Trump’s Non-Choice on Iran

Ellie Geranmayeh of the European Council on Foreign Relations has an op-ed in the New York Times today speculating on the future of the Iran nuclear deal under Trump. The piece provides a good overview of the Iran-related issues facing the new president, this time from a European perspective. Basically, Trump’s choice on Iran isn’t really much of a choice at all. He can certainly try to fulfill his pledge to “dismantle” the deal if he wants, but most, if not all, of the actions he could take — reinstating old sanctions, adding new ones, etc. — won’t mean much if he can’t get the rest of the P5+1 to go along with them. At the moment, that appears highly unlikely.

For the Europeans, in particular, the financial incentive is weighted strongly in favor of maintaining the deal. When I was in Iran earlier this year, I witnessed a parade of European delegations coming to the hotel where I stayed in Iran to sign trade memorandums. I was also a co-author of a study released a few years ago that examined the potential opportunity cost to sanction-enforcing countries as a result of trade sanctions against Iran. The numbers ran into the tens of billions of dollars for several European economies. Germany was the hardest hit, followed by Italy and France. I recently updated those figures and will be releasing them in a new report in the coming weeks, and the estimated trade loss from 2010-2014 for Germany alone now approaches $100 billion. The chances that the Europeans willingly give up this kind of money to satisfy the ideological whims of an Iranophobic Trump administration are slim-to-none, so enforcement depends more on how hard the United States is willing to twist its allies’ arms to get its way.

Perhaps Mr. Trump, once he takes office, will realize the silver lining in maintaining the deal. His supposed qualification for the Presidency rested primarily on his sharp business acumen and his success as a global hotelier, so the increased tourism Iran is likely to experience with improved diplomatic and economic relations may provide an opportunity for Mr. Trump to accomplish something of actual importance to him: building a Trump hotel in Tehran.

The Trump Crusade

Looking at Donald Trump’s foreign policy team, it appears everything old is new again. Mr. Trump campaigned on a platform of taking down the Washington establishment, but his emerging cadre of foreign policy and security advisors indicates that he intends to return the United States to a past era in which the United States waged righteous struggles against an evil Islamist horde. The Trumpists are striking the banners in preparation for another crusade.

Of course, it is unlikely many have forgotten the first crusade of the modern era. It was only a little more than a decade ago that George W. Bush used the term on the White House lawn to describe the American response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. Less than two years later, the United States found itself the de facto military occupier of two separate Muslim countries and engaged in an ill-defined “Global War on Terror.”

Mr. Trump can learn some important lessons from the early missteps of the Bush administration, starting with his choices of advisors and cabinet officials. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Trump will assume the presidency with almost no foreign policy knowledge or experience, and thus must rely heavily on appointees for information and advice. So far, nearly all the positions he has announced signal an embrace of highly ideological and religiously-motivated individuals.

Three high-profile hires – Steve Bannon as chief strategist, General Michael Flynn as national security advisor, and Representative Mike Pompeo as CIA director – provide clues to the configuration of an old, but newly minted Trump worldview. These men see the world in Manichean terms, with the United States as a force for good and Islam the root of all evil, the two sides destined to confront each other in a clash of civilizations.

Mr. Bannon has been criticized for the legitimacy of his convictions, but at a 2014 conference hosted by the Human Dignity Institute, a far right European religious group, he advocated for what he called a return of the “enlightened capitalism of the Judeo-Christian West” to lift the world out of a “new Dark Age” left behind by the turmoil of the twentieth century. He decried the secularization of the West, which he sees as unfit to handle the emerging “global war” with “jihadic Islamist fascism.”

General Flynn, meanwhile, has been far more vocal in expressing his views about the nature of the United States’ current predicament. During the campaign, the former army intelligence officer consistently condemned the Obama administration’s approach to combating the Islamic State during media appearances, rallies, and on Twitter. He fixated on the administration’s refusal to use the words “radical Islamic terror” to describe the nature of the “existential threat” facing the nation. He has called Islam a “cancer,” and in his book wrote that he does not believe all cultures are “morally equivalent.”

Mike Pompeo ascends to the top position at the CIA having served just five years on the House Intelligence Committee. He was one of the three Republican Congressmen who mockingly applied for visas to visit Iran earlier this year, appointing themselves both nuclear inspectors and an Iranian election observers in the process. In a letter to Ayatollah Khamenei, they wrote, “It would be a shame if there weren’t any Americans present to validate that the elections were free and fair.” He has also openly speculated about the number of airstrikes necessary (2000, apparently) to destroy Iranian nuclear facilities, calling it “not insurmountable,” and publicly declared his support for regime change in Iran. He will now oversee the CIA’s drone warfare campaign.

At present, there is at least one more soldier preparing to join the cause. Mr. Trump’s announcement of Senator Jeff Sessions, a staunch advocate of the promised Muslim immigration ban, as attorney general guarantees a watchful eye on the homefront to ensure that their campaign is not undermined by disloyal domestic elements.

It remains to be seen whether America will go to war with words or guns, and whether the latter will be open or covert. At the very least, the lessons of history caution against crusading. The crusades of antiquity achieved only fleeting success, and most Christian soldiers who marched on Jerusalem never saw inside the city walls. So far, the twentieth century version hasn’t fared much better. The Bush administration’s military misadventures destabilized the Middle East, increased anti-American resentment around the world, and brought about untold levels of death, destruction, and suffering. Rather than prove the case for Holy War, these experiences caution against allowing ideological fervor, instead of prudent consideration and debate, to guide military and foreign policy.

President Trump’s Choice on Iran: Petty Politician or World Leader?

During the campaign now President-elect Trump promised to undo President Obama’s “disastrous” nuclear agreement with Iran.  This would be a mistake for America, the world, and Mr. Trump.

Given Mr. Trump’s bluster toward Iran, including his threat to “tear up” the agreement on his first day in office, we might have expected a similarly defiant threat from Iranian leaders on the morning after his election. To be sure, no Iranian sent Mr. Trump a congratulatory telegram, but Tehran’s reaction struck a remarkable tone of reassurance. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Secretary Mohammad Javad Zarif, both of whom helped craft the now at-risk agreement, each issued statements declaring that the U.S. election will have no effect on the future of the nuclear accord.

Instead, the Iranians appear unwilling to allow Mr. Trump to find a reason to re-impose their international isolation or to thwart their efforts to participate in the community of nations. Nor are they giving up their goal of restoring Iran’s global respect, which was as important an objective for the Iranians as the economic and financial considerations that drove the long negotiations. By ending the United States’ commitment to the nuclear agreement, Mr. Trump may succeed in repositioning Iran as America’s enemy, but he would likely fail to isolate them from the nations that seek to benefit from renewed relations with Iran. Moreover, by creating the precedent of America’s failure to abide by its commitments negotiated by past administrations, Mr. Trump is announcing that it is the United States’ word, and not Iran’s, which cannot be trusted.

The Iranians understand that, short of war, the United States has more to lose than they do from any effort to return to the pre-accord status quo. For example, should President Trump decide to unilaterally reinstitute economic sanctions, they would have significantly less impact than the concerted global initiatives that drove Iran to the negotiating table. To be effective, sanctions require international cooperation, and there is little evidence that Mr. Trump could secure the assent of America’s negotiating partners, the P5+1, for his initiative. With enthusiasm for reengagement in the Iranian market at an all-time high, it is hard to imagine many countries foregoing the fruits of this hard-won diplomatic achievement. Indeed, most world leaders will find little merit in punishing a nation for cooperating with an international agreement.

Moreover, Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric did little to endear him to America’s allies.  His threats to abandon America’s traditional alliances and to extort payment from friendly nations for continued military protection are unlikely to earn their support for or goodwill toward his administration’s revisionist foreign policy objectives.

Lastly, imposing sanctions is not a cost-free action for the sanctioning country. One study estimated that between 1995 and 2012 American sanctions against Iran cost the United States between $134 and 175 billion in lost export revenue.

Rather than vengefully seek to dismantle President Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement, Mr. Trump has an opportunity to demonstrate constructive leadership. The muted reaction of the Iranians to his election invites him to recast himself as a world leader that merits respect, not as the candidate-demagogue, but as a president-statesman. By abiding with the agreement, President Trump will have more credibility to press Iran to improve its human rights record and end its support for terrorist organizations.

Ironically, it is Mr. Trump who now faces the challenge of earning the trust required for constructive engagement. The Iranians found his campaign tone so negative that the regime was unable to propagandize its content. In an unprecedented act, Iranian state television broadcast the second and third presidential debates unedited, opting to let the candidates’ words speak for themselves.

As Mr. Trump transitions from candidate to President, there is a high degree of satisfaction among Iran’s hardliners. Unlike the moderate President Rouhani, who faces reelection next year, the hardliners long for a return of the hostile relationship between Iran and the United States. They believe they can exploit Mr. Trump’s behavior in support of their own political agenda. For them, the election of Trump simply affirms their admonitions of American “arrogance” and justifies their continued distrust of the United States. They would be correct to wonder how a candidate who viciously attacks his opponents, disrespects the rights of minorities, endorses torture, and threatens press freedoms, among other challenges to the rule of law, can lecture other nations on their conduct.

If Mr. Trump chooses to pursue fulfillment of his campaign promises; if he continues to make and amplify threats against perceived enemies; and if he fails to modulate his rhetoric, it will be the United States, rather than Iran, which will be the world’s untrustworthy pariah and a threat to global security.


Hello, and welcome to the just-formed Persian Blog of Kings!

My name is Jonathan Leslie, and I am a PhD candidate at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. My research focuses on Israeli-Iranian relations and securitization in the Middle East. My prior academic training includes a master’s degree in strategic studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), as well as an undergraduate degree in politics from Princeton University.

I started this blog as a place to post analysis and random musings on Iran, the Middle East, and global politics. I don’t intend to use this introductory post to launch into a long, soul-searching post about all the reasons I thought signing up for a free WordPress website to post my two cents is somehow a historical watershed moment in the field. I’m not arrogant enough to think that my IMPORTANT takes are what’s missing from the chaos of Internet political commentary, nor do think that my arrival into the forum is going to correct some horrible deficiency or blindspot within the Middle East analysis community. Instead, I’m simply here to involve myself in the conversation on a more public level, and hopefully provide some unique insight along the way.

That said, let’s begin…