Questions on Trump’s Iran decision

Tewfick Aclimandos
Monday 14 May 2018

Foreign policy experts are largely hostile to Trump’s decision to terminate waivers on sanctions against Iran. Their fears might be well-founded, but it could also be a gamble that works

Donald Trump's Iran decision is explained by two sets of factors: Trump’s personality, stubbornness and ignorance; and his wish to please his base, some lobbyists, and Bolton-like hardliners.

Trump’s decision frightens me and I am not sure it is a correct one. However, I am dismayed: I did not find a single paper trying to defend it. Of course, I did not go to Fox News’ website. I surveyed my usual suspects.

Once again, I am no expert, neither on proliferation nor on Iranian issues. However, the arguments of those attacking the move are not altogether convincing.

It is tempting to say the “West” pays attention to global issues and the impact of Trump’s move on the international system, non-proliferation efforts and the globalised economy, while we Arabs focus on the regional rationale of the move, and on the Middle East’s geopolitics. There is more than a grain of truth in this. Nevertheless, it does not tell the whole story.

In effect, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was a transaction: you stop trying to acquire a nuclear bomb, and we stop the sanctions. That meant, “And we are going to fund you.”

We were told this was a way of empowering the Iranian moderates, or at least strengthening their playing hand. I never bought the argument, as the balance of power in Iran favours the hardliners. I will skip the question, “Are the moderates real moderates?”

It turned out the deal allowed Iran to fund its expansionist policies in the Middle East, especially in Syria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

The Western liberals became, all of a sudden, hard-boiled realists and would reply, “None of our business”, and "We cannot do anything for Syria." Well, I understand you can do nothing for Syria, but Syria’s fate concerns you. The Syrian regime and Iranians are in effect pushing outside Syria millions of Syrians, who largely migrate to Europe. Therefore, Western choices have some unpleasant consequences for the West.

Personally, I would welcome Syrians, but European public opinion begs to disagree.

That does not mean JCPOA was not the lesser evil. It simply questions the assumption that everything was fine before Trump’s move. We, Middle Easterners, paid a heavy price for President Obama’s choices, combining a radical “Assad must go” stance with inactivity and indifference, while claiming the moral high ground. In addition, his choices had an impact on Europe. Neither the Arab world nor Israel nor Europe, nor even Turkey or Russia, can live comfortably with an Iran-dominated Syria.

The best defence I can imagine for Obama’s passivity is that it encouraged both Russia and Iran to overreach and that these two powers will ultimately pay a heavy price.

Many commentators, including one as brilliant as Stephen Walt, assume the Trump administration is going for regime change in Tehran. Of course, I am not a Washington insider. This might be the real objective. It would be, of course, especially stupid and dangerous, even in the improbable scenario of success.

Unfortunately, recent history proves stupidity is a real and permanent problem, so I won’t rule out this.

Nevertheless, President Trump’s record and practice look different: he barks a lot, trying to disseminate fear and uncertainty. His probable objective would be negotiation with a frightened Iran. This might or might not work. It looks like a gamble, especially if we consider his tendency to withdraw from global commitments.

However, we do not know how he prepared his move. We do not know whether he has a serious understanding with the powers hostile to Tehran.

I have here some criticism of Trump’s move. It seems to assume no significant player can seriously consider escalation, and everybody will negotiate, may be after some gesticulation, bellicose or not. This is a not so implausible gamble, but it is a gamble. I think Iran can escalate, for instance by hitting the Saudis or the Israelis. This may or may not be carefully calibrated. The Israelis, also, can opt for war.  

Yes, the Trump decision means a war is less unlikely, and this is not a pleasant prospect. If a war erupts, the American leader will look stupid.

Therefore, the Trump administration should quickly show a carrot to the Iranians, and I am not sure this is coming.

Commentators also say the move will have a significantly negative impact on oil markets. Moreover, it contradicts Trump’s proclaimed goal of “energy independence." I am not totally convinced by this. This is the kind of issue that really matters for President Trump, as it would hurt his electoral base. It seems quite probable he extracted promises from the Gulf States.

Western critics also say this move is contrary to international law, and they are right. They say it is also a terrible blow to Washington’s credibility. Its signature will no longer be trusted. This is right, of course, but it tends to overlook that more often than not Western capitals do not stick to agreements.

In this region, at least, since the early 1990s, nobody trusts Washington, for very good reasons.

The critics also say this brusque move will have a negative impact on negotiations with North Korea. But I also read that this move was a signal: you cannot hope for a deal like the one Tehran secured (concessions on the nuclear issue versus a free hand on other ones).

It is therefore difficult to figure out how all this will impact the negotiations with North Korea. What is certain, as already stated, is that if this move is the start of a general offensive against Iran, Tehran will most probably strike back, with terrible consequences for all. If it is the prelude for a general negotiation, for a Yalta-like drawing of zones of influence for everybody, and tracing serious red lines, then everything is possible.

To sum up: I do not like the Trump decision as our region is already exhausted. I do not like his style and his bullying. We cannot rule out the possibility that this is a major blunder, preceding new major blunders. However, it might also be a successful gamble.

Short link: