How Should Iran Respond to Donald Trump’s Threats?
While Donald Trump believes he is best comparable to Ronald Reagan, pundits see Dwight Eisenhower a better match. The latter’s intellectual foundation was that improved military power would pave the way for the development of national power. Trump is a disciple of the school and tries to temper the US’ national power through placing militarism above the pursuit of a cultural agenda. According to Henry Kissinger, Trump is a modern version of Theodore Roosevelt and will follow in his footsteps through adopting anti-Muslim and anti-immigration policies.
The main axes of Trump’s doctrine follow:
- Unlike his predecessors, he has no belief in the United States’ global leadership.
- He considers military power as a deterrent for the US.
- Nation building, once considered US’ new mission after the 9/11 attacks, has little significance to him.
- Democracy promotion has no place on his agenda.
- Conventional political power is seen as the outstanding facet of US foreign policy.
Iran’s showdown with Trump could be investigated in terms of the nuclear deal and regional issues. Unlike the Obama administration, Trump will try, much like the Clinton administration, to transfigure Iran into a security challenge. However, this does not necessary signify a declaration of war, even though he will try to make working with Iran extremely difficult. Trump has no commitment to the nuclear deal and thus he may well pull out of the agreement. It is predicted that Trump will try to turn the region into the main threat against Iran, as his administration officials have named Iran the biggest sponsor of terror in the world, an accusation not heard from US officials in recent years. Four scenarios Trump may put on the agenda regarding the nuclear deal follow:
- To completely pull out.
- To renegotiate.
- To press Iran harder for a tougher implementation.
- To engage in economic relation with Iran.
Before President Obama, US’ main policy on Iran was to control the country, with only two exceptional shifts, both of which happened to take place under Reagan: once toward war and once toward reconciliation. The shift toward war came during the eight-year imposed war on Iran by Saddam Hussein when the US attacked Iran’s oil platforms and the reconciliation strategy came when McFarlane was sent to talk with Tehran. US strategists believe that Trump should back down from his positions against Iran, advising him to postpone his executive orders that hit Iran so that statutes of limitation apply to them, rather than to use them actively against the country. The executive orders will meet Iran’s reaction. If Trump violates the nuclear deal, Iran could retaliate. The nuclear deal is not a bilateral agreement but a multilateral accord with different countries involved in the process. Even though the deal foresees several solutions for renegotiation, the Europeans have a firm stance regarding the deal and the EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini has dismissed the possibility of a renegotiation over the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In case of a rollback from the deal, the Europeans’ stance will be of utmost importance because the European Union could become engaged with the Congress, undertaking joint measures that could result in a chaos in Washington. In sum, Trump does not have enough maneuvering freedom, regarding the JCPOA as other countries are also involved.
Trump may ultimately be able to convert the Iran file into a security issue, increasing pressure on Tehran within the region, in countries such as Syria and Iraq or through claims of Tehran’s support for terrorist groups. The multifaceted chaos Trump sowed in the US domestic scene, between the US and Europe, US and Russia, and with other countries, has concerned and confused almost everyone. A first theory is that Trump is looking for a new target. He will claim to have realized some of his promises. While everything said regarding Trump’s measures against Iran remains a speculation, it must be admitted that some officials in the Trump administration are inclined to find a new target. At the moment, Iran’s state is quite different with what it was four months ago. Then, Saudi Arabia and Israel were the two main players and Obama’s feat was to tell the world that Wahhabism was the father of all terror, delegitimizing the Saudis. However, things are back to a previous state of affairs.
Bernie Sanders had the potential to succeed Obama, because an identity crisis was prevailing the American society where the African-Americans were about to advocate protests. Conventionally, protestors in the US have no sympathy with the Republicans and it is the Democrats who are seen as the mouthpiece of any opposition. Riding on the waves, Trump encouraged the Republicans to represent the voice of protesters who demanded democracy. Therefore, it was an exception in the principles of the US political structure. The Democrats’ greatest mistake was their absolute certainty about victory and the sidelining of Sanders through fraud.
In my opinion, Trump has no specific strategy for a war with Iran, unlike in the Bush era, where Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney had worked for years in the American Enterprise on Saddam’s ouster. Members of the Trump team are all anti-Iran and anti-Islam, and thus we should be working for peaceful deterrence against his threats. In response to the question what Iran should be doing against Trump’s threats, I think we should do what we did during the eight-year imposed war against Iran by Saddam Hussein who was backed by the US: we targeted US’ interests in region in lieu of getting into direct conflict with the country. We did what we wanted to do, while we were not involved in conflict with the US in practice. Today, Iran is one step ahead compared to the past because of its missile tests. Trump could not do anything but to utter threatening words. It is now Iran’s turn to decide.
*This piece is an abridged version of a full transcript (in Persian) of Mostafa Zahrani’s lecture during a conference on “Trump’s America”, organized by Iran’s Strategic Council on Foreign Relations. Mostafa Zahrani serves as director-general for strategic affairs in the MFA Bureau of Political and International Studies.