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Iran, Obama and Trump

Was US President Donald Trump right to withdraw from the nuclear deal with Iran

Tewfick Aclimandos , Thursday 22 Aug 2019
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In this article I want to elaborate on a Facebook post I wrote a few days ago. It was a comment on what experts have been saying on French talk shows about the nuclear deal with Iran and the current crisis in the Gulf. 

I know from my own experience that talk shows can be a trap as you do not have enough time to think and to ponder your answers before giving them.

When you write an article, on the other hand, you have the time to realise that an idea you may like is nonsensical and can then either suppress or improve it. You do not have this luxury on TV.

Nevertheless, talk shows are important. They reveal a lot about people’s thinking, preferences, and intuitions. Above all, they help to convey a message to the public.

In my Facebook post, I did not talk about ideological bias or the effects of the widespread hatred of US President Donald Trump, which seems to be blinding for many.

I preferred to look at the substance of the debate on how best to deal with Iran, not passing fashions. To prevent any confusion, I will state my position clearly here: former US president Barack Obama was probably wrong to sign the nuclear deal with Iran and Trump was also probably wrong to try to destroy it. 

The arguments against Trump’s decision to withdraw the US from the deal are well-known, it being seen as a terrible blow to nuclear non-proliferation efforts and setting a dangerous precedent.

No other country, and especially not North Korea, will sign a nuclear deal if it can be so easily destroyed by a capricious US president. 

Moreover, escalation was predictable as a result of the US withdrawal, and Trump does not want a war with Iran. He is betting instead on slow strangulation, which is dangerous as Iran may feel it has no choice but to escalate the situation.

It can accuse Trump of “cowardice”, and in any case such strangulation might not be enough to force it to change its policies. 

The world economy cannot afford a disaster in the Gulf. The Middle East, and therefore Europe, also cannot afford another round of destabilisation in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, where Iran has considerable capacities.

Iran might decide to develop a nuclear bomb, and if this happens Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Egypt, and perhaps the UAE and others will then be forced to follow on the same path.

Such observations are correct. My problem is not with them, but instead lies in the claim that the nuclear deal with Iran was a good one, that it was the morally right thing to do, and that such liberalism is both morally and politically superior.

The deal, whatever Obama and others might have thought when they signed it, is basically a trade-off. It says to Iran, you stop your nuclear programme for some time and accept international monitoring on this issue, and we will let you do whatever you want in the Middle East.

The deal would be easier to defend if Iran had promised never to try to develop a nuclear bomb. However, many Middle Easterners would still have been left to their fate to face Tehran’s soldiers and militiamen alone.

The experts on the French talk shows have been saying euphemistically that Iran had exerted pressure on countries like Syria, Lebanon and Iraq. Many of them have forgotten to mention Yemen, however, something which may or may not have been innocent.

It would be interesting to know what Sunni Syrians, Iraqis of all confessions, most of the Lebanese, and many Yemenis have to say about such Iranian “pressure”.

Iran is a central actor in the Syrian, Lebanese, Yemeni and Iraqi tragedies. It has no problem in using terrorists to destabilise anyone that would confront it. It does not have problems inflicting mass casualties. 

The Iranian state is an old one, and Iran’s foreign-policy community is impressive. It is nationalist, determined, pragmatic, ruthless and has a deep understanding of the world system and of how the great powers work.

It is a master of negotiation and of the use of carrots and sticks. It has a sure sense of the difference between the short and the long term. 

Of course, it would be possible to build up a case for the nuclear agreement. You could say that time was running short. You could say that Iran was pretty close to getting the bomb in a region that was not ready for it.

You could say that the agreement gained precious time, allowing us to prepare for different scenarios.

However, many of the things the experts are saying are plainly wrong. They say the agreement was a “good compromise”, for example, which is preposterous and is at best an admission of powerlessness. At worst, it is a defeat as it rewards bad behaviour and does not even include a commitment never to repeat it. 

I am unable to discuss what some Western diplomats are saying — that the Obama administration was in a hurry and that European diplomats prevented the US delegation from making other concessions. But the final result was not impressive.

However, these are not the worst arguments, since after all the time gained was precious.  The worst arguments were those that said the deal would empower Iranian moderates, or that financial flows would return, or that the deal would compel the Iranian leadership to focus on economic reform.

Conventional wisdom claims that being soft empowers moderates and being hawkish empowers extremists when it comes to Iran. I was and remain sceptical of this, as I think things are not that straightforward. Both strategies can bring good or bad results. 

However, regarding Iran I was always sure that the liberals were wrong. The West’s tactics might have helped one side to win the contest if the moderates and the extremists had had the same resources or if one side had not had a crushing advantage.

But in Iran the “hawks” are in firm control. It is true that as far as public opinion is concerned the moderates usually have the upper hand, but in this kind of regime public opinion does not have a real say. 

The argument that the deal would compel the regime to focus on the economy probably meant that it would no longer be able to claim that the country’s economic woes were due to American plots.

But money can be used by extremists to fund their regional strategy and to consolidate their hold on the economy, and this is what happened in Iran. I have made many mistakes during my professional life, but at least I never bought arguments of this sort.

I am in a provocative state of mind, so I will conclude this piece by saying that the liberals who signed the nuclear deal with Iran might have been politically right had time been running short and had no other options been available. But morally, and despite their claims, they were plainly wrong or worse. 

They should now stop their lecturing. Trump has probably taken up the right moral stance on this issue, whatever his motives. Even so, his move is politically ill-considered and may even be stupid.

* The writer is a professor of international relations at the Collège de France and a visiting professor at Cairo University.

 *A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Iran, Obama and Trump

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