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Trump, Iran, and the Foreign Policy of Bluster

Trump, Iran, and the Foreign Policy of Bluster

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump arrive in Rihad, Saudi Arabia, Saturday, May 20, 2017, for the start of their overseas visit to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Rome, Brussels and Taormina, Italy. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Referring to the latest crisis between Iran and Saudi Arabia, President Trump said that he is not interested in going to war with Iran. I believe him. He has not shown an interest in starting new wars (although he has been quite willing to escalate ongoing ones on occasion). The real problem here, I believe, is that he is fundamentally incompetent—whether it is a question of devising a policy that will lead to a desired outcome or a question of identifying the actual problem in the first place—and thus rarely gets what he wants, or at least what he says he wants. Look at some of the issues he highlighted during his campaign. When he had an all-Republican Congress, he could not get them to hold a vote on funding for a wall on the southern border, or to introduce an infrastructure bill, or to consider a health-care plan that would offer more and cost less than the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”)—all things that he had promised during the election campaign but that were not part of the Republican Party’s agenda. The federal deficit—rather than being on the path to elimination as promised—has increased to the highest level ever seen in a time of peace and prosperity ($984 billion in Fiscal Year 2019, a $205 billion increase over 2018 and double the level of 2015), and we have seen the highest trade deficit in history. While the economy, overall, has done well—continuing the general trend that began in late 2009—the segments that Trump has focused on have seen a slump. The 2017 tax bill was designed to spur investment, which would eventually generate jobs and wage increases, but the burst in investment did not occur; investment has actually declined this year owing to the trade war and general policy unpredictability. Tariffs intended to support the steel industry prompted the steel industry to generate a glut, which has forced prices back down amid stagnating demand. Coal mines continue to close, and coal’s share in the U.S. energy mix continues to decline. While unemployment is low, Moody’s Analytics estimates that 300,000 jobs have been lost owing to Trump’s trade war with China. Manufacturing has declined in recent months as a consequence of falling investment, policy-related uncertainties, and supply-chain disruptions caused by the trade war. The places hit hardest in terms of lost manufacturing jobs are Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, two of the states that had put Trump over the top in terms of the Electoral College if not the popular vote. In foreign policy, China is not reorganizing its economy on Trump’s terms; North Korea is not moving toward nuclear disarmament; and Venezuela is not changing regimes. So, how is it going with Iran? Administration officials declare Trump’s policy a success because the reimposition of sanctions has had a serious impact on Iran’s economy, but that has not produced the political effects that were intended. Instead, we face a potential crisis in the Persian Gulf, with growing aggressiveness on the part of Iran and with Middle Eastern allies that appear to be rethinking their relationship with the United States.

Much of the ongoing failure regarding Iran stems from Trump’s approach. He has managed to teach Iran’s leaders that (1) he cannot be trusted to abide by an agreement; (2) their abiding by an agreement will not save them from his retribution; but (3) lashing out does not necessarily bring punishment. This particular combination is not well designed to achieve the results sought.

Trump appears to view past foreign policy as a series of expensive, unnecessary favors done for the benefit of ungrateful foreigners. When it comes to negotiation, he hopes for a mutually agreed settlement, but he expects it to be entirely on his terms, a sort of mutually agreed capitulation with the other side cheerily accepting the position of “loser.” To achieve this he relies on threats, bluster, and intimidation, all of which amounts to a massive bluff intended to bring results cheaply. He surrounds himself with other people who deal in threats, bluster, and intimidation only to discover at times—as in the case of John Bolton, his third, and second-longest-lasting, national security adviser—that they really mean it. (Back in 2015, as the JCPOA was being negotiated, Bolton famously penned an op-ed titled, “To Stop Iran’s Bomb, Bomb Iran.”) Trump also puts great store in being unpredictable. He believes that this gives him a negotiating advantage, but his negotiating partners tend to view it as chaotic and a sign of untrustworthiness. He also has to pursue his goals alone because he continually alienates allies, but he does not seem to see this as a problem.

In the case of Iran, Trump has painted himself into a corner in a crisis of his own making. When he entered office, he objected to the Iran nuclear deal—officially called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—that the Obama administration and Iran had negotiated along with five other countries: Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia. There were other people who objected to the agreement as well, who objected to frozen Iranian funds being released, to the agreement’s sunset provisions, or to the fact that objectionable Iranian activities not related to its nuclear program were not restrained by it. The JCPOA, however, was as much as Iran would agree to, and it did an effective job of constraining its nuclear program in thoroughly verifiable ways. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the U.S. Intelligence Community regularly confirmed that Iran was in full compliance. Moreover, the JCPOA did not prevent the United States or others from dealing with Iran’s other objectionable activities in other ways. Even among those who had objected to the agreement, few saw any advantage to unilaterally withdrawing from it once it was in place and as long as Iran was in compliance.

During his first year in office, Trump seemed willing to comply with the JCPOA despite his rhetoric, evidently influenced by some of the people around him at the time. Brian Hook, the State Department’s director of policy planning was given the task of negotiating with the Europeans to develop a common position on demanding further restrictions, specifically, limits on Iran’s ballistic missiles and on its support for proxies abroad, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. Then, at the end of March 2018, Iran hawk Mike Pompeo replaced Rex Tillerson as secretary of state. Nine days later, Bolton replaced Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster as national security adviser. When French president Emmanuel Macron visited the White House in April, Trump informed him that the United States would be leaving the JCPOA unilaterally. When Macron objected that he believed that Brian Hook and the Europeans were on the verge of a breakthrough in their negotiations, Trump’s response was, “Who’s Brian Hook?” In May he announced publicly that the United States was pulling out, effectively putting an end to Hook’s efforts. Withdrawal from the JCPOA was accompanied by a sanctions strategy, introduced over a period of months, that Trump referred to as “maximum pressure,” and by threatening rhetoric that spoke of “consequences the likes of which few throughout history have ever suffered.”

Evidently, Hook’s assignment, which aimed at fulfilling Trump’s stated objective of adding restrictions to those of the JCPOA, was never at the center of Trump’s strategy, if he had one. Whether anything would have come of Hook’s efforts if he had been allowed to continue cannot be known. He had only negotiated with the Europeans on how to approach the Iranians. Nothing says whether the Iranians would have gone along with the proposals—or whether the Russians and Chinese would have backed the Iranians if they refused. The Iranians, however, are sure to interpret the abrupt end of the negotiations—and Trump’s apparent lack of awareness of them—as a sign that he was never serious about those goals and actually seeks the overthrow of the Iranian regime.

The other five signatories also objected to Trump’s unilateral withdrawal. It added no new restrictions to Iranian behavior while potentially removing those to which Iran had agreed. Since Trump reimposed economic sanctions on Iran that had been lifted as part of the JCPOA (sanctions that had originally been imposed precisely to compel Iran to negotiate an agreement, which it had done), he put the United States in violation of the agreement. He did this while making assertions of Iranian violations that no other signatory believed, undermining U.S. credibility, and he did so while demanding that Iran continue to comply with the agreement that he was now violating. He thus showed Iran both that he could not be trusted and that he was willing to punish them for doing what all sides had previously agreed that they should do. Moreover, he did all this without making any provision for the almost inevitable Iranian backlash that would follow, a backlash for which U.S. allies would blame Trump.

The usually divided Iranian officials were relatively united on how to respond to Trump’s challenge. A few reformers and diplomats argued that they had no realistic alternative to staying in the JCPOA. The larger share of officials argued that remaining in the deal could not be justified if Washington reimposed sanctions. One division did exist within the latter group. Some demanded an immediate withdrawal, while others held out for a slow, piecemeal withdrawal that might avoid provoking the Europeans and might give the Europeans time to rescue the deal. The latter group prevailed. They generally agreed at the time that Trump sought regime change and that negotiating with him while under threat would be a mistake. While Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, who is closely identified with the JCPOA, reportedly did not believe that Trump wanted war, he was less sure about the influential people around Trump or his Middle Eastern allies.

Thus Iran continued to comply with the JCPOA for a year, from May 2018 to May 2019, while demanding that the Europeans do something to bring the United States back into compliance or otherwise compensate Iran for the economic problems that the Trump administration was causing. This the Europeans proved unable to do, partly because the Trump administration was willing to sanction anyone who dealt with Iran, including allies. European corporations were unwilling to risk their business in the United States in order to keep Iran within its nuclear regime. (Since the United States did not have any trade or financial ties to Iran itself, these secondary sanctions are what made the new sanctions as effective as they have been.) During this period, the administration may have believed it had hit the jackpot, since it had been able to reduce Iran’s resources while Iran continued to live within the deal’s constraints. For Iranians, this year reinforced the lesson that restraint and compliance would not bring results.

In April 2019 the Trump administration refused to renew waivers that had permitted some countries to continue purchasing Iranian oil in a transitional period. In May Iran announced that it would engage in a schedule of planned JCPOA violations. These would be limited and reversible violations—initially, at least—that were not going to move Iran appreciably closer to a nuclear weapon. Presumably, their purpose was to shake up the Americans and/or the Europeans with the notion that the nuclear regime was about to crumble and compel them to do something to prevent that outcome. That same month, the Pentagon began preliminary planning for a large-scale deployment to the Middle East in case of conflict with Iran. More immediately, Bolton announced that a carrier task force was moving into the region because the United States had intelligence that Iran was planning attacks on U.S. forces and warned that any attack would be met with “unrelenting force.”

At the same time, Iran was beginning to act more aggressively in the Persian Gulf region to show the United States that it would not be intimidated and to create incentives for the United States to back down. Thus the behavior that had not been covered under the JCPOA grew worse as a result of Trump’s actions. This, no doubt, reflected a partial unleashing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a group that never trusted in negotiations with the Americans, now saw itself vindicated, and would be as happy as Trump to see the JCPOA abandoned and its restrictions removed. The increased IRGC activity began with small-scale attacks that damaged foreign oil tankers in the Persian Gulf, including a Japanese tanker while the Japanese prime minister was in Tehran attempting to mediate (at Trump’s request). Although the protection of sea-lanes had long been a U.S. priority and Bolton had recently made threats, Trump now insisted that China and Japan depended on Persian Gulf oil more than the United States did and that they should bear the burden of defending it.

On June 20, in a further escalatory move, Iran shot down a very expensive U.S. surveillance drone. Prompted by Bolton and Pompeo, Trump opted to respond by bombing three missile batteries and radars on Iranian soil. Pentagon civilians and military officers had opposed the strike as disproportionate, since they estimated that it would kill about 150 people. (No one had been injured when the drone was shot down.) They also feared it could provoke retaliation and further escalation, requiring the military to drain resources from the Far East. Whether he was concerned about the disproportionate loss of life (which he now cited, having apparently disregarded it originally) or about possible escalation, Trump reversed himself and canceled the strike in Bolton’s and Pompeo’s absence, after the aircraft were already in the air. Bolton left the administration shortly thereafter.

Trump’s desire to avoid loss of life and possible war is admirable, but he had put himself in this situation with his ill-considered withdrawal from the JCPOA and his provocative rhetoric. Now, having marched to the edge and then backed off, he taught the Iranians a further lesson: their objectionable behavior might not be punished after all, as their compliance had been. To be fair, Trump did not leave Iran completely unpunished. Behind the scenes, he authorized a cyber attack that struck Iran’s ability to track shipping in the Persian Gulf. In public, however, he had stood down, and he then highlighted that fact by announcing via Twitter that he had decided to bomb Iran and then changed his mind.

At this time Trump also called for increasing multinational naval patrols in the Persian Gulf, but several European allies refused to participate in a U.S.-led mission. Not only did they blame Trump for the rising tensions, they were wary of tying themselves to his erratic and unpredictable behavior. Instead, NATO allies France and Germany sought to organize their own alternative Persian Gulf coalition.

In a particularly brazen move on September 14, Iran launched a coordinated drone and cruise-missile attack against two Saudi oil-processing facilities, shutting down about 5 percent of the world’s daily oil supply for the time being. Iran then made the improbable claim that Yemen’s Houthi rebels had launched the attack. While Iran’s responsibility was clear almost from the beginning, some Europeans were initially credulous, reinforced no doubt by the Trump’s infamous penchant for fables and their reluctance to tie themselves to whatever he might do next. The administration’s rush to lay blame quickly and without offering evidence certainly did not help matters. Although Pompeo called Iran’s action an act of war, Trump’s response was limited to a modest deployment of aircraft and missile-defense batteries to Saudi Arabia. He also ordered a new round of sanctions that effectively cut off the only remaining transactions: food and other humanitarian aid.

Beginning over the summer, France had sought to mediate between Washington and Tehran so as to deescalate the crisis. For its part, the Trump administration was sending mixed signals. Trump at times lowered his demands dramatically, saying that he was only interested in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Objectively, this suggested a return to the JCPOA, which had achieved that goal, although it is not at all clear that he saw it that way. As Trump made those statements, Pompeo alternated between offering to talk without preconditions and insisting on a list of twelve demands that, in Iran’s view, amounted to full capitulation in all aspects of its foreign policy (although the Iranians would not have agreed with Pompeo’s characterization of that policy). Iran’s position was that it would not talk unless the United States lifted its sanctions.

On the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, shortly after the drone and missile strike had rattled everyone’s nerves, French president Emmanuel Macron succeeded in getting Trump and Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to agree to a four-point plan as a basis for a meeting that would reopen negotiations. In the view of the French, the document was designed to allow everyone involved to declare victory (including the French as peacemakers). The key points were: (1) Iran will agree never to acquire a nuclear weapon, to comply with its nuclear obligations and commitments, and to negotiate a long-term framework for its nuclear activities; (2) Iran will refrain from aggression and seek peace and respect in the region through negotiations (the French insisted that this provision covered Iran’s missile program as well); (3) the United States will lift sanctions reimposed since 2017; and (4) Iran will be free to export its oil and use its revenues as it wishes.

It is important to understand that the Iranians believed that they had already agreed to most of these conditions and had not been in violation of them when Trump pulled out of the JCPOA. The difficulties that would have followed from this accord would have flowed from differing interpretations of the facts (e.g., does support for the heinous but legal and widely recognized Syrian regime constitute aggression?).

While both sides tentatively agreed to pursue Macron’s proposal, it all fell apart in the end, when Rouhani refused to come to a secure telephone set up by the French for a call between him and Trump. For Iran’s hard-liners, Trump’s acceptance of a meeting was proof that their plan to escalate tensions in the Gulf was paying off and that it was too early to stop. Under pressure from the hard-liners for even considering talking to the American president, Rouhani would not commit to the plan unless Trump first committed to lifting the sanctions. Rouhani feared that Trump was interested only in a photo op that he could tout as a sign of Iranian capitulation—which would give Trump the foreign policy win he had been so sorely lacking—and that Trump would not comply with the plan afterward. Yet, somehow, Trump still believes that his unpredictability is an asset.

In the meantime, Middle East allies that Trump values appear to be reconsidering his value to them. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were struck by Trump’s failure to respond to Iran’s provocations and by his explicit lack of interest in defending non-American targets (although he has deployed some new units to the Gulf). Their apprehension about Trump’s reliability as an ally was no doubt reinforced when it emerged that Trump had withheld military aid from Ukraine in an effort to coerce Ukrainian actions to support his reelection efforts. Soon after that, Trump agreed to relocate U.S. troops in Syria, opening the way for Turkey to attack the Kurdish troops that had been cooperating with U.S. aims there. Apart from betraying an ally, this last move will likely ease Iran’s effort to build direct overland ties from Iran via Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began considering alternative approaches, exploring the possibility of reducing the threat by dealing with Iran. Already last summer, the United Arab Emirates announced its withdrawal from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and initiated direct talks with Iran to discuss maritime security and the rising tensions in the region. Since the missile and drone attack, even Saudi Arabia has shown new interest in a cease-fire in Yemen, and Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman has reportedly asked the prime ministers of Pakistan and Iraq to speak to Iran about the possibility of de-escalation. Kuwait has also reached out to Iran. Iran has said it is open to the idea. Previously, both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had been at the forefront of those pressing the United States for a hard-line policy against Iran.

It would be interesting if Trump’s initiatives set off an independent process that brought greater stability to the Persian Gulf region. Yet this—if it turns out that way—would represent more of a foreign policy victory for Iran than for Trump. It certainly would not further his goal of building an anti-Iranian alliance in the region, and it would not build pressure on Iran to dismantle its nuclear program.

Remember, George W. Bush’s sanctions strategy did not compel the hard-line regime of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to dismantle his nuclear program. Instead, the sanctions led the Iranian electorate to throw out Ahmadinejad and replace him with the moderates led by Rouhani. The moderates then offered the United States essentially the same deal that they had offered in 2003, the last time they were in power. Bush had ignored it then, convinced that his sanctions strategy would bring more satisfactory results, if not bring down the regime altogether. If he had accepted it then, Iran’s nuclear program might have been frozen at a considerably lower level than was the case in 2015. (Iran had zero centrifuges for enriching uranium in 2003; by 2015 it had 19,000.) Now, Trump’s policy has disrupted the region and undermined the Rouhani regime, but no alternative regime is waiting behind the scenes eager to give in to Trump’s demands. The more likely alternative would be Rouhani’s replacement with a hard-line regime.

A former Pentagon official recently commented: “You saw Trump over the course of the first year become more confident in his abilities. It’s dangerous when you’re confident, but you don’t have the requisite competence to go with it.” In this case, Trump’s bluster and chaos, his provocation of Iran, his failure to honor promises, his loose use of threats that he does not intend to carry out, and his inability at this point to offer a credible diplomatic exit out of the confrontation have all contributed heavily to today’s fraught situation. The greatest danger is that the Iranian hard-liners, provoked and increasingly convinced that no one will stand up to them, overshoot, miscalculate, and press to the point of starting a new war in the Middle East, which could easily spread across borders or otherwise trigger other wars that no one wanted or planned for. If the crisis explodes, Trump will not be up to the task of dealing with it.



Scott Monje

Scott C. Monje, Ph.D., is senior editor of the Encyclopedia Americana (Grolier Online) and author of The Central Intelligence Agency: A Documentary History. He has taught classes on international, comparative, and U.S. politics at Rutgers University, New York University (SCPS), and Purchase College, SUNY.