Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1343, (4 - 10 May 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Trump’s punching bag

Desperate for a success after several embarrassing failures in fewer than 100 days in office, US President Donald Trump is aggressively targeting Iran, writes Shahir Shahidsaless

After fewer than 100 days in office, several of US President Donald Trump’s manoeuvres that are crucial to satisfying his political base have thus far failed and in often embarrassing ways.

First, two executive orders regarding a travel ban to the US for the citizens of several majority Muslim countries were blocked by restraining orders issued by several US judges. Then came Trump’s embarrassing failure to produce on his central campaign promise of repealing and replacing the US healthcare system called Obamacare.

These losses have damaged the tough and decisive image that Trump tried to project throughout his campaign, and over time they could significantly affect his political base. Any more failures like these will threaten the early momentum of his presidency, and right now Trump sorely needs a political win.

Towards that end, Trump and his administration are weighing an action that could appear bold and face little if any resistance within the US establishment and therefore result in an easy win. Choosing Iran as a punching bag could do just the trick.

There is a large consensus within the US establishment, among Republicans and Democrats alike, that a tough US stance on Iran should be adopted, and in recent days Trump and his administration have started to orchestrate moves against the country.

In an 18 April letter to Congress, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that “Iran remains a leading state sponsor of terror, through many platforms and methods. President Donald Trump has directed a National Security Council-led interagency review of the [Iran nuclear deal] that will evaluate whether the suspension of sanctions related to Iran pursuant to the [deal] is vital to the national security interests of the United States.”

A day later, Tillerson said the administration would look at US policy towards Iran as a whole, including not just Tehran’s compliance with the nuclear deal, but also its destabilising actions in the Middle East. When asked if the US should rescind the nuclear deal, Tillerson said that “we just don’t see that that’s a prudent way to be dealing with Iran, certainly not in the context of all of their other disruptive activities.”

During a 20 April news conference, Trump said that the “[Iranians] are not living up to the spirit of the [nuclear] agreement... And we’re analysing it very, very carefully and we’ll have something to say about it in the not-too-distant future.” On a visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis matched Tillerson and Trump’s position towards Tehran by saying that “everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran.”

The goal of the likely re-introduction of US sanctions against Iran could be either to force Iran to dismantle its nuclear programme or the overthrow of its political system, a goal which six US presidents have failed to accomplish. Trump apparently believes that tough sanctions are capable of bringing down the Iranian regime. In February, he tweeted that “Iran was on its last legs and ready to collapse until the US came along and gave it a lifeline in the form of the Iran deal: $150 billion,” for example.

But this logic is flawed on two counts. First, Iran will not dismantle its nuclear programme under even the most extensive US sanctions and military threats. That is because Iranian leaders, as repeatedly emphasised by high-ranking officials from the country’s supreme leader down, firmly believe that as soon as the US determines that sanctions and threats work it will clamp down on everything from Iran’s human rights issues to its alleged sponsorship of terrorism in pursuit of toppling the regime.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has said that “if the officials of a country get daunted by the bullying of the arrogant powers and, as a result, begin to retreat… they [the arrogant powers] will never stop obtaining concessions from you through pressure and intimidation.” This would lead to “the United States bringing to power in this country whomever it wants,” he said.

In a 19 April statement, Khamenei said that “the invasive superpowers’ techniques are to threaten and bully. We have reiterated this fact several times… The worst situation for a country is when officials fear the enemy’s threats and bullying techniques. If they fear them, they have actually opened up a way for the enemy’s invasion and aggression.”

During former US president George W Bush’s time in office the US and Iran were a short distance away from war, and during the presidency of former US president Barack Obama Israel continuously threatened and decided to attack Iran three times. Yet, Iran never gave up its nuclear programme.

Second, if Trump is not ready for a war – one which would not be contained within Iran’s borders – then he is not ready for the collapse of the nuclear deal, which would inevitably lead to a military confrontation between Iran and the United States. If Trump thinks otherwise, he is as wrong as Khamenei.

If, after many years of hardship and insistence on building a full-cycle nuclear programme despite tremendous financial costs and worldwide sanctions, the Iranian leadership backs down on the nuclear issue now, the Iranian deep state will incur high political costs. Such costs would fall primarily on the supreme leader, who has constantly linked the nuclear programme to Iranian national pride.

As a result, if the US voids the deal, Iran’s radicals would push the moderates to the margins and respond to the US sanctions by expanding Iran’s nuclear programme to a perilous extent, as they did during Obama’s tenure. That would leave the Trump administration with no alternative short of war.

Some argue that it was the pressure caused by the sanctions that finally brought the Iranians to the negotiating table in the first place. What such observers miss, however, is that the momentum around the negotiations that led to the historic 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and six world powers only took off after then US deputy secretary of state William Burns told his Iranian counterpart during secret meetings in Oman in 2013 that the US was prepared to abandon its decade-old policy of “zero uranium enrichment” in Iran.

Obama had a respectable vision of the consequences of a tit-for-tat policy regarding the Iranian nuclear crisis. In a 2015 speech, he said that US “congressional rejection of this deal leaves any US administration that is absolutely committed to preventing Iran from getting a nuclear weapon with one option, another war in the Middle East. I say this not to be provocative, I am stating a fact.”

“Without this deal, Iran will be in a position, however tough our rhetoric may be, to steadily advance its capabilities. Its breakout time, which is already fairly small, could shrink to near zero. Does anyone really doubt that the same voices now raised against this deal will be demanding that whoever is president bomb those nuclear facilities,” Obama asked.

“The fantasy, the naiveté, the optimism is to think that we reject this deal and somehow it all solves itself with a couple of missile strikes. That is not sound foreign policy,” he said.


The writer is an Iranian-Canadian political analyst writing about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs, the Middle East and US foreign policy in the region.

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