The defin­ing mis­take of Trump’s for­eign pol­icy

The Washington Post - - WASHINGTON FORUM - BY VALI NASR The writer is dean of Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity’s School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies.

Pres­i­dent Trump is set to roll out his Iran pol­icy. The first step will be to “de­cer­tify” the Iran nu­clear deal, which will then set the stage for a broader cam­paign of eco­nomic and mil­i­tary pres­sure meant to weaken and con­tain Iran. This risky gam­bit will un­der­mine U.S. cred­i­bil­ity and the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity’s abil­ity to man­age fur­ther nu­clear de­vel­op­ments in Iran, North Korea and other places down the line for years. The blow­back to U.S. na­tional in­ter­ests, how­ever, goes much fur­ther.

Why do it? It seems clear that Trump dis­dains the Iran nu­clear deal, at least in part, be­cause it is a sig­na­ture ac­com­plish­ment of the Obama pres­i­dency — a le­gacy per­haps sec­ond only to the Af­ford­able Care Act in its sym­bolic sig­nif­i­cance. That helps ex­plain why the pres­i­dent has de­scribed the deal as an “em­bar­rass­ment” and “the worst deal ever,” hy­per­bole that has only made it more dif­fi­cult for him to reg­u­larly re­port to Con­gress that Iran is ac­tu­ally do­ing its part.

The pres­i­dent prefers to wash his hands of the deal and let Con­gress de­cide its fate. Re­fus­ing to con­firm Iran’s com­pli­ance while lay­ing out a broad case against Iran will, in ef­fect, in­vite Con­gress to im­pose new sanc­tions. But if other sig­na­to­ries to the deal side with Iran in declar­ing the United States in vi­o­la­tion and re­sist U.S. pres­sure to cur­tail their busi­ness deal­ings with Iran, all that “de­cer­ti­fi­ca­tion” will achieve will be to open a rift between the United States and its Euro­pean al­lies, Rus­sia and China. On the other hand, if the United States wins over its al­lies, the deal will be dead — and ev­ery­one can go back to wor­ry­ing about war with a nu­clear-armed Iran.

The United States is right to worry about Iran’s mis­sile pro­gram, as well as the scope of Iran’s re­gional in­flu­ence and the man­ner in which it as­serts that in­flu­ence. But the course Trump is em­bark­ing on will only plunge an al­ready volatile Mid­dle East into greater tur­moil, which will con­sume U.S. at­ten­tion and re­sources.

Ira­nian lead­ers in­ter­pret Trump’s hos­til­ity to the nu­clear deal as proof that diplo­matic en­gage­ment with the United States is a fool’s er­rand — that Wash­ing­ton will not abide by any diplo­matic agree­ment and will con­strue will­ing­ness to pur­sue diplo­macy as weak­ness and an in­vi­ta­tion to ap­ply more pres­sure. Al­ready, the com­man­der of the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps has warned that Iran would re­tal­i­ate against new sanc­tions, in par­tic­u­lar the des­ig­na­tion of the corps as a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion, by build­ing and test­ing more mis­siles and la­bel­ing in kind the U.S. mil­i­tary a ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tion — then tar­get­ing U.S. bases and per­son­nel.

Iran is not look­ing for war with the United States. But it is start­ing to think that it is bet­ter to act like North Korea. A re­cal­ci­trant, let alone ag­gres­sively an­tiAmer­i­can, Iran would dra­mat­i­cally change the lay of the land for U.S. for­eign pol­icy in the re­gion.

The nu­clear deal re­moved the threat of war with Iran. That was an im­por­tant strate­gic win given Iran’s size, lo­ca­tion and im­por­tance to sta­bil­ity in a vast re­gion stretch­ing from Cen­tral Asia to the Mediter­ranean. There were other ben­e­fits. The deal made it pos­si­ble for Iran and the United States to tac­itly co­op­er­ate in the fight to roll back the Is­lamic State’s gains in Iraq. At stake in Trump’s new Iran pol­icy will be the sta­bil­ity of the cen­tral govern­ment in Iraq and its abil­ity to ar­rive at a po­lit­i­cal un­der­stand­ing with the coun­try’s Sun­nis and its rest­less au­ton­o­mous Kur­dish re­gion. It is dif­fi­cult to see how the cri­sis gen­er­ated by the Kur­dish ref­er­en­dum for in­de­pen­dence could be de­fused with­out Iran. It is like­wise dif­fi­cult to en­vi­sion a quick end to wars in Syria and Afghanistan if those coun­tries be­come the the­ater for pro­tracted U.S.-Ira­nian con­fronta­tion.

In Iran it­self, the nu­clear deal has been the call­ing card of mod­er­ate voices who wish to re­form its econ­omy and an­chor the coun­try’s fu­ture in bet­ter re­la­tions with the West. Their suc­cess in ne­go­ti­at­ing the deal has cre­ated a con­stituency for change in Iran.

That con­stituency gave Pres­i­dent Has­san Rouhani a re­sound­ing vic­tory and a clear man­date in the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in May. Rouhani ran a cam­paign built on the suc­cess of the nu­clear deal and the prom­ise of the open­ing to the West. In Au­gust, an over­whelm­ing ma­jor­ity in the Ira­nian par­lia­ment — cut­ting across re­formist and con­ser­va­tive party lines — voted to re­con­firm For­eign Min­is­ter Mo­ham­mad Javad Zarif, the chief ne­go­tia­tor of the nu­clear deal on the Ira­nian side. The deal has in­creas­ingly re­drawn po­lit­i­cal bat­tle lines in Iran along whether to in­vest the coun­try’s fu­ture in en­gage­ment with the United States.

There are those in the United States who would wel­come the demise of the Ira­nian mod­er­ates; hard-lin­ers at the helm in Tehran would make it eas­ier to ar­ray U.S. forces against that coun­try. But Amer­ica learned in Iraq that it can­not bring change through the tur­ret of a tank.

The United States will be bet­ter off if it is Ira­ni­ans who bring about change in Iran. Yet Wash­ing­ton is fall­ing vic­tim to the same flawed logic that paved the way to the Iraq War. Trump’s Iran pol­icy is not just an at­tack on Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s for­eign pol­icy le­gacy; it will also de­fine his own. His­tory will not be kind to this strate­gic blun­der.


Pres­i­dent Trump in the Roo­sevelt Room of the White House on Thurs­day.

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