnist David Ignatius joins MSNBC's "Morning Joe" to discuss the president's motives for escalating tensions with Iran.






DAVID IGNATIUS, WASHINGTON POST: The Trump administration for months has been moving toward the confrontation we're watching now, advertising it was imposing crippling sanctions over Iran. Iran's oil exports have fallen over the past year from 2.6 million barrels a day to under one million barrels -- just a dramatic drop in exports.

JOE SCARBOROUGH, MSNBC: How much is that impacting them financially?

IGNATIUS: Here are some of the examples that I hear from the middle east. In Lebanon, Iran's proxy Hezbollah has cut salaries and told a lot of people they can't pay. In Syria, where Iranian proxies were so important in shoring up Bashar al-Assad, they're having to reduce those numbers. They're feeling the squeeze even in the most elite units of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. The point is that the Trump program of crippling sanctions in a sense is succeeding all too well.

My sources tell me about two weeks ago the Iranians clearly made a decision they couldn't just wait this president out. Their thought had been let's wait until November 2020, January 2021, and then we'll get a new president and these sanctions will go away. I think they've realized that the waiting game doesn't work. So what are they doing? I think we're seeing an effort by Iran to counter/disrupt in small, deniable ways. Meanwhile, the U.S. is moving in enormous amounts of military force.

And we have the classic situation in which miscalculation by either side, an IRGC guy in a speedboat or a guy on a destroyer who's scanning the horizon and somebody makes a mistake, it's a dangerous situation. The final thing I'd say, Joe, is this president, who in a sense is allergic to middle east wars, we know that about him, is looking at this gathering storm and saying, "Hey wait a minute, this is not where I want to be." With Donald Trump, you were never sure where this Iran pressure is leading to. I think he believes the Iranians will capitulate and come to the table, they'll make the super-deal Barack Obama could never make. But they are in no mood to bargain with the United States.

SCARBOROUGH: But, David, you brought this up yesterday, this is another great example of foreign leaders figuring Trump out. I remember you being on the show and accurately pointing out the first year that Donald Trump had made the Chinese and the Iranians and many people who considered themselves our adversaries, had made them off balance. But now they've figured him out and the Iranians have figured out that Donald Trump is all bluff. This is all a bluffing game. He's not going to go to war in the middle east. It seems to me this proves your point they know he's just bluffing and is not going -- he'll send military presence over there but he's not going to attack Iran and they know it.

IGNATIUS: I think you're right, people had figured out this model that Trump does, "fire and fury," apply sanctions, threaten this and that, but at the end what he wants to do is make a deal. We've seen that with North Korea, with the China trade talks, and now with Iran. And people have decided just let the storm blow itself out. The problem is that at certain points, Trump or anybody else, if he's ignored, doubles down. He's done that in these China trade talks. He keeps thinking China is going to capitulate and it doesn't and we get deeper in a trade war and our financial markets rightly say 'what the heck?' And I worry that the situation in Iran is going well beyond what Trump imagined. He said as recently as yesterday they'll want to talk to me, they'll want to come back to the table, sort of imagining he'll be rescued by Ayatollah Khomenei. That is not a good bet for an American president.

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