United States

Trump’s bluster

Print edition : March 16, 2018

President Donald Trump speaks about the Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on October 13, 2017. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iranian Supreme Leader, at a meeting in Tehran on October 18, 2017. He urged Europe to do more to back the 2015 nuclear deal after President Donald Trump refused to recertify the pact. Photo: AP

Donald Trump wants to withdraw from the nuclear deal the U.S. and other countries signed with Iran. But it is unlikely that he can move a maximalist agenda against Iran as other major powers are not keen on it.

United States President Donald Trump has pledged to break the July 2015 nuclear deal struck by his country—and others—with Iran. Beholden to Israeli interests and to neoconservative hallucinations about Iran, Trump has given several speeches in which he has said plainly that he will not certify the deal again. Trump, along the grain of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, is committed to regime change in Iran. Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a Trump ally, said last year: “The policy of the United States should be regime change in Iran. I don’t see how anyone can say America can be safe as long as you have in power a theocratic despotism.” The conditional in Cotton’s statement (“should be”) is an error. The U.S. policy is for regime change already. Trump made that clear this January when he tweeted: “Time for change.”

Trump has kept alive the sanctions regime against Iran. The sanctions have had an impact on Iran’s domestic economy. From December 2017 into January 2018, Iran saw protests by people upset by the state of the economy. Some of the problems are because of the sanctions regime, which has snuffed international investment and which has provided the conditions for inflation within Iran. These protests have strengthened the view in the White House that the sanctions must be continued.

There is no dithering from the opinion that the U.S. seeks regime change in Iran. If the sanctions increase the pain and lead to protests, then the sanctions must continue as they will when Trump renews them on May 12. If threats to withdraw from the nuclear deal create instability within Iran, then the Trump team will continue to make noises about withdrawal. The endgame is to sow chaos in Iran, which will lead to the fall of the Islamic Republic.

The stance of China and Russia

But Trump faces some problems with his policy. The nuclear deal drawn up with Iran was not a bilateral arrangement. It included the United Kingdom, China, Germany, Russia and the United Nations. China and Russia are not at all keen on isolating Iran. Both see merit in the nuclear deal for different reasons.

The Chinese see the deal as an appropriate arrangement for a peaceful negotiation around a nuclear conflict. Iran does not have nuclear weapons. It merely has a nuclear energy programme. On China’s border is a nuclear weapons state, North Korea. The U.S. has indicated that it will be prepared to go to war against North Korea. This would be a catastrophe for China and, of course, North Korea.

China would like the grammar of the arrangement with Iran to be reproduced in North Korea—a comprehensive deal that induces South Korea and the U.N. to prevent an escalation of conflict. That is why China is entirely opposed to the plan to scuttle the Iran deal. Russia wants the deal to remain in place because it does not want any escalation of the already unstable West Asian region by a war between the U.S. and Israel against Iran. Any such conflict will magnify the already dangerous problems posed by the war in Syria, with the Turkish intervention and with the fragile situation in both Lebanon and Iraq. A U.S.-Israel war on Iran would exacerbate Russia’s delicate role in the region. It would also mean the loss for Russia of a crucial partner in Syria, namely Iran, which has helped Russia maintain one of its two warm water naval bases (one is in Tartus, and the other is in Sebastopol in the Crimea). Russia has made it clear that it will oppose any break in the nuclear deal, but more so any escalation against Iran.

Europeans’ position

The European parties to the nuclear deal—the U.K. and Germany—have also indicated that they will not like to see the deal scuttled. Reuters released a leaked U.S. State Department memorandum (circulated on January 13) that went to embassies in London, Paris, Berlin and Brussels, which lays out the Trump policy towards Iran. It suggests that Trump would like to undo the nuclear deal and pressure for regime change in Iran.

To do so, Trump has renewed sanctions, designated 14 individuals as persona non grata and is seeking legislation in the U.S. Congress to allow for a stronger deal against Iran. This legislation would link Iran’s missile development policy to its nuclear energy policy. It would, therefore, bring the missile programme into scrutiny for sanctions by the U.N. and the U.S. There is currently no appetite in Europe for bringing a legitimate missile programme into the negotiations.

The cable asks the U.S. Ambassadors in these key embassies to put pressure on European governments to join the Trump agenda. The U.S. asks the Europeans to seek International Atomic Energy Agency scrutiny of the missile programme and to fix what it sees are the flaws in the “sunset” part of the nuclear deal (to allow the U.S. to unilaterally break the agreement).

“In the absence of a clear commitment from your side,” the Ambassadors are told to tell the Europeans, “the United States will not again waive sanctions in order to stay in the nuclear deal. If at any time the President judges that such commitment is not within reach, the President indicated he would end U.S. participation in the deal.”

The day before this cable circulated to the embassies, Trump said in a speech that Europe must line up behind the U.S. “This is your last chance,” he said.

The U.S. hopes to put pressure on the Europeans, but this pressure will not be enough. Europe is not keen to go the Trump road. Europe has hoped that the isolation against Iran will end so that Iranian energy can start to flow into Europe (which has lost access to energy from Russia and which has found it hard to revive energy flows from Libya). Further sanctions on Iran will only mean that Europe will have no reliable source that will bring energy to the continent. Furthermore, the Europeans recognise that a war against Iran will only destabilise West Asia and exacerbate the refugee crisis. This is something that Europe does not want.

Trump’s options

It could be said that Trump is merely being theatrical in his threats of breaking the deal and going to war. After all, the U.S. does not have the capacity to deal with so many crises at one time. It is one thing to want to encage China and Russia and it is another to actually do so. It is one thing to pretend that Iran will go quietly back to its borders and it is another to see Iran retreat on its own. Foreign policy and international relations are guided by theatrical gestures, but these statements must have behind them the cold steel of force. U.S. power, great as it is, is not divine. It has shown weaknesses in its confrontation against China and Russia and even a much weaker and smaller Iran.

Attempts to deny Russia its two warm water ports in Tartus (Syria) and Sebastopol (Ukraine) drew the Russians into wars in both countries. And in both instances Russia was able to maintain its bases. China has refused to withdraw from its islands in the South China Sea. Iran continues to be heavily involved in Lebanon and Syria as well as in Iraq and Afghanistan. These are regional powers that will not bend fully to the will of the U.S.

Trump’s drive for a confrontation with Iran will put the U.S. on a collision course not only with Iran but also with China, Russia and the Europeans.

Without allies—apart from Israel and Saudi Arabia—it is unlikely that Trump can move a maximalist agenda against Iran. This is mainly a Trump kind of bluster. There will be noise. A great deal of noise. But there will be little of consequence that follows.

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