• Ryan O'Connell

Trump's Policy Is Driving Iran to Go Nuclear

January 10, 2020

President Donald Trump’s Iran policy has been an abysmal failure, but he is doubling down on it. His “maximum pressure” campaign and the impulsive killing of General Qasem Soleimani have brought the United States and Iran to the brink of all-out war, without accomplishing anything. Instead, Trump has drastically weakened the U.S. position in the Middle East. Nevertheless, rather than offering Tehran an olive branch, Trump intends to increase economic sanctions on Iran. The mullahs may conclude that they have no choice but to develop nuclear weapons, to protect their regime…and themselves.

Trump has apparently not learned any lessons about dealing with Iran over the last three years. The President acts as though he is a landlord holding all the cards and Iran is a weak tenant, desperate to cut a deal and sign a lease. Trump doesn’t seem to realize that if he pushes too hard, Iran may set the building on fire…and maybe torch some others as well.

The President has said that he does not want to use (more) military force against Iran, which is positive, but he has not outlined a framework for opening negotiations. Trump continues to follow an extremely hard-line approach: all sticks, no carrots. His harsh rhetoric must thrill neoconservatives and many evangelical Christians, but it should worry the rest of us.

Now that the “adults in the room” have departed, Trump has surrounded himself with mega-hawks like Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State, and toadies like Mike Mulvaney, his acting Chief of Staff. It’s disturbing that Pompeo, who is theoretically our chief diplomat, was pushing hard for the attack on Gen. Soleimani—an option that the top military brass thought was too extreme.

The President’s advisers, including military officials, were reportedly “stunned” that Trump approved the attack. But in this instance, no courageous adviser like James Mattis, the former Secretary of Defense, threatened to resign in protest. Don’t look for Secretary Pompeo or other cabinet officials to rein in Trump the next time the President gets angry with the Iranians.

Trump Digs In Deeper on "Foolish" Nuclear Deal

Once again, the President bashed the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran, calling it “foolish” and “defective”. That’s the arrogance of ignorance; Trump has never understood the context underlying the agreement or its enormous benefits for the U.S and other Western powers.

Trump repeated the false claim that Iran “went on a terrorist spree funded by the deal,” and he went so far to blame the Obama Administration for providing Iran the money to build the missiles that it launched against two American bases. Trump again complained that the agreement would keep Iran from developing a nuclear weapon for “only” 15 years. But we would be ecstatic if we could get a similar deal with North Korea.

There’s not much hope at this point that the U.S. could revive the nuclear agreement, since Tehran has absolutely no reason to trust the Americans after Trump ripped up the deal. But it doesn’t help that Trump is digging himself in deeper on this critical issue, rather than giving himself some leeway to renegotiate and “improve” the deal with Iran. The President should use his playbook on NAFTA: make some relatively minor changes from the original agreement and tout the new deal as a vast improvement.

Obama Took Pragmatic Approach On Iran

What is truly tragic about this turn of events is that the Obama Administration’s policy toward Iran was working. President Obama and the U.S.’s European allies had several long-term goals when they negotiated the nuclear arms agreement with Iranian leaders:

  • Freeze the nuclear weapons program

  • Integrate Iran in the global economy

  • Strengthen moderate political factions in Tehran

They accomplished the first objective and were making very good progress on the next two, until Trump unilaterally withdrew from the agreement.

Obama and his advisers took a pragmatic approach to dealing with Iran’s leaders. They focused on preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons, which they considered the most pressing threat. They separated that issue from Tehran’s proxy wars (or “terrorism”, if you prefer) in other countries.

They were appalled by Iran’s support for Assad’s brutal regime in Syria, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Shiite militias in Iraq. However, Obama and his team concluded that they could not realistically prevent Iran’s interventions in Syria and Lebanon, at least at a cost that American voters would accept. Iraq was a more complicated case. The Shiite militias played an important role in fighting ISIS.

In essence, Iran and the U.S agreed to compartmentalize their areas of conflict.

Obama’s Goal: Fostering Iranian Moderates

The members of the Obama Administration did not have any illusions about creating regime change in Iran. However, they hoped to bolster moderate Iranian politicians, on a long-term basis, by restoring trade with the outside world and helping the economy to grow. The Obama Administration knew that many Iranian citizens were pro-American and fed up with their theocratic, repressive government. For many Iranians, the regime was brutal, corrupt and highly unpopular. Young Iranians, in particular, were tired of the mullahs telling them how to live their lives.

The Obama Administration and other parties to the nuclear agreement—NATO allies, Russia and China-- understood that they had to offer incentives to Iran to curtail its weapons program. Hardliners still controlled the regime, after all. The nuclear weapons program was a source of national pride, as well as an “insurance policy” in a dangerous region. (Israel has a nuclear arsenal.)

But the Iranian leadership was eager to modernize its economy, which had been hobbled by international sanctions, and to trade with other countries. So the U.S. and the other powers agreed to ease the sanctions, in stages, based on Iran’s compliance with the terms of the nuclear agreement.

In addition, the U.S. and the other signatories agreed to release some of the Iranian assets that had been frozen since American diplomats had been taken hostage in 1979. The U.S. released about $2 billion to Iran, which reimbursed the country for its payments under an arms contract that had been nullified by the 1979 revolution. Under the agreement, various nations were to transfer a total of about $60 billion in frozen assets to Iran.

After the agreement was signed, the Iranians started to negotiate with Boeing about buying planes for their aging fleet. They entered into serious talks with various Europeans energy firms on forming joint ventures to drill for oil and improve their operations. The Iranian government wanted to use the funds mostly to import goods for its citizens and develop the economy. President Hassan Rouhani, a moderate (in the Tehran context), was pursuing a reformist agenda, though he faced stiff resistance from hardline factions.

Iranians Protest Soleimani Death/ photo credit: Getty-Atta Kenare

Mullahs May Embrace Nukes for Self-Defense

So where are we now, after three years of “massive pressure”?

Trump has isolated the U.S. diplomatically, and he has probably destroyed any chance of reviving the nuclear agreement. Trump’s policies have undercut moderate Iranian politicians and strengthened the hardliners. Iran complied with its obligations under the accord, but Trump broke the U.S.’s promises. His sanctions have hobbled the Iranian economy and inflicted considerable hardship on its citizens. In Iran, unlike Saudi Arabia, people can express their displeasure in the voting booth.

Now, by making Gen. Soleimani a “martyr”, Trump has caused Iranians to rally in support of their government. That’s a remarkable achievement. Only weeks before, they were demonstrating against the regime.

Here’s the most dangerous part. Gen. Soleimani was one of the most important members of Iran’s government, not the head of a non-state actor like a militia. If the U.S. can label Soleimani a “terrorist” and kill him in “self-defense”, what other Iranian leaders might it target? The mullahs may decide that they need to get some life insurance, fast, by developing nuclear weapons.

After all, having the Bomb has worked well for North Korea. Kim Jong-un has shot off plenty of missiles and otherwise provoked the U.S., but we haven’t knocked off any Korean generals in a fit of pique.

And, who knows, if the Iranians get some nukes, maybe Trump would even go to Tehran for a visit and a handshake.

The Wall Street Democrat

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