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Trump’s Destructive Iran Obsession

Walter Russell Mead doesn’t understand [1] Trump’s Iran policy:

For now at least, behavior modification, rather than regime change, appears to be the focus of Trump policy toward Iran. That could change. Mr. Pompeo did not rule out a military response to any Iranian effort to relaunch its nuclear program, and other military action by Iran—say, in the waters of the Persian Gulf—could provoke a kinetic American response that could rapidly take both countries into uncharted territory.

But the administration’s priorities are clear: President Trump, whose goal is to reduce American exposure and commitments in the Middle East, appears to be more interested for now in making a deal with Tehran than in toppling the Islamic Republic.

When a major power delivers a list of maximalist demands to another state, this does not reflect a desire to “make a deal” but rather a wish to provoke the latter’s rejection to provide a pretext for conflict. The 12 demands from Pompeo’s preposterous speech last month amounted to an ultimatum that Iran abandon its nuclear program and repudiate its interests in the region, and this ultimatum was predictably rejected as it was sure to be. The reason that so many observers regard these demands “as tantamount to a call for regime change” is simple: the current Iranian regime would never accept these terms, and by making such demands the condition for an improved relationship the U.S. is essentially calling for Iranian surrender. Far from showing that they are “open to compromise,” as Mead claims, the Trump administration has demonstrated that nothing less than complete Iranian submission to U.S. preferences on every issue is acceptable. If Iran does not submit, they are to be punished with economic warfare. These demands don’t represent a policy of reducing American exposure and commitments in the region, but promise to increase both for the benefit of reckless regional clients.

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When you have declared in advance that the other side has to give up everything before you will even consider making an offer and threaten them with punishment if they refuse, you are not looking for an agreement. It is obviously intended to ratchet up tensions and make conflict more likely while feigning interest in a diplomatic solution. Mead gives Trump’s approach the most positive spin possible by accepting its lip service about a new deal while ignoring the substance of administration policy.

Mead’s foreign policy categories are sometimes useful, but they aren’t very illuminating in this case. “Jacksonians” and “Wilsonians” may disagree about many things, but when it comes to Iran there is practically no difference between most of them. John Bolton is not a Wilsonian, but he fervently desires to overthrow the Iranian government and has expressed his support for the Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK) as an alternative on many occasions. Trump may not share Bolton’s enthusiasm for a deranged totalitarian cult (maybe he does), but everything he has done in the region has demonstrated his unremitting hostility to Iran, very much including the Iranian people. It would not take much for Bolton to persuade him that regime change is worth trying again.

It seems true that Trump has no interest in democracy promotion in general, but one does not have to want to replace the current regime in Iran with a genuine, functioning democracy to want to destabilize and overthrow the government. Considering how broadly unpopular regime change is inside Iran and how little most Iranians trust the U.S., a more democratic Iranian government would very likely continue many if not all of the policies that the Trump administration wants to “modify.” I suspect that a genuinely democratic Iran is exactly what most Iran hawks don’t want, because their concern is to weaken Iran and force it to give up on its interests in the region.

A key mistake that Mead makes is treating Trump’s rhetoric about the Iraq war as a meaningful predictor about how he will approach Iran or any other adversary. Trump’s problem with the Iraq war was that it cost the U.S. a great deal and the U.S. “failed” to “take” Iraq’s oil. He had no objection to illegally invading another country and overthrowing a foreign government, and I assume he still doesn’t. He just wants to get enough plunder to make it worth the effort. There is no reason to think that he is opposed to regime change in any other cases. Indeed, it is because he is “opportunist” that we should assume that he would endorse such a policy if he thought it would “work.”

Trump’s Iran obsession has already led him to renege on a successful nonproliferation agreement and to increase support for Iran’s regional rivals. This obsession involves subordinating U.S. interests to the preferences of the Saudis, Israelis, and others, and it will become increasingly costly for the U.S. as time goes by. It is needlessly destructive for the region and harmful to U.S. interests, and there should be no illusions about any of that.

7 Comments (Open | Close)

7 Comments To "Trump’s Destructive Iran Obsession"

#1 Comment By DR On June 9, 2018 @ 1:49 pm

To think that John McCain’s “bomb Iran” election slogan was (justly) ridiculed across the political spectrum…

#2 Comment By TheSnark On June 9, 2018 @ 3:27 pm

The Iranians are doing what they have been doing throughout 5,000 years of recorded history. When they are strong enough they expand into the Fertile Crescent. When they are weaker than their neighbors, they get pushed back to their mountain plateau.

This is obviously a problem to whoever lives in the Fertile Crescent (today that is Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel), and a challenge for the historically powerful states bordering that region (Egypt and whoever dominates the Anatolian plateau, which today is Turkey). But it is of little concern to the US.

It will also be a concern for Russia, as historically the Persians have also expanded into the Caucasus and Central Asia whenever they were able.

The main difference today is that Israel, historically a bit player in the region, is now immensely powerful. In addition the Saudis, historically barely relevant desert raiders, are now immensely rich.

Again, this poses little threat to the US. If we want to do something about it, we can help the Saudis and Israelis push back; they are rich and powerful enough to do so. But there is no reason the US should get directly involved.

Our invasion of Iraq turned into a fiasco; I cannot tell why anyone can think that attacking Iran would turn out better. There is no reason should spend our own blood and treasure on this when there are highly capable local players with a far stronger stake in the outcome.

#3 Comment By Kurt Gayle On June 9, 2018 @ 5:13 pm

“Trump’s Iran obsession…involves subordinating U.S. interests to the preferences of the Saudis, Israelis, and others, and it will become increasingly costly for the U.S. as time goes by. It is needlessly destructive for the region and harmful to U.S. interests, and there should be no illusions about any of that.”

Well-said.

President Trump also said–at the beginning of the G-7 and in his final press conference before leaving for Singapore–that he would like to see Russia re-admitted to G-7/G-8. That seems to be a very positive development. What is your view of this, Mr. Larison?

#4 Comment By vamoose On June 9, 2018 @ 6:19 pm

“But the administration’s priorities are clear: President Trump, whose goal is to reduce American exposure and commitments in the Middle East, appears to be more interested for now in making a deal with Tehran than in toppling the Islamic Republic. “

His priority ought to be to get us out of the Middle East. I don’t see him taking even the first step toward doing that. Instead he’s buying the argument that we have some kind of responsibility to become more and more deeply entangled.

I know for a fact that nearly every “Tea Party” voter in my neck of the woods is sick and ****ing tired of these freaks (Saudis, Iranians, Israelis, Egyptians, Iraqis, Syrians). Their wants and demands. Their whining and lying. What we’re supposed to do for them, or to them.

All we’ve done is screw things up, and we’ve nearly bankrupt ourselves doing it. We’ve wasted enough life, blood, treasure, and focus on these creeps. If action or money is needed from anyone other than the interested parties – not likely – then let someone else do it. We’ve been played for suckers long enough.

#5 Comment By b. On June 9, 2018 @ 8:41 pm

“Mead’s foreign policy categories are sometimes useful”

I can’t help thinking that somebody who uses the word “kinetic” in the context of foreign policy has nothing useful – let alone defensible – to contribute. We have too many Meadheads getting too much exposure as it is, why give them yet another platform?

#6 Comment By James Keye On June 10, 2018 @ 12:17 pm

It is a minor and perhaps petulant point, but these arguments need to speak of ‘The Trump Administration policies and obsessions, not ‘Trump’s policies and obsessions’.

Given the inconsistencies of Trump’s statements, it is completely plausible that he is characterized by the Lincoln description of a congressman that he didn’t respect:”His opinion is that of the last man that he talked to.”

Since it may be that Iran policy (and other policies) is almost entirely a function of those in advisory positions to this president, that reality might best be clearly part of the discourse.

#7 Comment By S On June 10, 2018 @ 12:31 pm

TheSnark “The Iranians are doing what they have been doing throughout 5,000 years of recorded history. When they are strong enough they expand into the Fertile Crescent. When they are weaker than their neighbors, they get pushed back to their mountain plateau.” Looks like you have been doing some highly selective reading of history. Those” barely relevant” Arabs conquered most of Arabia and the Persian Gulf region as well as parts of Europe converting by the sword. Again the Ottoman empire conquered and ruled most of the region, including parts of Europe. Whenever the Europeans could, they too raped, pillaged and murdered their way across the world. So what’s so odd or special about the Iranians that you single them out?