After the Iran Deal

The Perils of Trump’s Belligerent Policy
U.S. President Donald Trump arrives to speak about the Iran nuclear deal in the Diplomatic Room of the White House in Washington October 13. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)

Some pundits have speculated that, since the world is a manifestly dangerous place, perhaps President Donald Trump’s “diplomacy” by intimidation and bullying is precisely the sort of bare-knuckles approach murderous authoritarians understand. “Look,” goes this line of argument, “Trump has already succeeded in forcing a face-to-face summit with North Korea’s dictator, something none of his predecessors achieved.” The North Koreans, of course, have long sought the international recognition such a summit meeting confers, and that was why previous U.S. presidents rejected the proposal.

Whatever comes of Trump’s June meeting in Singapore with the North Korean strongman Kim Jong-un, the president’s boasts that his actions are taken in the pursuit of “World Peace” are farcical. Nothing is clearer than that Trump is driven by insecurity and spite, determined to undo President Barack Obama’s legacy. His decision to tear up the nuclear deal negotiated with Iran by Obama, our European allies, Russia, and China—a treaty with which Iran was clearly in compliance—will move the region closer to conflict and possibly even war. Trump claims the deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), did not punish Iran for its support of terrorism or halt its ballistic-missile program. True. But as Obama has written in response to Trump’s decision, “Every aspect of Iranian behavior that is troubling is far more dangerous if their nuclear program is unconstrained. Our ability to confront Iran’s destabilizing behavior—and to sustain a unity of purpose with our allies—is strengthened with the JCPOA, and weakened without it.”

Trump’s bombastic “America First” foreign policy leaves little room for the concerns or interests of allies. President Emmanuel Macron of France, Germany’s Angela Merkel, and the UK’s Theresa May all pleaded with Trump to abide by the JCPOA, which was endorsed by the UN Security Council. He ignored them, as he has ignored our allies in taking the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. When it comes to Shia Iran, Trump is aligning the United States with Saudi Arabia, the other Sunni kingdoms, and of course with Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s belligerent prime minister. All these countries would like to see a U.S. military confrontation with Iran.

Nothing is clearer than that Trump is driven by insecurity and spite, determined to undo President Barack Obama’s legacy.

Iranian forces and proxies, such as Hezbollah, along with the Russians, have turned the tide in Basher al-Assad’s favor in the Syrian civil war. In doing so, Iran has established a military presence that endangers Israel, one Netanyahu is determined to dismantle. Israel has already carried out one hundred bombings of Iranian installations in Syria, killing dozens. The Iranians responded by launching rockets against the Golan Heights. The danger of escalation is real, and risks drawing the Russians and the United States into a military confrontation. Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA and reinstatement of severe economic sanctions against Iran have no legal or strategic justification, and can only exacerbate an already volatile situation. Presumably neither Israel, Iran, Russia, nor the United States wants another war in the Middle East, but history tells us that wars are ignited by distrust and miscalculation. That is why Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, should avoid suggesting that “regime change” in Tehran is a U.S. goal. Reneging on the nuclear deal has put distrust at the forefront of U.S. Middle East policy and reduced the margin for miscalculation.      

For the time being, Iran says it will abide by the JCPOA as long as the other signatories do. Europe’s leaders appear determined to honor their commitments, but Trump says he will impose sanctions on European companies that continue doing business with Iran. Since those companies do much more business with the United States than with Iran, his threat may compel compliance. If trade with Europe becomes impossible for Iran, the treaty will collapse and Iran may determine that the only way to deter the United States is to develop a nuclear bomb. Nor, despite the prognostications of hawks in the United States, is it likely that Iran will simply capitulate to U.S. economic pressure. There is a long and bitter history between the two countries, one in which the United States conspired to overthrow a democratically elected Iranian government in the early 1950s and then supported Iraq’s Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran in 1980. Having torn up the one viable diplomatic path to cooperation and possible reconciliation, Trump will be left with only one option if Iran refuses to comply with U.S. demands: military force.

Commonweal contributor Andrew Bacevich, writing in the American Spectator, notes that he has long been skeptical of rash analogies to the Munich crisis of 1938. “But in this instance the comparison may have some merit,” he wryly observes. “Today another megalomaniac with a fearsome military machine at his command…is on a tear.” Bacevich’s hope is that our European allies will rise to the challenge this time. “As an American,” he writes, “I believe that Trump needs to be confronted, not indulged.” That is every American’s duty as well.

Published in the June 1, 2018 issue: 

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