The Good News Is, Trump Does Have an Iran Strategy. The Bad News is That it Can't Work | Opinion

The Trump administration’s decision to abruptly pull out of the Iran deal seemed, at first glance, a purely domestic exercise - an electoral promise kept or a vindictive blow against his predecessor’s legacy. The same might be said about the decision announced today to reinstate the full pre-deal sanctions against Iran on November 5th. But in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo outlined the strategy underpinning these decisions - the approach of “maximum pressure” towards Iran. The problem is that the strategy unlikely to work, and will quite possibly bring round another devastating and unnecessary conflict.

In his article, Pompeo paints Iran as an implacably aggressive regime hell-bent on acquiring nuclear status while attaining imperial ambitions in the Middle East. Withdrawing from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or, as it’s colloquially known, “the Iran deal) is part of a wider plan designed to “confront Iran,” that also includes credible threats to use force in order to roll back the Islamic Republic’s influence throughout the region, from Afghanistan to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen. Pompeo prophesizes that this hardline stance is likely to lead to a better nuclear deal than the one the Obama Administration procured in 2015.

There is a name for the school of thought that birthed this strategy: The cult of the offensive.  This type of thinking sees offensive military action as always more effective than defensive. World politics is perceived as falling dominoes and states are seen as predisposed to flock to the most powerful aggressors.  Enemies, meanwhile, are characterized as “paper tigers”: belligerent and aggressive on the surface, but one we can stop now, easily and at little cost.  This thinking has resulted in disasters from 1914 to the Iraq War in 2003.


Getting the deal wrong

Pompeo argues that “President Trump withdrew from the nuclear deal because it was clearly not protecting the national security interests of the United States or our allies and partners, nor was it making Iran behave like a normal country.”  Blaming JCPOA for failing to transform Iran into a normal country, remove Iranian forces or proxies from Syria or Iraq, or alter its status as a state-supporter of terrorism is akin to faulting the auto-mechanic who fixes your car’s engine but does nothing about the paint job, and, moreover, fails to transform it from a Ford to a Lamborghini. 

The Iran deal was not designed to do any of these things.

The Iran deal focused upon the biggest, if obviously not only, problem with Iran: its nuclear program. The multilateral agreement constrained any nuclear ambitions Iran may have had by taking apart its plutonium reactor, limiting its number of centrifuges and reducing the amount of low-enriched uranium it had on hand. By withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal without any evidence Iran had violated any of its commitments, the Trump Administration’s “pressure campaign” has weakened the U.S. hand vis-à-vis Iran and in the Middle East generally. This has driven a wedge between Washington and the rest of the signatories to the deal, who made much of the financial statecraft possible for pressuring Iran in the first place. The European Union is already developing a “special purpose vehicle” that is designed to help Iran circumvent sanctions the U.S. puts in place.

GettyImages-956111350 US President Donald Trump signs a document reinstating sanctions against Iran after announcing the US withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear deal, in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, DC, on May 8, 2018. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

Moving forward, there are two issues with the Trump Administration’s “maximum pressure” approach. First, Iran has strong reputational incentives to resist American pressure. Second, there is no guarantee the Trump Administration will honor its end of any bargain should Tehran make additional concessions.

Pompeo and the rest of the Trump Administration’s implicit and simplistic assumption that greater pressure will result in greater concessions is unrealistic and out of step with modern political science.  There has been an explosion of research demonstrating that reputations matter more in international politics than we had thought during the past decade.  While much of this research has focused on great powers, small states care as much as their great power rivals about their reputations for resolve. Put simply, capitulating today can invite more aggression tomorrow.

Iran knows this better, perhaps, than anyone. As noted by historian Ervand Abrahamian, treaties signed by the Iran’s ruling Qajar dynasty with Russia in 1813 and 1828 and with Britain in 1857 “paved the way for other foreign powers to obtain a series of commercial and diplomatic concessions known as Capitulations…The term Capitulation became synonymous with imperial privileges, arrogance, and transgressions.”

Such concessions have been responsible for traumatic domestic upheavals in Iran that are remembered all too well, including some vividly linked to the United States, from the Tobacco Revolt of the late 1890s, to the Abadan Crisis of 1951 and, even, the Iranian Revolution of 1979.

 In 1964, U.S. military personnel were granted diplomatic immunity that placed them outside the jurisdiction of the Iranian legal system.  At the very beginning of his campaign against the monarchy, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini portrayed this as yet another capitulation, having said, “They have reduced the Iranian people to a level lower than that of an American dog.  If someone runs over a dog, belonging to an American, he will be prosecuted.  Even if the Shah himself were to run over a dog belonging to an American, he would be prosecuted.  But if an American cook runs over the Shah, the head of state, no one will have the right to interfere with him.  Why?  Because they wanted a loan and America demanded this in return.”

 A second problem the Trump Administration faces is its inability to keep its commitments. There is no guarantee that the Trump Administration would necessarily honor a second nuclear deal with Iran.    Trump has flip-flopped on a number of issues, from North Korea to the minutiae of health care reform.

 Worse still, there are no obvious disincentive for Trump to stand by his promises. Some scholars point to audience costs, or domestic political sanctions democratic leaders suffer for breaking international commitments, as a way states solve commitment problems.  However, current polls do not suggest that the electorate’s displeasure with Trump can be traced back to his decision over JCPOA, and there is no reason to believe voter would punish him for wrecking his own agreement. .  

Is Iran truly the most urgent threat facing the U.S.? 

Another argument deployed by Pompeo is the threat that Iran poses to American national security, starting with its support for destabilization and violence in “Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen, and Gaza,” its continued backing for terrorist organizations like Hezbollah and terrorist operatives in Europe.  

None of this should be dismissed.  But, the U.S. also faces challenges from an increasingly assertive China and Russia while continuing to fight Al Qaeda and ISIS in areas such as Afghanistan.  Is Iran the biggest threat to American national security?  Can America tackle all of these challenges simultaneously?

The answer is no.

While both optimists and naysayers agree that the U.S. remains the most relatively powerful country in the world by many metrics, itits leverage is still finite.  It cannot afford to fight everyone, everywhere all the time.

America’s military superiority relative to Iran is self-evident. Iran has a GDP of $368,488 BN USD, making it only slightly wealthier than Israel but weaker than the U.S. ($19,417TN), as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). It spent $15.9BN on defense in 2016 and $14.2BN in 2015. Although Iran is deployed in Syria, Iraq, the Gulf of Aden and the Somali Basin, it is surrounded by the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Djibouti, Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Kuwait, the Persian Gulf, Qatar, Turkey and the UAE.

 A wiser strategy would be to focus on the great power threats to America’s national security, starting with China.  (It was recently reported that the U.S. does not have a discernible strategy towards Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI).  The Trump Administration should look for ways to take Iran out of China and Russia’s orbit, much as Nixon and Kissinger took Egypt out of the Soviet space in 1971.  If a full-blown rapprochement is not on the table, the Trump Administration should work to exploit fissures between Tehran, Beijing and Moscow.  This starts with working to keep Iran out of the BRI, as Iran has expressed concern over potential economic domination by China.

Unilateral, belligerent demands for concessions in exchange for commitments made by a notoriously fickle President are not likely to be received well in Iran - if anything, they will make it more reticent and more resistant, inviting still further pressure and potentially escalating into war.

Albert B. Wolf is the Dean of the College of International Studies at the American University of Kurdistan, Duhok.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own​. 

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