Professor Russell-Mead tells us “that the key to the president’s Iran policy is that his nose for power [and Trump is a keen judge of power, R-M insists] is telling him Iran is weaker, and the US stronger than the foreign-policy establishment believes… What Mr. Trump wants is a deal with Iran that matches his sense of the relative power of the two countries…” (emphasis added).
“At the level of public diplomacy, [Trump] is engaging in his standard mix of dazzle and spin[turning American politics into the Donald Trump Show, with the country and the world fixated on his every move, speculating feverishly about what will come next, R-M suggests]… And at the level of power politics he is steadily and consistently tightening the screws on Iran: arming its neighbors and assuring them of his support, tightening sanctions, and raising the psychological pressure on the regime.
“Mr. Trump well understands the constraints under which his Iran policy is working. Launching a new Middle East war could wreck his presidency. But if Iran starts the war, that’s another matter. A clear Iranian attack on American or even Israeli targets could unite Mr. Trump’s Jacksonian base like the attack on Pearl Harbor united America’s Jacksonians to fight Imperial Japan.”
Russell-Mead’s analysis probably has it right. But there is more to it than that: Trump’s approach is based on some further underlying key assumptions: Firstly, that, with the Iranian economy tanking, and inflation soaring (Trump repeats this unfounded assertion frequently), the Iranian revolutionary system will either implode, or approach Washington, on its knees, asking for a new nuclear deal.
Two: Trump can afford to wait out this impending implosion, and just lever up the economic pressures in the meanwhile. Three: Trump claims that a war with Iran would be short: “I’m not talking boots on the ground,” he said. “I’m just saying if something would happen, it wouldn’t last very long”. And four: Trump said, (and appears to believe), that he wouldn’t need an “exit strategy” in the event of a war with Iran, which suggests that he may really think that the war would be limited to a brief air campaign, and then it would be over.
What to say? Well, only that all of these assumptions are almost certainly wrong – and, as Daniel Larison in The American Conservative notes, “if the US president thinks that a war with Iran “wouldn’t last very long,” he is probably going to be more willing to start it. Iran hawks are already predictably emphasizing that attacking Iran wouldn’t be like Iraq or Afghanistan, and they are saying that in part to overcome Trump’s apparent reservations about getting bogged down in a protracted conflict”. Iran indeed would not be like Afghanistan or Iraq, but in an entirely different way to that claimed by the hawks.
Well, Iran will not be imploding economically: On Friday, Russia signalled its commitment to secure Iran’s oil and banking sectors, should the EU’s INSTEX clearing mechanism not be working effectively by 7 July (when Iran’s window to Europe on this issue closes). Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Friday that Moscow is ready to help Iran export its crude and ease restrictions on its banking system should Europe fail to make INSTEX a viable mechanism. China too, has stated that “normal energy dealings” with Tehran are in accordance with law, and should be respected. The Governor of the Central Bank of Iran said this week that Iran has “climbed past the peak of sanctions. Our oil exports are on the rise”, Hemmati said.
If the ‘implosion hypothesis’ is flawed, so too is the claim that Iran will come begging for a new nuclear deal from Mr Trump. Here, by way of illustration, is the (Iranian) account of what the Supreme Leader said to Prime Minister Abe:
“During the meeting with Abe Shinzo (on 13 June), the latter told Ayatollah Khamenei that “I would like to give you a message from the President of the United States”.
“Ayatollah Khamenei responded by pointing to the US ingenuity and untrustworthiness, and argued, “We do not doubt your [Abe’s] sincerity and goodwill. However, regarding what you mentioned about the President of the US, I do not consider Trump as a person worth exchanging any message with and I have no answer for him, nor will I respond to him in the future.”
“[But] what I am going to say, is said to you as the Japanese Prime Minister, and because we consider Japan a friend of ours …
“Ayatollah Khamenei noting Shinzo’s assertion that the US intends to prevent Iran’s production of nuclear weapons said, “We are opposed to the nuclear weapons and my religious Fatwa bans production of nuclear weapons; but you should know that if we intended to produce nuclear weapons, the US could do nothing; and its non-permission [would] not be any obstacle.”
“The Supreme leader, in response to the message that “the United States is not after regime change in Iran”, insisted that “Our problem with the United States is not about regime change. Because even if they intend to pursue that, they won’t be able to achieve it … When Trump says that he is not after regime change, it is a lie. For, if he could do so, he would. However, he is not capable of it.”
“Ayatollah Khamenei similarly referred to the Japanese prime minister’s remarks regarding the United States’ request to negotiate with Iran about the nuclear issue, and said, “The Islamic Republic of Iran negotiated for 5 to 6 years with the United States and the Europeans — the P 5+1 — which led to an agreement. But the United States disregarded and breached this definite agreement. So, does common sense permit negotiations with a state that has thrown away everything that was agreed upon?”
“He pointed to the forty years of hostility that the US has showed to the Iranian nation and its continued hostility, and said, “We believe that our problems will not be solved by negotiating with the US, and no free nation would ever accept negotiations under pressure.”
And ‘pressures’ are precisely what the US is adding: i.e. increasing pressures, rather than easing them – which stands probably as the sine qua non to resuming negotiations with Iran. But then Trump holds to the view that America is entitled – by virtue of its greater power – to negotiate with others only when the counterparties are under ‘maximum pressure’. Plainly, he has not been briefed well on the Iranian history of stoically enduring far worse and violent cataclysms. Nor, that Iranians can draw on a stratum of spiritual resilience from the narrative of Imam Hussein at times of crisis.
How so? The notion of an ‘Iran on the cusp of collapse’ is a meme being peddled by various disgruntled Iranian exiles, and by the MEK, as well as by prominent hawks in the US. But equally – and importantly, given Trump’s own family predilections – this narrative of ‘just one push’ and the Iranian Revolution ‘is over’ is being constantly urged by Netanyahu. (Other Israelis are not so happy at their PM’s open and avid support for Trump’s policy on Iran – recalling how Israel (and Netanyahu) were accused of having pushed for the 2003 Iraq war).
So. If the assumption that Iran will either collapse, or capitulate under economic pressure, is false; and that the presumption that ‘no exit strategy’ is required, because Iran is weak and the US is militarily strong (implying that a short, quick air strike would settle matters) – is similarly flawed, where then are we headed?
If these underlying assumptions continue to pass without serious challenge, then, as time passes, Iran will neither have imploded, nor capitulated, as presaged; but rather, it will have continued to send calibrated, incrementally ascending ‘messages’ to demonstrating the potential costs of pursuing such a policy – with the pain being experienced principally by those US allies who continually advocate for harsh US ‘measures’ against Iran.
Ultimately, Trump will find himself in a corner in which he never wished to find himself: It may already be too late. He is there. Either having to react militarily to Iranian ‘messages’, with all the potential for asymmetric Iranian counterstrikes and ratchetting escalation: A prospect from which instinctively he recoils, because he fears this route of indecisive military tit-for-tat may not play out well for him in terms of the 2020 elections. And even could risk his Presidency.
Or, a humiliating, concessionary journey of return into a process closely mirroring the (despised) JCPOA – whatever be its new name: And hope to call the defeat as ‘victory’.
Quite possibly, President Putin may have it in mind to lay out some of this prospective landscape when he met with Trump at Osaka. We probably won’t be told. We’ll never know.