Trump's leadership void on Iran

Trump's leadership void on Iran
6 min read
03 Oct, 2018
Comment: Trump is obsessed with a 'win' on Iran, but but has neither the capacity nor vision to make it happen, writes Marcus Montgomery.
'The US stands to lose much of its influence' writes Montgomery [Getty]
President Donald Trump took to the podium at the 73rd annual United Nations General Assembly last week to build on his "America First" policy, and to try and mobilise the global community against the 'world's worst regimes'.

This year, though, instead of North Korea and its leader Kim Jong-Un being on the other end of the president's fiery rhetoric, Iran found itself in Trump's crosshairs.

The Trump administration's assault on Iran wasn't limited to his UNGA remarks, though. As chairman of the UN Security Council meeting that was intended to focus on issues such as stopping the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, Mr Trump used the gavel to further single out Tehran, trying again to motivate the international community into opposing Iran's leadership.

Finally, the president and his top officials assailed a plan backed by the remaining signatories to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) to find ways to work around US financial institutions to continue providing Iran with the economic relief guaranteed under the terms of the nuclear agreement.

When it comes to President Donald Trump's Iran strategy, much like his other policies, he desperately wants to win. To him, the situation is zero-sum and he is absolutely enthralled with defeating the Iranian regime and forcing it to kowtow to the United States.

James Lindsay, the senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations perhaps summed up President Trump's general attitude best, saying "Donald Trump seldom talks about US leadership, he talks about winning."

The Iran nuclear deal, in Trump's vision, was one-sided and took advantage of the United States (ie, it was a loss). In order to win, his reasoning goes, the United States must reimpose sanctions, up the political pressure on Tehran, and ultimately bend its leaders to its will.

He is too ill-informed, disinterested, or some combination of the two, to realise that he is abdicating the leadership role he most needs

The problem with the president's calculation is two-fold: First, he has an inconsistent and unrealistic definition of what a "win" might look like in his complicated standoff with Iran, and second, he is too ill-informed, disinterested, or some combination of the two, to realise that he is abdicating the leadership role he most needs, in order to accomplish his goals.

Does Trump even know what a 'win' would look like?

The president assumes his bombastic rhetoric, his reimposition of sanctions, and his unabashed pursuit of "America First" will conclude victorious against Iran and force the Iran's leaders to renegotiate a deal more favourable to the United States.

Perhaps he will "win" in whatever vague and self-centred definition he ascribes to the term. He can help throw the Iranian economy into further turmoil; he can twist the arms of allies and foes alike to force business out of Iran; and he may even be able to get Iranian oil exports to as close to zero as feasible.

Read more: UN court rules US must partially halt Iran sanctions

But, Mr Trump fails to realise that the deal - flawed as it may have been - was a huge win, both for the United States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East.

To hear Donald Trump explain it, though, the JCPOA was "the worst deal ever" because it was one-sided, constructed on terms other than those of the United States. The irony here is that the United States had the greatest leverage over the negotiations; for all intents and purposes, the parties to the agreement had to acquiesce more to US demands than vice-versa.

But, a real "win", as defined by the president - consisting of lasting restrictions on Tehran's ability to produce nuclear weapons, a curb on its development of ballistic missiles, and commitment from the regime to desist its meddling in neighbouring states - requires much more leadership than Mr Trump seems willing or capable of providing.

The need for effective leadership

If Trump wants to win and secure a deal that leaves the Middle East safer than before he took office, he should consider his predecessor's approach to a potentially nuclear Iran.

The Obama administration, though its critics would suggest otherwise, led from the front on the issue. They used Washington's economic and diplomatic might to motivate - with both carrots and sticks - allies and partners to isolate Tehran in the global community. This meant that, with economic pressure building and no friends to turn to, Iran had to negotiate with the United States to seek relief.

President Trump is taking the opposite, and potentially more harmful approach. By acting unilaterally and reimposing sanctions, despite the rest of the signatories and the broader global community maintaining that Iran is abiding by the terms of the nuclear deal, Trump is throwing out any goodwill that the United States might have had with parties to the deal.

Further, as demonstrated by the P4+1 states' willingness to uphold the deal absent Washington, the United States, even if it succeeds in forcing cuts in oil imports, stands to lose much of the influence it has maintained for decades, and push further away its friends that might be sympathetic to a policy of countering some of Iran's regional policies.

Trump is throwing out any goodwill that the United States might have had with parties to the deal

The European Union - spearheaded by the United Kingdom, Germany, and France - agreed to find an operable "special purpose vehicle" (SPV) to circumvent US sanctions and provide Iran with its agreed-upon economic relief and the EU has also resurrected a "blocking statute" designed to shield its companies from US retribution.

Washington will likely prevail anyway, because most private companies with exposure to the US economy won't risk access to a multi-trillion dollar market for a multi-billion dollar one in Iran.

Even the SPV has little hope of being very effective, experts say. But the symbolism of the aforementioned decisions by longstanding US allies is no less alarming. Just a few years ago, a fracturing of the trans-Atlantic alliance to this degree would have been unimaginable.

Abdicating leadership and the decline of US influence

President Trump isn't just foregoing US leadership on an issue as critical as Iranian weapons proliferation - all too often he causes needless problems. The unilateral decision to renege on the Iran deal, compounded by decisions to impose sanctions and launch indiscriminate trade wars with allies and foes alike, has lessened global confidence in Washington's ability to lead on key issues.

Trump's current Iran strategy is the clearest illustration of how a lack of leadership and an uncompromising pursuit of "America First" policies is contributing to a quicker decline of US influence.

If the EU can successfully establish a workable SPV underwritten by the euro and the sterling pound, or if a complex barter system is figured out to allow Tehran to exchange oil through China - receiving credit in the form of yuan - and then receive critical goods from Europe, the global dominance of the dollar could gradually decline.

Further, Washington's perceived abuse of its market leverage and the use of sanctions so freely could, in the long-term, undermine the effectiveness of those tools.

The United States, and the international community more broadly, need a win to address Iran's pursuit of nuclear weapons; unfortunately, the requisite leadership from Washington is nowhere to be found.

Marcus Montgomery is a Junior Analyst for Congressional Affairs at Arab Center Washington DC.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.