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

During the campaign now President-elect Trump promised 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 nuclear accord.

Instead, the Iranians appear unwilling to allow Mr. Trump to find 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 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.

Author: Jonathan Leslie

PhD candidate at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.

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