By Daniel Brumberg | (Informed Comment) | – –
Both his disciples and his detractors would probably agree that Trump speaks from the heart or gut rather than the head. His approach to the domestic and global arenas is supercharged by his volatile moods and emotions. This is how he “connects” with followers and frightens his opponents. The former have total confidence in him while the latter fear that Trump’s narcissistic resentment and fury are fomenting policies that are irrational, incoherent and dangerous.
For those who share these worries there is no better example of Trump’s irrationalism than his approach to Iran. It is not evidence-based but rather rage-based. During the presidential campaign he asserted that President Barack Obama “negotiated a disastrous deal with Iran.” But Trump never once provided any indication that he had read even a summary of the deal. To hate what Obama loved and love what he spurned is Trump’s combustible formula. Rejecting the Iran nuclear deal–or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)–is mostly about ego-based revenge.
But projecting anger onto foreign policy issues as that are as fraught and complicated as Iran-US relations is highly risky. Trump’s White House advisers know this. Indeed, as a Washington Post story suggests, Trump’s emerging Iran policy has been largely shaped by the struggles of H.R. McMaster and others to contain the president’s anger and channel it in a relatively more productive direction:
President Trump was livid. Why, he asked his advisers in mid-July, should he go along with what he considered the failed Obama-era policy toward Iran and prop up an international nuclear deal he saw as disastrous? He was incensed by the arguments of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and others that the landmark 2015 deal, while flawed, offered stability and other benefits….“He threw a fit,” said one person familiar with the meeting. “. . . He was furious…It’s clear he felt jammed.” So White House national security adviser H.R. McMaster and other senior advisers came up with a plan — one aimed at accommodating Trump’s loathing of the Iran deal as “an embarrassment” without killing it outright. To get Trump, in other words, to compromise.”
This “compromise” involves passing the decision on whether to certify the Iran nuclear deal to the US Senate. Trump dropped this task in Congress’s lap on October 13, when he declared that his administration would not certify the Iran nuclear agreement. This announcement, he explained, was part of a new “strategy” designed to address “the full range of Iran’s destructive actions.”
Trump’s announcement could turn out to be one of the most disastrous foreign policy decisions since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. If the Senate imposes new sanctions or imposes conditions that are not spelled out in the JCPOA, it will kill the deal. Such an outcome might momentarily dampen Trump’s rage. But Trump containment is not a basis for a rational or coherent Iran policy: indeed, the so-called “compromise” could undermine US credibility and even worse—US security.
The credibility issue concerns perceptions of US fidelity to international agreements. It is true that the US reneged on such agreements in the past. But in this particular case we must consider the high costs of spurning a deal that is barely a year and a half old and, what is more, was forged on the basis of unprecedented global support. Any effort by the administration to re-impose sanctions while Western European states, Russia and China continue to back the JCPOA will make the US look like a paper tiger.
The credibility issue also concerns the veracity of the claims that Trump has offered in his effort discredit the nuclear deal. Indeed, it is hard to know where to begin in addressing Trump’s distortions and misrepresentations. To take one especially egregious example, his assertion that the Obama administration lifted sanctions, “just before what would have been the total collapse of the Iranian regime”—is outlandish. Still, this fantastical claim merits attention because it might suggest that the administration is basing its new “strategy” on wishful thinking: namely the belief that Iran’s political system will collapse once it is subject to a renewed onslaught of punishing sanctions and/or US military action.
This aspiration for regime change may be noble or foolish, but any sober empirical analysis of Iran reveals a complex political system that has proven capable of deflecting, channeling or absorbing (and repressing) multiple challenges from within and abroad. Trump’s advisors—not to mention the international community and US allies in particular—must base Iran policy not on illusions, but rather on the need to engage with an adaptable and robust regime that is unlikely to violate the nuclear agreement and thus give the US and allies cause to move from diplomacy to confrontation. Thus when it comes to the deal, Trump’s advisors have been as pragmatic as they have been clear: Asked during his Senate testimony whether it is in the US interest to stay with the agreement, Secretary of Defense James Mattis insisted that “if we can confirm that Iran is living by the agreement…we should stay with it.” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford stated that “Iran is not in material breach of the agreement, and I do believe the agreement to date has delayed the development of a nuclear capability by Iran.”
Fix Versus Nix–Back to the Future?
Those who disagree with these conclusions have offered several reasons why they believe that Iran has violated the agreement. While the JCPOA is far from perfect (it is, after all, a compromise), like many other experts whose grasp of these matters outshines mine, I am not persuaded by these criticisms (see below). Indeed, because it is hard to make a convincing case that Iran has breached the agreement, foes of the deal have proposed an alternative: rather than jettison the JCPOA, they argue that the administration should use the threat of decertification to push the Europeans to improve rather than dismantle he deal.
But this is a smokescreen. Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, insists that Trump’s threat to “walk away” is “already shifting the European positions from ‘keep it’ to ‘keep it, but fix it.” But my guess is that Dubowtiz–who has long argued that the only real solution is regime change— is either engaging in wishful thinking or, as is more likely, knows full well that the demand for renegotiating the agreement is a tactical maneuver designed to kill rather than save the patient. More importantly, the Europeans know this. Ultimately they will not play along.
And why should they given that all the other options are worse? Indeed, when it comes to Iran’s nuclear program, the task facing US policy makers has always been to make a clear strategic choice of the relevant costs and benefits that would accrue from war, containment/deterrence or negotiation—or some effective blend of these three approaches. Doing so would seem the obvious procedure. But in point of fact, successive administrations avoided making such a clear strategic choice, preferring instead to sustain a policy of tactical maneuvering. As Barry Blechman and I noted in a 2010 study group report we prepared for the United States Institute of Peace and the Stimson Center, to move beyond tactics US policy makers had to confront two basic choices: first, to decide whether to continue insisting that “zero enrichment” was the only basis for a deal. Second, to decide whether to sustain a policy premised on the questionable assumption that military force or punishing sanctions would compel Iran to abandon the quest for a domestic nuclear fuel cycle.
The answer to both questions, we suggested, was an emphatic “no.” Iran would never accept any deal based on giving up what it deemed its right to enrichment. Moreover, even the most onerous sanctions would not force Iranian leaders to capitulate to a condition they could not accept without committing political suicide. Nor would the threat or use of a military force provide a solution. On the contrary, as several of the top security experts in our study group argued, any strike would probably draw the US into an extended a war that might not only fail to destroy Iran’s nuclear program: it might induce Iran rebuild and accelerate that program outside the boundaries of any international constraints. Thus, we concluded, the US’s best option was to pursue a deal that would impose severe, long-term limits on Iran’s capacity to enrich and stockpile uranium in return for a gradual reduction of all multi-lateral, nuclear–related sanctions.
When we shared these conclusions with high level officials in the Obama White House we were told that while our recommendations made sense, they were politically problematic. Any effort to jettison the position of zero enrichment was would provoke opposition in the Congress and from key US allies including Israel and Arab Gulf states. Thus the White House’s preference was to “keep the pressure on” by revving up sanctions. But relying on sanctions as a substitute for a clear if politically difficult strategic choice only played into Iran’s hands. By 2012 Iran had some 19,000 centrifuges—the majority of which had been built during the “Axis of Evil” administration of George W. Bush! As Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif frequently noted, US policy had unwittingly strengthened Iran’s bargaining position. With all due respect to Jeffrey Goldberg, it was not some kind of “Obama Doctrine” that pushed the White House to join the international community in pursuing and concluding a deal with Iran: rather, it was the dearth of other reasonable or effective strategic alternatives.
Trump’s Dubious Case
In his October 13 speech Trump effectively argued that those alternatives have reemerged and/or were always obscured by a nuclear deal that “was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” Referring to the text of the agreement, Trump held that the deal was supposed to contribute to ‘regional and international peace and security.” But no amount of selective quoting from the JCPOA’s preface will obscure the elemental point that the agreement does not –and was never meant to– address any of Iran’s actions or policies other than those that are directly related to its nuclear energy program. Had negotiators sought to expand beyond this specific boundary, or to link the agreement to Iran’s wider foreign policy and actions, Tehran would have quit the negotiations, leaving its centrifuges spinning in ways that would soon have confronted the US with the same old bad choices: war or containment.
Trump also argued that JCPOA was flawed because it will create a situation whereby “in just a few years, as key restrictions disappear, Iran can sprint towards a rapid nuclear weapons breakout.” Trump is referring to the famous “sunset provisions.” But far from disappearing in “a few yeas,” some of the agreement’s most intrusive restrictions will remain in place from 10 to 25 years. Moreover, assuming –as the deal requires—that Iran signs the International Atomic Energy’s Agency’s “Additional Protocol” in 2023, its nuclear energy program will be subject in perpetuity to many constraints. As Ali Vaez has noted, “to date, no country on earth has developed nuclear weapons under the watchful eyes of the IAEA’s inspectors who are empowered by the access that the Additional Protocol affords them.” Thus the idea of a “quick sprint” to a “rapid nuclear weapons breakout” is misleading.
Similarly, Trump’s assertion that “the Iranian regime has also intimidated international inspectors into not using the full inspection authorities that the agreement calls for” constitutes a vaguely worded misrepresentation of a complex matter. As Mark Fitzpatrick, the Washington director of the International Institute of Strategic Studies noted to me in an email that I am quoting with his permission: “If the IAEA has not visited any Iranian military site under the JCPOA, it is because the agency has no evidence of any suspicious nuclear activity taking place at a military site that would warrant an inspection request. The JCPOA does not give the IAEA carte blanche to go anywhere any time…The JCPOA does give the agency the right to inspect sites when it has a valid reason. The IAEA has said that it has the access it needs.”
There are other assertions in Trump’s speech – as I noted in the first section of this article—that are equally dubious. That the IAEA has certified Iran’s compliance with the deal also casts doubt on his efforts to undermine the deal, not to mention the position of his Trump’s own advisers. Ultimately it is the very existence of the agreement that he cannot bear, along with the imposing reality that Iran’s regional influence has grown—but for reasons that have little to do with the nuclear agreement itself or the supposed weakness of the president’s predecessor.
Regional Dynamics: Syria, the Kurds, Yemen and Saudi Arabia
Apart from his critique of Iran’s adherence to the nuclear deal, Trump asserts that Tehran’s actions illustrate that it is a “rogue” regime that has “spread death, destruction and chaos all around the globe.” Such actions, he insists, violate the “spirit” of the agreement. Whatever one’s judgment of this expansive assessment, or of the president’s self-serving conception of the agreement’s supposed “spirit,” as noted above, Iran’s actions outside of the JCPOA provide no legal basis for abrogating the agreement. We may bemoan the fact those who negotiated the JCPOA did not address Iran’s ballistic missile program, choosing instead to leave this issue to UNSCR 2231. But scrapping an agreement that over the next twenty plus years and beyond will impede efforts by Iran to accumulate enough enriched uranium for even one bomb would be a foolish step, particularly if the international community fails to forge a diplomatic solution to the Iran’s ballistic missile program.
In making this observation, I am not disregarding or minimizing the serious strategic challenges that Iran poses to the US and its friends in the region. But what precisely is the Trump administration’s plan for addressing these challenges? Does it have a coherent strategic vision, the means, will and domestic political support to forge an approach that could ultimately require the use of sustained US military force, in short a war with Iran? I certainly do not see it, and the same can be said for many other well-informed experts, some of which sit well to the right of the political spectrum.
Take, for example, Trump’s position on Syria. He correctly asserts that the “Iranian regime has supported the atrocities of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.” But like it or not, Tehran’s support for Assad’s brutal policies flows from two overlapping and compelling assumptions that animates Iran’s Syria policy: first, that the survival of his regime is fundamental to Iran’s security, and second, that the destruction of ISIS is equally vital because Sunni jihadist movements threaten the entire region and Iran’s political system itself.
In point of fact, the US shares many of Tehran’s assumptions and has acted accordingly. Thus in Syria the Trump administration has followed Obama by making the destruction of ISIS its top priority: in this sense, the US and Iran have been “objective” allies. As to Assad’s future, by sin of commission or omission, the administration has effectively endorsed Tehran’s position. Secretary of State Tillerson’s recent assertion that the “Assad family’s reign is coming to an end” offers zero solace to those looking for an actual shift from the supposed “fecklessness” of Obama’s approach to Syria. The real difference between the US and Iranian position is this: Iran has a coherent vision of its interests and has used whatever means it deems necessary to advance them. By contrast, the US position has been largely tactical and improvised. There no match between the tools and resources it has used and Washington’s unclear objectives in Syria– other than destroying ISIS.
US strategic incoherence is hardly limited to Syria: Some complain about Iran’s influence in Iraq. But it was the 2002 US invasion of Iraq that made it possible for Iraq’s Shi’ites to elect a government that would defend them. To blame Iran for the ensuing dynamic of “sectarianism” in Iraq–as Trump did in his October 13 speech—is to ignore the fact that in Middle East democratization often magnifies sectarian conflicts. Indeed, as my colleague Lise Morje Howard has shown, it was the George W. Bush administration that pushed for a power sharing formula that effectively institutionalized identity conflicts in Iraq. Iran took advantage of this dynamic and, securing an alliance with its Shi’ite allies. But the sectarianization of the Gulf is first and foremost a governance problem. Successive administrations have wrestled with this imposing fact ever since the US tried to work with rival Iraqi leaders in the difficult task of reconfiguring Iraq’s political system. That Iran has a direct and geographically close stake in this game has created dilemmas for the US that will not be resolved by a move towards confrontation with Iran.
Consider, for example, the Kurdish issue. Unhappy with the power sharing and autonomy arrangement instituted post-Saddam Hussein, the Kurds of northern Iraq have finally held a referendum the outcome of which supports independence. Some observers are having a fit over the role that Iran subsequently played in supporting the decision of the Iraqi government to send troops into Kirkuk—and thus intimidate the Kurds into pulling back from their vote for independence. But what precisely is the position of the US? Is it that different from Iran, Turkey or for that matter Iraq? There answer is no.
Then there is Yemen. I will not enter into the murky debate regarding the degree and nature of Iranian support for the Houthis. But one thing is clear: Yemen’s National Dialogue – a set of negotiations presided over in 2013-14 by the UN (whose official representative, Jamal Benomar, is an old friend)—produced an agreement drafted by a “Constitutional Drafting Committee” that excluded Houthis. The committee’s proposal for a federal system divided Yemen in manner that was heavily weighted against the Houthis. When the latter balked Benomar invited Houthis to join a new round of talks. The talks then made progress, opening up the possibility of a new power sharing arrangement with the Houthis. The Saudis responded by launching a bombing campaign that not only killed 1500 people but also led to the collapse of the talks. Benomar asserted that the Saudi bombing was designed to sabotage the talks, and the Saudis repaid the complement by pushing the UN to dismiss Benomar. Ever since, the Saudis have helped to create a humanitarian disaster that the world has ignored.
This is not surprising: One difference between Yemen and Syria is that in the latter case millions of refugees have crossed into Western Europe (or tried to do so) whereas in the former case Yemenis have nowhere to go: trapped by geography, they starve, burn or die of cholera, but they do no show up on the streets of Paris or Hamburg. Whatever one’s assessment of Iran’s actions in Yemen, we must reckon with the fact that Washington’s Saudi allies have played a major role in producing this calamity. There is much consternation in the US Congress on this issue but not much in the Trump administration.
That the president condemns Iran for the “vicious civil wars in Syria and Yemen” is not surprising. What he fails to mention is that the US is ensnared in a geo-strategic trap that it partly of its own making. A key part of this snare is Washington’s long-standing relationship with a country that has played a vanguard role in inspiring and funding Sunni jihadist movements and ideas (as we experience on “9/11”). As one observer notes, “out of the 61 groups that are designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department, the overwhelming majority are Wahhabi-inspired and Saudi-funded groups.” Thus Trump’s cleverly worded claim that Iran “remains the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” is open to serious dispute, particularly given that in Saudi Arabia the boundaries between the state and ruling elites on the one side, and “independent” charities or non-governmental institutions on the other, is very porous. New generation Saudi leaders, led by Mohammed bin Salman, regret the funds that had flowed for decades to jihadist groups. But they cannot disown or easily reverse this legacy’s ill effects in many regions of the world that are of deep concern to the US — such as the Balkans, South East Asia or Syria-Iraq. Nor can they simply blame Iran for escalating Shi’ite-Sunni tensions in a region where no leader can truthfully deny that his government is not guilty of playing the sectarian card. (Indeed, this point is well illustrated by the November 4 resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri–which he announced in Riyadh after meeting with Saudi officials—Saudi’s new generation leaders).
Of course, many of our key Middle East allies have pursued policies that are not always in the US interest. This doesn’t mean that we should ignore their concerns much less walk desert our friends. But it does mean that the US must wrestle with how to manage the strategic manipulation of identity conflicts – and the popular fears that animate them– rather than take the easy route by lashing out at the Iranians and making Tehran the greatest source of our problems. Temper tantrums do not make for good strategic thinking.
The costs stemming from such strategic incoherence probably accelerate. To return to the case of Yemen, consider this recent report by Jay Solomon. He notes that that “concerned about Tehran gaining the ability to choke off shipping lanes in the Red Sea,” the White House has expanded its support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen by providing precision-guided weapons. While I leave it up to security experts to judge whether this is a smart move, it surely comes with many risks, as Solomon himself suggests:
Stepping up support for the Saudi coalition is also tricky. U.S. and Arab officials acknowledge that only a political solution can end the war. Although greater American involvement could pressure the Houthis to embrace diplomacy, it might also lessen Riyadh’s desire for a halt to military operations, particularly if it begins seeing major advances.”
Tricky indeed. Proxy-war escalation cuts both ways, and as the lesson of Viet Nam and other cases suggest, it could create a self fulfilling prophecy by, in this case, giving Iran more incentive to expand its military support of the Houthis. The humanitarian disaster in Yemen will continue, with the possibility of more lives lost and no end to the conflict.
The US decision to expand military support for Saudi Arabia’s Yemen campaign is at least animated by some kind of strategic rationale. By comparison US Syria policy is floating in a dangerous vacuum as the prospect for a US-Iranian confrontation grows. Opponents of the nuclear agreement might welcome this outcome. After all, those who are in a position of political authority in Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia have long believed that there can be no lasting diplomatic solution to the nuclear question. Their view is shared by some US policy makers, diplomats and strategic thinkers, including John Bolton. Sitting well to my right when I testified in Congress in 2013, the US former UN Ambassador stated his regret that Israel had not yet bombed Iran. I responded that many leading US military planners –and Israeli experts as well—fear that such an attack would invite a prolonged military conflict whose outcome was uncertain at best. “Let’s be honest,” I said, “we are not talking about an overnight attack. Instead, we are talking about war.” Bolton penned a New York Times piece in March 2015 making the case for bombing Iran. But as far as I know he did not openly push for military action after Trump was elected. Nor has he indulged the fiction of “fixing” the JCPOA. Instead he has called for its total “repeal.” But I would guess that Bolton knows the likely consequences that could flow from such a move.
Déjà Vu All Over Again: Four Proposals for Folly Avoidance
Perhaps war with Iran is not the outcome that Trump administration wants. Who knows? But as Philip Gordon has noted, one can’t help feeling that the an emerging media campaign against the nuclear agreement is creating a war drumbeat not unlike that which led to, or helped justify, the 2003 US Iraq invasion. Perhaps this is alarmist, but a sense of déjà vu seems justified. This is all the more reason to recognize the hazards that could ensue from an anger-driven, a-strategic Iran policy.
These dangers also apply to Iran’s domestic political arena. In the Islamic Republic of Iran foreign and domestic politics are tightly interwoven. This was amply demonstrated by the reaction of hard-line forces to the 2015 nuclear agreement: they saw the efforts of President Rouhani and his allies to secure the deal as a bid to move away from the policy of “resistance” and pursue instead a policy of wider diplomatic and economic engagement with the global community. They also believed that the agreement portended a concerted bid by a new alliance of reformist politicians and pragmatic conservatives to pry open a political arena that had been tightly closed under former president Mahmoud Ahmadijejad. Thus the hard-line backlash was not directed at the agreement per se but rather at Rouhani and his allies. As Farideh Farhi and I have noted in Power and Political Change in Iran, prospects for political change in Iran depend in part on easing the country’s long-standing regional and global conflicts, particularly with the US. This is one reason why opponents of political and economic liberalization view rapprochement with the US as nearly existential threat: the hard-liners’ own domestic clout depends on sustaining conflict with the “Great Satan.” Over the coming few years, the struggle to shape Iran’s political landscape will accelerate, particularly when the crucial question of who is to succeed Ayatollah Ali Khamanei as Rahbar or Leaderintensifies. The last thing Iran’s reformists want is another “Axis of Evil” US policy, one that could produce a proxy or direct US-Iran confrontation at a pivotal period in the evolution of Islamic Republic.
What then should be done? I recognize that it is far easier to criticize the shortcomings of US Iran policy than to offer a compelling alternative. It is especially challenging to make a case to Trump, whose temperament does not incline him to anything like a careful consideration of the complex facts. Indeed, as Reuel Marc Gerecht has noted, when it comes to the complex dynamics of the Middle East and Iran’s role in this region, “it would be better if the President demonstrated that he, too, appreciates how the game is played.” On this score, I would suggest his advisors consider conveying the following points to the President:
First, the menu of policy options is short and not very enticing: diplomacy/engagement, containment/deterrence or military confrontation/war. Containing Iran is unlikely to succeed if the US simply keeps selling more arms to our Arab Gulf allies—especially Saudi Arabia. More weapons, as I have noted above in reference to Yemen, often only encourages escalation which in turn emboldens Tehran’s allies. Still, the first two options are not mutually exclusive and could in fact be integrated providing the White House takes the job of diplomacy seriously – and deploys rather than degrades the ample US diplomatic resources available to it. For example, the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to foster Iraqi-Saudi reconciliation might help mitigate Iran’s regional influence. But Iraq will drop any bid to establish normal relations with Saudi Arabia if the prospect of US-Iranian military confrontation emerges by design or default. Iran will try to avoid such a direct clash because it wants to retain the diplomatic support of Western European countries and because it does not want Sunni-Shi’ite tensions in Iraq to escalate. But the prospects for a serious US-Iran collision, or a wider war, will accelerate if the US abandons the nuclear agreement. Indeed, war with Iran will intensify internal conflicts in Iraq and Lebanon, sending violent tremors throughout the region.
Second, the threat of war or–for that matter, a risky game of chicken—will not induce Iran to renegotiate the nuclear agreement. The better approach is to use the JCPOA’s dispute provisions to push for Iranian compliance. This was the case with the heavy water issue, a matter that was resolved to the IAEA’s satisfaction. As for US concerns not addressed by the agreement, such as Iran’s ballistic missiles, the international community should consider proposing a new round of negotiations and perhaps a follow-on deal with Iran. Such a proposal might sound utopian given the current climate, but it is worth exploring given the alternatives. It will certainly have the support of our Western allies, and quite possibly Russian and China as well.
Third, US policy makers must think beyond the defeat of ISIS and tackle the basic question of US policy towards Syria. Israel’s worries about increased Iranian influence in Syria are legitimate and underscore the need for a wider regional approach—one that gives Washington a diplomatic stake in the unfolding (if thus far ineffective) negotiations over Syria’s political future. There are no easy options, but one thing is clear: a US-Iranian military confrontation in Syria is no substitute for a coherent Syria strategy.
Fourth, diplomacy and engagement are not only strategically preferable to military confrontation: in time they could also foster a regional climate that could be more conducive to positive political change in Iran. As with other electoral autocracies, Iran’s political future will be partly shaped by the struggle of different forces to rework the existing system. What we need is a nuanced US strategy, one that might make it easier –rather than harder—for Iranians citizens who actually live, work and struggle in Iran to create the domestic space required for a more open and tolerant politics.
Daniel Brumberg is Director of Democracy and Governance Studies at Georgetown University.